Book Review: Dark December, Alfred Coppel (1960)

(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)

4.25/5 (Very Good)

“In my holster I carried a pistol that had never been fired. Yet I was master of ten thousand graves” (72).

Occasionally my childhood love of survival tales—whether post-apocalyptic nightmares or sailors stranded on Pacific islands—rears its head and I am forced to track down a book, languishing in some forgotten corner, that satiates the craving. Alfred Coppel’s Dark December (1960), an unknown gem, successfully distills in ultra-realistic strokes the basic post-nuclear war survival formula: man traverses a bombed landscape, pockmarked with the vestiges of human habitation, on a quest to find his family. Dark December is a careful study of trauma and survival in the face of forces willing to plunge the world back into violence.

Brief Plot Summary

Kenneth Gavin, a Major in the US Air Force, serves in a nuclear missile bunker “under the snow and ice of Unimak Island,” Alaska (10). After the last nuclear bombs fall across the US and the USSR, Gavin is released from service in order to track down his family (in an area of California no longer in communication with the pockets of political and military authority that still exist). On the way, he is forced to place himself under the command of Major Collingwood, whom he quickly identifies as a psychopath eager to perpetuate further violence in the name of what remains of the United States. In the face of Collingwood’s atrocities, Gavin attempts to admit to himself is own role in killing millions during the war and the effects of “dehumanization” he experienced far away from the suffering of his victims (17). On his travels south, he never frees himself completely from Collingwood, who hunts him across the wasteland.

Final Thoughts/Analysis

Location and personal experience: Coppel pulls on his own personal experience as a California native and WWII fighter pilot to generate the realism the novel exudes. Coppel knows how the military works and the types of men drawn into it—from the young and naive (Lieutenant Baytles), to those who never saw themselves as soldiers (Major Gavin), to the psychopathic glory-seekers (Major Collingwood). In addition, Major Gavin’s trek south through California contains places and locations that Coppel knew well. An telling example will suffice: while Gavin flies over Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon on the way to California, he observes “a few scattered groups of shelters, hogans, and hid tents. The Indians were living much as they had always lived, eating the game of the forest and the fish of the streams” (41).  It’s hard not to read the novel as a projection of the author’s own potential actions and internal anguish if he had served in a future atomic Cold War conflict instead of WWII.

This is not a story of mutants: Other than occasional visual reminders of the nuclear wasteland, the interior moral landscape of the survivors creates the narrative’s emotional resonance. Major Gavin struggles with his role in causing the death of millions and eventually realizes his newfound pacifism: “I couldn’t kill. I couldn’t take another life–not even the life of a beast turned wild and deadly” (110). So often similar narratives turn into bloodbaths of man vs. world. Coppel reverses the script. Major Collingwood, the villain, sees the post-apocalyptical environment as an opportunity to return to “real” combat, where man fights man with weapons face-to-face rather than missiles hidden away in Alaska.  Collingwood is ready to repeat the cycle of violence: “the world smashed and burned and bleeding and here it was ready to start all over again. Here was the face of the real enemy” (58). Coppel presents him as little more than a psychopath and Nazi (50). However, the underlying question–is violence justified during war vs. after war—is not, and cannot be answered in a satisfactory manner. Which is entirely Coppel’s point…

A brittle beauty peers through the devastationDark December‘s prose is on the sparse side with moments of minimal yet devastating beauty. Gavin, while still posted at the base under Unimak Island, recalls a bathroom stall where “dozens of names and scrawls, some obscene, some humorous, some just lonely now with the towns of cities that no longer existed. That was like a churchyard” (10). I love the idea of a military bathroom, scratched with the hometowns of lonely soldiers, serving as an accidental memorial to places blasted from the surface of the earth… a shrine within the bunker where the agents of destruction dwell. In another instance, Gavin observes from a helicopter the shattered remains of  and abandoned military airport where “long strips of tar paper, like dead tissue, flapped in the wind” (24).

An optimistic and intense take on the new moral landscape generated by a man-made cataclysm… Highly recommended for all fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, especially of the more realistic bent. Also track down a copy of Wilson Tucker’s far darker The Long Loud Silence (1952, revised 1969).

(Uncredited cover for the 1970 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1st edition)

(Atelier Heinrichs & Bachmann’s cover for the 1971 German edition)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Dark December, Alfred Coppel (1960)

  1. I believe that I have this book around here somewhere, but have yet to read it. Nice to see a serious review of it being done. Coppel was another pulp and digest writer who left sf behind for mainstream and bestseller status. Sounds more like a thriller than a sensationalistic post-apocalyptic monster book.

    • Thank you for the kind words!

      Definitely of a thriller than a sensationalist post-apocalyptic monster book — and I respect it for that. While the villain might be forced a tad, he’s pretty terrifying in his desires and tactics. The book’s strongest element is the refusal to learn from the nuclear Armageddon — society seems to slip back into another cycle of violence. Check it out!

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      It was deceptively good. I have yet to read either of them (the endless melodrama of the film version of the latter continues to exert a “stay away from the book” power).

      I was also impressed with Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965) which I reviewed recently — although, it was deeply flawed….

      I enjoy the more survivalist brand of post-apocalyptic novels, especially the sort where you feel the character’s triumph at achieving small acts of “progress” (starting a fire, finding some food, fighting off a robber, etc). As in, the type without mutants, aliens… Of course, there are plenty of fantastic examples I enjoy from both categories.

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