Filler content with Hitlerian orchestrations

This beauty has just been made available in paperback/e-format by Tartarus Press, which is a good thing as the original now costs a packet whenever it pops up on e-Bay.

Here’s my review from the old TTA Press website:-

Haunted River hardback, 432pp, £25

Reggie Oliver is one of the largely unsung heroes of weird literature, a writer in the tradition of M.R. James who couples an intimate knowledge of his chosen field with an intelligence and perception that is uniquely his own. His first collection, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, garnered an impressive eight Honorable Mentions in the 2003 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and I expect this collection of sixteen tales, most of them previously unpublished, to do at least as well. Oliver is also one of those fortunate people who get described as multi-talented, skilled not only in prose composition, but as a musician, artist and dramatist, and his familiarity with these other forms of creativity shines through in these stories.

But first, before discussing the stories, a few words about the book itself. A sturdy but elegant hardback, with an introduction by Dr Glen Cavaliero and illustrations by the writer, it is a thing of beauty in itself, an object to treasure. An attention to detail, an almost obsessive need to get it right, and, dare I say it, love has been lavished on this book. While obviously aimed at the collectors’ market the price tag is commensurate with similar products on the market and shouldn’t needlessly dent the pocket of ordinary readers.

One of the things that distinguishes Oliver from most of his contemporaries is the rich strain of humour that runs through much of his work. By way of example take ‘The Garden of Strangers’, in which an ambitious young reporter interviews the exiled Oscar Wilde, learning of his experiences haunted by the ghosts of suicides, a delicately crafted set of tales within tales, the whole shot through with contrasting effects; on the one hand a great sense of sadness and on the other a wit and love of bon mots almost worthy of Wilde himself. ‘The Blue Room’ is a wonderful, tongue in cheek romp of a story, as an aristocratic philanderer who exploits the family curse to bed young girls finds the tables turned on him with a trick worthy of Roald Dahl at his most ingenious. And sometimes Oliver wrong foots the reader, giving us a situation that invites the belly laugh only to send the story off in another direction entirely, as with ‘The Skins’, in which a pantomime horse costume is possessed by a vengeful spirit. In less skilled hands this could have come over as extremely silly, but thanks to Oliver’s deft characterisation of an unhappily married couple and his knowledge of the theatrical world, the tale is never less than convincing and wholly unnerving in the way it plays games with our expectations, of both supernatural horror and pantomime.

A ploy of the traditionalist school that Oliver has mastered and uses to his advantage, is the creation of ancient documents, putative texts that underlay his stories and reinforce outré events by grounding them firmly in the past, as with ‘The Sermons of Dr Hodnet’, in which the narrative consists of a cache of ancient letters that relate the timely undoing of a famous preacher who strayed from the path of righteousness, their language both accessible to modern readers and at the same time sufficiently ‘archaic’ to pass muster as the genuine article. Similar tactics are used in ‘The Time of Blood’, my favourite story in this collection and one of the finest in the James mould that I have ever read. It concerns an antiquarian scholar working in France who, through the medium of ancient documents, uncovers the story of a young nun and her visions. The texts, which refer to events that are far more comprehensible to the reader than those who first committed them to paper, create a genuine feeling of unease, a strong sense that this is something which could really have happened, while the protagonist’s vivid and apocalyptic dreams set the stage for a powerhouse ending with echoes of Bradbury classic The Scythe. And sometimes Oliver mixes humour and arcane lore, as with ‘The Constant Rake’ in which he artfully recreates the text of a lost Restoration comedy, the lines so droll one could almost wish that he had concentrated on this rather than the actual story, whose academic protagonist is sucked into the world of the dramatist, only to suffer a fate similar to that of the playwright.

‘The Babe of the Abyss’ concerns an attempt at raising a demon gone terribly wrong, and leaving the offenders cursed by a frightful manifestation of the numinous, the tale unfolding in the aftermath of one of the main player’s demise, and bringing to mind Blackwood at his best, in both its vision of an implacable nature and the awful creature that stalks its page. Somewhat reminiscent of The Wicker Man, the cleverly titled ‘A Nightmare Sang’ is another high point in a collection where these are the norm rather than the exception. A famous playwright holidaying in a rundown seaside town is lured into the clutches of a group of pagans posing as an amateur dramatics company, and ends up framed for murder. This story is more out there than its fellows, in terms of sexual content and bizarre imagery, but all the better for that, and beautifully executed, with each step of the character’s undoing carefully tracked and made credible. ‘Bloody Bill’ is the name of a teacher, forced to retire in mysterious circumstances, but now prowling the environs of his old public school, and forging an unholy alliance with a young pupil, the power of the story laying in all that is left unsaid, the hint of something far worse than paedophilia, and suggestion another powerful weapon in Oliver’s armoury.

Not everything was completely to my taste. In particular, the parting story ‘A Christmas Card’, a Dickensian variation in which a suicidal antiques dealer falls into the world of a Victorian Christmas card and is gifted a second chance at life, was top heavy with sentimentality and didn’t quite appeal, but in any other setting it would almost certainly shine. What can’t be argued is that this is a showcase collection of supernatural tales by a writer who has mastered the form completely, and a volume that every connoisseur of such stories will want on their shelves.

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2 Responses to Filler content with Hitlerian orchestrations

  1. Ray says:

    I love Mr Oliver’s work, so it’s something of a crime that Cardinal is still in my to read pile. (A Cardinal sin?) I shall remedy that as soon as possible. Then I shall track down Hitler (which is a sentence I hadn’t expected to write today).

    • petertennant says:

      Wow! I found this comment mouldering away in my spam box, between an ad for Xanax, whatever that is, and another for Chinese mail order brides.

      How’d you get in there Ray? Have you offended the internet/wordpress gods?

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