Shadow Plays by Reggie Oliver. Book review

SHADOW PLAYS by Reggie Oliver, Egaeus Press 2012 , hardcover £ 30.00

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

Reggie Oliver’s astonishing debut collection “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” was published in 2003 by the now defunct Haunted River press, followed, two years later, but the equally phenomenal collection “ The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler” from the same imprint.

Since then Oliver has established himself as one of the very best contemporary authors of dark tales or, as he prefers to call them, “strange stories”. Many of his stories are set in the world of theatre which, Oliver being primarily a playwright and an actor, doesn’t come as a surprise. And since life on stage is fictional and the theatrical environment  is a real melting pot of talents, ambitions and jealousies , it provides the ideal setting for the development of odd events of horrific or even supernatural nature.

Producing accomplished work, however, requires many  qualities as an author and Oliver possesses them all. He’s endowed with a fertile imagination and a superb writing technique. He’s a terrific storyteller who can write in a classy, elegant yet powerful narrative style, creating perfectly drawn characters and enticing plots.

Oliver’s first two collections are out of print and currently unobtainable unless you’re prepared to buy them at second-hand bookstores at outrageous prices.  Egaeus Press must therefore be commended for reprinting a selection (made by the author himself) of stories from those elusive volumes.

Although all the tales are remarkable in their own way, some really stand out as unforgettable.

“Miss Marchant’s Cause” is a spellbinding supernatural story of madness and possession revolving around the murderous character of the deceased superintendent of an asylum for the insane.

The splendid “The Boy In Green Velvet” features a disquieting toy theatre and a  very disreputable play, while the intriguing, gripping “The Golden Basilica” is about the quest for  an elusive book.

In the extraordinary “The Time of Blood” dark secrets of the cloister are revealed, while the prophecies of a nun cast disturbing shadows on the future. By contrast the entertaining “The Blue Room” blends the traditional setting of the haunted room with a peculiar touch of eroticism.

In the outstanding “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” we witness the horrors of the Inquisition, the dark side of faith and the continuous battle of the Church against the dangers of heresy.

The volume also includes the previously unpublished play “Love Unknown” featuring an insightful portrait of MR James and the academic world around him (including his friends AC Benson and Oscar Browning). James’ passion for one of his pupils and the subsequent disappointment for the young man’s marriage and the pain for his death are effectively and perceptively represented.

In short, a remarkable book not to be missed.