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Review: Mrs Midnight And Other Stories / Author: Reggie Oliver / Publisher: Tartarus Press / Release Date: Out Now

Reggie Oliver has enjoyed considerable success as a playwright and biographer, but his first collection of short stories, The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini (2003), also revealed that he has a rare gift for tales of the uncanny. This, his fifth collection, confirms that he is one of the finest purveyors of the traditional ghost story working today.

Many of the tales enjoy a shabbily theatrical setting. In the title story, a TV celeb is roped by a girl he fancies into helping with the restoration of a derelict music hall, only to discover that the rotting hulk, home to dossers and junkies, harbours a grisly secret. Set in the early '80s, The Dancer in the Dark concerns Allan, a jobbing actor who lands a part in a tired drawing room drama written, directed by and starring a clique of superannuated has-beens known collectively as “the Oldies”. As the Oldies give vent to various long-held grudges and jealousies, Allan looks on, an appalled and helpless witness.

The scene shifts to Kenya in the 1970s for The Look, the tale of a brittle, gin-soaked plantation owner's wife which references the infamous Happy Valley murder case (subject of the film White Mischief), and to the Crimea in 1919 for The Philosophy of the Damned, where a bizarre theatrical troupe descends upon a seaside resort stranded by the tides of civil war.

Oliver handles these changes of period and locale with consummate ease, sketching in people and places with elegant, polished phrases that make him an absolute joy to read. He's a very funny writer, too, with a sharp eye for the crassness and absurdity of human behaviour – as in the lightest of these stories, The Giacometti Crucifixion, about the controversy stirred up by the Master of an Oxford College when he tries to install a piece of modern sculpture in their historic chapel.

In his world, the most bland, untroubled settings seem to be a breeding ground for sinister undercurrents. The impressive Meeting with Mike starts off as an almost Graham Greene-ish tale about a group of elderly aristos at a plush Swiss clinic before taking a sharp turn into weird science, while You Have Nothing to Fear channels the glamorous, country house vibe of a Jilly Cooper blockbuster as a posh photographer seduces and exploits an attractive model against a background of the early '70s pop art scene.

Genteel and civilised, certainly, but far from dry and dusty, this collection delights from beginning to end with its winning mix of sparkle and chills. Illustrated with vignettes by the author, it's a handsome-looking book, too, one that would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone fond of old school spookiness.


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