The good people of Tartarus Press have kindly sent me a copy of The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, a paperback reprint of Reggie Oliver's first collection of stories. This kind gesture was prompted simply because Tartarus used a couple of lines from my review of the original Haunted River edition of the book, which appeared in ST#6. So, here is a link for those who might wish to purchase this reasonably-priced volume, which is of course turned out very stylishly in the familiar Tartarus livery. And below the cover image you will find a slightly updated version of that original review. (Note - one story from the original Haunted River hardback has been omitted from the Tartarus edition.)
Reggie Oliver is an actor, playwright, artist, and the definitive biographer of his aunt, the novelist Stella Gibbons. I suspect she would have approved of these stories, particularly those that use the ghost story form to satirise some of the sillier trends in modern society. Anyone who read and enjoyed Reggie’s story ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’ in ST#5 will know that he has a witty and urbane style. That story (found here in slightly modified form) is one of only two previously published tales – the title story appeared in Weirdly Supernatural #1.
The author's theatrical background offers a rich source of imagery, characters and ideas. ‘The Copper Wig’ is about deadly rivalry in a touring company between the wars – it owes something to Burrage and Wakefield, and perhaps a little to Wells’ ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’. Wakefield might also have approved of ‘Death Mask’, which offers an interesting variant on a traditional theme, as well as a compassionate sketch of two charming characters who live by their wits. ‘The Boy in Green Velvet’ is stranger and nastier, featuring the gift of a toy theatre from a Karswell-like villain who also scripts a play that seems, at first, to lack an ending.
‘The Black Cathedral’ rings the changes on the idea of drama, by incorporating (rather neatly) computer games. When combined with the Black Pilgrimage and a medieval mental discipline I vaguely recall reading about somewhere, the new world of digital combat fits neatly into a general atmosphere of modern alienation, spite and paranoia. Similar in tone but slighter is ‘Evil Eye’, which takes the craze for hi-tech voyeurism to an artistically apt – and very unpleasant – conclusion.
In a collection so strong it’s difficult to single out favourites, but some tales stand out as excellent (as distinct from the merely very good). ‘The Seventeenth Sister’ is a thoroughly compelling addition to the long, if very uneven, tradition of the ecclesiastical ghost story. Thematically it can be paired with ‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’, but while the latter is more intellectually unsettling, the imagery of the former is far stronger.
‘The Golden Basilica’ is very different, but equally fine, centring on a father’s absurd pride in his son, who lives and dies ‘offstage’ and has produced the eponymous masterpiece. The narrator (another repertory player) tries to work out from the old man’s ramblings just what this great creation is. The story is a masterpiece of nebulous unease, owing a little to Aickman, to Walter de la Mare, and perhaps also to Daphne du Maurier.
‘In Arcadia’ is different again. Here the author treads the byways of art history and reworks a familiar theme, the haunted or magical painting. In less skillful hands the idea of being wafted into a picture seems merely trite, but this story explores the implications and comes to some surprising conclusions. It’s also notable for the skill with which Oliver blends genres and mythologies.
There are also two outright pastiches. Both are Jamesian. Monty and Henry were bound to collide sometimes, somewhere, so perhaps it’s a good thing that the first story to pay them equal homage is a success. ‘Garden Gods’ makes sly reference to The Turn of the Screw, plus several ghost stories of the celebrated antiquary. The imagery is very skilfully handled, particularly in the manifestation scenes.