Reggie Oliver's 2014 Tartarus Press collection Flowers of the Sea: Thirteen Stories and Two Novellas is arguably his strongest. It is not the first Oliver collection I read, but the stories collected here of such high caliber as to be irreplaceable contributions to the canon.
Michael Dirda's introduction makes the points better than me, extolling Oliver's "striking narrative graciousness."
…. The voice on the page comes across as warm and sometimes almost chummy, yet the sentences maintain a gentlemanly restraint and elegance. No matter what the subject matter, no matter how wrenching a tale's emotional implications, its actual unfolding remains serene and assured. From the start, we know we are in good hands. We relax. We sit back and attend to what will follow.
…. blurring of the real and the seeming real, of the autobiographical and the imaginative is characteristic of Oliver's fiction. At times his stories seem more reminiscent of Max Beerbohm's Seven Men than of M.R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary or Robert Aickman's Cold Hand in Mine.
A CHILD'S PROBLEM
One of Oliver's most striking and emotionally convincing stories, undergirded by a serious depiction of the boy George St Maur in his confrontation with a nefarious uncle Augustus and that uncle's servant, Hargreave.
…. In the middle of the interior space of the temple was a wooden table painted with white gesso in the French manner and three oval-backed chairs similarly decorated around it. On the table was a tea service of white china transfer printed with black engravings. The cups were empty but there were still a few pale brown crystals of sugar in the bowl. The transfers depicted scenes from a West Indian sugar plantation: Negro slaves cutting cane, overseen by a man in a wide-brimmed hat carrying a whip; a white man and his wife at their ease on a veranda overlooking the cane fields; a slave settlement with children and chickens playing in the dirt before a wooden shack. The sugar bowl was decorated with the most interesting scenes. One side showed what looked like a slave revolt, with Negroes setting fire to a field and attacking the man with the whip and the broad-brimmed hat. One of the Negroes was pinning a white woman to the ground, her skirts already in disarray. The other side showed a number of British regimental soldiers clustered under a tree from whose branches hung a slave with a placard around his neck. Several other slaves, their arms bound behind their backs, were being made to watch the spectacle. Whether they were being shown the hanged man as an example, or they too were destined to be the tree's fruit was not clear.
A young man spends time with his godmother, who owns a sweet shop in Penrith. While climbing Striding Edge, he meets an old schoolmate, Derek, who is a member of a strange cult-like scouting group called The Greenwood Folk'. It's a great tale of the sylvan supernatural, superior to Munby's own story of hiking horror, "An Encounter in the Mist."
…. I moved forward again and the sounds became more distinct, though still very far away. They were little splinters of noise like high pitched squeaks as if one sound had been shattered like a glass bulb and I was touching its sharp, glittering fragments. Put together, the noises might have been the laughter or mockery of children in a playground. The sounds were now behind me urging me forward. I looked round and thought for a moment I could see little shards of green in the mist, like tiny disembodied limbs. I turned and did not look back again.
I was now moving along the path quite quickly, conscious that I was trying to escape from something, but that that something may not actually have been behind me. The little squeaks of sound were now about my head like a cloud of midges. 'There are green things following me,' I found myself thinking. A second later I was sweating with fear, not so much because I was being followed as because the mad thought of being followed by green things had entered my mind. I was going insane. I could not stop. I pressed on.
HAND TO MOUTH
An out-of-work actor house sits at his cousin's château in the Dordogne.
…. Let me state categorically that I don't believe I have a psychic bone in my body, nevertheless there was something I didn't like about the Château de Bressac. It was not that there was some sort of atmosphere of evil or menace about it, at least as far as I could tell; in fact there seemed to be no atmosphere at all. That, I suppose, was what I didn't like. The place felt empty, not just physically but in some other way too. And it was silent, especially at night. With any normal old building you expect the odd creak or click, but this one was a tomb.
A crime story of great historical resonance.
'My dear Father Ganzel,' said Dr Hartmann, 'we are all old men. Germany is on the brink of destruction. I doubt if any one of us three will see the end of 1945. Tell us your story now or forever hold your peace.'
FLOWERS OF THE SEA
A husband and wife share an identical experience of psychic vertigo, after which the husband must grapple with her heartbreaking mental decline into dementia. A story of pathos and great sorrow.
…. Curiously, though I always remembered these incidents, Helen never did. She only remembered a void, as if that incident and the ones that surrounded it had been absorbed into a great hole. 'What did I do this morning?'—she would say—'my mind is a complete blank.' It would be glib to call this strange oblivion 'merciful', because when the seizures started again they always seemed to her something entirely new and alien. At least I understood them to be events with a familiar trajectory, above all events that would pass.
LORD OF THE FLEAS
An unalloyed masterpiece of a story. The career of Thomas Moreby, 18th century London architect (?1702-?1803), is told in the collagist found-manuscript style. Documents include diaries, letters, press accounts, and an excerpt previously suppressed from Boswell's Life of Johnson. Don't let the story's title fool you: there is no irony in it.
TRAGIC & HORRIBLE DISCLOSURES IN HOB'S LANE
The denizens of Deptford, we are informed, were the witness to a most extraordinary and tragic scene on the night of Friday last, the 7th of October. Mr Oliver Whitby, a respectable wine merchant of Cheapside in the City of London, hearing that his daughter Anna was in desperate danger at the hands of her husband Mr Thomas Moreby, architect, of Blackheath, summoned a constable and, with a considerable and motley gathering of London's citizenry who attached themselves voluntarily to them, went to the house of a Mrs Hackett in Hob's Lane, Deptford. There, Mr Whitby had been informed, his daughter was being held captive by Mr Moreby, and in peril of her life….
… The fourth scene was not from the Bible. A man lay in bed. Though part of his head had been smashed off, probably by Cromwellian enthusiasts, one could see that his face was thin and drawn. A skeleton with scythe and hourglass stooped over the headboard while to the left and right of the bed stood two figures: one winged and now completely headless was presumably an angel, the other a squat, frog-like figure with a strange hood, like a monk's cowl covering its features. Each of them was grasping one of the dying man's hands. It looked as if they were about to engage in a tug of war for the soul of the man in the bed. The scene intrigued me because despite the damage and its great age it seemed curiously real and immediate. The ancient carver was speaking to me.
THE POSTHUMOUS MESSIAH
A playwright is hired to translate and adapt the work of an obscure and very strange Polish playwright. The work, and it's author's widow, have peculiar effects.
Upper class sorrows.
….'Stayed bachelor as long as possible, then got hitched to the Kleinman girl. Catriona Kleinman. We all called her Cats. She was pretty dippy, but quite sweet and she had stacks of the wonga: father in oil, I believe. Can't remember. Anyway he was rolling in the stuff. By all accounts, Roddy didn't treat her very brilliantly after they were married. When Cats got pregnant he just buzzed off, leaving her at Stonehill with an old nanny. By the time she was about to give birth he was in the Bahamas living it up with Princess Margaret and the Dorsets. Well, she lost the baby, which was ghastly, and there were frantic calls to Nassau summoning him home. Eventually the Dorsets literally had to shovel him onto a plane back to England. When he got home poor old Cats was suffering the most terrible depression and I don't think Roddy helped. He stayed with her for a couple of days then buggered off to London for a bit of shagging and boozing. While he was there Cats did herself in.'
BETWEEN FOUR YEWS
A reimagining and amplification of "A School Story," by M.R. James. Oliver calls it "sequel and a prelude," and it is exquisite.
…. There was one more thing. At the very back of the lumber room we discovered an old black japanned tin box about eighteen inches high and two foot square. On the top of it someone had pasted a label which bore a legend written in ink and firm if faded capitals:
EFFECTS BELONGING TO G.W. SAMPSON esq.
TO BE RESTORED TO HIM ON HIS REAPPEARANCE
OR SENT TO NEXT OF KIN IN THE EVENT OF
HIS DEATH BEING REPORTED
THE SPOOKS OF SHELLBOROUGH
Country club rivalry. Retired espiocrats.
…. Spring came early to Suffolk that year. The weather was mild as we set out on our round, and the light was fresh and milky. The streak of sea to the east had turned blue; even the gorse glittered. Wentworth was on much better form and by the time we had completed the first nine holes he was several strokes ahead of me. Nevertheless he remained quiet and concentrated, clearly determined to maintain his advantage. There were several players out on the course, but they did not seem to worry Wentworth too much. I did, however, notice one person at a distance who was not carrying a club and did not seem to be attached to any of the golfers. The figure was thin and slight with longish hair, and wore jeans and a t-shirt so short that a bare midriff was showing. It looked like a young woman or possibly a prepubescent boy: more likely a female, though it was impossible to say for certain at that distance.
A Journey through Austria and the German States in the years 1802 &1803 with some remarks upon the musical life of those countries by The Hon. Humphrey Elliott esq. Bachelor of Arts at the University of Oxford
It is clear from this grandiloquent opening that Humphrey Elliott intended to work his journal up into a book, but it never saw publication. In the year 1805, when he was barely thirty-six, Humphrey Elliott, younger son of Lord Morchester, died by drowning in somewhat mysterious circumstances….
COME INTO MY PARLOUR
Like the story "A Piece of Elsewhere" in Mrs Midnight and Other Stories, this is a story about a boy dealing with a bad aunt.
…. In spite of this, you may be surprised to know, I came to be fascinated by her. I suppose it was because she was, at the same time, such a big part of our lives, and yet so remote. Her life in London, apart from those dreary office politics, was a closed book. She never talked about going to theatres or concerts or exhibitions or watching sport. She didn't even really talk about books. She never mentioned any friends. It was this mystery about her that started all the trouble.
A theater reminiscence.
….Stephen and Fiona were a mystery to me. They were friends and had been hired together as a package, to be leading man and lady for the Norgate summer season. Some sort of theatrical reputation preceded them, I believe, but I cannot remember what. Though unmarried, they were generally thought to be an 'item', but from small remarks I heard Stephen let fall in drinking sessions after the show I gathered he was gay. He did not make much of a secret of it. I think Fiona, who undoubtedly had feelings for him, was wounded by these intimations but she made a good show of not minding. They both drank, she less seriously than him, it seemed to me.
WAVING TO THE BOATS
A husband whose wife suffers from dementia joins her nursing home's outing.
…. When he did look again, it seemed to him that, though the boat had been going forward, they were still in the same place. Green reeds bordered the river on both sides and stretched away into a featureless distance under a paper sky, neither bright nor overcast. Fingers of mist crept onto the water from between the stems of the reeds. Why had they bothered? thought Arthur. He could have been at home reading a book with Jean wandering through the house, or sitting placidly listening to the Strauss waltzes he sometimes played to soothe her. He could do without this dreary nonsense. The rage he felt was curiously strong, like a hot liquid coursing through his veins, making his heart work faster.
…. The term 'horror' as applied to a particular literary genre does not bother me. I am more than happy to have my work included in 'horror' anthologies of various kinds, but I do think that the word sometimes constricts the expectation of the reader. Anyone looking for a diet of 'raw head and bloody bones', mutilation, torture, sexual abuse and the like in my work should apply elsewhere. I don't shy away from horrific incident, shock and awe, but my chief interest is in the metaphysical dimension. Fortunately editors and anthologists have understood this. Some stories in this volume do not really fit into the category of 'horror' at all.
7 November 2019