Taghorror

Eden Book Society: Holt House

The Eden Book Society was a private subscription publisher founded in 1919. For almost a century, it published horror novellas, always under pseudonyms. Now, the people behind Dead Ink Books have acquired the rights to the Eden Book Society’s backlist. This year, they are reissuing the six titles that the Society published in 1972; the first to appear is Holt House, by the mysterious L.G. Vey.

Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, in the middle of the Holtwood, live old Mr and Mrs Latch. Ray watches them through a hole in the fence: as a child, he was taken to stay with the Latches one night when his mother fell ill. Mr Latch showed him something that was stored in the wardrobe; Ray can’t remember what it was, but the experience has blighted his life ever since. Now, as an adult, he has returned to Holt House to find out exactly what happened. When Mr Latch dies suddenly, Ray seizes the chance to befriend Mrs Latch and find his way into the house.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Ray finds that life at Holt House has a curiously timeless quality; a real sense of eeriness develops as Vey unveils this. But where the novel really shines is its exploration of Ray’s character: the realisation that he’s not entirely sympathetic, and the queasy to-and-fro of whether the tale’s real source of horror is setting or protagonist.

It would be nice to maintain the pretence, but I think I should be honest: there was never really an Eden Book Society, and Holt House does not originate from 1972. The Society is a publishing project from Dead Ink, and was initially funded via Kickstarter (they’re now offering subscriptions through the Society website, linked at the start of this post). However, the books are being published anonymously: Dead Ink have announced that this year’s novellas are by Andrew Michael Hurley; Aliya Whiteley; Alison Moore; Jenn Ashworth & Richard V. Hirst; Gary Budden; and Sam Mills. That’s a fine list of writers, and what really got me excited about the Eden Book Society in the first place. I don’t know who’s writing behind the name L.G. Vey, and it doesn’t matter: Holt House is a strong start for the Society; I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Book details

Holt House (2018) by L.G. Vey, Eden Book Society, 101 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Four tales of war

Monsieur le CommandantIn Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant (2011; translated from the French by Jesse Browner, 2013), it is 1942 when Paul-Jean Husson – a respected writer and member of l’Académie française – writes to his local SS officer, unable to remain silent any longer. Husson begins his story ten years earlier, when his son introduced him to his new love: a beautiful blonde German girl named Ilse Wolffsohn, whom Husson later discovered to be Jewish. Husson was immediately attracted to Ilse, an attraction that only intensified as the years went by; all the while, he remained a Nazi sympathiser, regularly publishing anti-Semitic articles. But matters would eventually come to a head; and Husson’s letter to the Commandant is the only way forward he can see.

Monsieur le Commandant is an uncompromising book, which confronts the implacability and inherent contradictions of its protagonist’s worldview head-on: Husson is a character who has no qualms about describing graphic violence or venting his hatred, and the results of that are right there on the page. The novel becomes a grim, inexorable march towards a bitterly ironic ending; the weight of history bears down on our reading; but its starkness gives Slocombe’s book a power of its own.

***

King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (2006; translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, 2013) is a view of 1942 from Warsaw. There are perhaps two things that matter most to Izolda: the love of her husband Shayek, and finding a way out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When Shayek is imprisoned, Izolda’s love for him leads her to do whatever she can to free him; and what she’s prepared to do seems almost without limit – she hides her identity and religion, smuggles goods into the ghetto… Even though she’s captured more than once, she refuses to give up.

In contrast with Monsieur le Commandant’s harsh precision, the tone of Krall’s book is somewhat hazier; told in a series of vignettes, the choppiness of its structure gives the text a dream-like quality, which enhances the sense of the Holocaust as something larger than those caught up in it can truly comprehend. There are moments of horror (made all the more effective by the subdued tone in which they’re written), but a deep sense of love as well. We know from several chapters within the book that Izolda survives into old age, but even then she finds herself dwelling on the past and what might have been. Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a hard-won personal victory, and the mixed consequences it brings.

***

News from BerlinHusson and Izolda could be seen as being at two opposite ends of a continuum of experience of World War Two, a continuum that Oscar Verschuur – the protagonist of Otto de Kat’s News from Berlin (2012; translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke, 2014) – might (at first glance, anyway) appear to be completely outside. Oscar is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, well away from the day-to-day realities of the war. That’s until his daughter Emma visits from Berlin, with information from her German husband Carl, a civil servant who covertly opposes the Nazi regime:  an invasion of Russia is planned, codenamed Barbarossa. Now Oscar must decide whether to disclose this information, knowing that to do so may place Emma and Carl in danger.

Relationships, it seems to me, are at the heart of News from Berlin: Oscar’s relationship with his wife Kate is pretty lukewarm and distant (literally so, as she’s currently a nurse in London). Both characters themselves drawn to someone else: he to Lara, a free-spirited Dutch woman he meets in a village hotel; she to Matteous, a wounded Congolese soldier whom she helps to treat. There’s a sense that both of Verschuurs are searching for something in these other people, not that they’re necessarily going to find it (Kate especially comes to realise how it hard it would be for Matteous to adapt to a life in London). Interestingly, Oscar’s new attraction draws him away from the reality of the war, whilst Kate’s draws her towards it; this mirrors their instinctive feelings about the Barbarossa dilemma. As a diplomat, Oscar’s work is fundamentally about relationships on a grand scale; the choice he now has to make brings that work down to the most intimate of levels. Like Slocombe and Krall in their books, de Kat explores the personal effects of war, how individual lives are shaped by conflict.

***

Wake

War’s effect on individuals is also the focus of Anna Hope’s debut, Wake (2014), which is set in the aftermath of World War One – specifically in the five days leading up to the parading of the Unknown Warrior through London in 1920. Hope tells of three women: Hettie, a dance instructress who becomes intrigued by a charismatic man she meets at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who works at the Pensions Office and has a quite a tense relationship with her army-captain brother – but still wants to know why a man comes to her office asking after him; and Ada, a housewife grieving for her son lost in the war, who receives a visit from a boy who appears to know of him.

All three of Hope’s protagonists have seen their lives changed by war: Hettie’s brother is affected by shell-shock, but the world of the dance instructress has opened a new avenue in her own life; Evelyn lost her partner in the war and now finds herself, as an unattached woman nearing 30, outside of social norms; for Ada, it’s not so much a case of needing to find a new path as of coming to terms with the one she has travelled. In Wake, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is presented as a moment when the British people collectively took stock of the war and its consequences, a recognition of and reflection on the changing times; this is also what Hope does individually for her characters. But there is also the sense that change continues; and, indeed, the women’s stories go on beyond the final page of this vivid novel.

***

Links

Monsieur le Commandant
Interview with Romain Slocombe by Gallic Books.
Other reviews: A Life in Books; These Little Words; The Friendly Shelf; Literary Relish.

Chasing the King of Hearts
Interview with Hanna Krall by PEN Atlas.
Other reviews: Andrew Blackman; Sabotage Reviews; A Discount Ticket to Everywhere; Tony’s Reading List.

News from Berlin
Other reviews: 1streading; Lucy Popescu for the Independent.

Wake
BBC interview with Anna Hope (and Judith Allnatt, author of The Moon Field)
Other reviews: For Winter Nights; Book Oxygen; The Unlikely Bookworm; Cleopatra Loves Books.

Three tales

Mike O’Driscoll, Eyepennies (2012)

This is the first in a new series of novellas from TTA Press, the publishers of Interzone and Black Static magazines. Eyepennies is named after a song by Sparklehorse, the musical project of the late Mark Linkous, who took his own life in 2010 (and to whom Mike O’Driscoll dedicates the piece). O’Driscoll’s protagonist is not strictly a fictionalised version of Linkous, but he is a musician named Mark who’s had a near-death experience.

Mark has been beset by bad dreams and waking visions, and this has taken its toll on his life and relationships. He withdraws into his music, feeling that a new album will provide the breakthrough that can lead to stability. But, listening to his previous albums for inspiration, he can hear sounds and voices in them that shouldn’t be there.

Eyepennies is a fine portrait of a person under psychological strain. O’Driscoll maintains the ambiguity over whether Mark’s experiences are supernatural or delusional in origin (and, indeed, over whether that makes any practical difference). The novella’s fragmented structure (reaching back into different periods of the protagonist’s life) further underlines the diffuse state of Mark’s mind. This is a good start for the novella series, and I look forward to future instalments.

André Maurois, A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles (1928)
Translated from the French by Charlotte de Koch

First published in 1928 (and now given a new edition by Turtle Point Press), A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles is a novella chronicling the adventure at sea of one Pierre Chambrelan and his companion Anne de Sauves.

Though they intend to cross the Pacific, a storm causes the pair to land on the privately owned island of Maïana, where life is devoted to the arts. The island has two castes of inhabitants: the Articoles, who spend all their time creating artworks; and the Béos, who use wealth from the island’s copious natural resources to support the Articoles. Pierre and Anne are kept on Maïana for several weeks, to see if the Articoles can draw on the pair’s experiences and personalities for material.

As well as a tale of seafaring, Maurois’s novella is a study of the dangers of insularity. The Articoles have become drawn into art so much that they have disengaged with the world and lost their empathy – their idea of madness is to think about life rather than art. Pierre starts off in his own (less extreme) state of disengagement: metaphorically adrift in life, living only for the romance of the voyage (Anne wanted to accompany him for similar reasons). His experiences on Maïana lead him to take stock, and find new connections with the world and other people. Yet here Pierre is, writing a journal of his voyage, just as the Articoles would – so perhaps he hasn’t left the past behind entirely after all. A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles is entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.

(This review also appears on We Love This Book.)

Alison Littlewood, The Eyes of Water (2012)

This Spectral Press chapbook takes us to Mexico, where Alison Littlewood’s diver-protagonist Alex contemplates the gruesome death of his friend Rick. Far more skilled than Alex, Rick had been exploring one of the water-filled caves known as cenotés when something tore off his face. Alex learns that the Maya used the cenotés as places of sacrifice – and a vision of Rick encourages him to go exploring himself. There’s a nice sense of place about this story, particularly where the cenotés are concerned. Littlewood also constructs her plot skilfully, managing to tick all the event-boxes one expects to be ticked, whilst still leaving space for the denouement to head somewhere else.

Book and story notes: Claire Massey and Pascal Garnier

Claire Massey, ‘Into the Penny Arcade’ and ‘Marionettes’ (2012)

Time for some new Nightjar Press chapbooks, and this year both their spring titles are by the same author – Claire Massey. The cover quotations from Robert Shearman and Liz Jensen talk about ‘making the ordinary something very sinister’ and ‘quiet disturbance’; I’ll go with that, as both these stories reveal something dark at the heart of the mundane, and do so in a restrained, subtle fashion.

‘Into the Penny Arcade’ is a great story, whose schoolgirl protagonist is attacked by a group of other girls, then rescued by the driver of a lorry which contains a number of old, and rather strange, penny arcade machines. Massey uses spare details and short, sharp sentences to build up the atmosphere – the run-down street, the lorry parked there day after day – and the tension only increases once we’re inside the arcade. The machines themselves are cast in a deliciously sinister light; and the ending has the same subtlety as the rest of the tale, as it suggests a chilling turn of events without being definitive.

‘Marionettes’ takes us toPrague, where Massey’s (unnamed) protagonist has travelled with her partner Karl. The pair come across a shop selling remarkably detailed marionettes, though Karl has little time for that. As the tale progresses, the couple’s relationship comes under increasing strain; and the marionette shop gains some familiar-looking puppets in its window.

As with ‘Into the Penny Arcade’, Massey here creates a sense of unease from some fairly ordinary things – in this case, the strange puppets and the disorientingPraguestreets. The link made between the protagonist’s relationship and the marionettes is effective, but the ending doesn’t quite work for me; I think it takes an imaginative leap further than the build-up can support, whereas in Massey’s other Nightjar story, the conclusion flows more naturally from the tale’s main body. Still, these are a fine duo of stories, and I will be looking out for more of Claire Massey’s work in the future.

Pascal Garnier, The Panda Theory (2008/12)

Gabriel arrives in a small Breton town, finds a restaurant, and strikes up a friendship with the owner, José, whose wife is ill in hospital. Gabriel is a good cook and a friendly face, and presently attracts a small circle of friends, including Madeleine, the receptionist of his hotel; and Marco and Rita, a couple also staying there. But he’s also carrying baggage from his past…

The Panda Theory is one of three books by the late Pascal Garnier which will be published by Gallic Books (who also provide the translation). Particularly effective is the contrast between the ordinariness of the novel’s present and the darkness of the flashbacks to Gabriel’s past – the details of which only gradually emerge. All the people Gabriel meets have holes in their lives, and – as his name suggests – the protagonist is something of an angel, in that he comes into their lives and changes them. But the question of exactly how he does so is one that remains open right up to the tense finale.

Book notes: Cossé, Levine, Unsworth

Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (2009/10)

A Novel Bookstore is the ninth novel by French writer Laurence Cossé (the translaltion is by Alison Anderson); one of the launch titles for the UK imprint of Europa Editions; and a celebration of literature. Ivan Georg is a bookseller who has reached his forties mostly drifting through life; but that all changes when he meets Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, a fellow-lover of literature, with the wealth to turn a vision into reality – and the particular vision which the pair has is a bookstore which will stock only good novels, as selected by a secret committee of writers. The Good Novel bookstore duly opens inParis, and is a great success; but there are those who seek to discredit this well-intentioned enterprise – even to the point of physically attacking its committee members.

Though Cossé’s novel is framed as a mystery, its structure (with a lengthy detour in the middle detailing the history of The Good Novel) – and, indeed, the very resolution of the mystery – suggests that this element is not the main point of A Novel Bookstore; rather, it’s about the value of literature itself. There are direct statements of what good novels can do – literature ‘prepares you for life’ (p. 150), it ‘bring[s] like-minded people together and get[s] them talking’ (p. 81) – but we also see how literature has enriched the lives of the characters who write and read it in the book.

There are aspects of A Novel Bookstore which seem less disruptive here than I’d usually find them in a novel – such as the passages where Ivan and Francesca discuss books, passages which are detailed but don’t drag – and I’m not sure whether I am just cutting the book more slack because I share its enthusiasm for literature, and it imagines a place where I’d love to shop. Well, if that’s the case, so be it; for today, the celebration is enough.

Reviews elsewhere: A Common Reader; Of Books and Reading; Books are My Boyfriends; Nonsuch Book.

Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! (2012)

Sara Levine’s debut novel (another Europa UK launch title) also revolves around the transforming power of literature, though here it’s one work in particular, and the result is perhaps not as positive. Levine’s (unnamed) narrator is a twenty-something graduate with a penchant for the easy (one might say lazy) option, until reading Treasure Island inspires her to be more like Jim Hawkins, and be bold and adventurous in her life. So she takes money from the Pet Library where she works in order to buy a parrot (which does not go down well with her boss), and goes on from there.

The crux of Treasure Island!!! for me is the narrator’s lack of self-awareness: her inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the negative effects her actions have on others; to recognise that the changes she’s making in her life are not as daring as she thinks; to countenance that other people might have aspirations and lives as complex and important as her own. The protagonist’s narrative voice veers between wry and snarky, which adds to the portrayal of someone who is unsympathetic, but not entirely alienating. One’s reaction to her is held in tension to the very end, where there’s a suggestion that the narrator may finally be finding her way, despite everything.

Reviews elsewhere: Bluestalking; The Well-Read Wife; Muse at Highway Speeds; Em and Emm.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, Rough Music (2012)

Now a new chapbook from Spectral Press, this time by the ever-reliable Simon Unsworth. It’s the tale of a man named Cornish, who’s been hiding an affair from his wife Andrea, and is now having to cope with a bunch of masked figures making a racket and acting out some strange performance beneath his bedroom window every night – though nobody else seems to notice them. From the start, Cornish is not exactly a sympathetic character; but Unsworth gradually and effectively reveals just how cold and calculating the protagonist is, which makes his inevitable comeuppance all the more satisfying. The ‘rough music’ outside also works well, as it shifts back and forth between having a metaphorical function and driving forward changes in the story. All in all, nicely done.

Reviews elsewhere: HellBound Times; The Ginger Nuts of Horror.

Book notes: Smith, Finch, Lipska

Helen Smith, Alison Wonderland (1999)

Now this, I think it’s fair to say, is a bit of an oddity. Alison Temple first came across the all-female-staffed Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation when she hired them to find out whether her husband was cheating on her (which he was); now divorced, Alison works for Fitzgerald’s, her latest assignment being to investigate a sinister pharmaceutical company. Alongside this, her friend Taron is requesting information that will help her steal an abandoned baby; and Jeff, Alison’s neighbour and sort-of lover, writes poems for her and works on inventions like the formula for a single advertisement that could advertise any product.

I won’t pretend to have puzzled out everything that Alison Wonderland was trying to achieve, with all its digressions, and hints at extraordinary phenomena that might or might not be real; but I do appreciate the way that Helen Smith juxtaposes the bizarre and the mundane: however strange events become, the emotional issues that Alison deals with remain grounded in everyday reality; and some of the best-written passages deal with the more ordinary subjects.

Alison Wonderland might also be seen as an unusual take on the conspiracy story, in that the main conspiracies which the characters imagine to exist actually don’t; whilst the real secrets go unsuspected. Smith’s novel brought to mind the work of Sarah Salway and Aliya Whiteley in its sideways approach to everyday life – but it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read.

Reviews elsewhere: For Books’ Sake; Lucy Popescu.

Paul Finch, King Death (2011)

After three contemporary tales, the fourth chapbook from Spectral Press takes us back to 1348. In an England ravaged by the Black Death, a mercenary named Rodric is strangely immune to the plague; styling himself ‘King Death’, he travels the land, making the most of his fortunate circumstances. A chance meeting with a page from a fallen manor-house apparently presents a new opportunity for Rodric – or it could be his downfall instead.

This is one story I’d love to hear read aloud; there’s something about Paul Finch’s prose which suggests to me the rhythms of oral storytelling. There are points where King Death gets a little too clotted with detail (such as the description of Rodric’s costume, which feels as though it’s trying to namecheck as many pieces of armour as possible); but there are also striking moments like the opening scene of a parade of coaches, their occupants all dead. For the most part, the story rumbles on inexorably towards its wry conclusion.

Reviews elsewhere: The Eloquent Page; Bookhound’s Den.

Anya Lipska, Where the Devil Can’t Go (2011)

Anya Lipska’s debut novel is set amongst the Polish diaspora of East London, where fixer-for-hire Janusz Kiszka is engaged to find a missing young woman. Meanwhile, the body another woman is found washed up out of the Thames – and DC Natalie Kershaw’s investigations soon lead her to Janusz, who will find himself travelling back to Poland in a bid to unravel what is going on.

Where the Devil Can’t Go is a fine crime story, but it’s also strong thematically. The main theme could be described as pragmatism in the face of reality: Janusz was once on track to become a physicist, but gave up his studies to join the protests against the Communist regime; now, he has a wife and son back in Poland, but circumstances brought him to London, where he does what he can to make a living. Janusz has a deep-rooted sense of dignity and propriety, but will not hesitate to use violence to get a job done; a similar sense of doing what one feels must be done in the situation goes right to the heart of the mystery. And it’s not just the Polish characters who have to make such choices: Natalie Kershaw also has to decide how far she wants to fit into the man’s world of the Metropolitan Police.

The novel’s main weakness, I think, is a technical one: the tendency to switch between character viewpoints without a scene break. This is annoying but tolerable when the characters are in different places; but, when Janusz and Kershaw are together, the dramatic irony of how they view each other loses some of its impact from how the shifts are handled. But, otherwise, Where the Devil Can’t Go is a solid piece of work which is well worth reading.

Although the novel is being published in Germany by Random House next year, it hasn’t been picked up by a UK publisher; so the English-language version is a self-published ebook. I’d love to see Lipska’s book get a full UK publication, though, as it really does deserve one.

Reviews elsewhere: Winstonsdad’s Blog; It’s a Crime!

Bacon, West and Williams, Ill at Ease (2011)

Ill at Ease is a chapbook anthology of three horror stories, and the first title from Penman Press. The volume opens with ‘Waiting for Josh’ by Stephen Bacon, whose journalist narrator travels from London back to his home town of Scarborough when he hears that his childhood friend Dale is dying – and he wonders how the bright boy he knew became the burnt-out alcoholic that Dale is now. Though he’s increasingly frail, Dale has enough energy to point his friend in the direction of the old Landsmoor house; there, the protagonist finds that, though the building has gone to ruin, the father of the house still waits for his missing son Josh, and has done for 33 years – and so secrets start to be uncovered, and questions answered.

This is a very quiet piece, as befits a story about lives in stasis (not just those of Dale and Mr Landsmoor – seeing what has happened to them makes the narrator question whether he’s done the best for himself in life); perhaps it’s a little too quiet at times, as the atmosphere doesn’t always come through from Bacon’s prose as strongly as it might. But, the more I think about ‘Waiting for Josh’, the more I find to appreciate in it – such as the neat inversion of the haunted house motif, which sees Mr Landsmoor as the living ‘ghost’ haunting his own home (and, of course, haunted himself by the missing Josh).

Mark West’s ‘Come See My House in the Pretty Town’ also begins with its protagonist travelling from London to visit an old friend, but there the similarities end. The setting is not the rugged Yorkshire coast, but a picturesque hamlet in the south-west of England; David Willis has travelled there at the invitation of Simon Roberts, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years. Along with Simon’s wife and son, Kim and Billy, they visit a fair in the village; it gradually becomes clear, though, that not all is rosy, and that David and Kim may have had more of a past than Simon realises.

There’s a nicely unsettling feeling about this story, which comes from the contrast between the beauty of the village and the sinister aspects of the fair (such as its threatening clowns made up to look as though they have Chelsea smiles). Much of the weight of the story seems placed on the twist-in-the-tale ending, but West handles it well, and it’s amusing in a drily macabre way.

All three stories in Ill at Ease weave horror into the fabric of contemporary British life, but it’s perhaps the third – ‘Closer Than You Think’ by Neil Williams – which deals with the most everyday of circumstances. It starts at a rubbish tip, where Dave takes the opportunity to bring home the bright pink child’s car seat which the woman in the next vehicle was about to throw away – but Dave’s partner Debs is not impressed, and their daughter Katie is none too keen on the seat, either. It’s Dave, though, who starts to feel that there’s something menacing about the object.

Where Mark West’s story drew on the contrast between village and fair, Williams’ piece uses the ordinariness of its details – visiting the supermarket; rummaging around in the loft – as a counterpoint to its horror. Dave’s experiences start off as unsettling but small, easily explicable as tricks of the light or whatever; but become less easy to explain away as they escalate. That progression of the story is effectively built, and leads to an ending that has the cold sting of inevitability.

Richard Christian Matheson, ‘Last Words’ (2011)

The anthology closes with this short (four-page) piece whose narrator reflects on the value of preparing some god last words for oneself (‘All books have an important final line. All movies have one. So should a life,’ p. 425) – but, though the sentiment may be reasonable, the nature of and reasons for the narrator’s interest in the matter are more disturbing. As a piece of fiction, I’m not sure that ‘Last Words’ achieves a great-enough density of language to balance poetry and gruesomeness.

Rating: ***

Link
Richard Christian Matheson’s website

Michael Marshall Smith, ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ (2011)

High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains lives Miller, who barely knows what to do with himself since his wife and child left; he spends his Saturday afternoons driving around, exploring the local side roads. What he finds on this particular exploration may be just what Miller needs to snap him out of his inertia.

Smith’s story has some of the best writing I’ve yet come across in this anthology: a dry, sparse prose style that perfectly complements both the setting and Miller’s state of mind. And some great turns of phrase, such as this wonderfully creepy image of Miller with too much time on his hands:

Time crawled in an endless parade of minutes from between those cracks, arriving like an army of little black ants, crawling up over his skin, up his face, and into his mouth, ears and eyes. (pp. 340-1)

The true horror of this tale is the horror of emptiness, of an empty existence above all. Smith conveys that horror very well indeed.

Rating: ****

Link
Michael Marshall Smith’s website

Reggie Oliver, ‘A Child’s Problem’ (2011)

Oliver takes as his inspiration for this story Richard Dadd’s painting, The Child’s Problem; he imagines a possible origin for that artwork in the childhood of Sir George St Maur, a social reformer who (says the tale’s preface) visited Dadd in Broadmoor throughout the 1850s (I’ve been unable to find any reference to St Maur online, so am unsure whether he’s a genuine historical figure, or Oliver’s creation).

Nine-year-old George goes to live in his uncle Augustus’s country house, to be tutored until he is ready for Eton. Augustus is a strange figure, forever with a problem set up on his chessboard, but unwilling to actually have a game; he sets challenges for George, but gets angry when the boy completes them – and strange figures can be glimpsed through the windows of the house.

Stylistically, Oliver’s story is closer to the classic supernatural tale than is generally my taste, but the logic underlying what happens is handed very effectively: revealed enough to allow one to formulate an understanding, but also hidden enough that it remains mysterious and creepy.

Rating: ***½

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