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As regular readers may have noticed, I'm a fan of Reggie Oliver, but my attempts to secure a whole book of his stories have been thwarted for years by the rarity and price of hardback editions of his work. But all that's just changed! Tartarus Press have wrested Oliver's first collection, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini from the clutches of small-press loony soapbox The Haunted River and this year they've brought out a much-awaited second edition in....PAPERBACK!!!

Since the beginning of his career nine years ago Oliver has established himself as the number one contender for the title of the New MR James. His understated, concise prose, frequent use of antiquarian themes and impressive panoply of lurking horrors ensure that the spectre of Old Monty pervades a lot of his work. Oliver has even completed the unfinished James story 'The Game of Bear'! However, Oliver is far from being a lazy copycat and usually manages to imbue his stories with a charm all his own (at least if the ten or so tales I've read are anything to go by.) But as I eagerly cracked open my copy of The Dreams..., I had to wonder whether this early collection would match later stories such as 'The Children of Monte Rosa' and 'A Child's Problem'?

The story that pays the most obvious debt to masters from the "Golden Age of the Ghost Story' is probably 'Garden Gods', though the debt is perhaps owed as much to Machen as to James this time around! A family of yuppies are intent on renovating the historic gardens of their newly bought country house, so they can open it to the public. But they soon discover that both garden and gardener hold some nasty surprises! As a fan of pagan terror I obviously welcomed the theme, and I was pleased to see Oliver making use of the tensions that exist between classical and modern morals. It has been suggested by some stupidheads critics that the figure of Pan is less frightening to today's "sexually liberated" readers than he was to repressed Victorians. But in their reactions to some offending bits of statuary, Oliver's sharply-drawn characters show that the Victorian's fear of sexuality and desire for "respectability" are alive and well in 2012, even if they are expressed differently. I wasn't exactly chilled to the marrow by the story's climax, which I thought was a bit overdone, but there is a really unnerving description of an apparition in the garden's maze which is all the more effective for being almost off-hand.

'The Seventeenth Sister' has an equally traditional setting - a convent perturbed by the doings of an extra nun! This was also pretty successful, and reminded me a bit of James acolyte M.P. Dare, though there is a tropical element that stops it from being too formulaic. I would've liked to see Oliver make more of the Catholic setting though (it's quite rare to see Jamesian ghost stories set in Catholic churches.) And of course there is the title story, which takes us all the way back to Inquisition-era Rome, where the good Cardinal takes on a sect of proto-nihilists worshipping Nothing. Though this cabal is entertaining enough I felt the idea was not used to full effect and the result was one of the weakest and most predictable stories in the collection. Perhaps expanding the ideas to novel length would allow for more a exciting plot and better character development!

All in all, this collection contains surprisingly few stories set in the past (only the three I've mentioned, plus parts of a fourth, 'Death Mask'.) But that's not necessarily a bad thing - MR James was forever exhorting authors to shun the outworn trappings of gothic literature and write about the era in which they lived. And on this evidence Oliver seems to agree. Some of his stories are quite up-to-the-minute, making use of recent advances in computer game development (the interesting 'The Black Cathedral') or surveillance technology ('Evil Eye'.) Nor does Olive shy away from grappling with the zeitgeist, and there is definitely something James-ish about his wry skewering of modern art ('Tiger in the Snow') or neo-hippy culture ('Miss Marchant's Cause'). Although the tone can be a bit waspish at times the lampoons never devolve into full-on axe-grinding and instead add piquancy to the narrative.

But as I mentioned above, Oliver is not simply a producer of pastiches and he also adds his own concerns and life experiences to his fiction. He has had a long and succesful career in theatre and quite a few of the stories are set on and around the stage. These vary in quality from the disappointing (the unoriginal 'Beside the Shrill Sea'), to the truly chilling ('The Golden Basilica' and 'The Copper Wig') and the frankly bizarre ('The Boy in Green Velvet'.) Perhaps unsurprisingly Oliver is more concerned with dark deeds in the wings than making a big performance out of death, though we are treated to one proper death on stage (I won't say in which story!) He also displays a more than passing preoccupation with surreal and chaotic imagery and dances several times on the very thin line between absurdity and horror in a way that can be quite disturbing.

And my favourite story of the collection, 'Death Mask', is miles away from dusty antiquarianism. This tale takes us back a few decades to the post-war years and tells of a schoolboy's friendship with a supply teacher and his wife. The charming, upper-class (but increasingly penniless) bohemians are renting a cottage near his school, and neither village disapproval or the possibility of a ghost in the cottage is enough to deter the young hero from bathing in the couple's radiance. 'Death Mask' begins like a very traditional, Edwardian ghost story avec rural haunting but soon veers off into tragedy before a heart-warming resolution is achieved. It's all very affecting and confirms Oliver's talent in its own right.

Overall, I think 'Death Mask' is the only story that lives up to the standard of Oliver's later work, and several of the stories are a bit thin compared to the visceral horror of, say, 'Mr Pigsny' or the menace of 'Hand To Mouth'. That is only to be expected from a debut collection, however, and in fact I was surprised by how much of the Oliver magic was already in place from the beginning! Anyone with even a passing interest in supernatural fiction is warmly encouraged to check out The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini. As you would expect from Tartarus, the production values of the book do justice to the treats inside, and I was also delighted by the author's etchings, which illustrate every story. Not bad for around £15! Altogether a great coup for Tartarus, and I devoutly hope that they are able to give Oliver's second collection, The Dreams of Adolf Hitler, the same treatment (as suggested in the preface!)


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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