Terra Damnata, by James Cooper

Terra Damnata is the first book-length work by James Cooper, whose dark, disturbing stories of dysfunctional families have been ornamenting Black Static for the last three years.

Arthur Woodbury is the archetypal Everyman living in a suburb with a wife and daughter in the comfortable suburb of an unnamed city, his car a Volvo, a bottle of sherry in the house for visitors.

But there is a darker side to Arthur. He has a serious gambling problem, and is in debt to local casino owner Norman Foley, whose ‘enforcer’ Randall has a nasty reputation for violence. Worse, Arthur and Beth’s daughter Cherise has just been killed as the novel opens.

And one rain-swept night a rich businessman arrives offering a fortune in exchange for the right to buy Cherise’s body. Although Arthur is appalled at the idea, he realizes that the money offers a way out of his debts….

Most of Cooper’s regular themes recur; the Woodbury family are dysfunctional through tragedy, and while the purpose for which businessman Gerald Appleton wants the cadaver is eventually revealed to be part of Chinese society, for much of the book it seems decidedly creepy. As is often the case with Cooper’s work, he leaves his setting unnamed and background undelineated, as if preferring to let archetypes give the story their own imagery.

It’s an approach that carries risk; at times Arthur and other protagonists seem underdrawn, their motivations skimmed over, but Cooper is a stylish writer and imparts enough traction to the story to get away with it. With its character’s old-fashioned names and close focus, it’s a novella that is very British, and strangely redolent of 1950s thrillers with actors like Stanley Baker and Laurence Harvey.

Terra Damnata marks an important step in Cooper’s career; it is a novella from PS Publishing rather than a full-length novel, but it will hopefully lead to progressively longer works, and with a gorgeously macabre cover by Les Edwards, it is a fine book in its own right.

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• May 25th, 2011 • Posted in Reviews • Comments: 0