The first part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Ramsey Campbell has referred to Reggie Oliver as “quite possibly our finest modern writer of spectral tales” and there is no doubt that, when it comes to tales of ghosts and related matters, Oliver is one of the masters of the form, with a distinctive and eminently readable prose voice, one that radiates elegance and affability in contrast to the terrors his work contains. A professional playwright, actor, and theatre director since 1975, Oliver’s background is part of his appeal, adding the feel of authenticity to the tales rooted in theatrical life and underlying his vivid creations of time and place.
With a striking cover illustration courtesy of Santiago Caruso, THE SEA OF BLOOD (Dark Renaissance Books pb, 408pp, $27.95) is a retrospective collection of Oliver’s work containing twenty three stories ranging in time from 2001 through to 2015. It opens with a fascinating introduction by the author in which he details how he came to start writing and identifies his major concern as “the strangeness of existence and the unsettling interaction between the physical and the metaphysical”, a theme he returns to over and over again in the stories that follow.
Of the stories on offer, I’ve reviewed eleven of them on previous occasions – ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’, ‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’, ‘The Blue Room’, ‘Bloody Bill’, ‘The Skins’, ‘The Time of Blood’, ‘The Constant Rake’, ‘Mrs. Midnight’, Flowers of the Sea’, ‘Come into My Parlour’, and ‘The Druid’s Rest’ – and see no point going over old ground here, though I will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the convenience of those who missed them first time around.
The first ‘new to me’ story is the fifth in the ToC running, ‘Among the Tombs’ in which a group of ecclesiastics consider the argument for sainthood in the case of hospice worker Meriel Deane, one of them recounting his personal experiences of the woman and what became of her, raising the possibility of demonic possession. It’s an engrossing story, and in the matter of fact telling and the muted details of what took place it has the stamp of credibility and conviction. ‘Lapland Nights’ has a woman giving a holiday home/respite care to an elderly couple who turn out to be something other than what she bargained for. It’s a disturbing story in which details mount up, with unsettling and macabre moments, all hinting at some other form of life preying on human beings, but at the same time allowing that our heroine might have found her own solution to the problem of an invalid mother, and that is even more sinister.
A distinguished actor who calls his girlfriends ‘Puss-Cat’ ends up in trouble when his philandering results in the suicide of a young woman, and trouble takes the form of a monstrous black cat that haunts him. Once again the theatrical world, in this case the luvvy end of the spectrum, is created convincingly on the page, primarily as backdrop to a lively ghost story, one of spectral revenge. ‘Mr. Poo Poo’ is a sinister children’s entertainer and religious fanatic who exercises a malign influence over a young woman in this story told from the viewpoint of the couple who employed them both at one point and so get drawn into the attendant drama. There’s disturbing imagery here, and a subdued portrait of madness, an obsession that pulls everyone and everything else into its orbit.
The narrator’s writer aunt is drawn into the circle of a medium in ‘The Old Silence’, a powerhouse of a story in which so much is taking place, with a terrifying evocation of the numinous at its heart and playing counterpoint to that the presence of a sinister young woman who trades sexual favours for influence, the whole a dazzling and inventive concoction. In ‘A Donkey at the Mysteries’ a student travelling in Greece discovers rather more than he needs to know about the history of an isolated archaeological site. Oliver excels here in his creation of place, with the setting brought to compelling life on the page, and there is the trademark accumulation of details that slowly reveal something momentous and macabre lurking in the background of the narrative.
We learn of the rivalry between theatrical dwarves and midgets in ‘Baskerville’s Midgets’, a story of unsettling and larger than life characters, and the way in which they seem to suck the spirit and life out of a theatrical landlady. ‘Minos or Rhadamanthus’ are the names given to his canes by a head teacher with an unhealthy addiction to corporal punishment, and in this story one boy discovers his terrible secret. And underlying all this is a ghost story that has two men meeting as equals for the first time, and the one wreaking a kind of justice on the other.
In ‘Holiday from Hell’ a seaside guest house plays host to a group of old people from a town in Norfolk, but the implication, laid forth with an enviable subtlety on the part of the author, is that the seven guests and their place of origin are somewhat other than what we are initially led to believe. There are lovely touches of detail here, suggestive prose used to put an outré cast on events that might otherwise be merely mundane, with some nightmarish imagery at the story’s climax, and as a lifelong resident of Norfolk I can vouch for the fact that you get some strange folk in certain parts of this county. In ‘Absalom’ a scholar uncovers the terrible truth behind the death of a debauched student back in the seventeenth century, the story almost a textbook example of how to tell a Jamesian ghost story, replete with accumulating details, old documents, and the hint that in some ways the evil may linger into the present day, with some things that only the reader can truly grasp.
Oddball characters inhabit a guest house where ‘The Rooms Are High’ and the story’s protagonist ends up finding out that not all is as it seems. With some wonderful touches of characterisation and an unhealthy sexuality underlying the narrative this is another superbly sinister outing from Oliver. Finally we have ‘Trouble At Botathan’ with a student on an academic retreat learning about the inglorious past of the house at which he is staying and its former owner through the means of lost documents and visions of a drowned girl. At the heart of the story is past attitudes to mental illness and the shame that families felt when one of its members went astray, this in turn leading to a kind of abuse and much worse. Intercut with all this, as in so many of these stories, is a sense that there is far more to reality than we know or dream of, that though these things manifest in a minatory manner they also prove the potential for the miraculous and other dimensions to our existence. This was a brilliant collection, one that will undoubtedly be cherished by every lover of traditional ghost stories told with a modern panache and sensibility.
Oliver provides the introduction to WRITTEN IN DARKNESS (Egaeus Press hc, 128pp, SOLD OUT) in which he lauds author Mark Samuels for his “passionate intensity and integrity”. The book was produced in a limited edition of 275 copies and is now SOLD OUT according to the publisher’s website, though you may still be able to find copies via dealers or online, and for those with a budget Chômu Press released a paperback edition in May of this year and followed up with an electronic version in July. Of the nine stories the book contains, four are previously published.
The fiction begins with ‘A Call to Greatness’ in which Egremont has an encounter with a mysterious stranger who gives him some papers detailing the exploits of Baron Maximilian, who tried to turn back the tide of communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the story underlain by a time slip element or projection of madness, you choose. Maximilian acts rather like the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now transposed to a more northern setting; there is the same sense of ruthlessness about him in the pursuit of his goals, a fanaticism fuelled by religious conviction and absolute self-belief. It is an intriguing tale, touching on the moral and spiritual decay of the west, though Samuels doesn’t really make the case for this and his Baron’s solution seemed very much like a poisoned chalice, which may in part be the point of the story. Egremont is little more than sounding board, a latte sipping Brexiteer (probably) who is vaguely dissatisfied with the way things are but doesn’t really have any solutions to offer. ‘The Other Tenant’ is the story of Zachary, who embraces a whole shitload of high ideals (among them atheistical communism), but nevertheless is alienated from people by his lack of any compassion, with their suffering and joys simply parts of a social justice equation to him. Eventually he falls victim to the void in his own soul in a text that seems to want to be a ghost story but is held back by political point scoring, though at the same time Samuels’ apparent view that some people care more for the party line than each other carries weight. Drax in ‘An Hourglass of the Soul’ is sent to Mongolia charged with jump starting the super computer that has been built by the company he has worked for the last three days. There are concepts here that are reminiscent of the work of Ligotti, but Samuels is his own man and ultimately the story hints at the vacuity of life, that all is just endless repetition in the forlorn hope of achieving something spectacular, but with no reason at all for even that.
In the dystopian future of ‘The Ruins of Reality’ the only hope seems to be offered by the N Factory, but in fact the story’s protagonist comes to believe that this building is the source of all the world’s ills, the nightmare factory (another Ligotti concept), the text offering up a picture of mankind’s self-empowered fall from grace. ‘Alistair’ gives us a variation on the changeling theme in a story that is packed with genre tropes such as the old house next to the cemetery, the strange grandparents, and a child with tastes that are not within the usual parameters, but Samuels deftly turns it all on its head to produce something that is both striking and sinister. ‘My World Has No Memories’ starts with a man alone on a ship and no idea how he got there, then segues into a tale of transformation and the end of the world, culminating in a vision of what’s to come that is both uplifting and undermining at the same time.
There are echoes of J-Horror film Kairo in ‘Outside Interference’, with the remaining staff at an abandoned office building trapped and finding out that reality is nothing at all like they previously thought. The story works well as an account of human beings in extremis, fighting to survive against an inexplicable foe, and underlying all of that is an effective subtext about the dehumanising aspects of our IT powered society and its redefining of the world of work. The protagonist of ‘My Heretical Existence’ wanders far from the familiar parts of the city in search of a woman he is attracted to, but finds far more than he bargained for in a story of transformation and peeling back the veil to see reality as it actually is. ‘In Eternity Two Lines Intersect’ tells of a man whose spirit communes with that of the previous tenant of his rooms, an occultist in search of the Holy Grail. A sombre piece, it seems vaguely minatory, before culminating in a moment of epiphanic release and transformation.
My feeling is that Samuels is, in most of these stories, critiquing modern life and finding it bereft of spirituality and the belief that gives meaning to existence. I suspect reader response will be mediated by how much in tune you are with the belief systems that the author appears to be espousing. While they certainly can be appreciated without taking on board his perspective in full the end result is something of a mixed blessing, one where effects perhaps outweigh the philosophy behind them, though that in and of itself is not undeserving of consideration. At least that’s how it played out for me, with the most successful stories those, such as ‘Alistair’, with the least ideological baggage.
(TO BE CONTINUED)