Editorial: Welcome, Pan fauns, to the autumn issue. You'll notice I've still not gotten around to committing to the next PROTA, making 2019 noticeably bare in the 'arts' department. Personal health issues and other writing commitments have combined to demand priority. I won't tempt fate with a deadline, but 2020 should see an improvement in this regard. In the meantime, my strange story collection - No-One Driving - should be available, from Amazon's various international pages, as both a paperback and Kindle option from MONDAY 25TH NOVEMBER. I'll tiresomely plug it again,...and again..., no doubt, once it is.
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The Ballet Of Dr. Caligari & Madder Mysteries by Reggie Oliver, Tartarus Press / Six Ghost Stories by Montague Summers (with an Introduction by Daniel Corrick), Snuggly Books
The signature marks of an Oliver tale are threefold: his unique twist on established horror monsters, his first-hand knowledge of the acting profession, and his specifically English wit. This might just be my favourite Oliver collection to date. In fact, this release – now out in paperback - should ensure him becoming more widely known by surname alone. That his majority output is short fiction rather than novels remains too often considered anathema to greater commercial success.
'A Donkey at the Mysteries' is another of Oliver's eccentric titles hides a real gem of horror and one of his best, the informed allusions evoking the November Night Tales of Henry Mercer. The narrator recalls visiting by boat the Greek island of Thrakonisos when a student of Classical Antiquity. A book on the locale, procured from his hotel, puts him on the trail of its author and the related presence of a mysterious woman close by. His compulsion only draws him towards a fate that seemed already written. Even more than its telling, I adored its sober and informed telling where his student interest soon becomes yours. More typically Oliverian, 'Baskerville’s Midgets' takes place in the fading days of Rep., where-in two rival troupes of height-restricted acts unwittingly seal not only their own fate in the wider context of changing times, overseen by the jaded disinterest of the narrator’s half-alive landlady. Once the signature territiory of the late Angela Carter, Oliver’s subjective experience reveals him more than up to the task.
'The Game of Bear' intrigues as being sourced from one of MR James’s incomplete manuscripts. The game of the title, entailing 'stealthy creepings up and down staircases and along passages (to be) leapt upon from doorways with loud and hideous cries,' is, basically, hide-and-seek. Happening present tense during an adults‘ conversation, one of the pair is reminded of the innate fear its sudden shock conclusion had upon him later in life. The daughter of one of their mutual university friends is cited a hostile presence by one of the speakers, whose presence somehow resonated with his phobia. It is from here that James’s MS ends and Oliver takes up the tale, rightly making Caroline Purdue the foregrounded presence. Where a modern writer completing an earlier author’s work is a fraught task, which rarely satisfies, here is a noble exception to the rule. These, and three others forming the book's first half were first published in the complete Madder Mysteries by Ex-Occidente in 2009.
Subsequently, 'The Ballet of Dr Caligari' neatly parallels the perverted tale-within-a-tale of the classic 1919 film. Here, a young composer is unexpectedly called upon to collaborate on a stage play; a long-held labour of love by an ageing, once feted, choreographer. The denouement is as Grand Guignol as its inspiration. 'Porson's Piece' is as genteel as folk horror gets. Sir Bernard Wilkes is another of Oliver's faded figures; in this case, a former Oxford Philosophy head, with a reputation as a maverick and womaniser. One of his former students – now a BBC producer – means to approach him to take part in an intellectual panel programme. She re-discovers him, slightly dominated by his housekeeper and somewhat haunted by his surroundings. (Hence the title). Genteel, perhaps, but it also delivers a climax with a suitably contrasting chill.
Clergyman, occult specialist, spook tale anthologist, and theatre buff, the name 'Montague Summers' (1880-1948) has somewhat faded from the literateur's radar over the past thirty years. With the asexual image of a plump Edwardian maiden aunt, with a long-held passion for Reformation-era witchcraft, this is, perhaps, unsurprising. (After converting to Catholicism in 1909, a name change – to Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers – intimated another influence). In terms of output, for genre fans he remains best known as the editor-compiler of the 600+ page anthology, The Supernatural Omnibus (1931), subsequently reissued during the Seventies and Eighties, and still an ideal second-base for those wishing to take the form seriously.
Summers' own prose has that genteel, middle-class, is-there-honey-still-for-tea echo, so redolent of England's interwar years. It's an acquired taste and one I've less time for today than formerly, my own having branched out into less derivative, more sophisticated, European literature. (Ironically, helped, in part, by Snuggly's own committed catalogue). The first tale presented here feels somewhat rushed and likely – as is pointed out – victim to being 'typed out by a hand not his own.' A bouyant drawing-room wit airs the narrative‘s lungs, although Summers‘ – like Robert W. Chambers and others before him – is at his best when most serious. (Something this reader hungers after).
The narratives of three of the six, however, have superior focus and, consequently, attention to detail. 'The Governess,' where-in a young woman seeking work is inveigled into a secret, long-held familial feud, plays out a clever, internecine puzzle with a far from predictable climax. 'The Grimoire' features the classic trope of the discovery of an age-old illicit (as in 'un-christian') text, penned by a dark and dubious authority. In this case, an allegedly Roman source, which title translates as The Secret Mystery, or The Art of Evoking Evil Spirits with certain other Most Curious and Close Matters. If a premise lacking in originality, I always enjoy such tales and, here, Summers doesn’t disappoint; as is the case with 'The Man on the Stairs.' In the smoking-room 'of a well-known London club,' a male quartet agree to a £100 wager on surviving the night at the reputedly haunted Cheriton Manor and a portrait of wicked Black Dormer.
Another two of the six, 'A Toy Theatre' and 'Romeo and Juliet,' feature darkly thespian themes of revenge and murder - no stranger to Reggie Oliver - although the latter bears the finer literary, less declamatory, approach. A short, but mixed bag, yet I’m intrigued enough by the best to purchase the follow-up. A second Summers volume, collecting his remaining genre writing – The Bride Of Christ & Other Fictions – is promised from this publisher next year. On a side note; while not strictly genre works, his Omnibus's subsequent non-fictional studies, The Gothic Quest (1938) and A Gothic Bibliography (1941) proved just as influential to burgeoning post-war scholars.