Reggie Oliver: The Art of the Short Story

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FATA LIBELLI: You are a stage actor and playwright, as well as a short-story writer and occasionally a novelist. It is clear that you have always been inclined to storytelling, but which one of those vocations were your first inclined to pursue?

REGGIE OLIVER: Acting was my first love and I have been, alongside writing and directing, a professional actor now for almost forty years. I have done a one man show based on two of my stories and, whenever I am given the opportunity, I love to read my work aloud to an audience. I can remember telling ghost stories to fellow pupils in my dormitory at school at a very young age. I take heart from the fact that Charles Dickens, a writer whom I have loved from the first, had a similar urge to identify story writing with story telling. His last years were mostly devoted to performing extracts of his work to vast crowds. It undoubtedly brought about his early death, but I wouldn’t mind going that way!

FL: When you started writing stories, was it horror-weird-strange stories that you wanted to write?

RO: I never set out to write in any particular genre or style; I simply had certain stories to tell and certain things to say about the world as I saw it, and the work produced happened to fall conveniently into the category of weird or strange fiction.

FL: Ok, the inevitable question to ask, for those who are not familiar with your work. You have cited M.R. James as one of your major influences, and also Robert Aickman, if I remember correctly. Besides those two, who are your favourite authors, past and present? And what influences other than literary inspire your fiction?

RO: In weird fiction I am a great admirer of many classic writers in the genre. If I had to pick out one, apart from those you mention, it would be Walter de la Mare. He is today perhaps best known for his poetry, in particular his sublimely creepy poem “The Listeners”. However, he was a great short story writer and deserves to rank alongside, Chekhov, Maupassant and Kipling as one of the supreme masters of the short form. Most of his best tales have something of the strange and supernatural about them (the same incidentally applies, if to a slightly lesser extent, to Kipling, Maupassant and Chekhov): “All Hallows”, “Mr Kempe”, “Crewe”, “Seton’s Aunt” and “A Recluse” are among his finest. Other writers important to my formation as a writer are playwrights such as Pinter and Ayckbourn, Dickens of course, Saki, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. Finally I was greatly influenced by my aunt the novelist and poet Stella Gibbons whose biography I wrote and who encouraged my writing at an important early stage.

FL: Weird fiction has been described as a reaction against the clichés of its near cousin, gothic fiction. In fact, Lovecraft, the coiner of the term, stated that weird fiction “has something more than secret murder, bloody bones or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule”. Now it is used to describe the fiction of Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell, and most recently Quentin S. Crisp’s, Mark Samuels’ and yours. I don’t know if you agree with that interpretation, but, if so, do you feel that it still maintains connotations of reacting against a trend or, at least, of distinguishing itself from other, more commercial fiction? Or, on the contrary, is it some commercial label for those who simply want to read something different? Maybe a combination of both?

RO: Labels and categorie are annoying to most writers because they are used by critics and academics to put writers in convenient little boxes. On the other hand they can be useful because these boxes, labelled crime, SF, horror, gothic draw certain readers who want to know what they are letting themselves in for, and that is not a discreditable thing in itself. The term “horror” as applied to a particular literary genre does not bother me. I am more than happy to have my work included in “horror” anthologies of various kinds, but I do think that the word sometimes constricts the expectation of the reader. Anyone looking for a diet of “raw head and bloody bones,” mutilation, torture, sexual abuse and the like in my work should apply elsewhere. I don’t shy away from horrific incident, shock and awe, but my chief interest is in the metaphysical dimension. If I were to find my own label, I would use the one which that fascinating if flawed writer Charles Williams applied to his novels: he called them “spiritual shockers”. I like that, so let’s say I write Spiritual Shockers! As for “gothic”, I would describe my novel The Dracula Papers as gothic fiction, as it was very much written as a modern take on the gothic tradition of Mrs Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Beckford’s Vathek and, M. G. Lewis, author of The Monk, a particular favourite of mine.

Reggie Oliver by Anthony Christian

Reggie Oliver by Anthony Christian

FL: They often say to authors, amateur or professional, that they should get out of their “comfort zone”, explore new territories, to be original, but you dedicate a great deal of effort in exploring the possibilities of a genre in particular. What are the difficulties of writing in a tradition which, apparently, has very rigid structures like the “ghost story”, and even more specifically, the tradition of M.R. James and Robert Aickman?

RO: I don’t think that either M.R. James or Robert Aickman saw themselves as working within rigid structures, or if they did it was because they invented new structures for themselves. No-one before M.R. James wrote ghost stories like his, though many have imitated him subsequently. The same applies to Aickman. He too has his imitators. Though I have written pastiches of M.R. James I have never really imitated him. There is an important distinction: I have used his style occasionally, but consciously and for very different purposes of my own. In my own small way I too may have contributed something new to the genre. This talk of “comfort zones” as far as I am concerned is nonsense. As a writer I am in my own zone and it is far from comfortable.

FL: In The Guardian the commentator said the status of the crime and SF genres is being raised by great modern writers, but that horror wasn’t able to renew itself. Do you feel it really needs renewing?

RO: The Guardian commentator is an ignoramus. Any writers who write well in a genre renew it because they are making their own individual contribution to it. There are many writers of “horror” who are of the first quality and have something to say. Of course there are some writers in the field who are prominent and well-publicised but not very good. (I will not name them.) There are others, perhaps less well known and obviously completely unknown to the Guardian, who are to horror fiction what, say, P. D. James and Ian Rankin are to crime fiction. Again, I won’t name them, but we know who we are.

FL: Nina Allan answered to the article quite eloquently saying that that was both true and false. True because there was certainly a lot of bad fiction in horror (as in any other genre, I’d dare say) but false in the sense that, if you’re reading bad horror, maybe you are reading the wrong things. Besides, she added an interesting point arguing that one of the problems with horror is that many writers focused too much on being scary and less on character and narrative. And indeed, your fiction is not just concerned with “giving the creeps” it has interesting characters, elegant and eloquent prose, irony and sense of humour. In your view, which would be the right balance between atmosphere, characterisation and plot for a good weird story to be written?

RO: Incidentally, well said, Nina Allan, a writer whom I greatly admire. Yes, character, narrative, style all have their part to play in strange fiction and I am happy to be acclaimed for those things. However, to me the supreme ingredient is atmosphere and all those other elements must be contributors towards it. This is not necessarily about being directly “scary” so much as evoking a mood that will bring about in the reader a sense of wonder, unease and deep reflection about the underlying nature of the universe no less. Many of the most acclaimed stories in the genre have been all but exclusively concerned with this elusive thing called atmosphere: think of “The Turn of the Screw”, “The White People”, “All Hallows” and Algernon Blackwood’s one indisputable little masterpiece “The Willows.” To which I might add Maupassant’s “The Horla” and Chekhov’s “The Black Monk.”

FL: Also, one may think that humour is very far away from horror, but that is certainly not the case. Robert Shearman is another contemporary example of how to combine humour and fear in a single story. And there’s the tradition of the grotesque too. Humour is very present in your collections, for instance in “The tiger in the snow”, in which you take a satirical approach to modern art, or in “Mrs Midnight”, where certain aspects of contemporary culture are mocked. Sometimes this sardonic gaze seems to be morally related to the punishment awaiting some of your protagonists. In your view, what can humour add to a weird story?

RO: Humour to me is not an ingredient or a condiment that you add like salt to a dish, it is an essential part of my approach to life and art. The writer Anthony Powell rather controversially wrote that writers like Dickens and Dostoevsky were more truly “real” than supposedly more “realistic” writers like Tolstoy because many of their characters are grotesques, and people are grotesque in real life. (Powell himself created Widmerpool in his “Dance to the Music of Time” a character who is both grotesque and utterly, convincingly real.) Humour is the conscious expression of a realisation that there exists a gap between human illusion and reality. Because of this, no truly serious writer can lack a sense of humour, but that should not preclude compassion. We should be aware of the “vanity of human wishes” and the emptiness of most human achievement, but this should not prevent us from feeling sad about it. “Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel,” wrote Horace Walpole. To a writer it should be both tragedy and comedy, and often simultaneously. “Mrs Midnight” does contain some satirical reflections on, among other things, modern celebrity culture. But I don’t need to make that grotesque; it is grotesque!

FL: You have a great ear for dialogue and you do a very good job in creating a sense of place with narrative voice. While in novels you may find other ways of presenting your characters, in short fiction having the ability to describe a character through his or her own statements is an inestimable virtue. Is it something that comes out naturally for you after having learnt the craft of playwriting?

RO: Yes, and acting. My way of inventing or rather “finding” a character is almost invariably through speech. I often go for long walks in the country when I am working out a story and find myself talking in the language and accent of the narrator or the characters. It is the same when I am acting a character on stage. Of course, in that case I have the lines already, but I still need to find the voice.

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FL: Speaking of novels. You have a new novel out now, Virtue in Danger, a novel about cults and religion, and you have published the first part of The Dracula Papers, an exploration of the figure that inspired Bram Stoker’s classic. What differences do you find between writing short stories and novels?

RO: My tendency has been towards the form of the longer short story or the novella in which there are several “acts” but where a single theme or image can be held to without tiring out the reader. In my two novels The Dracula Papers and Virtue in Danger I have created a world, a microcosm, in which the events occur. In the case of Virtue in Danger I have created quite a narrow and circumscribed world – the headquarters in Switzerland of a religious “cult” – but to populate it I have created a large cast of characters and a wide range of action from tragic to farcical. The short story is the most powerful medium for evoking a mood, an atmosphere, a character. In the longer form of the novel that mood or atmosphere becomes dissipated or simply too oppressive for the reader. The novel needs to be a symphony with varying themes and textures provided by a wide variety of instruments; the short story can be a piano solo or a piece of chamber music.

FL: And one last question. At one point, the narrator in “Mrs Midnight” asks himself what is it with some people and Jack the Ripper. I would also add and the whole Victoriana thing. Well, I’m curious –do you have an answer?

RO: For me it is very simple. My mother was born in 1915 and her mother (whom I never knew) was born in 1870. My grandfather (whom I remember well) was a clergyman and was born in 1874. I was brought up by people imbued with traditional Victorian tastes and values and I was infected with some of them myself. Victorian art and literature is, in one sense, very close to me, and yet it is also very remote, separated from me by two world wars and a massive advance in technology, as well as that movement in art loosely known as “modernism”. It is that irreconcilable contrast of closeness and remoteness that stimulates and fascinates me. More generally, the whole “Jack the Ripper” myth is emblematic of what is characteristic of every society, but of Victorian society more than most: a crust of respectability and dull propriety covering a seething sewer of degradation and corruption.

FL: Thank you, Reggie for taking the time of answering this interview. Feel free to add here any other thoughts that you would like to share.

RO: Thank you. As an encore, here are some thoughts on writing and art gathered from my “commonplace book”, a private collection of quotations that I have kept and added to over the years.

  1. “Art is a corner of Nature seen through a temperament.” EMILE ZOLA (1840-1902)
  2. “Continuity is the essence of beauty. There is no such thing as absolute beauty, absolute taste, and if there is, no one generation can see it.” A.C.BENSON (1862-1925) (Diaries, August 1901)
  3. “If we have no appetite for the idiosyncrasies of minor personalities, then we must fight shy of the novel.” CYRIL CONNOLLY (1903-1974)
  4. “Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality… The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, of an improvement. Nor need the work be optimistic to achieve this; indeed, its subject may be tragic. For it is not the subject that makes the promise, it is the artist’s way of viewing his subject.” JOHN BERGER (b. 1926)
  5. “There is no such thing as the True. There are only ways of seeing. Is a photograph a likeness? No more so than an oil painting… Down with schools whatever they may be! Down with words empty of sense! Down with academics, poetics and principles!” GUSTAVE FLAUBERT (1821-1880) (in a letter to the writer Hennique)
  6. “Treat a work of art like a prince: let it speak to you first.” ARTHUR Schopenhauer (1788-1860)