Re-reading Cthulhu Mythos fiction is not something I am apt to do. After reading literally hundreds of stories, ranging from canon tales to fanzine pastiches, I find little call to go back and experience it again. A pleasant exception is The Great White Space (1975) by Basil Copper. I read it probably twenty-five years ago, back in my Call of Cthulhu days, when my biggest concern was research for playing the RPG. My impression then was: Not a lot of monsters and it is long.
I re-read the novel recently and am happy to say it was like reading an entirely different book. Copper’s words haven’t changed in 38t years, so obviously I have. I think one of the big reasons is that I have read the books that may have inspired Copper outside of the Mythos, adventure novels like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) , H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1913), as well as the novels of imitators like Ian Cameron with The Lost Ones (AKA Island at the Top of the World) (1961) and The Mountains at the Bottom of the World (AKA Devil Country) (1972).
What Copper did in The Great White Space was to create something many Mythos fans have craved for. When reading adventure novels like The Sphinx of the Ice-Fields, She, or The Devil’s Guard, they wished in vain for a stray shoggoth or a copy of Von Junzt to show up. To satisfy this craving, Copper pens a great adventure novel for two-thirds of the book, something like Michael Crichton’s Congo (1980) or Sphere (1987), and then succeeds with the final third in creating a frisson of horror of Lovecraftian proportions.
The classic adventure tale (in the Doyle model) usually features a team of explorers led by a cranky, eccentric and physically powerful man (Professor Challenger being the most famous), several specialist helpers, and a young POV character, often a reporter, to chronicle the amazing feats of the others. Copper follows this same pattern with Professor Clark Ashton Scarsdale (obviously named after Clark Ashton Smith), a huge, energetic leader and inventor, practically a Doc Savage. Also on the team are Van Damm, co-leader, physically small but erudite, a couple of cannon-fodder characters (Prescott and Holden), and the narrator, Plowright. Scarsdale is world famous as an explorer of the Unknown. He has unsuccessfully visited the titanic underground realm that is their destination before. This second venture is deceptively named “The Great Northern Expedition” to throw off newspaper reporters and spies. Scarsdale develops special tanks and tries again to delve deep into the gigantic structure in the side of a remote Asian mountain.
Copper wisely sets his story in 1932. First off, because the idea of an undiscovered gigantic catacomb in Mongolia (or wherever it really is located) in modern times is harder to swallow. Back in the 1930s, it was still within the realm of the possible. Also, Copper is channelling a bit of HPL, who wrote At the Mountains of Madness in 1931. This piece is Lovecraft’s own “adventure” novella, descended from Poe. The feel is the same and appropriate.
Copper’s novel goes 120 of 180 pages without one live monster. (Which explains my reaction back in 1985), but Copper carries the first 100 pages by writing a classical British adventure novel, always ramping up the steam before the alien beings show. The tension is delicious by page 120 and, when the Mythos finally shows up, it has a verisimilitude and an edge that is brilliant. On book reviewer said, “The best writer in the genre since H.P. Lovecraft” (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner). I am inclined to agree. Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy,” and a few other stories, carry this much charge, but Copper manages it at novel length, something even Lovecraft never really succeeded at. Not since William Hope Hodgson’s The Boats of ‘Glen Carrig’ (1907) has it been done this well.
I’m glad I grew up enough to see The Great White Space in its true perspective. It has me re-evaluating my previous conclusions about Mythos works. (A quick re-read of The Diary of Alonzo Typer” reassures me not all my conclusions need be re-considered.) I hope I can find a few other re-reads worthy of a second look. As a Mythos writer, I owe the canon that much of a commitment. And as a writing challenge, I may one day attempt what Copper has done, and write an adventure both splendid and horrific. Mine will be based on the old “Northerns” of Canadian literature, perhaps with Sasquatches (really the last vestiges of the Voormis) and set during the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1885….