Tartarus Press 2013
Glen Cavaliero's introduction to this collection is far stronger on Reggie Oliver's many strengths than anything I could write.
Introduction by Glen Cavaliero
…. Oliver's handling of his chosen subject matter is always level-headed, inventive and humane. Such an approach may well reflect his experience as a playwright; but he is in any case a born storyteller. Some of his tales, 'The Blue Room', for example, or 'The Skins', begin with a confident kick-start; other openings are more elaborately informative, but in each one we embark upon a narrative that propels us unerringly toward an inexorable and enigmatic close. Such stories tread the borderline between the recognisable and the seemingly impossible, between plausibility and the jolt of the unexpected; and in doing so they question the simplistic outlook that regards external appearances as wholly objective and reliable.
…. Some of these stories have a strong and most convincing 'period' flavor (the world of the 1890s, of eighteenth century France, of seventeenth century London, for example); others evoke the worlds of provincial theatre, of religious communities, of English public schools: all are the product of a cultivated and well-informed intelligence steeped in a feeling for the past, but in touch also with computer technology and present day social pressures and concerns. Oliver's various narrators are correspondingly diverse. They include actors, a clergyman, a playwright, an academic, even a giddy social debutante: he is a master of capturing the inflexions of the individual human voice. So too he provides variants on werewolf, vampire and doppelgänger themes, and on the Dickensian fable; there are glimpses of the workings of the commercial art world; nightmare fantasies in the manner of Franz Kafka; and a scathingly grotesque account of a witches' coven. No one story is like another.
The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler
…. He understands that I bought some music at the Magnum Music Store this afternoon. I nod. He tells me that it was sold to me in error and that it should be returned. I ask him to explain, but he simply repeats what he has just said and insists that I give it to him. I ask him to name the music to which he is referring. He says that it is the music that I bought at Magnum. I ask him what he means when he says it was sold to me in error. He will not explain but demands that I return it. The conversation continues in this way for some minutes, going round in circles, getting nowhere. The man is relentless: he does not tire, but I do. I shut the door in his face.
A nightmare comedy of caregivers exchanging their own aged family members in a care-swap.
….'Well, my boy is walking along past your house. This is seven in the morning, you see. Hardly anyone about. And your guest, he suddenly put his head up above your hedge and sort of growls, forgive me, like a wild animal of some kind. That's what my boy says. He was so scared he ran all the way back to the shop and he won't go near your house again. I've spoken to him, but I am sorry, Mrs Capel, he won't, and that is all there is to it.'
The Garden of Strangers
A tyro journalist interviews the exiled and shattered Oscar Wilde, whom Oliver beautifully recreates for the reader.
…. In France they are realists and know that it is always the lover and not the cuckolded husband who is the true injured party, so they shrug their shoulders. In England respectability is everything: in private you threaten to horsewhip your wife's lover; in public you take him out onto the golf course and offer him an insulting three stroke advantage. The Italians know nothing of golf: that is the secret of their charm, and the origin of their misfortunes.
Among the Tombs
Oliver gives the reader an assured opening that recalls the glories of "The Upper Birth" in this hair-raising story about possession.
…. It was the first night of our annual Diocesan Clergy Retreat at St Catherine's House. Most of the participants had gone to bed early after supper and Compline, but a few of us had accepted Canon Carey's kind offer of a glass of malt whisky in the library. It was a cold November evening and a fire had been lit. Low lighting, drawn damask curtains, and a room whose walls were lined from floor to ceiling with faded theology and devotion contributed to an intense, subdued atmosphere.
More fascinating theatrical travail.
…. I must have looked blank, so she explained. 'We're in the skins. Like Pantomime Horse. And Daisy the Cow, you know. They call it the skins. People don't understand, but it's a very specialised field. Not just anyone can do it. Our feature is a tap routine in the skins. It's famous. We're one of the top skins double acts in the country. Of course, you know, the great skins role in panto is a single. It's Mother Goose. You've got a real character there in Priscilla the Goose. You have to do pathos and everything. She's central to the subject, you see; lays the golden eggs. I could do that. I haven't yet because of Syd.
The Sermons of Dr Hodnet
Research into college windows – such a seemingly safe antiquarian topic – uncovers the history of Dr. Hodnet's
…. Imagine then my consternation when, upon mounting the pulpit to deliver what I had set down, I found my writing in parts so badly crabbed that I was at pains to read it out. My natural fluency was stemmed, though I thank my God that I made good without undue stumblings, until I came upon this passage which should have read as follows:
'It was with great courtesy and most sweet humility that our Saviour did act as intercessor for us and did establish that Mystic Union between God and His Church which endureth for Ever More.'
Yet this was not what I had written down, and what I had written is what I here set down:
'It was with great courtesy and most sweet humility that our Saviour did act as intercessor for us and did establish that Mistaken Union between God and His Church which endureth for Never More.
A very entertaining mystery about an actor hired to portray the victim of a crime, with whom he is identical in appearance. The final revelations are not for the faint-hearted.
The Time of Blood
The narrator is researching an 18th century French nun, Sister Angélique. The sister was subject to apocalyptic visions while menstruating. Some have come to pass, enough to alarm the narrator about predictions of events still to come.
One of Oliver's most unsettling stories.
….. I was simply petrified by this time. Then he walked over to the bookcase and pulled out one of the purple volumes of Suetonius and he started to read a bit from it about the Emperor Tiberius on Capri. Oh, it was utterly frightful, my dear, too disgusting—I can't tell you! All about these young boys and girls he got to—well, enough said. And every few sentences he would look at me and study how I was taking it all. It was awful. It was somehow like being watched while you're undressing, only worse, because it was as if he were seeing right inside me. It's terribly hard to describe. It was like a rape.
The underbelly of the art world; or perhaps just the normal aspect of its belly. Also a serious depiction of an adult father and son working together. And a few nice echoes of a certain metamorphosing portrait that Basil Hallward once painted.
….The trouble that followed the presentation of the portrait to Victor fell mostly on the head of my poor father who, characteristically, shouldered the blame without reproaching either Paul or myself. Victor hated the picture. My father who tried to take a detached interest in Victor's reaction attempted to make him explain himself. Did he think it was badly painted? No. Victor had to concede that it was 'quite well done'. Then what was wrong? Was it a bad likeness? At this Victor hesitated because he was discerning enough to understand that from a purely physical point of view it was an extremely good likeness, but. . . . But what? The most coherent answer that Victor could give to my father's probings was that the picture was 'not right' and not what he had wanted. The upshot of it was that Victor refused to pay the second half of his fee for the picture, and even demanded the return of his first instalment.
The Constant Rake
A theater manuscript.
….I found The Constant Rake one day as I was browsing in Parsons', the theatrical antiquarian bookseller in Cecil Court off St Martin's Lane. It had been bound together with Lee's The Rival Queens and Ravenscroft's The London Cuckolds at some time in the nineteenth century and the pages cropped so that their sizes matched. It was a villainous edition and the price old Parsons had pencilled on the flyleaf was absurd, but I had to have it.
The Blue Room
…. I asked him if Swincombe was haunted.
After a pause Johnny said: 'No. Not really. But there is the Blue Room.'
'What is the Blue Room?'
'One of the bedrooms in the south wing. It has an effect on people.'
'What sort of an effect?'
A Nightmare Sang
A playwright attends an amateur performance of one of his melodramas. He falls in socially with the small-town community theater grandees
…. A human figure was standing by the stones. It was too far away to determine age or sex, but he could see that it was waving. The gesture was ambiguous—it could have been a warning or a greeting—but Pinson was quite irrationally certain that the figure was signalling to him. This lasted for only a few seconds; then the figure disappeared behind the stones and did not re-emerge. Its failure to reappear was not inexplicable as the landscape dipped and curved so much, but the whole experience was disquieting. Pinson decided to have an early lunch and then walk to Dodman's Point.
The Babe of the Abyss
A chalet spells trouble for the college set to inherit it from a former student.
….. 'The Chalet. Alas, we cannot decline that benefaction. The will clearly stipulates that if we turn down the Chalet, we will forego the financial inheritance which I understand amounts to almost £70,000. That we cannot afford to do. Dean, in a fortnight's time the summer vacation begins. I must ask you to go out then, on behalf of the College, to inspect the Chalet, deal with the local Notaire and so on, and then see what can be . . . what can be done.'
A school story.
…. It turned out that Scott's father had been at Eton before the war and had told him something of Bloody Bill, who had been a legend. His real name was William Hexham, a beak whose formidable athletic and academic prowess had made everyone believe at the start of his career that he was destined for great things, even the headmastership. He gave every appearance of having been built in the mould of the legendary giants of public school education, like Arnold of Rugby and Thring of Uppingham. When he became a house master, his boys carried away many of the available prizes, both on the playing field and in the classroom, but then rumours began to spread about his harshness, and his use of the cane, excessive even for the inter-war years in which he flourished. He acquired the sobriquet 'Bloody Bill', and the name stuck. He eventually had to give up his house 'because,' according to Scott, 'he once nearly killed a boy,' but he had still been retained by the school as a teacher.
A Christmas Card
A man falls into the antique Christmas card he bought. It is not a world of Dickensian coziness.
'Gawd strike me,' he said. 'You did top yourself. I can see the marks. The rope!'
By this time every man in the room was staring at Rider, whose pain was so great he barely noticed the stir he was causing.
'As I live and breathe, Ezekiel Skeggs, you're a dead man!'
5 November 2019