SCAR TISSUE by James Cooper

Scar Tissue – from British specialist publisher PS Publishing – is the latest short story collection from British writer James Cooper. It works as both a superb example of the author’s fiction output and also as a catalogue of insightful essays about some of horror fiction’s strongest exponents. Here Cooper presents nine brand new stories of his own, written specifically in – if not quite homage, more influenced by – the same literary qualities of the writers who have most inspired his own writing and fuelled his love of the genre. Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, Robert McCammon, Clive Barker, Joe R Lansdale, Ray Bradbury, Daphne du Maurier and Stephen King are all referenced, as well as a whole sub-genre that Cooper declares as a firm favourite – the late 70s sci-fi/horror crossover with psychic espionage.
It’s certainly a novel idea (no pun intended) – one that I haven’t come across before – and it works a treat. As you’d expect from a writer as dedicated to his craft as James Cooper is, the writing is of a high standard.

In A Brighter Garden, a 64 year old Vietnam vet sets to work building a koi pond for a grouchy old Floridian woman. It is 2016 and the world is a maelstrom of political turmoil, gang wars and a declining economy. Intercut with the discussion are scenes from 1971, detailing the 19 year old narrator’s experiences in the Vietnam War and the horrors of being in country. The contrast between the two worlds is startling. I really liked the voice of Clay Newburg, whose youthful naivety is counterbalanced with the world-weary cynicism of him in later life. He is clearly damaged by the passage of time – both physically and mentally – and this is the thematic vein running through much of Straub’s work that is most evident here, when Cooper writes – “The past defines us, no matter how badly we try to escape it.” There’s a hard-edged poetry to the sections set in Vietnam. Cooper’s prose is lyrical and evocative, and I’d definitely relish reading a longer piece of his work set in this environment. The comparisons with Peter Straub are finely drawn, touching close to the American author’s 1988’s novel Koko and his 2000 short story The Ghost Village, and there is a fittingly dark end to this satisfying tale.

Inspired by the short stories of Shirley Jackson – in particular the quite brilliant tale from 1948, The Lottery – the second story in the collection is The Man in the Field, a rather macabre slice of folk horror. One morning a strange figure appears in a nearby field, an event which seems to occur annually. The villagers gather to pay tribute to the man’s sudden appearance and enact a ritual; one with devastating consequences for one of the villagers. Cooper tells this straightforward tale with a nice understated tone, hinting at the sinister appearance of the man rather than overtly spelling it out (although it’s hardly a spoiler to say that by the end of the tale we are under no doubt about the mysterious figure’s intentions). I really liked this story. It comes with a strong sense of the uncanny, and delivers on the promises it makes.

Cooper’s third entry is Morning Glory. This aims to encompass the qualities of Robert McCammon, whose stories embody the rich tapestry and darkness of the Deep South – sometimes in genre terms referred to as Southern Gothic. In the story’s introduction, Cooper discusses his desire to capture the warmth and compassion of McCammon’s writing, documenting the inner struggle of everyday people. In that regard, Cooper ably succeeds.
Morning Glory is a roadside American diner where a priest and a partially-sighted girl stop for refreshments. Deke, the co-owner, begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right about the strange couple. Once a further customer arrives – someone who seems to be in pursuit of the old man and the little girl – it becomes clear that the presence of these three characters in the diner is going to create an eventful morning.
Cooper nails the narrative voice perfectly. The story flows, driven by its well-observed characters and some great dialogue. There’s a reference to The Twilight Zone in the introduction to this story and it’s an appropriate observation because I could easily imagine this as an episode of the classic show. It’s fair to note that whilst the story isn’t the most original, it’s certainly perfectly executed.

Next up is the Clive Barker-inspired The Unholy. Cooper’s reverential introduction serves as a wonderful launch-pad into this story of transformation, both physical and metaphorical. Bare-knuckle fighter Hopper is recruited by wealthy Richard Embleton into helping him locate a mythical creature who may hold the key to prolonging his life. There are allusions to arcane religions and the demonic aspect of the story feels fresh. Their trek into the Norwegian mountains in search of the demon lends the tale a grand scale, and the denouement is satisfyingly dark.

Roadside Revival is based on the genre-bending, sometimes humour-infused fiction of Texan author Joe R Lansdale. Several disparate characters converge at The Burning Heart Motel, all with differing intentions. The Texan heat seems to apply pressure to these already-damaged individuals. The writing is punchy and direct, but tinged with a lyrical simplicity. Here we encounter vengeful Hank, intent on recovering his kidnapped wife Evelyn, the shady Reverend Faithful, a revivalist preacher whose past is being investigated by undercover FBI agent Dale, two murderous brothers called Vinn and facially disfigured police officer Gantz. When they come together in one of the motel’s rooms, it makes for an explosive ending, one drawing finely on Lansdale’s style of writing and plotlines.

Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia-tinged fiction is the next story referenced in Cooper’s Childhood, Inc, which beautifully balances the trademark science-fiction and bittersweet recollection of bygone days. Our narrator takes the opportunity of using a Cuff with which he travels back to his childhood in an effort to experience it one last time. Only things don’t go exactly as planned. Cooper bravely peels away the thin veneer of nostalgia, suggesting that by romanticising the past we sometimes fail in being honest. He nails the feel of the story and the time setting. This was one of the highlights of the collection.

The Birdwatcher is Cooper’s continuation of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, in which Nat Hocken deals with the aftermath of the birds’ seemingly indiscriminate attack of humans. Rather than tackle the story as a further instalment, Cooper evokes the psychological impact of what such an assault might trigger, hinting at mental illness in Nat. There are several avian phrases and references cleverly folded into the prose, reminding us of the symbiotic nature of humans and birds, highlighting what a devastating thing this would be if those seemingly innocuous creatures that we take for granted suddenly turned on us.

The Stephen King inspired Ordinary Day might surprise a few, who are expecting a stone-cold horror classic, but this manages to blend the latter-day crime-focused King (as opposed to the supernatural horror that the casual reader might assume) with the immensely readable narrative voice that powers most of King’s fiction. It’s a wonderfully dark tale, hard-boiled and perfectly paced, with a grotesque undercurrent involving several well-drawn characters. This was probably my favourite story, one that I wished could have gone on longer.

Rounding off the collection is The Lift, which melds together the conspiracy-theory paranoia of the 1970s and the psychic espionage stories of that time, but adds a contemporary twist to the proceedings. Thomas Kessler is a street hustler, but one with a psychic ability that sets him apart from the usual pickpockets and bar conmen. When that ability comes to the attention of T-Branch, a shady government department intent on exploiting it for their own means, Kessler is tasked with infiltrating the mind of John Burke, an incarcerated man whose identity has fractured into separate personalities. Using a technique called cognitive lifting, T-Branch instructs Kessler to extract Burke’s primary personality and return it to the surface of his mind. The Lift has a scientific grounding that sounds vaguely plausible, and Cooper manages to pull off the unexpected.

Scar Tissue is an ambitious project, one that’s very worthy of your time. The book contains interesting essays from Cooper (in which he discusses his inspirational starting points) and it’s fascinating to see how the author implements those qualities into his own writing; however – as with any short fiction collection – the book stands or falls by its stories, and it’s here where Scar Tissue wins; they’re all diverse, expertly written and infinitely entertaining. This book comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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