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


  1. I really like how you review short story collections. I’d steal you methodology except that I can’t seem to read an anthology straight through end to end.

    Single author collections I’m okay with, but picking up an anthology from multiple authors all about the same theme wears me out. Perhaps I’m a wuss. Nonetheless, I like how you highlight each story and author in a given collection. It’s fair and when taken as a whole gives a nice overall thumbs up or down as to the collection as opposed to merely mentioning the standouts.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    20th November 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Thanks Chad, that’s a very kind thing to say. I actually took the idea for story-by-story reviews from Martin Lewis, who’s been doing them for a few years now.

    I like them as a different way to approach an anthology, though I don’t do them for every one I read. There’ll be a reason why I decide to review that way — perhaps because I want to explore the subject matter at some length, or because there’s a particular significance to the anthology (in the case of A Book of Horrors, it was a mass-market imprint launching with a hardback horror anthology, which seemed unusual enough that it was worth marking in this way).

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