© by Jan Olandese
F. G. Cottam is a highly creative, original, and gifted contemporary author in the supernatural fiction genre. His novels are gripping, extremely frightening, and well-crafted. His characters, while vulnerable, are likeable people to whom readers relate. His books resonate with the kinds of devices used by the great classic ghost/horror writers: M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, E. F. Benson, and others, as well as some of his own. I will highlight the paranormal and spiritual threads that are woven into Cottam’s literary tapestry to better understand the superb historic, cultural, folkloric, and spiritual foundation from which he develops his tales, and why I think him one of today’s finest authors of paranormal fiction. To this end we’ll examine two of his novels, Dark Echo and The House of Lost Souls.
Both books tell tales of black magic from a distant past, specifically the 1920’s, reaching out to touch people decades later. There are ghosts in both, but the ghosts aren’t the problem: it’s the living who embody the fear factor here. There are loci of evil: places which become virtual cook tops for the inventive ingredients of Cottam’s fearsome recipes. The reader learns that dabbling in the dark arts can be hazardous to his spiritual health, and as in the cautionary tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice, one can be overwhelmed by the powers one conjures up. In an inversion/opposition to the loci, there are holy relics, with potential power to bring light and healing. Both stories have Jesuit clergy as go-to people who hold keys to grim and deadly questions.
There is retribution for the innocents who are sacrificed to make dark magic …terrible wrongs are righted, although it’s always a close call requiring enormous courage.
In The House of Lost Souls, Paul Seaton, a contemporary London journalist, is connected through a woman he meets almost by chance (except that in Cottam’s novels, nothing is accidental)…through her, he becomes enmeshed in a “cold case,” a very old murder which had been wrongly labeled a suicide … and becomes himself a victim of the same black magician. In Dark Echo, as a wreck of an old racing yacht becomes restored, so are the powers of its supposedly deceased former owner, a profoundly evil person. In both stories, innocent people are harmed because they get in the way of those who would work black magic for power and (while not quite immortality), extreme longevity.
What makes Cottam’s books so powerful and thought-provoking? There are several elements: the first is his ability to create mood and atmosphere. (This reader won’t pick up a Cottam book while home alone)! How is he so effective?
One element is a method employed successfully by H. P. Lovecraft, the American horror novelist, who used certain words to evoke a mood of anticipation and fear in readers: eldritch, gibbous, rotting gambrel roofs, ancient, decayed and decadent are famously Lovecraftian bellwethers. Cottam gives us feral, affront, louche, judder, skittering, the smell of coal tar, the Imperial War Museum, thrumming, smell of rottenness, and more.
In Dark Echo and The House of Lost Souls, another giveaway is the weather. In the case of Harry Spalding, the daemonic playboy-revenant owner of the schooner Dark Echo, there is always an ‘impenetrable fog.” Mist and pounding rain give the Cottam reader a heads-up that evil is nigh, carrying an umbrella.
Ordinary people are placed in peril by unfortunate accident, or perhaps, as hinted strongly, by fate…but no one seems to deserve the horrendously mortal danger into which they are drawn. This raises the same questions one asks in real life in the hospital or at the accident scene or after a natural disaster: “why do bad things happen to good people?” The easy answer, “God never gives you more than you can bear,” is patronizing, a Church Lady trump card meaning nothing. People want reasons for cancer but there aren’t any. No one gets sick because they “deserve” to…any more than Cottam’s characters deserve to be drawn into horrific situations. Yet there is some healing for the characters at the end of the stories, despite the horror through which they’ve lived. As in real life, there is some redemption and growth in the most difficult of circumstances.
In both books, there are holy relics which used for foul ends by Satanists and black magicians, who are later confounded by the very relics they misused. For the historian, a huge clue is dropped from above (like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy) in the opening chapter of Dark Echo, which takes place during the First World War. A French army squad protecting the Cathedral at Rouen is attacked by their allies, a nasty group of American soldiers who kill the defenders and steal a valuable holy relic which plays a pivotal role in the story.
Rouen in some ways was Relic Central in the late fourth century, as the Roman Empire was disintegrating. Victricius, the Bishop of Rouen, made a famous speech called Praising the Saints (de laude sanctorum) in which he extolled the virtues of holy relics. He developed a theological theory about relics which is unique
for his time…basically, that the martyrs are totally present in each relic and thus each relic is a “substance of Godhead.” This arabesque of faith brings to mind James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and his Law of Contagion, which in essence says that something that was once part of something still has the essence of it: “things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.” (Please see http://www.bartleby.com/196/5.html)
The antagonists in both novels use black magic for selfish ends and lose their humanity in so doing. The power of relics they desecrate to gain power, once re-consecrated, is the power that undoes them.
Time plays a role in Cottam novels. In these two stories, there’s the question of “time after time” that is, the past not staying on the quaint shelf where it belongs, but lurching into the future to contaminate people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong…time. Cottam’s past is not a pretty place, as another of his novels, The Waiting Room, fully explores. But in both Dark Echo and The House of Lost Souls, people in the present are drawn into past dramas, are visited by ghosts from the past, and experience the past in the actual present…or perhaps they travel backwards? It’s hard to think of time as linear here….better to see it as parallel universes between which one can travel but which one does at one’s own peril. The haunting sounds of horses drawing a funeral hearse heard in contemporary London…the scent of Turkish tobacco….the stink of coal tar…all are whiffs of the past in the present and clues that the boundaries can be permeable if the conditions are right.
In both novels, the past is the watershed period after the First World War in England. The shock and loss of the war was writ large upon the ’20’s, which experienced in the wake of huge death from war and epidemic, the most rapid technological transition yet in history. The culture reflected this in the “roaring twenties” partying and wildness of the wealthy few (whilst the poor masses were hungry, suffering and held strikes). Some of the gentry, who were, as Cottam puts it, “louche,” sought thrills and some found these in the occult and Satanism. It is this kind of meddling with the dark side that creates the timeless peril which is the basis of both books.
Cottam’s timeless peril is not the same as that of Lovecraft (evil Elder Gods who wait to be called in with the right spells to take over the world) nor is it akin to the dangers in the stories of M. R. James. Instead, it is built around the concept of contagious evil. In The House of Lost Souls, a professor of moral philosophy and ethics tells Paul Seaton, the protagonist, that one of his students wrote a paper about evil being infectious: that places permeated with evil could contaminate those unfortunates who entered. He called them “random victims of contagion.” This dehumanized the people who were victims, and minimized the evil of the harm that befell them (imagine saying that Holocaust victims were “random victims of contagion.” But the ghostly characters in The House of Lost Souls include Nazis: Hermann Goëring and the owner of the dread house, Klaus Fischer. Thus, the connection to the Third Reich evil is no accident. It’s effective, too, as a way of underlining the corrupt, base and vile nature of the evil at Fischer House. The use of Nazis in the story pulls readers into a scenario of past evils acting in the present: a vivid and scary concept.
So a major premise of the story is that a place can retain evil, which can harm visitors. A variation is seen in the is seen in the story of the Dark Echo, the name of the restored yacht, which in itself is neutral, but is at times inhabited spiritually by its demonically evil former owner. At those times, misadventures befall those aboard and lives are lost (sacrifices to the devil). So the ship itself is only repository (another concept we see more fully developed in another Cottam novel, The Waiting Room); but one that appears to thrive on the negative emotions contained in its random access memory.
Both Fischer House, the “particular location” in The House of Lost Souls, and the Dark Echo, the yacht, seem subject to an ebb and flow of power…at times, very strong, at others, weak. The author states this in both stories. In the case of the ship, it’s because the owner has not yet fully come into his evil inheritance and is spread thin, so is not always aboard, so to speak. The Fischer house contains a monster being deliberately empowered by the Satanists, but which sometimes sleeps, and is at times not so strong. Both places embody the idea of danger in a location as well as danger affecting the present which is from the past.
Cottam is not the first to use the idea of contagion of place. But he may be the first to set it out as a premise in the story and then make it an element of the tale. An example of this device is the short story Caterpillars, by E. F. Benson, in which a person staying in a house offends the spirits there and becomes “infected” with terminal cancer. It turns out that someone who lived in the house previously died of cancer. The current owners are aware that the room in which that person died is haunted by caterpillars with crablike extensions – presumably the ghostly agents of infection – and urge their guests not to sleep in that room, without revealing why. But in Caterpillars, the place itself is only the host of the infectious evil, not a repository.
This contamination of place is not the rule in ghost stories. In Ghost Story, Peter Straub’s novel, the ghost appears in several locations. The same is true in Haunted, a novel by James Herbert which was filmed in the UK in 1995. The ghosts, not the house, are the actors and the house isn’t any kind of repository….in fact, the house itself is an illusion which is part of the haunting work of the ghosts.
Another kind of contagion can happen through an object which has been imbued with evil power. Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture is a good example, in which action which takes place in a painting in which a character’s movements presages bad fortune for the owner of the painting.
As mentioned before, in these two stories the ghosts are not the problem so much as the locus. Some of the ghosts have good roles in both stories. In The House of Lost Souls, the evil ghosts actually draw off the Fischer house, the locus of contagion. Think of it as a laptop battery. Plugged in, it relays power: those associated with it can draw upon that energy. In order to end the contagion, the plug has to be pulled: the repository disabled.
Cottam’s ghosts and fearsome places do not appear in full color on the first page. There are suggestions in the terminology and in the action which hint at their presence, which brings the characters closer to it, which then trips the trigger for the manifestations.
Cottam very effectively uses popular music as a hint to the reader. In The House of Lost Souls, songs by dead singers which had been memorable to the protagonists keep being heard: in pubs, on the radio, on broken cassette players without batteries. Songs repeat themselves in Dark Echo, too, a clue to any Cottam reader that the contagion is aware of the protagonist and not too far away. Other hints are olfactory: usually whiffs of the past such as coal tar from boats or trains, old fashioned scents such as Shalimar, “the smell of decay,” the smell of rotting fruit,” and the scent of “Turkish tobacco.”
Another power of contagion in Cottam’s stories is displayed by the weather, which can be controlled by the evil antagonists. Whenever there is danger present, a “thick, impenetrable fog” precedes it in Dark Echo. In both books, rain, dark clouds, and “roiling mist” inform us that the dark side’s afoot.
The House of Lost Souls, Dark Echo, and Cottam’s subsequent ghostly novels exemplify the highest form of the art of scary story-telling. I highly recommend them to any reader who appreciates well-crafted novels with apparitions in the plotlines. His website offers a free read of his excellent novel, The Going and The Rise – here is the link for those interested: https://www.fgcottam.com
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