Having made some inroads into what might be an amazing scientific discovery by exploring "the mountains and the outer caves" of a baffling remote area before being deserted by his porters, Professor Clark Ashton Scarsdale is organizing an expedition to return to this mysterious land with a small crew of scientists and a photographer to what the Professor has termed "the Great White Space" in hopes of making one of "the epoch-making explorations of this first half of the twentieth century." The expedition is a dire one as Scarsdale explains: "Some strange things have been happening in the world this past few years... [and] out there in space... Yet most of mankind seems absolutely oblivious of the implications." Guided by his research and the discovery of stone tablets containing indecipherable inscriptions, among other things, Scarsdale and four others assemble the Great Northern Expedition and enter a hell-like world beyond imagination.
The Great White Space (1974) is one of a handful of standalone novels by Basil Copper (1924-2013) whose literary output was made up of hundreds of short stories including a number starring a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, Solar Pons, and fifty-eight novels featuring hard-boiled detective, Mike Faraday, set in Los Angeles. Many of Copper's short stories are noted masterpieces of the macabre.
Copper immediately creates a sense of foreboding in The Great White Space by having his narrator, science photographer Frederick Seddon Plowright, reveal at the very beginning of the novel that he alone survives the proposed year-long Great Northern Expedition and that he has become "a man without a shadow" due to events which take place during the disastrous excursion. Ironically, Professor Scarsdale's offer that Plowright will have "the adventure of a lifetime," has more meaning to it than either man knows.
Reading The Great White Space is akin to meeting some old friends. Anyone who has read Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger tales [especially The Lost World (1912) and The Poison Belt (1913)] will recognize Scarsdale as a close cousin to Doyle's intrepid, blusterous man of genius. Preparations for the expedition rival those made by Professor Otto Lidenbrock in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and echoes of that classic science fiction adventure reverberate throughout The Great White Space as Scarsdale and company find themselves entering, exploring, and traveling through hundreds of miles of carved (as opposed to natural) tunnels under the earth.
Copper has his intrepid group travel through little known, nearly "lost civilizations" which bring to mind many of the romances of H. Rider Haggard. Like Haggard, Copper goes to great effort to describe these people and places adding both lushness and growing ominousness to the novel.
Without a doubt, it is H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) whose work is being emulated the most in The Great White Space. Early in the novel Plowright reveals that Scarsdale has researched "certain forbidden books." The Professor hints at "blasphemous old books and forbidden treatises in Arabic and Hebrew which he studied for years on end and which he eventually made to yield up their secrets... stumbling on to some fantastic and unbelievable facts which the Professor hesitated to even mention to his most learned colleagues." Such books bring to the reader's mind the awe-inspiring creation of Lovecraft, the Necronomicon, an ancient book of forbidden lore allegedly authored by the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred. The book contains references to "the Old Ones," ancient gods abiding their time under the earth and the oceans, traveling through space and time until the occasion is right for them to once again rule the earth. The "Old Ones," a group of frightful, grotesque, gigantic creatures, the very embodiment of evil appear in a number of tales by Lovecraft making up what is referred to as the "Cthulhu Mythos." Numerous writers since Lovecraft have added to the Cthulhu Mythos with tales and novels of their own and it quickly becomes obvious that Copper's The Great White Space is one of them (and a fine one at that).
Copper proves to be a great storyteller with The Great White Space and maintains a clean, matter-of-fact writing style (unlike the sometimes verbose and/or archaic style that H. P. Lovecraft often chose to assume). Copper maintains the reader's interest during the more mundane portions of the expedition in part by utilizing Plowright as his narrator--a man who is experiencing everything anew and without the knowledge (or the secrets) that Professor Scarsdale has. The Professor's vague references to the connection between his research on the "Old Ones" and what might be lurking within the Black Mountains, Copper's vivid descriptions, an act of deception that leads to tragic and gruesome consequences, and the constant feeling that something dreadful awaits around the next corner makes reading The Great White Space an enjoyable experience. However, little can prepare the reader for what the intrepid explorers find within the bowels of the earth with each discovery more uncanny and monstrous than the next.
The final pages of The Great White Space are not only action-packed, but filled with imaginative creations and hideous culminations. The fate of the crew, each of which differs slightly although each is suitably horrible, would make Lovecraft proud. Copper keeps the reader turning the page until the conclusion of The Great White Space is reached and the final gruesome twist regarding the fate of Professor Scarsdale is revealed. Lovers of horror and adventure will not be disappointed by The Great White Space and if they are a fan of Lovecraft, they are bound to find the novel all the more entertaining. Stephen Jones provides an insightful look into the writing career of Basil Copper in the Introduction to the recently released Valancourt edition.