Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-
CHARACTERS IN TURMOIL: JAMES COOPER
Most of our readers will be familiar with James Cooper from his short stories, which have been appearing regularly in the magazine since “There’s Something Wrong With Pappy” featured in #8, but the writer appears to be equally adept working at a greater word length.
DARK FATHER (DarkFuse eBook/pb, 223pp, $6.99/$16.99) is Cooper’s second novel, following on from 2007’s The Midway. Structurally it’s presented in three separate story strands, each intercut with the other two and the link between them revealed in the final section.
The first strand concerns abused wife Kate, who turns against her bullying husband Jimmy Hopewell for the sake of her son Billy. Leaving Jimmy badly damaged, down but not out, Kate and her son flee with elderly neighbours Jasper and Alison McCray. However the trajectory of their escape takes them out of the frying pan and into a succession of fires. Jimmy pursues them with his lover Maggie, claiming that his damaged eye allows him to see where his wife and son have gone, and eventually Kate realises that if she and Billy are ever to know any peace then she will have to go back and confront her husband, reach some sort of rapprochement with the maddened Hopewell, impossible as that might seem.
Taken in isolation, this is pretty much a horror staple, with the innocent wife fleeing from her tormentor and his relentless pursuit, similar material on offer to that in King’s Rose Madder or the film Sleeping with the Enemy. Cooper does a great job of throwing new threats at his heroine, with a paedophile under every stone and an insane ex-lover lurking in the background, so that at times we come to wonder if it’s Kate herself who is unbalanced. Hopewell is a monster, but what can’t be doubted is the love that he has for his child, and desire to be reunited with the boy rather than revenge on Kate is what drives him on. The only quibble I have is with the motivations of the McCrays – yes, their desire to help Kate is entirely admirable, but at the same time the fact that afterwards they will have to return home to live alongside Hopewell is a consequence that never seems to be addressed. Taken in isolation this is a fine novella, an exciting story that gives us a heroine to root for and a bad guy to boo, but without falling into the trap of painting everything black and white.
Of course it’s only part of the story.
In the second strand, Frank and Cindy’s marriage is unable to survive the abduction of their son Jake. Alone and distraught, mad with grief, Frank relentlessly searches for his missing son, and finally he sees the boy walking by the side of the road and picks him up, even though the child claims not to know him. Frank also abducts Cindy and takes the three of them to an isolated lakeside cabin where he hopes to recreate his happy family, only the other two have to be punished when they won’t fit in with his vision of reality, and to do this he draws on the Dark Daddy, an aspect of his personality that deals out punishment and is grounded in his own childhood experience. For Cindy and the innocent Philip survival hinges on their ability to humour a madman, while hard on their heels is the relentless mercenary for hire Haft, who has been charged with bringing back his son by Philip’s father. The stage is set for tragedy of a Jacobean hue, and we read on to see who gets hurt and how badly.
Again, this stands alone as a novella, and it has all the horror grace notes and action elements of the former section, presenting us with a gripping fight for survival and lurid imagery as the climax approaches. I found the character of Haft of particular interest, somebody who, for lack of knowing the correct psychological term, I shall define as a “controlled sociopath”. He is an outsider, interacting with other people, but disdainful and not really touched by what happens, though he has his own ideas of justice and what is right, even if you suspect they are negotiable. What elevates this section though is a greater psychological acuity, an awareness of where the characters are coming from. Cooper is magnificent at capturing the grief of a father robbed of his son, showing how Frank is driven insane by the loss. Underlying it all is an awareness of how easily the good things in life, the good life itself, can be pulled away from us – a moment’s inattention is all that it takes. While Frank seeks to alter the outside world through a form of sympathetic magic, to make it conform to the happy family scenario playing out inside his skull, his real motivation seems to be grounded in the sense of guilt he feels, that he was somehow responsible for his son’s abduction and must make things better again.
The third strand is set in a mental institution and is augmented by material presented entirely in the form of dialogue, doctors addressing their patient and trying to steer him to a realisation of who he is and what has happened to him. It focuses on Mack, an elderly patient with a facial disfigurement who suffers from Fregoli syndrome, a condition that causes him to think that everyone he sees is his father, and sometimes that same father is his Dark Daddy. Mack’s madness is “quieter” than that of Frank or Jimmy Hopewell, affecting only himself. While they each, in their individual way, struggled to be a good father, for Mack the father is an omnipresent deity, looking out from behind every pair of eyes, even those that stare back at him out of the mirror. The final revelations here tie everything together, allowing us to see how the three strands are linked and appreciate why Cooper chose to tell his story in such a convoluted manner.
Dark Father is a beautifully constructed novel, at times harrowing to read and with each section slotting neatly in with the rest, so that what we actually receive is more like a Picasso style portrait of fatherhood and what it means. Desperation is a key note here, each and every character finding a way to cope with the horrors of their existence and madness an enabling device, a way to adjust. The writing is compelling and powerful, putting us right inside the heads of these people and letting us feel their pain, their hopes and desires, while there are numerous deft touches of detail, such as Frank’s love of and warped interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, and the remorseless way in which Haft goes about his business. Any one of these three strands has the potential of a great story, but the way in which they play off of each other elevates the work even further, giving us a gestalt novel, one in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. I absolutely loved this book and hope Cooper doesn’t wait another seven years before he publishes his next novel.
The father is noticeable by his absence in Cooper’s latest work, the novella STRANGE FRUIT (PS Publishing eBook/jhc/signed jhc, 73pp, £3.99/£12/£25). It’s the story of the child Ellie, an outsider. Ellie doesn’t understand adults, especially her mother who spends her time consoling lost and lonely men, including the local undertaker whose practices are not entirely wholesome (reading between the lines, we suspect that Ellie’s mother may be a prostitute of some kind, albeit her services are not necessarily sexual in nature). Nor does Ellie understand other children, especially the twin sisters Penny and Genna, who constantly belittle and bully her. And then there is the young man Joseph, who carves beautiful statues, one of which Ellie believes is meant for her, but she is mistaken and in making such an assumption she acquires a new enemy. Her only real friend is old Harry, but he too is one of the men who calls on her mother, and sometimes Ellie finds solace in the company of her grandparents.
A local child goes missing, lured away by a man in the park who tempts them with exotic fruit. This same man befriends Ellie, revealing that his name is Gregory and coming to her aid when she is beaten and stripped naked by the twins, but his feelings towards her appear equivocal and Ellie’s new friend could very well be the Devil in disguise, even though it is she who offers him an apple.
Told from Ellie’s perspective, with an occasional flash of Gregory eye-view, this is a surreal and strange story, one that in its rendition of the adult world through the eyes of a child manages to uncover something of the horror implicit in young lives. Ellie’s mother is capable of easing the pain of others, in the same way that her grandmother’s worms eat dead flesh, but she is ignorant of how her daughter is suffering, and everyone else Ellie reaches out to is found to have feet of clay. The scenes in which she is attacked by the twins are repellent and horrific, offering a brutal counterpoint to the actions of Gregory, one that if it doesn’t in any way justify him does make us ask questions about the nature of monsters. The great irony of the story lies in the way in which a child killer is brought to reassess his nature by the desire to please this special child, to live up to the expectation she has of him, becoming in a way the unknown father who has always been absent from Ellie’s life. But in trying to fill those shoes, Gregory is every bit as much adrift and capable of inhuman action as Jimmy Hopewell and Frank.
Cooper has created a strange, brooding story that plays against all the stereotypes, even down to the use of fruit, and especially the apple Ellie brings for Gregory at the end, as a means to temptation. Beautifully written and fraught with meaning, heartfelt and affecting, it is perhaps his best work to date and I thoroughly enjoyed every word of a text that will almost certainly reward further readings.