Dark Father:

From the Cradle to the Grave


James Cooper


Let me begin by asking a question: how many of you reading this are parents? This might seem an arbitrary place at which to start, but please indulge me for a moment. You see, those of you who are not parents don't know what gut-wrenching, primal terror actually feels like; you might think you do, but the simple fact is, you don't. Only those of you with very young children really know the full intensity of unadulterated terror, a terror borne of losing the one creature in this world more precious to you than life itself. The appalling truth is: children can be taken away. They can be snatched, they can disappear in the night, they can be seduced by a kind word and a smile, even on a summer’s day, when everything seems right with the world…


Okay, we’ve established a sound base from which to build, though I sense that there are many of you who don't have children of your own who are frowning as you read, eager to email me your personal tales of fear and distress. After all, you have a spouse or a partner or a sister or a friend, all of whom you'd be utterly devastated to lose. Well, my friend, this may be so, but none of the above bears the weight of emotion and responsibility that a parent – from the first minute, the first second − feels for his/her new-born child. It isn’t just love; it’s like a furious form of rapture, and it will fill you with terror for as long as either one of you continues to breathe.


My novel, Dark Father, is my own attempt at reconciling this axiom, exploring the relationship between being a parent and living in constant fear. My starting point was a simple question that I’d asked myself many times over the last few years: how far would I be prepared to go to protect my son? The simple answer was, I had no idea, and, mercifully, I still don’t; but I was able to filter that same question through the eyes of others, albeit characters I created to explore this very issue, but who love their children no less than I love my own. Dark Father is my way of dealing with the daily terror of being a parent; of constantly worrying about a young boy who knows so little of the world in which he lives; of imagining countless horrors that could so easily be inflicted upon him as he happily walks home from school; of the sleepless nights spent fretting about the time when he’s alone, without my protection, his safety in the hands of distracted teachers who it is assumed I will implicitly trust. Dark Father is my love letter to my own son; it illustrates the anxiety and the panic and the immeasurable sense of dread with which every parent is overly acquainted. It shines a light on the rage and the madness and the misplaced love that can result from such intolerable pressure. It invites the reader to share the same kind of desperate devotion that I, and the vast majority of parents on the planet, endure every single hour of the day.


It isn’t hard to imagine the kind of horror to which I’m alluding, but it’s almost unbearable to live with. And no matter how empathetic we think we are, parent or not, I don’t imagine for one moment that any of us can get close to understanding or fully appreciating the bone-chilling reality of losing a child.

In the novel, I chose to depict this particular dilemma through the eyes of Cindy and Frank, a young couple whose son is abducted from the back garden of a house on a quiet residential street. The consequences are dire, damaging the fabric of the couple’s marriage, and resulting in Frank imagining he sees his son several months later walking along the side of the road…


The other parents in the novel are Kate and Jimmy Hopewell, who we join at the explosive end of what has clearly been a fractious relationship. Their child, Billy, becomes the pawn in their on-going battle, which grows increasingly violent as Jimmy chases his estranged family across a moonlit English landscape in a frantic attempt to recover his son. Kate is faced with the devastating question that was the initial idea underpinning the book: how far is she prepared to go to protect her son from a man she has come to despise?


This is the beauty of fiction, isn’t it? That we can experience such horrors as though we’re removed from them, placed in a remote setting, made safe by our structures, our routines, the ridiculous bubble in which most of us choose to live. But, of course, those horrors that we read about, that set the pulse racing, that colour our nightmares, that enrich our dialogue with friends…they’re never far away, are they? Not really. They live just beyond our reach, nestling over the horizon, biding their time in the dark. These are the horrors that we spend a lifetime trying to outrun. If we’re lucky, we’ll always be one step ahead; but if we hesitate, even for a moment, they’ll be upon us, forcing us to experience the pain, making us really feel it, because we ran so far, so fast, and for so long.