Editor’s Note: In accordance with this issue’s theme, Robert Morrish hands over the reins of this column to esteemed Brit Stan Nicholls, who profiles fellow country-person Louis Cooper in this installment of “What The Hell Ever Happened To…?”
Well, we know what happened to Louise Cooper. After a brief flirtation with the horror genre in the late ’70s, she built a reputation as a popular and prolific fantasy novelist. Her many titles in this field include the best-selling Time Master and Indigo series, and one-offs Mirage and The Thorn Key. Her most recent book, Star Ascendant, was published in America by Tor.
Apart from several romances with supernatural overtones, her pure horror novels were Blood Summer and its sequel In Memory of Sarah Bailey, both published in 1978 by New English Library. These were generally highly-regarded in the field; writing in the reference volume Horror Literature: an Historical Survey and Critical Guide to the Best of Horror (Bowker, 1981), Gary William Crawford says about Blood Summer: “This excellent novel concerns Marion and Roland Huws, who, while on a holiday in Cornwall, meets a recluse, Keith Sharwood. Marion’s involvement with Keith brings about a widening circle of supernatural horror that leads to “an insane and bloody murder” and the evocation of a 5,000-year-old Assyrian I demon. In Memory of Sarah Bailey is the interesting sequel.”
As Cooper describes the novels: “They concerned a character who uncovered an ancient Assyrian curse which turned him into a vampire. He wasn’t undead, but he could only exist by drinking human blood. The first book was about how he and the heroine found a way to break this curse. The second told how he was forced to re-invoke it when he came up against a genuine undead vampire. I had vague plans for a series, but nothing ever materialized beyond those two.”
Where would she place them in the now broad spectrum of horror? “They were straightforward vampire stories in a contemporary setting. If I had to make comparisons, I suppose they were rather in the James Herbert or Guy N. Smith mode. Only I wasn’t as extreme in my descriptions as they can be. My books were quite gory in places, but they’re really supernatural thrillers. That’s definitely much more my cup of tea.
“My taste is for the spooky rather than the visceral. Things like dismemberment and bloodletting, the sort of stuff that used to get into the later Pan Book of Horror Stories, for example, turns me right off. Mad axemen don’t appeal to me in the least. I don’t want to be revolted. If I read something that starts to go too far in that direction I’ll close the book and never look at it again. In fact it might be useful if publishers had two labels to differentiate the categories; one called horror and the other supernatural, perhaps. Apart from anything else, I’m always disappointed if I read a horror novel and find there isn’t a supernatural twist to it. Maybe it’s my prejudice, but I think that’s cheating.”
Her preference for the uncanny over the unpalatable ties-in with a feeling of responsibility toward her readers. “If you’re writing any kind of fiction you have a certain level of responsibility. I don’t go along with this mollycoddling attitude of not doing anything that might incite one person in a million to do something stupid or criminal. If you take that attitude you’re going to end up with a society so restricted nobody’s allowed to breathe without a licence. But I think a degree of responsibility is necessary, particularly when writing for children, which is something else I do.”
We move into speculating about what components a writer needs to make a convincingly scary story. Would she use universal fears, for example? Like the widespread phobia for, say, spiders. “I’m not sure about that. I love spiders so that one’s hard to answer! But one of my phobias is lightning. As a matter of fact I’ve begun the book I’m working on at the moment with a character who’s lost her memory, and she’s stumbling across a moor in a thunderstorm, looking for shelter. The only thing she knows about herself is that she’s scared out of her wits by lightning. I thought that if I made her as frightened of lightning as I am, I’d get a better insight into her personality, and hopefully be able to put across the terror she’s feeling. Because I know exactly what it’s like.
“For me, fiction with a supernatural element works best. Even if I were to write a mainstream novel it would probably end up with some kind of supernatural aspect. And I don’t think I’m equipped to write psychological horror. That needs a very clever touch and a good knowledge of human nature to pull off.
“I think the supernatural constituent of my fantasies is part of a very long tradition, in that the subject has fascinated people since our ancestors came down from the trees. As a race we’ve always been intrigued by bizarre legends, spooky fireside tales, fairy stories, or the gods and heroes of mythology. The supernatural is something people always want to be told about. They want stories of worlds that are stranger and more fantastic than our own rather humdrum existence.
A lot of people seem to find life pretty boring, pretty dull, pretty point¬less, and long to escape into more exciting, unpre¬dictable situations. But at the same time they want to feel protected. So fiction is a good compromise, if you like. It provides a safe thrill.
“Young children love ghostly tales as well, of course; even in this very prosaic world. In fact, I’ve often wondered where the “monsters under the bed” idea came from, and whether it could be atavistic, a manifestation of our deepest unconscious fears.
“That phase kids go through of wanting to read and watch horror is very healthy in my opinion, providing we’re not talking about going to too violent an extreme. Parents are foolish if they don’t allow their children to give rein to it. Because that’s in there. An interest in the supernatural and the thrill of being scared by it is buried deep within all of us. It doesn’t do any harm to express it. There may be an argument for saying it’s harmful not to.”
Isn’t control a factor here too? In the sense that reading about something keeps it at a remove? “I think there is an element of control. If you threw most people into the reality of the kind of situations horror novelists describe, they’d freak. They’d crack up completely. Fiction adds some distance.” What about control from the writer’s point of view? Isn’t that part of the appeal of being a writer? “It’s hard to say. I don’t think too much in terms of control as a writer. I simply set out to tell a good story. If I went back to more primitive times I’d probably be one of those people who loved to sit by the fireside and tell stories.”
But some authors get a kick out of the notion that when they write they’re a kind of god. “Yes, I can understand that. Very tempting. Particularly when you write fantasy and have to create everything in your imagined world. Trouble is, when I tell my characters that they live or die at my whim, they usually turn round and say, ‘No we damn well don’t! Do as you’re told and write what we tell you!’”
Did her horror novels in any way inform the fantasy she later wrote? “I’m not sure they did, because I’d written two fantasy novels before the horror, and the horror I saw as a very separate thing anyway. The only real similarity between them is the magical aspect; a strong supernatural element and the use of occult rituals.”
My impression is that her fantasy is optimistic in tone. “I think I am ultimately an optimist,” she agrees. “But it’s not usually the characters which readers might logically expect to win that I come out on the side of.” Would she say Blood Summer and Sarah Bailey were optimistic? “I suppose they were, in that they had happy endings. Well, from the point of view of the characters I hope the readers would have sympathy for, that is. Happy endings from the vam¬pire’s point of view, in other words. My vampire protagonist was the hero. You might call him an anti-hero or a villainous hero, but he was very much in that tradition of the sympathetic vampire.”
Which set me to wondering if Anne Rice ever read them… “I wouldn’t imagine so! They were never published in the States, sadly. One of them was published in Germany, but under a very strange title and with a pornographic cover. So it’s unlikely that I’ll be putting in any claims as far as Anne Rice is concerned.
“I’ll probably get hate mail for saying this, incidentally, but I can’t get on with her books. Everybody tells me they’re absolutely wonderful, but I found I just lost interest in them after a few chapters. They’re perhaps a little bit slow for me. I’m not madly keen on them.”
Does she keep up with the contemporary horror scene? “I don’t read a great deal of modern horror, to be honest, because I find most of it very disappointing. Some I’ve liked. I thoroughly enjoyed Skipp and Spector’s early books, for instance. They were very, very good indeed. Anne Rice, as I said, doesn’t appeal to me. And I stopped reading Stephen King a while ago because his books got so long. Going through the minute detail of what everybody was having for break¬fast and the colour of their shoelaces kept interrupting the story. But I’ve read all his early stuff and enjoyed it.
“I’d much rather read classic horror, by people like M.R. James. He had a wonderfully clean-cut style; he didn’t waffle in the way a great many Victorians did. He’s one of my favourite writers, and there are stories of his I will not re-read if I’m on my own after dark. They scare the life out of me! ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ must be one of the greatest pieces of supernatural fiction ever written. He was so good at generating atmosphere and suspense, and making the apparently impossible horribly believable in the real world. I think those are the three secrets of writing good horror.”
And writing good horror, really scaring people, must be harder to do than almost anything else in fiction. “I think it is. Because you’ve got to have the willing suspension of disbelief. Most people don’t believe in the possibility of the supernatural, at least on an outer level. It’s easy for them to say, ‘This isn’t real, it couldn’t happen.’ So it’s difficult to break down the barriers of their prejudice and really, really scare them. Good horror fiction convinces you that it could happen, and just might at any moment.
“In a way that’s one of the limitations of writing fantasy as opposed to contemporary horror. When readers enter a fantasy world they’re willing to suspend their disbelief. There isn’t that challenge for me of trying to convince them that an ordinary situation can suddenly turn into something weird. And spooky happenings set against very familiar, ordinary surroundings are ten times more terrifying than out and out weirdness.”
Employing instinct and learning to plumb the subcon¬scious, she says, have become integral to her working method. “I mean in the sense that when a scene or a chapter is going really well I almost write on auto-pilot,” she explains. “What comes out by-passes the logic centers and pours straight into the computer. I don’t know where the hell it comes from; it’s a part of me that’s locked away from the business of everyday living I suppose. I just go with it.
“And what I get startles me sometimes. I might look back at something and say, ‘Good God, where did that come from? Did I write that?’ I recently wrote a scene for a new book where I had to invent a magical ritual, with the words and gestures and everything, and it just arrived. I didn’t have to stop and think about it.”
She frequently uses music as an inspiration when writing. “I’ve been extremely keen on rock music for as long as I can remember, and I used to sing in a band about twenty years ago. But that’s another story entirely. I like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, and the later generations like Iron Maiden and Def Lepard. Their lyrics and imagery seem to have a very strong mythical bent. I’m not talking about the lumbering ‘Play this record backwards and you’ll conjure up Satan’ brigade. No thank you. I’m into heavy rock as opposed to heavy metal. The bands that interest me use mythology and magical ideas in their music. Examples would be the Zeppelin tracks ‘No Quarter’ and ‘Immigrant’s Song.’
“So I’m talking more about what you could call the neo-Pagan rather than the downright Satanic bands. All right, Black Sabbath’s name is a bit of a giveaway, and they do have some fairly hairy stuff, but they’re not on the Satan trip or anything like it. It’s really science fiction meets the supernatural and mythology, and I’ve always enjoyed that kind of mixture. In fact, when I was writing Time Master I had virtually a loop tape of two of Black Sabbath’s and one of Led Zeppelin’s albums going the whole time, and they really inspired me in the dramatic scenes.
“People get Paganism and Satanism mixed up, both in this kind of music and in fantastic literature. But one thing they don’t understand is that you can’t have Satanism unless you believe in Christianity. The two go hand in hand. The whole philosophy behind Satanism is based on the central tenets of a Christian or Hebraic religion. And Satanism is nothing to do with Paganism. But you can’t argue that case with the sort of Christian fundamentalists who rail against things like kids dressing up on Halloween.
“This whole issue of religious fundamentalism is very worrying. The ones who really scare me are the Muslims. I think if the fundamentalists had their way we’d all be Muslim whether we liked it or whether we damn well didn’t. I’m sure there are perfectly ordinary, decent Muslims, of course; and although I don’t know too much about it, I’m sure the religion itself contains an awful lot of wisdom. Its founders would probably be absolutely horrified to see some of the things being done in its name now. But there are people in the world who are dictatorial by nature, and religion is a very powerful lure to them.”
As Louise Cooper obviously has a good grasp of how horror literature functions, why didn’t she carry on writing it? “Because I couldn’t sell any more at the time. It was that simple. The British horror market went through a bit of a trough, and I hadn’t got myself well enough established in that field for the publishers to go on buying.”
Will she ever return to the field? “I sincerely hope so. I would love to tackle horror set in the modern, everyday world; the sort of horror that has ordinary people thrown straight into a situation that is completely beyond all their understanding.
“The kind of story where someone is alone at night in a remote country cottage. When they look through the window they see something out there in the darkness. And they just know that whatever it is, it’s going to come after them. But they don’t know why.”
Stan Nicholls began his association with the book trade in 1965 as assistant manager in the London office of Washington’s Library of Congress. In no particular order, he has gone on to: edit award-winning small press magazines such as Halcyon and Gothique; co-found the Gothique Film Society; own and manage a West London bookshop; manage the Forbidden Planet retail chain; act as a research assistant to Dennis Wheatley at Sphere Books; be a manuscript reader for Penguin, Pan, Random, and Rider Books; write for a wide variety of publications, including The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Comics Scene, Locus, Aboriginal SF, Fear, Skeleton Crew, and Starlog. His most recent fiction has appeared in the anthologies Narrow Houses II: Touch Wood (Warner, 1994) and 13 Further Horror Stories (Scholastic/Point Horror, 1995).