Unlike many fans of M. R. James, I've never particularly enjoyed "Casting the Runes."
That may seem an odd statement with which to begin a review of Reggie Oliver's new collection, but it is, in fact, the key to my ambivalence about Flowers of the Sea. Make no mistake: this is an excellent set of stories, showing all the skill that has made Oliver one of the foremost contemporary writers of the psychological ghostly tale. But from a personal perspective, it's uneven. Some of the stories are as stunning and memorable as the best from Mrs Midnight, but others feel disposable and out-of-date, the wrong kind of traditional. They feel that way, but they're not. What do I mean by this waffling?
In the rather enthusiastic review of Mrs Midnight linked above, I wrote:
What distinguishes [his] 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.It seems to me that what is missing from many stories in Flowers of the Sea is precisely this sense of moral precariousness. The antagonists are either "cartoonishly monstrous" or its boorish social equivalent. And the unworldly element in the tales in which they appear often consists of their getting what's coming to them. Which is perfectly fine: supernatural revenge and the clear-cut morality it implies are well-established features of the ghostly tale: see, for example, "Casting the Runes." Indeed, before M. R. James they (and the apparition at the moment of death) essentially are the ghostly tale, which is why most pre-Edwardian ghost stories are not to my taste. But I find that Oliver's great virtue is his capacity to make subtle yet strong moral judgments, and that obviously awful antagonists play against his strength.
And so there are several stories in Flowers of the Sea that, however well-observed moment-by-moment, however adept at gradually-generated unease, ultimately reduce me to offering faint praise. "Striding Edge" has an atmospheric rendering of the dangers of mountain-climbing in foul weather and a closing image whose predictability is precisely what makes it send a shiver up the spine. But the narrator's schoolboy animosity toward the central characters leaves them so thinly drawn that the reader can't help but share it. There's some level of pity as well, but it's not enough to create emotional engagement. There is, I think, a very good story to be made of these elements, but it hasn't taken shape.
"Come Into My Parlour" also has a lot to commend it. Not for the first time Oliver makes good use of the disturbing qualities of Victorian children's literature, and there's an absence of explanation that makes some superficially-simple horror elements more potent than they might be. But the narrator's aunt is so consistently unpleasant-- grasping, belittling, oblivious to her own nastiness-- that the whole story feels more old-fashioned and trite than it really is. It's not that such people don't exist: it's that they're not interesting to read about, at least not without more insight into their emotional evolution.
"Hand to Mouth" and "Lord of the Fleas" are, I think, more successful than "Striding Edge" and "Come Into My Parlour," if only because they are more flatly traditional. Oliver has observed in a recent interview that "I have never been interested in writing a story that simply delivers a moment of 'pleasing terror' without some further element." But the "further element" of psychological or metaphysical insight in these stories is distant: in the main they are plot-driven horror about vile historical figures, their victims, and their cruel fates. I don't mean to sell them short. "Lord of the Fleas" is an epistolary tale that shows again Oliver's gift for pastiche, and "Hand to Mouth" has a nice little sting at the end that does modernize it somewhat. But compared to the best their author can do, they lack a justifying spark.
Happily, it's now time to turn away from fault-finding and toward that best. There are, I think, two strong contenders for the title of finest story in the collection. "A Child's Problem" has interesting similarities of premise to M. R. James' "Lost Hearts," but where the child in that story was an innocent bystander, ignorant of the darker forces around him, the young boy at the heart of "A Child's Problem" is on an intellectual and emotional journey of his own, one more fraught with unsettling significance than the supernatural events around which it takes shape. His uncle, meanwhile, is one of Oliver's studies in the pathetic aftermath of moral failure: a bad man, but also a defeated one. This is an extraordinarily bleak coming-of-age story with a keen insight into the mind of a bright, immature child and how it responds to an adult situation it understands largely by intuition. It would be the centerpiece of most collections... if those collection didn't also include something as good as "Flowers of the Sea."
This title story has roots in painful personal experience. Oliver's wife, the artist and actress Joanna Dunham, suffers from dementia, as does the protagonist's wife in "Flowers of the Sea." As you might expect, the tragic sense of loss that illness creates is capably captured. Yet the genius of the story is not limited to disguised autobiography: it weaves together certain morbid Victorian habits and an upsetting metaphor for psychological disintegration into one of the most powerful evocations of paralyzing loss I have ever read.
Dementia also features in the collection's closing story, "Waving to the Boats." While "Flowers of the Sea" focuses on the emotional aspects of the experience, "Waving to the Boats" deals with more practical frustrations: an outing for the protagonist, his wife, and several other residents of a care home. As you might expect, their boat journey takes an unexpected turn. In many ways this story is equal to "A Child's Problem" and "Flowers of the Sea" in effect, but I'm not convinced that its final scene works. Its tone is consistent with some earlier sequences, but jars against the resonant weirdness subsequently built up. Either way, "Waving to the Boats" is a work of genuine pathos.
"Waving to the Boats" is one of three stories that appear for the first time in this collection. Happily for the devoted reader of Oliver, the other two are equally excellent. I'm not sure I fully understand "Sussmayr's Requiem," but it's definitely a story about death and the artistic imagination, with some extraordinary visionary passages. Readers of Ex Occidente Press titles will find it particularly to their liking. The other original is "Lightning," of which Oliver notes, "Its connection with horror as the term is generally understood is glancingly marginal, but it's there if you want to find it." That very marginality lends the story its power: the sense that one has not quite understood the mechanism by which sinister events have occurred is reminiscent of Robert Aickman, but the vivid rendering of theatrical life, and the overpowering sense of moral revulsion, is all Oliver.
There are other stories in Flowers of the Sea, successful and not so successful; I ought at least to mention "Didman's Corner," another Aickmanesque story, this one about grief and an unpleasant form of resilience. But this review has gone on long enough. I hope the reservations expressed in its first half don't make it seem that I'm recommending the collection in anything but the strongest terms. I expect a lot from Reggie Oliver, to a point where a volume that's only half outstanding stories is a mild disappointment. Flowers of the Sea, a typically-handsome Tartarus volume enhanced by the author's own eerie illustrations, is essential reading for admirers of ghost stories both traditional and psychological, or anyone who enjoys metaphysically rich fiction.
The hardback of Flowers of the Sea is out of print at the publisher, but may still be available from dealers. A paperback reprint is anticipated for 2014. An e-book is also available, either from the publisher or from Amazon.