Reggie Oliver's Madder Mysteries Reviewed

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In Reggie Oliver's newest short story collection Madder Mysteries, published earlier this year by the upstart Ex Occidente Press, the author once again proves himself one of the finest living writers of the weird tale. In addition to eight new stories, the book is a treasure chest of Oliver's other writings, including essays on other writers of supernatural fiction and a section of entertaining vignettes entitled "Oliver's Cabinet of Curiosities." In previous collections, Oliver showcased a rare ability to construct an atmosphere of the weird while maintaining believable characters. Madder Mysteries is further evidence of this excellent quality, but also contains new experiments that will arguably enhance his profile in weird fiction even more.

The first section of the book contains Oliver's newest uncollected stories. Each is a portrait not only of the writer's own unique style, but of the favorable qualities in his tales often compared to previous masters of the ghost story like M.R. James and Robert Aickman. Theater drama melds with the strange phenomena in many stories--something Reggie Oliver himself can portray with pristine accuracy, given his long career on various stages--and as in his previous collection (Masques of Satan from Ash-Tree Press), serves as a chilling environment for just about any reader, whether they are fond of performance arts or not. Though every story is well worth reading in this collection, there are still tales that rose above others and met with a higher degree of stunning alignment with the weird aesthetic.

"Baskerville's Midgets" is one such story. Here, Oliver bombards us with multiple weird elements. A lonely old woman intimately tied with stage performers intersects with a troupe of odd little men and a brooding atmosphere of dread. In fact, the unease generated by Oliver's descriptions of the midgets is so powerful that the reader is already well into being startled before any supernatural element arrives at all. The refined marriage of physical deformity with Jamesian spectral horror creates a surprisingly eerie story. Doubly surprising, perhaps, because appearance of the midgets and their sinister little jokes would seem likely in other circumstances to induce humor rather than horror.

Oliver's story "The Head" begins with a man haunted by the disembodied head of an elderly benefactor. Without giving too much away, both the ghost and the haunted have good reason for being what they are. The story concludes on a climactic note, and by some indefinable trickery, Oliver is at his best here. In my opinion, the narrator's descent into darkness and insanity is effectively one of the swiftest seen in weird fiction, easily ranking with other notable cases like the conclusions of Robert W. Chambers "The Repairer of Reputations" or Thomas Ligotti's "The Bungalow House."

"The Devil's Funeral" is an unsettling tale that creatively combines dark imagery with the creeping intellectual nihilism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fearful decline of old constants like Satan and the rise of uncertain ideas such as Darwinism are wrapped up by Reggie Oliver in a cloak of baffling weird imagery. Oddly, this story is said to have been inspired by documents from one of Oliver's own ancestors, so it speaks with a touch of personal curiosity toward one's own origins as well. "The Devil's Number" must be mentioned here as well. In this story, Oliver takes the persona of the legendary Casanova, who encounters a mysterious figure of keen interest to the historic playboy. A major ability of Reggie Oliver sparkles in both of these stories. Although not often compared to H.P. Lovecraft--and for good reason, as their content is so different--the two weird writers do share one important commonality: a learned knowledge of history that truly makes their stories breathe with authenticity. Whether Oliver is describing old Anglican church customs or imitating Casanova, he uses historical knowledge convincingly and creatively.

Finally, Reggie Oliver's attempt at completing M.R. James' story "The Game of Bear" must be mentioned. With the blessings of James' literary estate, Oliver put his hand to finishing this story fragment left behind by the early 20th century titan of ghostly yarns--and how! His description of creepy little children's rhymes in this piece is particularly notable. Mr. Purdue, tormented by the ghastly appearances of his cousin, sweeps her aside with the characteristically cruel hand displayed in certain tales by M.R. James himself. Later, Purdue finds a collection of unsettling rhymes among his relative's belongings that imply a grave punishment awaits that is strangely connected with the Game of Bear of the story's title. While the ending is predictable, it is still delivered with the anxious force of a M.R. James work.

The second part of Oliver's book is a collection of essays. While certain figures like Stella Gibbons and Jules Charnier are near unknowns to me, I still found enjoyment reading through the author's insightful analysis. Scholarship on M.R. James, Henry James, and Montague Summers is also found here. A dramatic departure in tone from his fiction, the essays are still a delight to read for anyone interested in weird scholarship of the sort usually featured by S.T. Josh or in the old small press journal "Ghosts and Scholars."

The final section of Madder Mysteries is like a bonus tacked onto the end of an already satisfying journey. "Oliver's Cabinet of Curiosities" is drawn from his collection of century old periodicals, which often featured weird little snippets of the type written and illustrated here. Out of control beards and trees, drowsing figures in portraits, disappearing schools, and jocular demons are a few of the "curiosities" to be found here. Each vignette is far more lighthearted and whimsical than the long tales in the first part of the book. All in all, this segment can be described as good fun, or as an appropriate desert delivered at the close of an impressive banquet.

As with all of Reggie Oliver's books, a last cautionary note needs to be added: don't wait too long deciding whether or not to purchase this collection. Madder Mysteries is limited to only about 400 copies, and stands a good chance of being snapped up quicker than any hitherto collection by the author. While it wouldn't be surprising to see some pieces from this book reprinted with selections from other Oliver collections in a larger paperback one day--his rising profile in horror all but assures it--only attentive admirers of the weird will move swiftly to grab copies of this rich first edition. As further incentive, the book itself is a handsome hardcover, with art for every work inside well illustrated by Reggie Oliver himself. It is the type of collectible that will easily be selling for obscene amounts of money in a few years, much like Oliver's first two books. It's good enough, smart enough, and important enough to say just read it already, and leave it at that.

-Grim Blogger

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