Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mrs Midnight and Other Stories

'You people always want an explanation, don't you?' said Mr Pigsny. '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 there just aren't words in the poxy English language to express a meaning, you bone-headed little shit?'
--Reggie Oliver, "Mr Pignsy"
The stories in Reggie Oliver's first collection, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and Other Strange Stories, demonstrated a mastery of the traditional English ghost story, most especially the antiquarian variety associated with M. R. James. Oliver's settings and characters showed a remarkable range of knowledge and understanding, but his diction and his particular form of subtle supernaturalism were classically ghostly. In subsequent collections, however, the style of his work has evolved, encompassing other approaches to the supernatural: the ambiguous, the absurd, even on occasion the physically revolting. The title of his fourth collection promised Madder Mysteries, for as the publisher observed, these stories travel "even deeper into his own bizarre territory." Now Oliver's fifth collection has been published. The thirteen tales in Mrs Midnight and Other Stories are frequently eccentric, frequently terrifying, and always erudite and well-observed. As a proof of the author's insight and versatility, this collection can scarcely be bettered.

In the introduction to Masques of Satan, reprinted in altered form in the omnibus Dramas from the Depths, Oliver writes, "The stories that follow may contain humour and artifice, but they are essentially serious. They are not divertissements... My ideas derive from some tiny fragment of experience or research. When these fragments connect with some problem or passion that has been exercising me, a story is born." This is an important consideration, for Oliver's choice of mode (the ghostly tale) and prose style (straightforward language, not poetic in the lugubrious sense of the word) might lead one to suspect that his work is mere entertainment, as M. R. James (perhaps not sincerely) claimed of his fiction. In fact Oliver is a deeply literary writer, if we take that word to suggest concern with human behavior and its moral consequences. Because he is never didactic or dogmatic, this is easy enough to miss, but such a failure grossly underestimates Oliver's writings.

What distinguishes this literary vision is its sense of moral precariousness. Oliver is very aware that small decisions may have large consequences, that people who are basically good may make terrible choices, that evil is not an obvious thing. It is perhaps misleading to bring up M. R. James again-- both are Etonians and masters of pastiche, but Oliver is hardly James in modern dress-- yet two comparison spring to mind. As Oliver observed in an essay on James, outright evil is rare in the latter's work, typically kept "offscreen" in favor of characters whose flaws are more mundane. So it is with Oliver: even characters who have done horrible things are not cartoonishly monstrous. James, in expressing a preference for ghost stories with a reasonably contemporary setting, once wrote, "A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself: "If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'" James was, at least superficially, referring only to the possibility of being caught up in a supernatural nightmare. But in Oliver's work, this sense of a vortex extends to moral choices more generally. It is trite to say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but as with many trite sayings its very familiarity can make one forget that it is quite true. In Oliver's fiction, the hell at the end of the road is often real rather than metaphorical, but one need not agree with him that such things exist, or that belief in them is necessary to the construction of a satisfactory ghost story, to appreciate his gift for addressing moral topics.

Part of what makes Oliver's evocation of human frailty so keen is his eye for eccentricity. In the ghost stories of Robert Aickman, eccentricity creates social awkwardness, distancing the reader from the eccentric and generating an atmosphere of unease that supernatural events will soon heighten. In Oliver, however, eccentricity is more gently observed; his protagonists neither gape nor judge, and eccentricity does not overpower the humanity of his unusual characters. In fact it increases it; we are all, in our own ways, eccentric. The flipside of this, of course, is that while eccentricity is not a mark of vice, neither is it a sign of virtue. Seeming harmless is not being harmless, and colorful people may have unimaginable secrets and weaknesses.

I dwell on these issues because I am convinced, now more than ever, that Oliver is, like a number of other "horror" names, a writer of the first order irrespective of genre. But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that, while they are not mere divertissements, Oliver's stories are terrifically diverting. This begins with the milieux in which they are set. The theater is, as ever, a common backdrop, but the times and places in which these theaters can be found are remarkably varied: contemporary England, to be sure, but also 1970s Kenya, or the Black Sea in 1919. Scholars and clergymen, contemporary or nineteenth-century, reflect Oliver's debt to the antiquarian ghostly tradition, but readers will also find a reality TV star, an exiled Balkan king, a young boy, and a First World War soldier within the pages of Mrs Midnight.

Oliver has mastered the classical ghost story's air of gradual revelation, as signs of darkness settle around characters who, unaware they are trapped within a ghost story, fail to recognize them.  This is most obvious in "The Giacometti Crucifixion," which includes the tale within a tale "Quieta Non Movere," a Jamesian piece attributed to a fictional analogue of MRJ. An ancient tomb, an unheeded warning not to disturb it, mysterious sights and sounds: Oliver shows again that he knows just how these features are to be applied. But the larger narrative of "The Giacometti Crucifixion," a wry tale in which a seemingly-parallel events plays out in the present day, serves as a reminder that something more than mere pastiche is at work here.

If "The Giacometti Crucifixion" reaches back to where Oliver began, the collection's title story shows where he has arrived. Some of the elements here may sound traditional: an abandoned music hall, a half-seen figure whose omnipresence the narrator fails to notice, research into credibly-pastiched historical documents that reveal its origin. But the cross-dressing animal comedian "Mrs" Midnight is hardly a traditional specter, and "her" secret is too bizarre, too viscerally disturbing, for the old school. (MRJ, touchy as he was, would have been disgusted.) While the story's narrator, a reality show host with a sharp tongue and a chip on his shoulder, represents one of Oliver's few partial failures of voice, his complex but perhaps not redeemable personality is keenly observed, and  "Mrs Midnight" is an especially chilling story.

Presented as extracts from the journals of a young nineteenth-century clergyman, "The Brighton Redemption," which I previously discussed in my review of Bite Sized Horror, is another piece with a classical feel. But its supernatural manifestation is (even) more suggestively uncanny than one might expect, and the story's thematic observations are especially acute. Rich with echoes of the Constance Kent case and of Lord Longford's relationship with Myra Hindley, it reflects wisely on the nature of self-delusion and the ambiguities of social uplift. For sheer elegance of construction, "The Brighton Redemption" is one of its author's masterpieces.

"The Look," original to this collection, is barely a supernatural story at all; its ghost is, compared to its strange, rather pathetic human protagonists, barely worth thinking about. Encouraged to visit an old friend of his father while performing at a theater in Nairobi, the narrator finds himself caught up in the lingering effects of a decades-old murder, and the active yet hollow lives of its survivors. And yet the ghost, if ghost you call it, punctuates the story, makes manifest its understanding of a particular brand of darkness:
The same mist that I had seen the previous night had gathered itself on the veranda, about five yards away from me, but this time the upper part of it had assumed a recognizable form. The form was a face, a mask with eyes, no more than that; the rest was vague. It was a young woman's face framed by a suggestion of pale, lustrous hair. The features were well-chiselled, the lips sensuously curved, the eyes heavy lidded, but it was the look that held me. Tilted downwards it seemed to stare at something that would have been at its feet if it had had them. The look itself was very particular, but hard to describe: a kind of hungry fascination, I suppose you might call it, with a slight smile on the lips as if pleasure were being taken from something that pleasure should not be taken from. The look had a certain beauty, because the features were those of a beautiful woman, and there was a rapture in it, but it filled me with fear and despair.  I realize that I have been avoiding the use of the word "evil" because I do not know what it would mean in this context. It is too general. This was a look that belonged to a particular person at a particular moment, a moment of ecstatic degradation.
Another original, "A Piece of Elsewhere," reminds one that Oliver's talent for pastiche involves more than the prose styles of the distant past; the ghost of a club comedian performs a unexpectedly revealing monologue in which garish, hackneyed patter acquires a disturbing, lunatic edge. As if that weren't enough, there's also a darkly ironic reflection on how children see things that adults, whose suspicions are too often misplaced, fail to recognize.

Each of the stories in Mrs Midnight is a gem; I haven't even mentioned "Meeting with Mike," an allegory of the demands cult makes on their members, or "The Mortlake Manuscript," a long story of forbidden knowledge that's indirectly linked to The Scholar's Tale, the first novel in Oliver's Dracula Papers tetralogy. But the collection's true masterpiece is "Minos or Rhadamanthus," in which a soldier returned from the trenches meets his former headmaster and reflects on the man's petty and pathetic existence. Touched by the numinous yet intimate with the squalid details of human cruelty, keen in its judgments yet tempered with pity, "Minos or Rhadamanthus" is haunting in the profoundest sense of the word.

Although Mrs Midnight and Other Stories was only published a few days, early demand has been so strong that the book is already out of print at the publisher. Readers who wish to own a copy of this handsome hardcover, which, like Oliver's other collections, includes fine black and white illustrations by the author, are advised to seek it out from supernatural fiction dealers as soon as possible. Three of Oliver's first four collections are now out of print from their respective publishers, and command prices in the middle three figures on the secondhand market. There's no reason to suppose Mrs Midnight won't reach the same heights, and sooner than you might imagine. I came to the party late, paid a grand total of $750 for the three, and felt I'd gotten a good deal. If you're not careful, something of that kind may happen to you.

Update: As of January 2012, Mrs Midnight is in print once again, as a trade paperback and an e-book. Click here to order. The first 200 copies of the paperback are signed and numbered by the author, so order quickly if you want Oliver's signature. I'll try to update this post when I hear the signed copies are gone.

2 comments:

  1. Really excellent review. Thanks. My copy of this book arrived a few days ago and I can't wait to dive in.

    ReplyDelete