Monday, November 7, 2011

Madder Mysteries

Why should I review this book? I write reviews for two reasons: to clarify my opinions to myself by putting them in written form, and to offer those opinions to others who might find them helpful in making their own purchasing decisions. In the case of Madder Mysteries, neither reason quite applies. I've read most of the content of this book before, and my opinions on it are reasonably well-established. And the book currently sells for $250 and up in the supernatural fiction market; paying that much money for a book that is no more elaborately designed than many mass-market hardcovers is more a collector's than a reader's decision. Opinions on the content are almost irrelevant. Nonetheless, I'll give mine anyway, on the off chance I'll say something that might be helpful or at least interesting to a future reader.

From the perspective of an admirer of Oliver's fiction who does care more about the content than the collecting, Madder Mysteries is easily his least significant collection. It contains only eight stories, four of which also appear in Centipdede Press' omnibus Dramas from the Depths, which, though expensive, offers better value for money than any other method of assembling Oliver's early fiction, and is (at the moment, anyway) significantly less expensive than Madder Mysteries itself, to say nothing of the three earlier collections the omnibus reprints in their entirety. Of the four stories not included in Dramas from the Depths, "The Game of Bear" (an accomplished completion of an M. R. James fragment) can be found in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21, and "The Head" in The Fourth Black Book of Horror. Two remaining pieces have never been printed anywhere else, but "The Wig: A Monologue for an Actor" is a modified version of the story "The Copper Wig," which appeared in the collection The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and therefore also in Dramas from the Depths. The version in Madder Mysteries has, as you might expect, been reworked as a monologue and includes a few notable changes but is not, in my estimation, worth the expense to those who've already read "The Copper Wig." Which leaves us with one purely exclusive story, "Tawny."

The publisher's website describes "Tawny," an all-dialogue story, as a tour de force, but while the limitation to dialogue is well-handled, the story's compressed quality makes its outcome all too obvious; the hints of something unpleasant, which Oliver usually handles with masterful subtlety, inevitably come off rather heavy-handedly when worked into party conversation, and the characters' failure to be even slightly alarmed by what they see makes them seem even stupider than the story intends, to the point of cheap parody. I don't mean to disparage "Tawny" too much-- it's a capable minor story-- only to suggest that, as a reason to buy the collection, it doesn't have much to offer. The final lines, suggestive of a decline into madness, are rather nice, though.

Unsurprisingly given the collection's title, that threat of madness is a recurring theme, and Oliver writes the varieties of insanity, from gentle rambling eccentricity to overpowering delusion to disturbing associative babble, very well and very eerily. But it's not only the characters that are madder here, but the stories themselves. Oliver's early work was very much in the mode of the classic English ghost story, with familiar settings, characters, and devices given new force by Oliver's erudition and eye for detail. As his work evolved, however, new and bizarre elements began creeping in. So in Madder Mysteries we find stories like "Baskerville's Midgets," which is very much a traditional, subtle ghost story in structural terms, but in which the eccentric personalities of the title characters and the theatrical landlady they haunt contribute to a sense of absurdity that is more menacing than comical, making the story something akin to surrealism or the strange stories of Robert Aickman. "The Head" is another case in point. I suppose it too is a ghost story, but the ghost's deranged utterances are hardly what one expects from a specter.

But other stories are more quietly unsettling. "The Game of Bear" makes excellent use of the disturbing qualities of improving children's fiction in the early 20th century, and is an excellent pastiche of James. The highlight of the collection, and one of Oliver's finest works to date, is the novelette "The Devil's Funeral." Composed of letters and diary excerpts from 1882 and concerned with clergymen in an English cathedral city, it may sound like an antiquarian ghost story, but although there are terrifying dreams and visions suggesting a supernatural presence, the darkness that haunts Morchester is all too human. Once understood, the signs and portents that the characters have failed to understand provide a sly, unhappy satisfaction as well as a powerful sense of the numinous. And the story is so rich in subtle psychological and moral insights about, among other things, institutional politics and the perils of unrequited desire, that though I've now read it three or four times I'm still discovering nuances that I've missed in the past.

In addition to the eight stories, Madder Mysteries also includes five essays (one fictional) and ten ironic pastiches of late Victorian and Edwardian magazine articles. All the essays and half the pastiches also appear in Dramas from the Depths. The essays, on the supernatural fiction of Stella Gibbons, Montague Summers, M. R. James, and Henry James, are thoughtful and succinct (in an aside, Oliver aptly summarizes Frankenstein as "that ill-written work of genius") but rather on the rudimentary side; they work better as a capstone to Dramas from the Depths than as a substantial portion of Madder Mysteries. Nonetheless, admirers of Oliver will be interested in his insights into these writers, and what they reveal about his own artistic principles. The fictional essay, on the life and work of the non-existent Decadent writer Jules Charnier, and the newspaper pastiches (two titles, "A Cautionary Tale Concerning Beards" and "A Boiled Egg Called Lowestoft," will give a flavor of them) are amusing, though despite their brevity they wear a bit thin.

The range of content in Madder Mysteries speaks to the range and depth of its author's knowledge and interests: he can write convincingly about Victorian clergymen, ancient Greek religion, Casanova, Henry James, contemporary stage actors, and old newspapers. If Madder Mysteries were available at something close to its cover price, it would be easy to recommend. But it isn't, and the irony of the Dramas from the Depths omnibus is that the one then-available collection it doesn't include in full is the one least worth owning separately. Oliver's most devoted readers will want to have it anyway (which is why I do), but less passionate fans can feel safe in waiting and hoping for a less expensive reprint of some or all the exclusive content.

1 comment:

  1. Peelsticker ToothacherNovember 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM

    -"Who shall be my enemy now?"
    'The Devil's Funeral' is easily my favorite all-time story of Oliver's, I would say ranks as one of the best horror stories of the last decade. I just wish he would write more stories in the cosmic/metaphysical horror genre.

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