dark am i, yet lovely, a lily among thorns, majestic as stars in procession

dark am i, yet lovely, a lily among thorns, majestic as stars in procession

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Overseer, by Albert E. Cowdrey

When watching the likes of Conrad Williams, Nicholas Royle and Paul Finch perform readings at Waterstones in Liverpool last year, each member of the audience was automatically entered into a free raffle. My number came out the hat and I won a choice of brand new anthologies. I picked the first one on the pile because I was blushing, but after having time to browse the index, I noticed that Tanith Lee was not listed, so I swapped titles at the end and took home Best New Horror 20, in which she was (plus 20 had a better cover).

I often borrowed titles in this range, but had never got around to buying one. Indeed, it's a case of picking the best short stories from the bunch, never really needing to consume the whole book. Some of the stories are too long and off-putting, as I like to consume shorts in single sittings, maximum 20 pages or so. But since having my own copy (thanks Twisted Tales), and not bouncing between 3-week library lending periods, I’ve had time (12 months) to get around to reading one of these lengthy off-putting long short stories I don’t usually bother with. A novella, you might call it, at around 20,000 words.

It was 12am last night/this morning, and I fancied burning some midnight oil, but by 1am, after 1 hour’s editing, I turned into bed. A spot of reading is in order, I thought, and started The Overseer, thoroughly expecting it to be so gash (rubbish) that I would be asleep after 3 or 4 pages. Not so. After just 1 or 2 pages, I already had an idea that this was probably gunna be the best thing I have ever read.

For a month I’ve been poised at a juncture balls-deep in my novel (I can go balls-in at a push) where the next thing due to take place is some kind of traumatic hanging scene from the slavery days a hundred years ago. I wanted to start a short story called Lynch Mob Addicto about an evil woman called Ethel Franklyn who did it for fun, but thought what the hell, I’ll bung it into the novel as a camp fire story and kill 2 birds with one stone (no more short stories, ever!). Only thing stalling me has been editing older bodies of work for delivery into the public domain.

Then last night, in The Overseer, I unexpectedly hit head-on all the stuff I’ve been contemplating in the back motor rooms of me brain recently: themes of persecution, masters, slaves, the Deep South, etc. Executed very, very professionally, of a standard never before met. These same themes are where I am up to, after 16 years on the job, after much rigorous, spiritual, emotionally-instinctive soul searching. I directly addressed this area in a poem 10 years ago called Karma 1882, and now I’m ready to explore the frig out of it with a tall gaunty woman called Ethel. Sheesh, I might even have to dedicate an entire chapter of Escaping Hazel to it.
During my, cough, career, between repeating myself far more than I realised and branching out experimentally with unpredictably dodgy results, I understand that virtually none of it matters, because everything you ever do as a scribbler is only an ambling prologue for your forthcoming definitive masterpiece; it's only value is that it was necessary for you to go through it to get to where you teeter, to arrive ready and able with the goods to produce, and if you don’t believe what you next do might be the best thing you have ever done, then you may as well sack it and do nothing but gloat over your former glories for the rest of your days, banging on about previous successes like a one-book washed-up has-been.
I stayed up for 3 hrs and 40 mins last night, until near 5 in the morning, to finish The Overseer, stopping halfway through for cornflakes and yogurt. I’m well aware the expression “I couldn’t put it down” is an overused fancy blurb, but sometimes it’s true. This stuff was right up my street at a time in my life when I was absolutely primed for it. It stayed on my mind afterwards, like, but many times better than, a resonant movie. It was factual, educational, informative...but most of all utterly entertaining/thrilling every twist/turn of the way.  I hold my hands up and say this guy, this Albert E. Cowdrey, is much better than me! I can’t do that! No sir, never!

And where now? Coz I still have to write my own take on these themes. Has he spoiled it for me, or inspired me? His story alone could provide all the research I need. Although I do my own. I don’t pilfer. I don’t steal. I pick up on what others miss, and travel with it. It’s where you take something. What you do with it. How you make things evolve into better places with the added benefit of your own skilled signature. No one ever knocked a genuine homage. I already have ideas of my own, lest I forget in my salivating worship of this, and might I can’t formulate them into a story in the way this genius can, I can damn well try-try-try. What a coincidence! I must remember, I had already arrived, before him, on my personal journey, at this subject matter. 

The greatest compliment a story can get is someone else saying they wish they had written it themselves. I understand that totally now, because I feel a case of that envy. I wish I had pledged a novella to this topic, not to mention Albert’s staggeringly impressive historical insight, of which I am incapable of (it was even nearly all written in italics, a splendid trick!) I feel sheer joy too, of course. Reading is awesome, these Best New Horror Books are class, and The Overseer, by Albert E. Cowdrey, IS THE BEST PIECE OF FICTION I HAVE EVER READ.

Even better than the red satin bed scene in James Herbert’s Others when Constance Bell is about to be molested by a genetically-engineered mutant on camera in the basement of the nursing home called Perfect Rest at the hands of evil doctor Leonard K. Wisbeech as her newfound love Nicholas Dismas watches helplessly on? Even better than that, you say.......

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