© Peter Coleborn
Reggie Oliver was educated at Eton and University College, Oxford, and has been a professional playwright, actor, and theatre director since 1975.
He has worked in radio, television, films, and theatre, both in the West End and outside London.
He has written about ghost stories for such journals as Supernatural Tales, All Hallows, Wormwood
for which he writes the regular "Under Review" column, and Weirdly Supernatural.
He lives in Suffolk.
Reggie Oliver on Wikipedia
Reggie Oliver is one of the most significant writers of supernatural fiction to have achieved prominence in the last ten to fifteen
years. Unusually, he came to the field from the direction of the English theatre -- an alumnus of Eton and of Oxford, he is a
distinguished playwright, noted for his farces, and a director and actor too. His "strange stories" (which often evoke life on and
behind the stage) are very much in the great tradition of the British ghostly tale, the lineage of M.R. James, Arthur Machen,
Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, and Robert Aickman. Indeed, Oliver is often considered the chief living exemplar of this
variety of the dark fantastic, his emphasis falling on narrative subtlety, richness of historical and literary allusion, and depth of
characterisation -- all in support of some of the most vivid and terrifying storytelling of recent times.
Reggie Oliver has concentrated on short fiction thus far; his stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. His collections
are The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini (2003), The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler (2005), Masques of Satan (2007),
Madder Mysteries (2009), Mrs Midnight (2011), and, recently released, Flowers of the Sea (2013), most of
these available from Tartarus Press (www.tartaruspress.com) in hardcover, paperback, or ebook editions. Centipede Press published
a gigantic retrospective volume in 2010: Dramas from the Depths. In the meantime Oliver's first
novel, The Dracula Papers: The Scholar's Tale (Chomu Press, 2011), shows an emerging brilliance at greater lengths; its
three projected sequels are eagerly awaited.
And a stand-alone novel, Virtue in Danger, has been issued by Zagava and Ex Occidente.
I interviewed Reggie Oliver by email in November 2013, focusing my questions on Flowers of the Sea.
Your new story collection, Flowers of the Sea, is, I think, very impressive, full of forceful writing, ominous atmosphere,
and memorable characters. How would you sum it up? Does it mark a new stage in your evolving oeuvre?
It marks a change in two respects: firstly, it is one in which I have mainly responded to calls for particular stories with particular
contexts -- e.g. Terror Tales of East Anglia. This has been a great stimulus and stretched me in unexpected ways. Secondly, I
have probed certain personal experiences in my life at the moment with what I believe to be unusual depth -- e.g.: dementia in the
title story and "Waving to the Boats."
As you've said, these two heartfelt stories in Flowers concern senile dementia and its effects both on sufferers and those
looking after them. There is a deep existential horror here, straight from life. How difficult was it to capture the symbolic
essence of Alzheimer's in these tales?
I have been living with this on a daily basis for the last six years. My wife has dementia. In a sense these stories have been
easiest to write, not because they are direct transcriptions of reality -- the imaginative, transformative parts of them have been
essential -- but because the mysteries of dementia preoccupy me on a daily basis. The chief mystery is simply in what sense is this
the person I have known and loved? Of course, it is an unanswerable question, but that is the point of writing about it as fiction.
The stories in Flowers of the Sea that have more or less contemporary settings seem very precisely observed as to physical
locations, social situations, and characterisations -- how directly are, say, the grotesque aunt in "Come into My Parlour," the
monstrous baronet in "Charm," and the mysterious Polish waiter in "The Posthumous Messiah" drawn from life, from actual people
They all have a starting point in real life, but they don't necessarily come from one person -- in fact they very rarely if ever
do. To give a very specific example the "monstrous baronet" (very apposite description) is based on a number of my brother's rather
awful friends, but one in particular whom I can name because he is dead, Sir Dai Llewellyn (brother of Roddy who was Princess
Margaret's lover). I also drew on a horrific anecdote I read somewhere about the late Lord Boothby and the Krays. It preyed on my
mind so that I felt I had to use it somehow.
Many of the stories in Flowers deliver quite scathing social judgements -- on the idle rich, on moral cowards, on men who
carry bullying tendencies and absurd habits of phrase acquired at school over into adulthood, and so forth. Are you writing both
supernatural (genre) fiction and "mainstream" socially critical fiction? Or is the distinction meaningless?
It's a good question. I've become aware from talking with them and reading interviews that most of my contemporaries in the
supernatural/horror genre have been mainly influenced in their writing by writers who have worked in that particular
genre, e.g. H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James et al. This is not so with me. Though I have read and profited from the classic writers of the
genre, the writers who have most influenced me are authors of mainstream fiction, e.g. Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, my aunt
Stella Gibbons and others, both older and more contemporary. Rather than "social criticism" I would call it "social and psychological
observation." I write in the supernatural genre because I am interested in the supernatural dimension of the social and
psychological. I hope I am not making moral judgements, merely observations. For example, where Sir Roddy (the "monstrous baronet")
is concerned, I am simply remarking -- as a pure matter of observation -- that if you use the power and privilege that you are born
with purely for your own gratification, you do inevitably end up "monstrous."
Your stories often involve theatrical settings and personalities, reflecting your background as dramatist and actor. You clearly
have great affection for the theatre, but dark cautionary notes are sounded concerning it in "Lightning" -- the stark dangers
facing ageing actors -- and in "The Posthumous Messiah": the frustrations implicit in adapting another writer's text for the
English stage. Is the macabre ever far away when acting and playwriting?
Not far away for a number of reasons. Firstly acting and the theatre often puts you in extreme and stressful situations. I have
always observed with fascination the extraordinarily complex dynamics of a resident repertory company or a company on tour. It
throws you together; it tears you apart; and there is always ambition and jealousy in the background. Secondly, the theatre is a
world of illusion and all performers have difficulty in making the distinction between the images they present and the reality
beneath. Such a tension is inherent in the theatrical world: it is part of its magic and its danger.
Some tales in Flowers proceed fairly straightforwardly as ghost stories -- or seem to, for a while, before you add a
bizarre, psychologically resonant twist, as in "The Spooks of Shellborough" and "Hand to Mouth." How do you devise these
elegant narrative surprises? Are they always implicit in a story's situation and plot, the only truly appropriate outcomes of them?
I have never been interested in writing a story that simply delivers a moment of "pleasing terror" without some further element
and so these "surprises" are not extraneous but integral to the process. The most succinct way of defining it is that I am looking
in these stories for a moment of illumination as well as a moment of fear, if possible a combined moment of illumination and
fear. By "illumination" I do not mean to say that everything becomes clear: it may be that such a moment only serves to deepen the
mystery. It is depth that I am after.
You've always had a particular flair for the historical macabre, and this is plentifully on display in Flowers: in the
Victorian Gothic of "A Child's Problem," the Georgian-era epistolary mischief of "Lord of the Fleas," the dark Mozartian
composition of "Sussmayr's Requiem." How did you develop this remarkable facility for evoking the detail, atmosphere and
diction of past eras? What for you is the particular satisfaction of this sort of writing?
This is really an extension of my fascination with acting. I have always loved writing and speaking in different voices, and
the voices of the past in particular. Learning parts in plays that come from a different era is a wonderful way of getting inside
the style and thought of that age. Some people imagine that our capacity for self-expression increases and widens with each
generation. This is not so. You can sometimes say things in seventeenth or eighteenth century English that would be practically
impossible to express in a contemporary idiom. This particularly applies to matters connected with the spiritual and
supernatural. Modern scepticism has eroded our powers of expression in this area. Think of modern liturgy compared with
the 1662 Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible. The past can be very liberating. To give an example, it would be much
more difficult to make the religious apocalyptic imagery of "Sussmayr's Requiem" real in a modern setting.
Another striking historically-informed story is "Singing Blood," which anatomises the psychology of mass murderers and thus of
Nazism. What suggested to you the stark symbolic staging of this meditation on evil, with its three emblematic figures? Could a
one act play perhaps emerge?
A play is an interesting idea. The stimulus of this story, apart from an interest in the Weimar era, was Hannah Arendt's famous
reflection on "the banality of evil" in her book about Eichmann. I both agree and disagree with her. Where I disagree with her is
in her notion that psychopathic evil is somehow separable from the banal "functionary" evil of a man like Eichmann. The serial
killer in the story is as much a product of his times as Eichmann. (The character in the story, Fleischer, is based on a number
of serial killers, mainly Peter Kurten and Fritz Haarmann, in the Weimar era, as well as, tangentially, Hitler himself.) Both
Fleischer and Eichmann are men whose moral reasoning has been skewed by their times and their own will and instincts. So
evil in itself is not banal, but it infects the banal.
Several of the pieces in Flowers specifically address the storytelling techniques of previous masters of
the "strange story": M.R. James in "Between Four Yews", Robert Aickman in "Didman's Corner." How regularly is your work in dialogue
with the overall tradition of supernatural fiction? Are the ghosts of writers such as James, Aickman, de la Mare, Blackwood, and
Arthur Machen always whispering in your ear?
I love their work: in particular I love and try to reflect their richness. All these writers, in their very different ways, were men
of wide reading, culture and experience, and this is reflected in the depth of their work. It is a richness that you do not always
find in contemporary workers in the genre, fine writers though many of them are. If I am "in dialogue" with your list, it is
because they have more to say. Not that my outlook on life isn't different from theirs.
Your illustrations for your stories lend them further power and meaning -- this is very much the case in Flowers of the Sea. When
did you begin producing drawings to accompany your writings? And what is the precise relationship between these images and your words?
They came about because my first publisher, Christopher Barker, suggested some sort of image, perhaps borrowed, to go with each
story of my first volume of tales, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini. I decided to try to produce the images myself. These first
attempts were not very good and have been entirely replaced by new ones in the Tartarus reprint of that book. I always do the
illustrations long after I have finished the story, when I am compiling a volume of them. The purpose is never to illustrate a
particular incident in the story, more to reflect its mood. Often they represent the central image which inspired the story in
the first place. This is most obviously the case with "A Child's Problem" whose chief inspiration was a painting by Richard
Dadd. But the drawing is not a simple copy of the painting. The central figures are slightly differently skewed and the
background is totally altered. In general, rather than "illustrations," I would prefer to call them "illuminations." This
sounds a bit pretentious but it does more accurately reflect their function. I love doing them, because I can listen to music
while drawing which I can't while writing.
More generally: in addition to publishing Flowers of the Sea and your fifth collection, Mrs. Midnight, Tartarus Press
has been reissuing your four earlier collections in trade paperback and ebook editions. These Tartarus volumes are beautifully
designed and produced -- what do you think of the Tartarus aesthetic, its plain elegance?
To me, the Tartarus editions are absolutely perfect in every way. The Tartarus aesthetic is absolutely in tune with what I am
trying to do. They are classic in the sense of being elegant without ostentatious flamboyance. I love the sense that these are
the kind of volumes that every serious book lover would want to have on her or his shelves.
What's next for you? I know you're producing plenty of good stories that have yet to be collected -- for
example, "He Who Beheld the Darkness" in Exotic Gothic 5, with its wonderful evocation of ancient Sumeria in the context
of the Iraq War. Is the second volume of The Dracula Papers in prospect?
Many things are in prospect. There are some new stories, some written, some commissioned and in the head. The second volume of
The Dracula Papers is plotted and in the early stages of writing; there is a quarter-completed novella commissioned
by PS Publishing; there is an illustrated book in verse for Zagava Press à la Edward Gorey the verses for which I have
written but whose drawings I have yet to do, Centipede is asking to do a book of all my illustrations, and the actress and
director Maria Aitken wants me to write a farce in the style of Feydeau for her next year. No pressure, then.
Copyright © 2013 Nick Gevers
Nick Gevers is an editor and critic who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. His author interviews, book reviews, and
critical articles have appeared in Locus, Locus Online, The Washington Post Book World,
Interzone, Infinity Plus, Foundation, Nova Express, SF Weekly,
SF Site, Subterranean Online, and elsewhere. He has edited or co-edited various story anthologies,
the most recent, Ghosts by Gaslight (2011, with Jack Dann), winning Shirley Jackson and Aurealis Awards for best
anthology. Nick is senior editor at PS Publishing (www.pspublishing.co.uk).