The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Stories by Reggie Oliver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You know, I've always been more of a short story reader than a novel reader. Yeah, I'm that oddball. I'm also much more of a short story writer than I am a novel writer. Maybe it has something to do with attention spans. But I think I just like the brain-juicing rush I get from a really great short story, whether reading or writing. Cheap thrills? Maybe. But they're my cheap thrills!
Problem is, short story collections are really difficult to review. Say too much about each story and it's really easy to spoil things. Say too little about each story and your review becomes pithy. And only after reading the entire collection can one really assess the author's overall oeuvre (well, for that collection, at least) and it's sometimes difficult to go back and piece together what it is you think about the author's work without re-reading every story.
So I guess all I have to offer here are my notes on The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Stories, modified and elaborated on a tiny bit from my original notes, with a little summation at the end.
Before I dive in, though, please let me state for the record that Reggie Oliver is a magnificent stylist. Reading his work is easy. Not that the language is banal, not by any means. It just simply flows incredibly well. In both style and subject matter, M.R. James and an easier-to-understand Lord Dunsany come to mind as the best comparisons for Oliver's voice. But that is boiling things down too much. Olivers voices are rich and more widely varying than James and/or Dunsany. But the sheer ease-of-use to the reader make these stories smooth as silk. A dark, corrupted, sometimes terrifying silk, like a silk noose, but smooth, nonetheless.
Anyway, on to the stories:
The title story (and who could resist such an incredible title?) is a weird sort of weird. It's very moody, but not edgy, The narrator is a bit paranoid, but justifiably so. Still, his fears are a little unjustified, but this makes his flaws all the more critical to the story. I like this story a lot, but I don't know if I can place my finger on exactly why. And I like that lack of definition. It works to the point of 5 stars for me.
"Lapland Nights" is a very well-written story, but it has too many loose ends. I don't mind loose ends at all, but I came away from this story feeling like I was missing something fundamental that I should have found in the story. Re-scanning it, I found that it wasn't me, it was the story. I love the premise, plot, and characters, but feel like there is an impetus behind the plot turns that is too-well hidden. 4 stars.
"The Garden of Strangers" is a quiet tale about Oscar Wilde and suicide (a theme that recurs in Oliver's work). I can look past the pedantic (in a morally-corrupt way) nature of the story because it is so well written. 4 stars.
I made the mistake of reading "Among the Tombs" by firelight and a small, dim lamp, with the firelight by which I read flickering over my shoulder. Don't do this. Too creepy. Way too creepy. This story about possession and charity gone wrong got under my skin. I've still got the jibblies! 5-stars!
I found "The Skins" eerie enough but it lacked a needed touch of coherence. It sometimes felt like the plot elements were reaching for each other, but not quite touching. Unlike two of the main characters . . . 4 stars.
"The Sermons of Dr Hodnet" - now *this* is what I've been expecting. A twisted interpretation of Genesis 11:7 and a weird story that satisfies on all fronts. 5 stars for this one. More like this, please!
"Magus Zoroaster" puts a supernatural spin on what is, at it's heart, a tale of deep noir about doppelgangers and murder-mystery. 5 stars!
"The Time of Blood" was, well, bloody good. I was surprised by the ending, but it made all the sense in the world, in hindsight. I'm usually not as big on stories that begin with a pseudo-mythic framework, but this one worked well by the end. 5 stars.
A weird tale disguised as romance? Romance disguised as a weird tale? It doesn't matter. I loved it, and I am most explicitly not a fan of romances. "Parma Violets" drew me in and wrapped me up. 5 stars to this excellent story!
"Difficult People" provides a modern and slightly distanced riff on the themes of one of my favorite stories, "The Picture of Dorian Gray", but adds a murky layer of mystery to the whole thing while twists it into new vistas of horror. 5 stars.
"The Constant Rake" is a dark story about an obscure play manuscript and its discovery by the narrator. The original author of the play had suffered losses at the hands of a rival and vowed to exact revenge. But revenge may be a long time in coming! This tale brilliantly weaves destinies and motives together in a satisfyingly gruesome way with a dash of the supernatural. I have been wowed by this 5 star story!
While I enjoyed the self-aware humor of "The Blue Room" (I laughed aloud twice), it seems out of character for this collection. I enjoyed it, but it lacked the gravitas that the rest of the collection has had so far. I get it: people want variety, and humor often serves as an adjunct to horror. Still, it seemed a little "twee" to me. 3 stars
"A Nightmare Sang" is one of the longer stories in this collection. A strange, esoteric tale of ecstasy, initiation, and entrapment. I was caught up in it, much as the protagonist was caught up in the acting troupe/cult that simultaneously served as his compliment and foil. The characterization is what stood out in this mystical, yet banal story. 5 stars!
"The Babe of the Abyss" has so . . . much . . . potential! It could have been twice as long to allow more character development, but as it stands, it felt cut short, with one of the character's info-dump explanations making it feel even more rushed and artificial. Dang it, that could have been a five-star story, but I have to give it 4 stars. I even considered 3, but the ending was a "good save".
"Bloody Bill" is a memorable piece, if for nothing but the imagery. The mood is cohesive and rather gray and the story held together thematically. Still, there was something missing - maybe another connection or two between the narrator, his friend, and the antagonist, expressed more clearly by events, objects, etc. This "looseness" kind of lost me. Still a 4 star story, though.
I thought "A Christmas Card" might be a pithy retelling, or a horrific twist on "A Christmas Carol," but I was completely and utterly wrong. And I've never been so glad to be so wrong in my initial impressions. It is a surprising tale of hope in the face of suicidal depression. Somber, but very much full of hope. A poignant ending story that I was not at all expecting, and which took my breath away, especially as the end piece in this collection. 5 very bright stars.
That's a solid 4.6 on average. Throw in the wonderful production values, even on my paperback edition (what, you didn't know you could buy some of Tartarus Press's titles in affordable paperback?), and you've got a solid five star book here. If you want some creepy, but without the gross, and some excellent writing featuring some memorable characters and even more memorable plot lines, go get yourself a copy!
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