Fearful Pleasures Critical Essays

A. E. Coppard


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although Fearful Pleasures contains previously published stories and is the last new collection Coppard produced, published when he was sixty-eight years old, it is not an edition of complete works. An American omnibus edition of thirty-eight stories, The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard, subsequently appeared in 1948, but it also represents only a fraction of the story collections Coppard produced, along with books of poems, almost yearly between 1921 and the 1950s. His partial autobiography, Its Me, O Lord!, was published in 1957. Although during his life his work was admired by mainstream writers such as Ford Madox Ford, and although his style helped to reestablish the short-story genre, Coppards unusual blend of traditional folklore and modern encounters with the unexpected has not won him continuing critical attention.

Coppards stories often combine the ordinary and the extraordinary in unexpected ways. His characters usually are plain people pursuing the everyday business of life when, suddenly, the supernatural or the inexplicable intrudes. Imagination and playfulness are rewarded in this encounter, and both simple country folk and modern sophisticates may possess these qualities.

The stories in Fearful Pleasures frequently are patterned on the oral traditions of folklore. Coppard himself says of the folktale, in the foreword to The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard, that it “ministered to an apparently inborn and universal desire to hear tales, and it is my feeling that the closer the modern short story conforms to that ancient tradition of being spoken to you, rather than being read at you, the more acceptable it becomes.”

Ghosts are a favored topic of Coppard. His ghost stories perplex readers rather than frighten them; additionally, they explore the paradoxes of disembodied immateriality. Magic is another favorite topic, but it does not often reward the magician in Coppards view, although it also does not bring divine retribution. In contrast to magic, sin usually is explicitly punished in a Coppard story. Some of his tales can be classified as horror stories, but the horrific elements are merely suggested, requiring readers to exercise their own imaginations, as the characters in the stories must do.

Coppard often adopted lively colloquialisms. His style is a showcase for playful language; he loved words and relished them for their own sake as well as for the effects they have on his readers.