Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini (revisited)

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.


Riju said...

Omission of "A Warning to the Antiquary" was a correct decision in my humble opinion. As long as the book was being issued by Haunted River, the proprietor's peculiar monomania might have to be accomodated, but that particular piece was otherwise a jarring element for the collection. Tartarus has, as usual, done a superlative job in turning out the volume.

valdemar said...

Agreed! It's always good to see a fine collection reprinted. And it's always sad to reflect that, given the limited market for short stories, big mainstream publishers almost never do this.

Anonymous said...

Whoever Riju is, he is talking ignorant nonsense.

Reggie Oliver authored "A Warning To The Antiquary" completely of his own volition, and with no prompting from me. The suggestion that a writer of his unique stature would compose anything under duress or influence is ridiculous.

Any omission from the original volume is a loss. If pushed for an opinion, I would hazard a guess that Ray Russell would have pushed for the story to be dropped, partly so that he could appease the diehard fans of M.R. James who might be offended to see their idol disparaged, and partly to cock-a-snook at me personally, because I have been quite open about discussing Mr Russell's sly business ethics.

I may be outspoken but I never lie. Reggie Oliver authored this interesting story of his own volition, because he shared similar views to me about M.R James. If he says something different now [which I very much doubt], then it will just be appease Mr Russell.

Christopher Richard Barker
[Proprietor, Haunted River]

valdemar said...

Chris Barker, you will only be allowed to comment here if you keep a civil tongue. Smearing people is unacceptable. Also, why not ask Reggie yourself what he thinks about the story? I assume it's because - like so many others - he finally found contact with you intolerable.

Anonymous said...

I think you will find the tone of my language less abusive than your own. As for your obvious enmity towards me, well, that is your odd problem, not mine. However, I think it is perfectly reasonable to liken your comments to schoolground taunts. Or do you disagree? You have a right, and I would be the first to defend it.

And although I spent a night with Reggie a few days ago, the subject of his fictional foray into Jamesian speculation did not come up. Nevertheless, I will, purely in order to put your mind at rest, raise this matter when next we meet, and follow up this post with a reply.

Facts are always better than "venemous" speculation, I find, and as an impartial editor yourself, I am sure you will agree. Reggie wrote the story; I published it; we are both (I am sure you will agree) best placed to set the record straight on the matter.

Thank you for giving me the chance to set the matter straight. So many blogs are anything but objective and balanced.

Christopher Richard Barker
NB. I borrow the word "venemous" from your own comment about one of your colleagues. I find it rather a cruel and extreme word, although it could perhaps be applied to extremely cruel people, should the case be made.

valdemar said...

The author's note to the new edition states that 'A Warning to the Antiquary'

'... was written as a jeu d'esprit, but the jest, for me at any rate, has rather outlived its charm, and there are those who have found it distasteful. Its omission is no loss to the reader.'

But as you're in touch with Reggie I suggest you take up the matter with him.

Unknown said...

So, no proof that Reggie was coerced by anyone. And nor are the two of us estranged.

I won't push you for an apology.


Anonymous said...

Personally speaking, I have always found 'A Warning to the Antiquary' to be a poignant and wistful piece. Admittedly, it is derivative of Mike Pincombe's groundbreaking article on 'Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story' in Ghosts and Scholars magazine, yet I strain to imagine anyone who could be 'offended' by its inclusion in the Tartarus reprint.

There are some very minor infelicities in tone and characterisation which could easily have been revised, so its complete deletion mystefies me, but I'm sure RO is very much his own man and beholden to no one.

For those with deep pockets it is still available in the Centipede Press omnibus edition of Oliver's works.

Derek John

valdemar said...

Thanks for that, Derek, I'd forgotten Centipede Press.