Reggie Oliver's artistry is without parallel today among writers in the horror mode. His tales are consistently and uniquely arresting. An impeccable prose stylist, he is also a droll mimic. He has a special genius for the novella form. I have read few writers with similar facility.
The new collection Stages of Fear (2020, Black Shuck Books) offers a two-decade survey of Oliver's fiction about various aspects of the acting life. The book does not pretend to collect every theatrical tale Oliver has written, but it does offer six flawless depictions of a lost world of seaside summer repertory companies, majestic Victorian theaters, and louche rooming houses.
It even has a dancing horse.
Beside the Shrill Sea (2002)
"Beside the Shrill Sea" gives us young actors getting their initial experience in a summer stock company. Interactions of older members of the troupe are closely observed. Bullying that leads to death - and supernatural revenge - forms the story's spine.
The Copper Wig (2003)
"The Copper Wig" is a wonderfully ghoulish shocker about the competition between two leading men, Mr. Edwin Marden and Mr. Charles Warrington Fisher, in a touring company in 1893.
Oliver always excels with a historical setting, and effortlessly depicts the work and milieu of actors as skilled professional craftsmen. Murder for revenge and a ghastly supernatural comeuppance are wittily unfolded.
Puss Cat (2007)
"Puss Cat" deals with clashes of egos, and the way older men throw their young female admirers aside.
Early in January Roddy asked me over to the Navigator Offices just off the Charing Cross Road to "talk about Kent." I knew this amounted to a firm offer, so I went eagerly and found him welcoming and friendly as always, but, I thought, a little distracted. We discussed the production and my part which he described as "hell's important" and "absolutely key." We also discussed the salary he was offering. He apologised profusely that it couldn't be higher; in fact he seemed so distressed about it that in the end I began to feel guilty, as if I had gone in asking for more money than he could afford which, of course, I hadn't. In the end, to relieve the tension, I said:
"I gather Yolande is going to be your Cordelia."
Roddy's reaction was most unexpected. He looked at me with a shocked, almost fearful expression, as if something poisonous had just bitten him.
"What the hell are you on about, Godders?" he said.
Now, I didn't want to admit that I'd read a private Christmas card so I was a bit vague at first, but Roddy simply didn't understand. In the end I had to tell him explicitly that she had shown me the message from him. Even then, it was quite some time before he reacted. Then it was as if a flash from a bolt of lightning had suddenly bleached his face.
Roddy said: "Oh, my God! Oh, my Christ! Oh, my golly gosh!" Then, after a long pause, he said in a quiet, thoughtful sort of a way: "Oh, fuck!"
I waited patiently for the explanation. At last he sighed, as if these things had been sent to try him and he told me:
"I wrote all my bloody Christmas cards in Spain. I thought it would be something to do. You know the waiting around that goes on, especially when you're filming one of these ghastly Hollywood Epics. I can remember writing all the cards, then I got a tummy bug from some fearful Spanish muck they served us. Well, the doc, under instructions from the director of course, just drugged me up to the eyeballs so I could get onto that bloody horse again. It was while I was under the influence that I did the envelopes for the cards. I do vaguely remember doing Bel Courteney's at the same time as Yolande's…"
I got his drift. "You mean the offer of Cordelia was meant for Belinda Courteney? You put the card in the wrong envelope?"
"Yes. Dammit! Yes! I've been wondering why Bel hadn't responded. In fact… Oh, buggeration and hell!"
He seemed even more upset than before and I asked him what was the matter. At last I got it out of him that the card he had intended for Yolande contained a suggestion, couched in the gentlest possible terms, that perhaps in future they might be seeing rather less of each other than before.
I said: "You mean, you might have sent the brush off for Yolande to Belinda by mistake as well?" Roddy started rubbing his face with his hands so he wouldn't have to look at me. By this time, I was almost as upset as he was. I said: "But you called her puss-cat."
"Yolande – I mean Belinda."
"Yes. Yes! They're all called puss-cat." He seemed very irritated that I had brought the matter up.
The Skins (2004)
Stages of Fear is a small collection with only perfect stories. My choice for first among equals has to be "The Skins."
We opened on Boxing Day. It was a good show and there was talk of "breaking all box office records," something which is done more frequently than you might imagine. To me everyone seemed happy, but I was wrong: I do not have the kind of sensitivities which detect what is going on in a company.
About a week into the run I happened to be in the wings watching Syd and Peggy as Dobbin the horse doing their tap dance. I regularly watched it from the side as it was a most expert performance. Peggy took the front half of the horse and Syd the rear. Suddenly I became aware of Freddie Dring, our Dame, gigantic in a white frock covered in huge red polka dots, standing beside me. He was waiting to make his entrance.
"That's a very Biblical Horse you've got there, my friend," he said, nudging me in the groin with a vast purple handbag. On and off stage Freddie Dring spoke almost entirely in gags, so I knew what was expected of me.
"Oh, and why is that a Biblical Horse?" I said, feeding him the punch line.
"Because the back legs knoweth not what the front legs doeth."
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "I think they're amazingly co-ordinated. And that dance—"
But Freddie cut me off. "Don't be green, son. Don't be green," he said and made his entrance.
It often happens that when you get wind of trouble from one source it is almost immediately confirmed from another. During the interval I happened to overhear a conversation between the two actresses playing Principal Girl and Principal Boy. They had gone for a smoke just outside the stage door.
"Bastard!" said Robin Hood. "He thinks he's God's gift. I told him when he tried to put a hand up my tunic, 'My boyfriend's a Black Belt and he's taught me a move or two.'"
"Is he?" asked Maid Marian. "A Black Belt?"
"No. He's a Chartered Surveyor. But he was in the Territorials. You know who Mr Wonderful's trying it on with now?"
"No! Front or back?"
Robin Hood let out a snort of laughter. "Oh, Please! One thing he's not is a wrong ender."
"Be a lot less trouble if he were if you ask me," said Maid Marian, who was newly married and had a philosophical approach to life. "But that is so disgusting! Peggy! I mean she's… Just because he's been in some poxy soap he thinks he's God's Gift. What's Peggy doing about it?"
Robin Hood said: "You won't believe this—" But just then she saw me and drew Maid Marian away to share further secrets, unspied on.
I had heard enough, and next day a fresh piece of news was all over the company. Syd had caught Peggy and Victor "at it" in Peggy and Syd's camper van in the theatre car park. "I tell you, he wouldn't have minded only they were doing terrible things to the suspension," said Freddie Dring.
That evening we saw Peggy and Syd enter the theatre, silent, tight-lipped. An equally taciturn Victor played the Sheriff of Nottingham with such venom that several terrified young members of the audience had to be removed from the auditorium. When it was time for Dobbin to do its tap dance most of the company was gathered on the side of the stage to watch the spectacle.
It seemed a monstrous thing that clattered and stamped its way about the stage that night. Syd and Peggy, consummate professionals, were giving their usual well-drilled performance, but perhaps their steps were more percussive than usual, their taps more brutally metallic. Every ripple of the shabby cloth skin, every nod of the clumsy beast's head seemed a sign of the terrible, claustrophobic conflict that must be raging within. Freddie, who might have been expected to come up with something humorous, was in a gloomy mood. "I tell you," he said. "There's worse to come. I've never liked Babes in the Wood as a subject. It's always been a jinxed panto. It's a well-known fact."
Blind Man's Box (2007)
There is an epic quality to "Blind Man's Box." Told in letters, newspaper cuttings, and old guide book excerpts, it conveys the high and low of a huge and sophisticated Victorian theater, a giant engine of technology designed to create spectacles. The story is a breathtaking social x-ray.
From Seabourne, a Brief Guide
(Heritage Guides 1999)
Grand Pavilion Theatre, King George Street (Grade 2 listed building,
visit by application only)
The Grand Pavilion has been described as a 'classic Matcham theatre'. It was completed in 1893 at the beginning of Matcham's great period of theatre building, and opened on March 28th of that year with a production of Lancelot Jones's society comedy Lady Polly. The exterior, now somewhat dilapidated, is well proportioned and the theatre perhaps derives its name from the pavilion-like structure that adorns the central tower. However, as with most Matcham theatres, it is the interior where his true genius is displayed. The decoration of the auditorium is lavish and done in an eclectic "Indian Baroque" style. The theatre boasted a number of innovations. Besides Matcham's much vaunted ventilation system, the stage machinery was unusually elaborate and designed to accommodate considerable spectacles. There are mobile and revolving stages which would allow chases, even horse races to take place, the horses galloping over an ever moving stage (operated by hydraulic machinery from beneath) with a mobile backdrop behind, thus giving an almost cinematic illusion of motion. Unfortunately during a performance of the famous horse racing melodrama The Whip in 1910 the machinery failed, a horse lost its footing and was hurled with its jockey into the orchestra pit. The rider was killed instantly and the horse sustained injuries so severe that it had to be put down. After this tragedy the machinery was never used again. Nevertheless the theatre remained, in theatrical parlance, a "number one touring date" and saw some notable productions, featuring the leading actors of the time, including the great Henry Irving in The Corsican Brothers and The Bells, and Sir John Martin Harvey in The Only Way.
In the twenties the theatre was visited by, among others, Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Jack Buchanan, and the Aldwych Farce team. It is rumoured that Fred and Adele Astaire once performed there in Funny Face in a so-called "flying matinee" (in which an entire London production would be transported from London for an afternoon). In the 1930s it became a repertory theatre and enjoyed mixed fortunes until the war when it became a concert venue for ENSA tours serving the nearby air force bases and the Seabourne Downs military camp. It was hit twice by incendiary bombs but sustained only minor damage.
In 1945 it was bought by the millionaire philanthropist, Kenneth Marlesford, mainly, it is thought, for the benefit of his actress wife, Jane Selway. There she played leading roles in some distinguished revivals of classics and West End plays. (Her Hedda Gabler is still remembered in the town.) In 1953, following another tragic accident in the theatre, Marlesford sold the Grand Pavilion to Billy Cohen, and it became part of the Cohen-Majestic chain of theatres, specialising in variety and pantomime. Many of the leading variety stars of the time topped the bill here, including Bruce Forsyth, Frankie Laine, Max Miller (in one of his last appearances) and the singer Rex Raymond not long before a tragic car accident cut short his brilliant career. In 1966 when "live" variety was beginning to suffer from the competition of Television, Cohen-Majestic sold the theatre to the Seabourne Town Council for an undisclosed sum. It was then run for some years as a seasonal repertory theatre with a pantomime at Christmas, but with no great success. Companies came and went with disconcerting rapidity – no less than three in the Summer Season of 1972. Finally, in 1974 the Town Council closed the theatre down. Despite numerous public-spirited efforts to put it back to its original use the theatre remains derelict, though the Town Council, to its credit, has turned down applications to turn it into a Bingo Hall and a multiplex cinema.
I first read "Collectable" in the 2020 collection Strange Tales: Tartarus Press at 30. It is a minor tale of a forgotten music hall star discovered in a nursing home, and the connection between her and the young narrator.
I tried to release my hand from hers, but she gripped it even more tightly.
"No. Hold on. I think I'm… Close your eyes." I obeyed. "Tell, me."
Tell her what? Then, though my eyes were closed, I saw. I was standing in almost complete darkness, but looking down I could see a pair of small feet beneath a long white nightdress of the kind that Elsie was wearing. Looking up I found myself gazing into a long dark distance which, though almost without light, seemed to possess dimension; but whether that dimension was of space or time, I could not tell. These speculations passed through my head, but had little effect on my mind, which was concentrated wholly on the experience. In the far distance, as if at the end of an immense corridor or tunnel, was a patch of light in which there was a confusion of movement and sound.
"Tell me," she said.
I tried to describe what I was seeing.
"There's too much dark between. Make it come closer."
She gripped my hand tighter and I concentrated. Whether I was moving closer to it, or it was coming towards me, I cannot say, but it did, though it was still diffuse. There were sounds randomly gathered, like an orchestra tuning up, and the images similarly were fragmentary and superimposed. But it was a world with a distinctive tone and feel: perhaps not so much one orchestra tuning up, but several orchestras all playing different pieces of music by the same composer. I was beginning to distinguish some of the fragments: here was a row of footlights, then a chasm, then a row of white shirt fronts and bejewelled evening dresses. Almost as soon as these impressions became distinct, they started to fade while, simultaneously, Elsie's grip on my hand relaxed until it fell away altogether. I heard the faint sound of snoring and opened my eyes. Elsie was asleep. I laid her hand over her chest, tucked her in and left the room.
* * *
There are probably at least a dozen more theatrical short stories and novellas that could have been collected in Stages of Fear. In particular, the 2017 story "The Vampyre Trap" is sorely missed. But Stages of Fear is consciously modest in scope, and the six tales the reader does get are superb.
6 July 2021