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Members of this community may remember that I recently gave a glowing review to Reggie Oliver's first story collection, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, recently re-issued in a mercifully cheap paperback form by the Tartarus Press. At the time I expressed the fervent hope that they'd follow this up with a re-issue of his second collection, The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler, which is (even) more highly regarded by fans of supernatural fiction. And guess what? Tartarus have just done it! The Complete Symphonies... is now available for £15 in elegant paperback form. I've just finished devouring it and here are my opinionated regurgitations for your reading pleasure.

The title story begins the collection. The silliness of the story's name is responsible for putting me off buying a copy of the book when it was only available as a Haunted River hardback, a decision I have been regretting for some time. In fact its not as bad as it sounds and has a decent atmosphere of menace even though it is ultimately played for laughs. And since it centres around a guy who acquires Hitler's symphonies from a music shop, it's probably most interesting to lovers of classical music. As it happens, a surprising number of these stories have comic content (five out of a total of sixteen). By now I'm used to his work containing barbs of dry wit and ironic commentary on the world, but I was still a bit taken aback by the amount of frankly comic tales here. The best of these is probably 'The Skins' (which exploits the rich potential for malaise of the pantomime horse!) but some are rather tiresome. The worst story in the collection is 'The Blue Room', a sex comedy about a bedroom that sends its occupants into throes of passion. The sardonic humour is replaced by rather oleaginous farce with the slightly smug quality of a John Mortimer book, and feels like it could've been a lesser episode from Tales of the Unexpected (dated, in other words.)

There are several other disappointments here (though admittedly I came to the book with very high expectations!) 'The Sermons of Dr Hodnet' is the only antiquarian story, which is a great shame as Oliver is really good at that sort of thing, and it's not one of his best neo-Jamesian jobs either! Meanwhile, my initial excitement at seeing that 'Magus Zoroaster' was inspired by Shelley's creepy lines from Prometheus died off as the doppelganger angst failed to grip me.

One thing Oliver always provides is a sense of historical authenticity, however. He is equally at ease in the Victorian era, the modern day, the Edwardian era, and so on. Whatever register he writes in, the "voice" always convinces. This is especially obvious in 'The Constant Rake', which daringly includes chunks from an eponymous 17th-century play Oliver has completely made up. This story even comes with a reproduction of the play's "real" cover (and is the "D. Longhorne" credited as publisher a nod to Supernatural Tales' own David Longhorne? I think we should be told!) Where the horrors are concerned it's a little unoriginal (reminding me forcibly of H Russell Wakefield's classic 'Old Man's Beard') but still creepy and with a lot more compassion than Wakefield usually mustered! Oliver also manages the quasi-impossible feat of bringing Oscar Wilde back to life in 'The Garden of Strangers'. I've read sooo many stilted, smart-arsed and generally awful attempts to write Wilde cameos that I truly appreciate the quality of this one, though the story itself is a bit too allegorical for my liking.

And to those who sense the scales falling from their eyes around halfway through the book, I say plough on! Because the best stories are towards the end, and there are some real crackers. More dramatics are in store with 'A Nightmare Sang', which is set in a seaside town suspiciously like my own Sidmouth, and features a holidaying playwright (like Oliver himself) who falls in with a crowd of sinister am-dram types after foolishly watching an amateur performance of one of his own plays. Of course they're not sinister at first - merely provincial and rather vulgar - but why are they all so interested in the two standing stones on the headland? This one reminded me of old episodes of Brian Clements' Thriller and Children of the Stones rather than anything literary, and it's great fun with some beautiful descriptions of the sunlit coast alternating with acid social commentary and horror. It's a long story but felt like it was over too soon!

More sinister still is 'Bloody Bill', one of Oliver's public school stories. Bill is a former teacher at the school who was fired decades ago for using excessive force when handing out "discipline", so what is he doing lurking on the sports field? And why is he so keen to interest the schoolboys in his collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts? If 'A Nightmare Sang' is the most enjoyable story in the collection, 'Bloody Bill' is the most profoundly disquieting, with its swathing mists, its theme of innocence corrupted and the Egyptian darkness thrumming away under it all. It also contains a haunting short poem (which typically Oliver has the narrator dismiss as mediocre!) A quietly horrific story that grows and puts forth evil tendrils in the mind long after the book is closed.

It all ends with 'A Christmas Carol', which is about suicide and is as far from Dickensian jollity as can be imagined - though it does have a commendably non-slushy redemptive message. A great choice to round off the collection. Altogether an enjoyable trot through England's haunted history, and a definitive "screw you" to any claims that genre fiction can't be as well written as "proper" literature. Though I'm sure Oliver would never deign to say "screw you" to anyone...


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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