‘The Ballet of Dr Caligari’ by Reggie Oliver

Readers of this parish will be aware that Reggie Oliver is pretty much my favourite ghost story writer. Although he is certainly not obscure within the horror scene, I think he deserves to be much better known and I hold out a fond hope that one day he will become a bestselling blockbuster author or possibly be made Prime Minister. In the meantime, he’s engaged in a fruitful collaboration with Tartarus Press, who in addition to putting out his previously unavailable earlier collections have also published fine paperback and hardback editions of his new work.

Their most recent Oliver offering, The Ballet of Dr Caligari, is both old and new, a cut-and-shunt job of the six best stories from his third collection, Madder Mysteries (which also contained essays and suchlike), and an “And More” section of 7 new stories.

I never managed to get my hands on Madder Mysteries, so you can imagine how welcome this collection was to me. In fact, these stories only take up a third of the book in terms of page count, but several of them are very fine. I believe the most often anthologized one is ‘A Donkey At The Mysteries’, about a rather innocent young traveller who gets entangled with the past on a Greek island that is home to a particularly grim mystery cult. This theme puts Oliver right at home at Tartarus, whose Strange Tales anthologies have often been good for bit of Greco-Roman unease (John Gaskin’s ‘From Lydia With Love and Laughter’ and Matt Leyshon’s ‘The Komboloi’, for instance) and it also harks back to earlier supernatural writing such as John Buchan’s terrific novel The Dancing Floor and Sarban’s ‘Capra’, although Oliver’s methods are slightly less direct than those earlier writers. The atmosphere of sunlit threat and modern evil amid the ancient ruins is very effective.

With ‘The Head’ we move from archaeology to art, although here again Oliver’s deployment of cultural references (especially modern painting) is very deft and credible, and lends an extra frisson to the basic plot. The bare (and bloody!) bones of this story could have made for just another hackneyed old Amicus film rip-off, but the result is quite other. The premise of an ambitious young chauffeur who develops a mutually beneficial relationship with a rich and moribund art dealer allows plenty of scope for Oliver’s dissection of the British class system, which is second to none. The notes of psychological degeneration and nightmare are very well handled too.

‘The Devil’s Funeral’ is a fantastic story about the filth-caked underbelly of the privileged way of life enjoyed by the made men of Oxbridge and other august seats of learning. It starts out like any number of Jamesian ghost stories, with a cache of old letters, and diary entries hinting at dark goings-on among the clergy of Morchester (Oliver’s fictional cathedral town) and a hint of regional folklore to add spice to the epistolary structure. Oliver is currently unsurpassed at this sort of thing and he’s on absolutely top form here. But what makes him a great rather than just a good writer is that he is never content to just turn in a quaint period piece, and is every bit as keen to embrace the modern world as MR James was in his time. More, even, if we’re talking social issues, and the social issues that give this story it’s oomph are as topical as they come. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but this is my favourite story in the collection and it’s almost impossible to praise it too highly.

Oddly enough I was less impressed by ‘The Game of Bear’, which is half written by MR James himself and half finished by Oliver. It’s certainly not a bad story, and I can’t think of anyone better qualified for the job. In terms of style I couldn’t see the join where James left off and Oliver began, and it also features one of my favourite ghost story tropes, the sadistic old childrens’ book. The end result just lacked a bit of punch when compared to the solo efforts of both James and Oliver.

The remaining couple of stories (‘Tawny’ and ‘Baskerville’s Midgets’) are exercises in macabre which didn’t appeal to me so much (and the latter story is very hard on the sensibilities of dog lovers!) so I won’t go into them.

The second half of the book is dominated by theatre stories: although only four of them feature this theme, two of those are very long. Oliver, a professional thespian, does a lot of tales set in and around the stage and they can be very good, but most of this lot aren’t great. ‘The Vampyre Trap’ is an excessively long detective story which is surprisingly “cosy” compared to his usual writing. ‘The Final Stage’ consists of an actor grappling with his identity and family background as conveyed largely through dream scenes, and although it is readable I found my attention wandering at times. Another story here, ‘The Ballet of Dr. Caligari’, is a pacier and more engrossing exploration of the theme of identity under fire, and should please fans of music and film alike.

I’ve held forth on ‘Love and Death’ in my recent review of Best British Horror 2018, so I won’t go into that here, and in any case it’s only tangentially about theatre, being more of an art story really. This section’s other painting number, ‘Lady With a Rose’, is better, an absorbing cocktail of sex, murder and Italian history that hits similar notes to some of Vernon Lee’s stories like ‘Amour Dure’ and ‘Oke of Okehurst’. Once again Oliver manages to display his knowledge of art without “showing off”.

My favourite stories of this section, however, were the ones that don’t really fit with these prevailing themes of art and drama. ‘Porson’s Piece’ is that rare thing, a ghost story starring a philosopher, and a dry-as-dust one at that, if I’m right in thinking he’s modelled on the likes of A J Ayers. The story, however, is a succulent piece of folk horror given that also deals with our fear and curiosity about the afterlife. Although not technically about fairies it has the kind of fey and sweetly dissonant mood embodied by the Nico song ‘Lawns of Dawns’ and certain scenes in the film ‘Valerie and her Week of Wonders’.

‘The Endless Corridor’ is even better. I’ve read tonnes of ghost stories about haunted mirrors, but still managed to be impressed and frankly quite freaked out by this one. This collection is haunted by the concept of the self and the forces that threaten it, and the theme finds its most chilling expression here.  The rustic Spanish monastery in which most of the action is set also pleases in the midst of quite a few stories set in indoor Britain.

A sterling collection, then, and Oliver’s writing has got the treatment it deserves from Tartarus Press – I only got the paperback edition but it’s still handsome, and each story is illustrated with an etching by Oliver himself. I probably don’t need to add that The Ballet of Dr. Caligari is a real bargain for all lovers of the classic ghost story and modern horror alike, especially if you care about style, and it also serves as reassurance that Oliver hasn’t undergone any kind of quality slump since writing Madder Mysteries!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s