The Difficult Third Collection: James Cooper

Review by Peter Tennant,

Black Static #63

It’s part of music industry folklore that artist’s will find their third album to be the “tricky” one, but fortunately that rule doesn’t seem to apply in the case of literature. And by way of proof I give you HUMAN PIECES (PS Publishing hc, 342pp, £20), the third story collection by Black Static irregular James Cooper. It contains twelve stories, but in the absence of any publishing history in the PDF I read I can’t say if any are original, but I did recognise four from the pages of Black Static and another that appeared in Crimewave. Cooper is a writer who wears his horror genre influences lightly, with Stephen King a particular inspiration, while themes of parental abuse and dysfunctional families populate nearly every story.

With two boys called Jim and Will, ‘Forever Boys’ gives a tip of the hat to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, only the threat to family isn’t an external one for Cooper’s protagonists, but rather the evil comes from within courtesy of an abusive father. Underlying all this is the need for freedom and belief in the miraculous, while for Jim there is a rite of passage in learning how to responsibly use whatever power he has been gifted. It is a fantastic tale, one that offers no easy solutions to the problems posed by its narrative steps. Emma in ‘The Pig Farm’ is the victim of a dysfunctional family, abused and bullied by her two brothers, punished by her father for looking like the mother who died, punishment that takes the form of placing her on the Scarecrow at night to be found by the Weeping Farmer, a tormented spirit continually searching for his missing daughter. Again Cooper paints a terrible picture of abuse, with an attempt to understand if not justify the motives of those involved, and a feeling that really the supernatural aspects of the tale, whether true or not, are perhaps the only light of hope in this tragedy waiting to happen.

‘S.K.’ is pitched in epistolary form, a man writing letters to Stephen King explaining how reading his books to his dying son helps them cope with impending loss. It’s a heartfelt and moving story that celebrates the redemptive aspects of horror fiction and the power of literature to move us and help make some sense out of the nastier aspects of our lives. A teenager suffering from Renfield Syndrome keeps a dog prisoner in a haunted house so that he can feed on its blood in ‘Stray Dogs’, but while overtly horrific the true thrust of the story is about feeling alienated and how making a friend can transform a life. It is a sad story, one that shows us how our finer feelings can both elevate and demoralise us.

‘Night Fishing’ put me in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ with its central premise of four friends whose fishing expedition is disrupted by the discovery of a dead body, but Cooper takes the story off in a different direction entirely, with the body simply a catalyst for tensions simmering away beneath the surface among the four men. You could make a case for it being the adult remix of King’s novella The Body, with the corpse finding them instead of the other way round, and the camaraderie they have shared since childhood disrupted by one of those “frozen moments when”, according to Burroughs, “everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. There’s a bit of contrivance to my mind, in that all the men have secrets that so neatly dovetail, giving an overview of toxic masculinity, but the narrative voice and Cooper’s portrayal of his characters makes it work, grabbing the reader right from the start and carrying us to the inevitable tragedy of the end, or poetic justice if you would prefer.

The actor ‘Cushing’ becomes the focus of an unhappy and tragedy haunted family’s woes, with scenes from various films neatly intercut with the unfolding drama, throwing light on what takes place. It is a subtle and unnerving piece, one in which art imitates life a little too close for comfort, almost like the Addams Family given a twenty first century coat of cultural paint. Released from gaol, Boyd finds a way to atone for the mistakes of his past in ‘The River Remembers’, the story one that conflates family drama and gangster work, but while never less than entertaining, with perfectly realised characters and setting, it is perhaps the least interesting and original of what is on offer. In another setting it might shine, but not here. There’s another abusive son and stepfather relationship in ‘Man’s Ruin’, but Tommy is gifted a magical tattoo by his Grampa that empowers him to strike back. Human anger drives the story, giving us characters we can believe in and sympathise with, while the outré element seems almost incidental, albeit the thing that turns the plot round, and the humour in the relationship between Tommy and Grampa adds yet another dimension to the narrative.

‘Two Houses Away’ is a subtle and beautifully written ghost story of sorts, one that shows the lengths grieving people will go to for release from their pain and the power of love, while at the same time emphasising that you shouldn’t go poking your nose into things that don’t concern you. In ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ another Tommy returns to the scene of the crime to tell Mrs. Guddici the true story of what happened to her son Jed. At heart the story is about how we are haunted by the past and the need to restore some sort of balance in a universe that feels uncaring and indifferent. It’s an emotive piece, one in which Cooper doesn’t set a foot wrong as he gives his characters a depth not usually found in such outings. Mostly dialogue, ‘Coffee. Black.’ is an enigmatic piece with a conversation between two men at a late night coffee shop that touches on matters of faith and belief, horror fiction and real life terror. It’s suggestive and all the more effective for being left so ambiguous, with the reader invited to create motives and backgrounds for these strangers from the hints Cooper has supplied.

Sally, the final girl from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is the protagonist of ‘Texas’, Cooper deftly delineating the aftermath of the atrocity, the way in which she still has to live with the horror of what happened and try to make sense of her own survival (more than an element of survivor guilt is present here). Scenes from the film, consultations with a psychiatrist, and a visit to the farmhouse (now a tourist attraction) combine to create a compelling and absorbing picture of what it means to be a survivor and the mechanisms that are needed to cope, adding a wonderful new dimension to the classic horror film. There’s more than a touch of King’s Secret Window about final story ‘End of Creation’ in which a writer who gambles away a story idea to a friend gets seriously bent out of shape when that friend makes a success of it. There are times when the story gets a little close to over the top, but Cooper just about manages to rein things in and give us a compelling and unsettling account of a personal descent into madness, while posing some interesting questions about the nature of creativity and originality along the way. It was a strong end to a collection that didn’t put a foot wrong, with some of the best stories in genre writing from an author who, while focused squarely on matters horrific, never loses sight of the human pieces.

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