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IN-PRINT TITLE INFORMATION
MASQUES OF SATAN
Twelve Tales and a Novella
by Reggie Oliver
978-1-55310-101-7; x + 230pp
Limited to 500 copies
Published December 2007
PRICE: Cdn$49.00 / US$49.00 / £29.00 (Postage Code B)
IN HIS FIRST TWO collections of supernatural tales, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, and The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler, playwright, actor, and theatre director Reggie Oliver demonstrated his mastery of the classic ghost story. Now, in his eagerly anticipated third collection, Masques of Satan, Oliver shows why he is being hailed as one of the best and freshest new voices to emerge in the genre in recent years.
Many of the tales in the collection draw on the author's theatrical background, and in such stories as 'Mmm-Delicious', 'Puss-Cat', 'Blind Man's Box', 'Grab a Granny Night', 'Mr Poo-Poo', 'The Road from Damascus', and the stunning novella 'Shades of the Prison House' he takes us backstage into a world of easy friendship and a surface glamour which conceals something much more dark and desperate. Oliver's talent for pastiche shines in 'The Silver Cord', which won the Arthur Machen Short Story Competition, while 'The Children of Monte Rosa' turns a friendly invitation to a holiday villa into something deeply disturbing.
All of these tales, as well as the four others collected in this volume, makes Masques of Satan Oliver's richest and most satisfying book to date, one that deserves to be on the shelf of every reader who appreciates fine writing and is searching for chills as literate as they are frightening.
Illustrations by Reggie Oliver accompany each story.
The Man in the Grey Bedroom
Grab a Granny Night
The Children of Monte Rosa
The Silver Cord
The Road from Damascus
The Old Silence
Music by Moonlight
Blind Man's Box
Shades of the Prison House, a novella
The End of History
Review of MASQUES OF SATAN by Jim Rockhill:
If I were to open this review by stating that Reggie Oliver’s fiction has become more accomplished and more sophisticated with each collection, I would be lying. The man’s narrative skill, gift for characterization, and insight into the human psyche were already fully evident in his first published story, “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” (Weirdly Supernatural, Winter 2001/2002). Two years later, the fifteen stories in his first collection, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, and Other Strange Stories (The Haunted River, 2003), exhibited a profusion of ideas and narrative techniques, an enviable ability to evoke different eras and locations, an effective balance of terror with pathos, and an array of finely drawn characters all treated with rare assurance, and each bearing a profound emotional charge. The stories in the author’s second collection, The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler (The Haunted River, 2005), may have seemed a trifle chillier emotionally than his first due to the relentlessness with which the author pursued the complications and consequences of the ideas prompting them; but it would be a mistake to view this as a limitation, because rather than being content to leave his readers with the vicarious thrill of watching distant characters fumble to their doom, Oliver’s focus on his characters’ struggles to surmount the forces arrayed against them cast the implications of his concepts in sharp relief, lending them a lingering, haunting quality reminiscent of Le Fanu and Aickman, two authors whose work is otherwise widely divergent in both scope and tone. The present gathering of “Twelve Tales and a Novella” has all the hallmarks of his first two collections, and is just as successful as its predecessors.
One element of Oliver’s writing I failed to mention in the previous paragraph is his wit: very urbane, very dry, and yet often very funny—some of the dialogue and asides in the eerie advertising satire “Mmm-Delicious” and the battle between debased glamour and commercialized spiritualism in “The Old Silence” had me laughing out loud. Oliver’s career in the theater as actor and playwright has doubtless had an effect on his unfailingly convincing dialogue, but does not wholly account for the unusual skill with which he integrates dialogue into his stories so that the exchanges between characters are entertaining in themselves while continuing to contribute to the effect of the whole. Wit appears throughout his stories, adding dimension to the characters; highlighting conflicts between one character and another; anticipating and thereby undercutting the reader’s incipient outraged disbelief; providing an ironic undercurrent to events which might otherwise seem overwhelmingly bleak; and at times, as with Bierce, injecting a note of sudden, enlightening cruelty into proceedings. The dramatic irony undercutting the pretensions of the narrator in this collection’s “The Road from Damascus” is handled with particular dexterity, but it creates a welcome correction in perspective whenever it appears, and like his employment of wit accents rather than diminishes the essential seriousness of these works.
Oliver states in his “Introductory”, that his stories are “not divertissements”:
“. . . I have become convinced that to write ghost stories of lasting merit it is necessary to believe in the possibility of eternal damnation. . . . The protagonists of the supernatural tale at its best need to be playing for the highest stakes conceivable. . . . I write what I write, because it is the best way of saying what I want to say about what matters to me most.”
This may lead the reader to expect supernatural fiction similar to Russell Kirk’s, yet the Hells created by Oliver’s characters are much less determined by Judeo-Christian theology than they are by individual psychology, and the dyed-black villain is a rarity in his fiction. In Oliver’s world, cupidity, stupidity, jealousy, lust, fanaticism, boorishness, and any of the other faults and frailties that afflict us are just as damning as the egregious sins indulged in by Kirk’s villains. If there is a Purgatory in Oliver’s world, as there is in Kirk’s, it is limited to those, like Marcus Waterbury in “The Road from Damascus” (a reexamination of Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner” set during the 1970s) and Lancelot Jones in the splendid Machen tribute “The Silver Chord”, who recognize where their current life is leading them, and choose another path. “The unexamined life is a life not worth living”, Socrates tells us, but it can also be the path to destruction. Thus, it is Protheroe’s and Roddy’s callousness that lead them to their encounters with “The Man in the Grey Bedroom” and “Puss-Cat” respectively; though it is simple, unthinking lust and a false friend which lead Tim into a Carnival of Souls in “Grab a Granny Night”. One’s vantage point may also make a difference, as witness the carefully examined yet willfully misunderstood life of the unreliable narrator in the novella “Shades of the Prison House”.
Centuries after Socrates, Milton’s Satan declared that “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”, and if you happen to stand between “Mr Poo-Poo” and his wife, you will discover that some minds are capable of placing Hell wherever they please. Other minds have anchored a Hell of their own making within narrower precincts, such as the grounds and garden containing the most interesting artifacts from the old couple’s macabre and obscene collection in “The Children of Monte Rosa” or the true nature of the malign dweller in the “Blind Man’s Box” pieced together from a myriad scraps of oral and written testimony. Personal experience and lack of preconceptions may also vouchsafe a vision less reassuring than it was to others who heard “Music by Moonlight”.
Personal experience also plays an unanticipated role in “The End of History”, a science fiction story that explores the usages mankind makes of knowledge, memory, and imagination.
Oliver’s first two collections revealed a commanding presence, fully in control of his materials, open to challenges, and capable of bringing any idea that charged his imagination to vivid, disturbing life. His third collection is a confirmation of that remarkable talent, hinting at neither fatigue nor any desire to slacken into a less thought-provoking mode of story-telling. Whether I have to wait two years or ten, I am already looking forward to reading his next book
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