I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. A book I recently purchased from the publisher and received today (its official launch date). And it is entitled:-
Mrs Midnight and other stories – by Reggie Oliver
Tartarus Press 2011
There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.
CAVEAT (1): Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
CAVEAT (2): ‘You Have Nothing To Fear’ – that I feel proud is appearing in the above book – was originally published for its first appearance during 2010 in my edited anthology NULL IMMORTALIS. Incidentally, in the latter book, there remains uncollected an anonymous item of quite separate text that many of its readers have credited rightly or wrongly to Reggie Oliver. Furthermore, very recently, I have published his ‘Flowers of the Sea’ in ‘The HA of HA’ anthology, a story that – among some other candidates for greatness within that very book – I seriously deem categorisable as the classic Horror Story of all time.
All my other real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/ (30 Sep 11)
“For about a week or so I put the Old Essex out of my mind. I was heavily into meetings with some producers about hosting a new Reality TV show called Celebrity Dog Kennel.”
A hilarious, frightening pan-horror-in-a-trepannier, rough-diamond monologue-narration – pickled with ‘pillocks’ as well as grand guignol – about a trannie Rippertime Good Old Days act who (“fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle“) dabbled in something called Zoophagy now hauntingly coming back to life as an Old Essex Dale Farm type gypsy or bag-lady amid modern media folk, steeped, as such folk usually are, in much from-off-the-top-of-the-head ‘reality’-humiliation and ambition. [Very apt because only yesterday I watched the latest episode in Big Brother now on Channel 5 where Housemates concocted a mock-task for themselves of being pet-dogs following the previous day’s King Kong type ape act that the housemates (seemingly) believed was a real ape. I’d eat my own brains rather than miss this programme, watching it as I have done since 1999.] (30 Sep 11 – two hours later)
“‘He kept saying that you were his “bairn” and that if it weren’t for him you wouldn’t be there.'”
For a moment, I wondered if that was a typo for ‘brain’ and we were in for some latent trepanning because, like the previous story, this is a haunting fable of ‘celebrity’ – with some pretty wicked digs (from a real character in the story if not from the fictional author himself) at autograph-humters and “Book People” who crowd round the ‘stage-door’ of Fame ready to entice inscriptions as marks upon permanence. I am a Book Person as many who were involved in the recent Ebook Wars will attest – and this very Tartarean book is, in itself, a stiff-paged, aesthetic tome of some irresistible, if not immoveable, ‘weight’. And this story of the near-past deals with the ‘mothballs’ of a more distant past when life was cross-sectioned with real objects and art-deco weightinesses and tangible pages of playwright-manuscripts that literally affect you with their bulk as well as their more airy-fairy words. With Ebooks, everything is airy-fairy, I guess. So, this is a tale of words transcending time itself by dint of their printed form as a bequest from those who have died but can, seemingly, return to life using such ‘weighty’ words as vehicle. Treat this review of mine as a madness ‘speech’ on the stage of literature via electronic means. Imagine me straining through the computer screen at you with the words as pungent memorabilia-mothballs … and shudder! [Well, this theatrical story of an acting-Poe-understudy in the pre-internet 1980s evoked all that in me.] (30 Sep 11 – another 2 hours later)
Meeting with Mike
“The night before I flew to Switzerland Princess Helen took me to see Parsifal at Convent Garden.”
Meeting with Mike or with Mr Millar is a moot point. Suffice to say this is a ghost writer’s mission to represent the autobiography of some East European ex-King in the face of some deeply secret psychological clinic in Switzerland – a sort of King Kong in traction of terminal self-will. It just had to be Switzerland, I guess. But I cannot convey the power of this story (the first real story story in this book so far) because I am infected by the same desperate inability to communicate, an inability inherent in this quote from it: “The notion that a human being might possess a personality which could be conveyed to the reader was quite alien…” and “It looked like a great cauliflower, or possibly – the thought occurred to me – a brain.” The same piecemeanl dismemberment implied by this book’s earlier Zoophagy? And now the book’s page-paper is a posh hotel’s more tenuous ‘onion skin’ headed note-sheets – through which one can see further than just the membrane? (30/9/11 – another 4 hours later)
The Dancer in the Dark
“‘Never trust old men in a hurry.'”
A substantial and charming (up to a point) story of theatrical doings, the ‘darling’ and temperamental and ‘oft-living-in-the-past’ cast of a lacklustre production that tours, inter alia, to a Brighton theatre. A spooky ghost story (“seance on a hot afternoon”?) mixed with sexual ‘farce’ and an old-devilment of grotesque proportions, but that’s not the play, that’s the story surrounding the play! With ‘The Emperor Waltz’ as ‘leitmotif’ – and the hard-copy, non-pixel appearance of Mrs Thatcher and her husband Denis from the eighties, the latter making ghosts realler than real ebook people today! Only Oliver can bring off all these ingredients and still send me to bed (later) dreading to glimpse aickmanites or fur-coated shadows in the corner of my bedroom. The gay scene on Brighton sea-front late at night will also stay with me, much against my will…. [Recommended further reading: the ‘Dancing on Air’ story by Frances Oliver reviewed by me here.] (1 Oct 11)
I first read the next story in April 2010 as part of my real-time review here and I copy below the text of that part of my review. (1 Oct 11 – thirty minutes later)
Mr Pigsny “Very few of us are good at finding ourselves funny.” I am already a big fan of Reggie Oliver’s fiction that has appeared in the last few years in books from The Haunted River, Ash-Tree Press and Ex Occidente Press. This story is a very worthy addition to the Reggie Oliver canon, one that I enjoyed immensely. It tells of the interface between my own ‘all mouth and trousers’ home territory of Essex and Academia, through family and other odd connections to the funeral of a well-known gangster. At that interface is the Pan-like Mr Pigsny. This story crams in much MR Jamesians and Aickmannerisms and Guy N Smiths. But essentially Oliveriable. It also serendipitously echoes many of the themes in this book’s previous stories. The aftertaste is wonderful. As if I have met someone real who has visited my office. “‘Well, what if there isn’t an explanation? Or what if there is one, but I couldn’t make you understand it, not in a million years? What if just there aren’t words in the poxy English language to express a meaning…’” (3 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later)
The Brighton Redemption
“There is a very great deal of vice in Brighton. Even though I arrived here only a few days ago, I have already seen it with my own eyes.”
A diary account from 1885 of dark and disturbing ecclesiaticism, conveying Christian redemptive traditions when allied with Dantean fatalism and with the shocking implications of, inter alia, unending pain when soon-to-die children are delayed baptism… No Brighton farce here. Very effective. Too effective. [I am unclear exactly why but further recommended reading: my own story here.] And several versions of ‘bilocation’, e.g: “My ordinary self sleeps while my inner self is alive in the words of the liturgy.” (1 Oct 11 – another 2 hours later)
From my review here:
You Have Nothing To Fear: The title is the essence of Ligottianism. This story is a substantial story – like Lucien’s Menagerie – and may be considered as a lost leader. But, no, it is the essence of Nemonymity and Null Immortalis; it needs to be read deeply as well as shallowly. It conveys much with great character studies, the slippage of personality through folly, the uncanny infiltration by celebrity, a satire as well as a horror about solitary existence in attempts to rescue any relationships from a Jungian nightmare that is us. A Warholian wellhole. English Society in an angst of autumn leaves plastered against the wind-screen. Bloody Ada. “Did you notice how her face suddenly comes alive when she’s frightened?” (4 Aug 10 – another 3 hours later)
Indeed we have nothing to fear.
From my review here:
The Philosophy of the Damned: “The raising of the curtain on the first act was to him like the coming of dawn to a traveller by night, an event of unblemished hope.” …indeed, the opening of any theatrical event that one has long anticipated in child-like trepidation and pleasure – and a new substantial story by Reggie Oliver is no exception. Petropol in the 1919 Crimea … and the theatre manager – himself with some trepidation – hires a new troupe. One that provides a zoo-like climax that is attuned to earlier caged simians in this book – and other anthropomorphic tricks: anthropomorphism that works both ways! This is another Reggie Oliver theatrical weird fiction classic of Hadean elegance – so fitting for this Hadean book. And its ending is so provincial in quite a perfectly unexpected, but comforting and home-is-where-the-heart-is, manner, after all the dream-envisaged D.P. Wattian cabarets-bouffes that preceded it within this book and this story itself – and the Red Army that hearsay tells us followed it given no prior escape that fiction is supposed to provide in the guise of escapism. (24 Jul 11 – another 3 hours later)
From my review here (in the current book re-titled as The Mortlake Manuscript*):
The Black Metaphysical*: A substantive fiction artfully combining an acquired sense of theatrical absurdity with serious MR Jamesian-like, Cabbalistic, Antiquarian, Christian-mythical revelation with what I instictively know are Meyrink-Praguesque concerns nibbling away at the back of the words. Spiced with scholarly sex. And shadowy Aickmen seen out of the corner of the reader’s eye. A complex viewpoint via text and inner-text by exegesis. But it flows better as an entertaining story than those observations portend. A delight to read today just before Christmas Eve. A Reggie Oliver treat. In the Golem Heights. “Evening light filtered through the armorial stained glass windows at the end of the long room, painting the polished floorboard with azure, gules and or.” (23 Dec 09)
“This ought, I suppose, to have been a moment of supreme drama, but somehow it was not.”
Indeed at the point of reading that sentence just now, a magazine was delivered through my front door called ‘Look’ (a free local community advertising paper that has not yet transmuted from being junk mail in real life into junk mail on the internet). And I wonder if this story is a sort of practical joke. A commercial break for fiction as contrived theatrical drama, fixing action as something nostalgicaly available in hard print having appeared from a stylised world beyond our own? This is where a lacklustre play becomes a lacklustre story with all the requisite twist and turns and cardboard characters of a past-laden whodunnitish melodrama. It does have a splendidly conveyed ‘genius loci’, however, in Kenya, an ex-pat snootiness of a social crowd surrounding a ‘white’-based theatre set up amid natives. But I am fooled, perhaps. There is a half-breed, half-blend theme here I can’t truly fathom, i.e. a mysterious corporal punishment that is not only dealt out to one of the characters but also to any reader who steps out of line by mis-appreciating the art that creates it. I shall need to re-read this story one day so as to try harder as currently I am unworthy. (1 Oct 11 (heatwave day) – another 3 hours later)
The Giacometti Crucifixion
“…a whole crowd of rooks, a ‘building’ of them, if I may use the correct ornthological term, rises as one from the elms and begins to wheel about above the trees uttering their distinctive ‘kaa, kaa’ sound.”
Dependent on your own upbringing and temperament, you may need to turn a blind eye to the implied political / artistic intentions (‘intentional fallacy’ or not) of the narrator / author, but, notwithstanding such considerations, this is probably – based on my own wide experience of it – one of two genuine masterpieces of modern horror fiction (i.e. together with, in my biased view, ‘Flowers of the Sea’) with its unseen back stylishly carved as well as its seen front. There is a story-within-a-story that is MR Jamesian and outdoes the best of MR James (and I don’t say that lightly). The fact that it is ‘spoken aloud’ on such stiff paper adds to the rook-‘building’, ‘mystique of an artist’, anthropomorphic puppetry as reality (and vice versa) – together with a puckish near-farcical humour that, incredibly, enhances the horror rather than diminishes it. It sort of encapsulates all the previous themes (spiritual and ghost-story and pan-horror and human frailty and reincarnation and/or redemption and/or revenge) and more. And the last line of this story, if original, should become a seasoned proverb credited to this author. How on Earth or in Heaven or by Hell can the final two stories in this book (as yet unread by me) follow this one! [There is a fragile bi-ped frame of eternity not only within us but also within the books we read. The ka that is a swarm-instinct as well as a singular culture.] (1 Oct 11 – another 2 hours later)
A Piece of Elsewhere
“I should have got meself a blotting paper coffin.”
This is what I call retrocausal British 1950s horror – where a nightmare about a stream-of-consciousness catchphrase comedian leads to worse nightmares in real life. A boy stays with his twin Aunt – and all-mouth-and-trousers characters and spiritualism… An early codswallop coda for this book that makes a grab for my own party piece.
[Regarding the previous two stories, further recommended reading: two of my own short fictions: here and here.] (1 Oct 11 – another 2 hours later)
Minos or Rhadamanthus
“He knew even while he experienced it that the strange unburdened interlude was to be savoured, bitten through to its core.”
…until reaching one’s nemonymous night. The boys of St Cyprian’s (or, in my case, Colchester Royal Grammar School of the 1950s and 1960s with all its slipper-thwacking prefects designate) were due to meet – Whovian style? – the Head and Mrs Head or, simply, their own version of Flanders Field. I cannot do justice to this final codification. But it does explain, perhaps, the choices that one has regarding the earlier mysterious punishment in ‘The Look’:
All Artwork in the book by Reggie Oliver – including that above on the inner back-flap.
“The boys of St Cyprian’s became oddly familiar with the geography and personnel of Tartarus.” (1 Oct 11 – another 4 hours later)