Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Sea of Blood - Review

“Reggie Oliver, quite possibly our finest modern writer of spectral tales.” Ramsey Campbell

“…by miles, the best living exponent of the spooky yarn,” Barry Humphries

“I envy anyone who has yet to discover the elegant work of Reggie Oliver.. Some of the most powerful stories.. clearly show him moving beyond genre, addressing human relations with the heartbreaking power of a V. S. Pritchett, or William Trevor.”  Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

The Sea of Blood
Sometimes one wonders if a review might not be a tad superfluous, but here goes...

I first became aware of Reggie Oliver's work when ST was newly launched onto the turbulent seas of marginal genre publishing. I was very lucky when he submitted a story, 'Beside the Shrill Sea', which duly appeared in ST's fourth issue. It was his first published story and is also the first in this book, which gathers works from the author's six collections. It thus offers an excellent introduction to the fiction of a very significant writer of what's loosely termed weird fiction, with the added bonus that it contains previously unpublished material.

It's easy to see why Reggie Oliver's work is so popular. He has the patrician style of a modern M.R. James - that of an intelligent, well-read English gentlemen recounting odd incidents. His literary manner is formal, perhaps a little distant, and he usually writes in the first person. His stories often have (M.R.) Jamesian settings, notably English country houses and public schools. Interestingly, though, it is Algernon Blackwood that the author pays homage to in his introduction. Blackwood was not fixated upon horror so much as mystery and beauty.

With this in mind I re-read quite a few familiar stories and found that they do often focus on the idea of an unattainable higher truth. The tone, though, is usually darker than that of Blackwood's fiction. Thus in 'The Old Silence' an apparent charlatan who practises mediumship is revealed to be genuine, at least on some level. But the discovery evokes disgust in the narrator, and imposes a terrible burden upon him. 'Among the Tombs', in which a saintly woman tries to tackle an apparent case of possession, recalls Blackwood's 'The Camp of the Dog' in some respects, but here there is no comforting John Silence figure to resolve a disturbing situation. 

Reggie Oliver was a professional actor before he took up writing fiction. Not surprising, then, that many of the tales here deal with the vagaries of the theatrical way of life. The result is stories that evoke boredom, penury, and petty intrigues among artistes, but no matter how grim things become the author's love of acting is never in doubt. It's clearly in his blood.

'Beside the Shrill Sea', set in a seaside resort that has seen better days, was the first of many tales that show how an actor's life would not be for most of us. The upside, of course, is that the sheer strangeness of being in the entertainment business offers any number of ways to disconcert the reader. Thus in 'Mr. Poo-Poo' a children's entertainer is also fundamentalist Christian whose vision of Hell is so intense that it somehow bleeds into the reality of a normal family. 'The Skins' offers what must be the first account of a haunted pantomime horse. 'Baskerville's Midgets' sees the eponymous troupe of small artistes tyrannise a seaside landlady. 

'Puss-Cat' offers a new twist on the familiar tale of the famous actor who exploits a young, naive actress. Very different in content and tone is 'Mrs. Midnight', in which a shallow modern celebrity encounters a monstrous entity from the heyday of Music Hall. I was also very impressed by 'The Constant Rake', in which a modern researcher discovers the dark aspects of an obscure Restoration farce.

Away from the theatre Reggie Oliver often explores the byways of obscure, if not actually occult, scholarship. 'The Time of Blood' offers a very Jamesian tour de force of epistolary storytelling, though this tale of strange prophecies by a 17th century French novice also has a whiff of Ken Russell about it at times. (Not at all a bad thing, in my view.) Similar historical verisimilitude informs 'The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini' and 'Absalom'. 

For me a good ghost story leaves some element of mystery unresolved - indeed, it stresses the insoluble nature of the most significant mysteries. This latter quality is of course one associated with Walter de la Mare, who is arguably one of the tutelary spirits of this collection. I think 'Druid's Rest' has a definite touch of de la Mare in its account of two young women walkers who find a strange non-hotel in a Welsh village. There are undertones of 'Seaton's Aunt' and 'A Recluse'.

The British class system is a source of endless fascination to foreigners, and indeed to most Brits who are excluded from its upper reaches. 'Bloody Bill', an account of a brutal teacher at Eton College who has an obsession with the Egyptian afterlife, brilliantly evokes the weird hybrid of mediaeval and totalitarian culture that prevails in elite schools. But there is also plenty of room for social comedy in this area, as in 'The Blue Room', with its thinly-disguised reference to a late and not very lamented Windsor.

Perhaps the most powerful story in this collection, though, is the one that is hardest to categorise. 'Flowers of the Sea' is a moving account by a husband of his artist wife's decline in dementia. It contains some of the most disturbing imagery I've encountered in a modern weird tale, and culminates in a new variant on the classic horror story trope - the book so dreadful/magical that the reader can't look away. What makes it stand out is the way the story roots its terrible conceit in an utterly believable situation. The transition between the everyday and supernatural is seamless.

I haven't mentioned all the stories in The Sea of Blood here, but I hope I've conveyed some sense of what a wide-ranging and enjoyable collection it is. For anyone unfamiliar with Reggie Oliver's work, this is a must-have introductory volume. For established Oliver admirers it offers not only several new stories but also tales from some hard-to-obtain books. Dark Renaissance Books are to be congratulated for bringing out such a fine retrospective collection. 


Sandy Robertson said...
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Sandy Robertson said...

I am a dedicated fan of Reggie and have all his books, so mainly bought this book because it was stated to have several new stories. In fact, in the book itself it says there are three, but this is wrong - Absalom is not unpublished but was in the second Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows. So if you're new to this brilliant author by all means invest, but I'm pretty sure the two new tales will turn up in his next collection for Tartarus. By the way, I ordered from Dark Regions site 11 May and didn't get the book until the end of July!