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Father Raven and Other Tales

by AE Coppard

(Tartarus Press, 301 pages, 2006.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanOne of the finer if often ignored writers of not only the supernatural but fiction in general, A.E. Coppard's approach to the art and craft of literature was as robust, joyful, and opinionated as his boisterous approach to living. One of those few literary legends whose life was as intriguing as his work, Coppard's stories explore both the natural world and the occult with a similar earthy joy, depicting them not so much as opposites wholly removed from one another but, rather, as organic extensions of similar experiences that are themselves partially defined by the minds/emotions perceiving them.

A man whose appetites, beliefs, and convictions where as undeniable as his talent for instilling vibrant life into seemingly simplistic plots (deceiving, since so many of his storylines veer subversively into refutations of commonplace reality and logic), Coppard thought, spoke, played and worked hard; this same intensity flavors his literary work, translated through characters who most often must work hard for their bread and butter. Indeed, it is rare for a fantasist to even focus on such mundane topics as need for shelter, food, or clothing, and yet Coppard's insistence on reflecting the hardships and everyday trivialities of life is one of the aesthetic tools which makes his work so convincing, rooted deep within the dirt, toil, and everyday naturalism of the world. Because his men search for food in their bellies and meaning in their lives, when the supernatural rears its head, we accept it as believably as if Coppard were describing eating a pickle.

Used to toiling and the uncertainties of a poor life, Coppard early developed a sound work ethic, as well as vigor and determination -- these too are characteristics which several of his characters exhibit, from the stomach grumbling wayfarer to the quiet mystic whose dirt-streaked skin hides a soul attuned to mystery and wonder. It is in this interwoven, secret, hidden relationship between the banal and the surreal, the everyday and the fantastic, that Coppard achieves much of his artistry. In these songs of rapture and rupture, terror and titillation, we have the experiences, insights, and observations of working mystics -- diamonds in the rough experiencing more than many a common man is granted due to their skewered way of looking at the world around them. In Coppard's world of wonder, miracles occur as quickly and easily as a man walking over a certain space of land, and nightmares can attain flesh by a thought. These dark, delirious forays into fear and fable use as a palate the world, and as paint the emotional vivacity that practically rushes from his simply written, easily assessible (yet carefully crafted) structure.

A weaver of dark miracles and darker insights, Coppard is just as easily capable of joyous celebrations of the natural world as the corruption mirrored in a reality whose boundaries are never quite fixed. Life itself is a pleasure to be fought for or sacrificed with no small reluctance. The simplistic yet strangely honest outsiders and rogues who laugh, fight, and encounter the outre in his modern fables are indicative of a rustic sensibility. For that's exactly what Coppard crafts in his organic home-spun style of narrative -- fearful and fantastic fables whose content and method of delivery harken us back to the timely and timeless realm of the folktale, celebrating that form's universality of theme and robust broadness of approach.

A modern shaman spinning dark miracles beneath starlight or in forest glen, Coppard's fiction is the material of universal communal anxiety and desire, finding fresh faces (or is it masks?) for ancient terrors and desires. Self learned and self-supporting, both his subjects and style are as honest, seemingly simplistic, yet as complex as his personality. Evoking fear, wonder, regret, and a bitter-sweet melancholy in both this world and those Otherworlds which his outsiders visit so regularly, his protagonists are usually the estranged and the alienated, the isolated and the lost -- refugees from the country of the soul and heart who are uncomfortable with the crass, unforgiving world around them as well as their own skins.

His themes of isolation, byways between realms, and the supernatural intruding upon the everyday -- or, more to the point, simple men and women inadvertently trespassing into the shadowy dimensions of other times and spaces -- treat the supernatural more as an organic if hidden aspect of reality than as a complete difference or geography outside of the human experience. This phenomena is expressed further in his style of narrative, wherein instead of dramatically forcing us to take notice of a shocking break in the reality of expectation or natural order, his self-assured, rhythmic voice relates occult occurrences and spectral visitations as calmly as if he were inviting you to a picnic. By approaching the weird as calmly as he depicts human characters and everyday settings, he lends miracles, curses, and time-warps an authenticity that they would otherwise lack.

While many supernatural authors effectively evoke terror and belief by shouting their ghosts and ghouls into existence, and still others slip them in with a whisper, on both accounts these differing schools of approach change/alter their style to accompany breaks in the Natural order; a stylistic change announces to us a thematic alteration; the everyday has been subverted. Coppard bravely and brazenly forgoes such aesthetic posturing, refusing to drench his overthrows of reality in hysteria or subtle fright. Instead, he simply announces transformations of time, space, and consciousness. No fanfare is needed. While this would be disastrous to many, in Coppard's hands the unnatural becomes more deadly (and mystifying) when readers find ourselves submerged in the 'otherworld', much like his surprised characters, without quite realizing how we arrived there. The thirty-one stories in Father Raven and other Tales are neither completely realistic or fantastical, genre or experimental. They defy categorization of aesthetic form no less than the experiences described within defy rationale.

A celebration of funeral finery, fiendish fun, and rustic unease, this collection breathes with the primal honesty and emotional power of the folktales which the author so dearly loved. Modern faerie tales, fables of fear and fantasy for the young and old, these stories are not only structured similarly to folk stories, preserving the clarity, simplistic brush-strokes, and robust delivery of oral lore, but also harbor within their broad, bawdy surface deeper sub-texts of universal meaning. Thus is "Arabesque--The Mouse," as much a reflection on the cruel irony and pain of life as it is a rather depressing account of a man wrestling with conscience and a household mouse. This same duality of meaning is easily traced in such seemingly simplistic vivisections of expectation as "Piffingcap," the genuinely disturbing "Adam & Eve & Pinch Me," and "The King Of The World." Each of these is a minor macabre classic, suggesting far more than they say.

Neither outright story or allegory, fantasy or realism, Coppard's nightmares and whimsies are a pleasing thatch-quilt of references culled from life, observation, pure imagination, and cultural tradition. This richness and variety shows in the diversity of themes, settings, and characters. His hard-working, hard-ridden Outsiders -- drunks and beggars and lonely men trying to find a place in a world they can neither define or understand -- often find themselves in worlds of magic that prove no less disappointing and dangerous than the ones they inadvertently exited. Coppard's refusal to use the folktale structure as a means of preaching or instilling his fantasies with populist fluff is admirable, and the willingness with which he allows even the most innocent or likeable of vagrants to suffer is the mark of an artist allowing the events and internal logic of a story to lead wherever they might. More importantly, this sense of the impossible within the probable, and the sense that any turn in the road ahead might lead to a darker field, lends the tales collected in this volume undeniable emotional resonance and depths of unease.

Coppard's frightening fables as "The Man From Kilsheelan," with its visionary portents of terror and adventure, the fabulist "The Elixir Of Youth," and the deliciously demented "The Bogie Man" occupy a precious independent territory in the field of supernatural fiction, capturing the rawness of the folk spirit in simple, clean English prose. Occupying both the real and the fantastical, and often questioning if indeed there is any great difference between them, these attacks against expectation belong to an ambiguous shadow-land between right and wrong, intellect and soul. Likewise, they refuse the one-sided nature of much genre fiction which allows for few interpretations of good and evil, spectral or worldly. Coppard shows us, like children, that a story can occupy all these and more.

Rightfully regarded as a champion of the short story by such peers as L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, A.E. Coppard is represented in this collection in a variety of moods, muses, styles, and tastes. Within this catalogue of fears and fancies may be traced the growth of his visions as well as evidence of his everlasting appreciation of folklore, rural settings, and rustic characters whose missteps into other realities/consciousness are anything but commonplace.

'I can revel happily with the stuff of the supernatural; it is indeed the material of the folk tale, and that is almost as old as the human race,' he once remarked (a line of thought explored further in Mark Valentine's introduction). Besides the organic universality of such subject matter, which lends Coppard's interest in subversive realities and occult powers further resonance, the folk tale's basic relationship to the primal passions and instincts of Everyman matched this writer's nature, resulting in fictions which are a rare marriage of content and form. From the pure 'high' fantasy of "The King of the World," which evokes the echoes of a primal, occult past in its adventure frame-work of a desert traveler stumbling upon a lost God's desert-enshrined temple, to the subversive time-lapses of "Gone Away," where Coppard's beloved motif of time displacement is used to disquieting effect, these visions of befuddled bafoons, lost travelers, and tragically doomed romancers breath with the authenticity of a cultural tale spoken aloud around the tribal fire as the moon looks on. At the same time, their simplicity is evidence of a quiet it conscious art, with stylistic integrity lending shape and preservation.

At turns gentle and grievous, terrific and tantalizing, these stories never fail to involve. Pathways into the heart and soul of no one single age or culture, Coppard's descents into midnight lanes and eldritch legends are filtered through the rustic simplicity of their settings, lent honesty and empathy through the farmers, sailors, and 'Everymen' with which he held such sympathy. The result is a cannon of supernatural literature that speaks with simple elegance and emotional authority about the Otherworld through images of the everyday, and explores the expected by contrasting it with images from the supernatural. Not only enjoyable, these pieces capture the age old 'magic' once thought lost when the bards stopped speaking their dramas aloud.

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