Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm normally not one for complaining about not having the ability to assign half stars on Goodreads, but if I'm being honest with myself, I'd have this collection squarely at 3.5 out of 5 stars. I know, shocking for me, since I have absolutely loved Oliver's work in the past, and, well, Tartarus Books - need I say more? There were some outstanding stories in this collection, I mean some really amazing stories. But there were a few clunkers. "This is normal," you say, "it's a short story collection. They all have some clunkers in them." True. However, I expect more from Oliver (and Tartarus). But I don't think I can lay the blame solely on the author or the publisher. Every author writes clunkers and some of them get published (I can name a few of my early published stories that I'd rather have a "do over" on), and publishers all run the tightrope of trying to be commercially feasible while staying true to their art. Sometimes publishers come to trust an author so much that they are not so rigorous in collecting later works as they might have been early on - if they've seen success selling books from this author, why should they rock the boat? Again, I can tell stories about myself (and a couple of my stories) that I'm not proud of, in this regard.
But, again, I have a hard time laying the blame at the feet of the obvious potential culprits. Okay, everyone is complicit to some degree or another. But would it be terribly socialist of me to say that "the market" has something to do with it? And here, I mean the book market's seeming need for profit on a large scale: "the machine," if you will.
The machine needs to make money. That's what keeps writers, editors, marketers, bookstore owners and employees, and distributors all eating. Without money, nothing (or at least next to nothing) gets done. Unfortunate, but true. So the element of profitability enters the equation. Don't even get me started on the element of greed, or you'll see one angry Socialist in this boy.
What the market seems to have found is: big sells. Big series and big, thick books are what keeps the machine running and puts dollars on the table of those who produce the books. I remember back in the '70s and '80s that books, generally were much thinner than they are today, at least the ones on the mainstream bookshelves. I recall science fiction books that had two novel(la)s between front and back cover by two different authors. Thick books were there, yes, but they were a rarity, possibly having to do with binding glues on paperbacks in those decades, I'm guessing.
Then, along came Stephen King. I would love to see a study about how books "grew" in page count after King's The Stand came out. Perhaps that was not the watershed moment, but it's when I first recall thinking "jimminy Christmas, that is a BIG book!". Then, BIG books started sprouting up all over the place. And long series. Yes, you had series fiction before the '90s (I think of the Xanth novels or Terry Pratchett's Discworld, for instance), but the book market seemed to make a swift shift from K-Reproducers to r-Reproducers at about the same time as the sound of King's behemoth thumping down on reading desks resounded around the world.
This might be a direct product of the generation in which I was raised (Gen-Z, if you're wondering - no, I'm not a Boomer, okay?). Reagonomics made it not only okay to deregulate trade and open the door to "free" trade, it veritably blew the doors off the hinges. Not only was it permissible to feed the greed, it became a sin not to do so, as God seemingly rewarded the ambitious with untold wealth. You're poor? Well, God must hate you then. You obviously did something wrong!
And we all bought into this. Or the vast majority of society did, at least.
But as I've gotten older (at half of a hundred, I'm finally willing to admit that I am "middle aged"), I've found that fulfilling all those childhood dreams of collecting all the Star Wars toys I ever wanted and all the comic books I never had as a (middle-middle-class white) kid and getting to eat out at fancy restaurants almost as often as I want to (I wish) . . . was empty. I'm in the process of discovering (because old habits and attitudes are hard to break and clearing the scales from one's eyes requires time and habituation) that less really is more. Less property, less digitalism, less social media. Yes, even (here I'm going to be crucified) fewer books.
Regarding the latter, this is the point I've been coming to with all this rambling. Some books, especially short story collections, could do with fewer stories - screw the machine! The invisible hand of the market needs a sharp slap!
And what am I doing about it? Well, first off, I find myself, more and more, buying slimmer books. I've always been a huge fan of novellas, which I've expressed before and will continue to espouse. Heck, my two most recently published books, The Varvaros Ascensions and The Simulacra, are novellas (the first is actually two novellas in one book). Secondly, I'm buying slimmer books. I have found that some of the best literature "out there" is hiding in chapbooks and small, limited run editions of small press books. They tend to be expensive (i.e., less "bang for your buck" than traditionally-published books), but I know that this money, by and large, is going to smaller operations. My order of operations for ordering such books are: 1) contact the author and buy direct, if possible, 2) buy direct from the publisher, if possible, 3) buy from Ziesings or a local bookshop, 4) buy on E-bay, 5) buy from you-know-who (but only as a last resort). I like feeding the smaller machines, rather than the juggernauts, if at all possible, so I'm often willing to pay a little more (and in some cases a lot more) for books that are way smaller than their gigantic, less-expensive competitors. I like underdogs.
Now, how does all this relate to the book at hand, Reggie Oliver's collection Flowers of the Sea? Well, to be honest, this book could stand to be shorter. Like about 5 of 13 stories shorter. Or at least 3 of 13 shorter. You'll see why in my comments on each story below. Many of these tales were mind-blowingly good, including the first novella (also the first story in the book). A couple were good, but not quite great, and, well, there were clunkers. Shave those clunkers out and even a couple of the good stories, and you have a gem of a collection here. So, without further ado, here are my notes on each story. I think these notes are mostly spoiler-free, but if you're going to read the collection, read it first, then read my review (and tell me that I'm wrong):
"A Child's Problem" starts off rather stodgy. Right from the get-go, I could see that little George was going to learn some discipline. Things got ugly quick, as one might predict from the mix of characters in the house. It's easy to see why "A Child's Problem" was a Shirley Jackson Award nominee. The novella is near-perfect, a ghost story in Jamesian fashion wherein the main protagonist, the child George, grows from his pains and sorrows. Even the "evil uncle" trope can be forgiven because Oliver leans into the stereotype so strongly that the reader willingly accepts it. I could see BBC making this into television drama easily. Five stars and Christopher Lee as the uncle, please!
"Striding Edge," a tale of the capriciousness of nature and the intent of those who immerse themselves in it, doesn't end with a sudden, sharp twist, like some supernatural tales do, but it meanders, like a group taking a hike up a steep mountain ridge . . . until it plunges off into the abyss. I loved the "soft shock" of the unveiling (or, rather, the veiling) at the end. Five stars.
"Hand to Mouth" was just plain terrifying. I normally don't get shivers while reading works of horror, but this one chilled me (as the narrator is, quite literally, chilled). This went beyond my desire for a creepy story and skipped awe for pure fear. This could give me nightmares, a thing that I normally don't take from reading. Five stars like the five fingers of a cold, dead, wriggling infant exploring your body in the darkness. Ewwwww! Ew! Ew! Ew!
While suitably gruesome, "Singing Blood" felt a bit academic, as fiction modelled after the style of, say, Nabakov, can sometimes be. Not that Nabakov was dry or boring - far from it - but a pastiche of Nabakov, which this felt like to me, is a bit pedestrian. Unfortunate, as I usually love Oliver's work, but this one only gets three stars from me.
The titular story is a musical piece of grief, loss, and finally, abject horror. What happens as those we love "lose" themselves and we see the inevitability, after having been subjected to such pain, of losing ourselves. An unhealthy diet of existential dread is served here, which leads to the decay of all that is beautiful into something ugly, something . . . else. Chaos looms. Five stars.
"Lord of the Fleas" is a tale that Oliver admits was written reluctantly when he was asked to write a zombie story. It is an epistolary novel written in a strong Dickensian voice, both aspects of which make this a very unusual zombie story, pulpish yet "proper". I liked it well enough, but was about as thrilled to read a zombie story as Oliver was to write one - not very. Still, good enough for four stars, more for the stylistic panache of the writing itself than anything else.
I finished the story "Didman's Corner" and thought "that really reads like an Aickman story," only to find that Oliver admits he was trying to do an Aickmanesque story. Well, he succeeded, and in spades. And, what can I say? I'm a sucker for Aickman. The climax of this story is a soft, fluffy, stifling, and terrifying thing. And the denouement classic quiet, yet unfeeling despair. Five stars.
"the Posthumous Messiah" was likeable until the very end and the denouement. Endings are hard to pull off - I know I've flubbed a few here and there in my own stories. But this was really a let-down. There are moments when the story "sparkled" with promise (strange for a story that depicts almost everything as drab and grey, I know), but I didn't feel the promise was ever kept. Three stars.
"Charm" is a squeamishly uncomfortable story about a type that everyone knows: that party-animal playboy who is far, far past his prime and becomes an embarrassment for everyone to be around. This fall from charming to awkward is a long one, and the erstwhile player can't weasel his way out of this one. A cringeworthy, then terrifying (but sort of bordering on ridiculous, in the end) tale. Alas, only three stars.
"Between Four Yews" was written as a "prequel" story to M.R. James' "A School Story". Only James' setting is reflected in the story, and Oliver's tale is something quite apart from James'. It is a well-told tale of revenge (on multiple accounts) but without many of the typical tropes. The ending is a fantastic subversion of James' stories and quite effective, on reflection. Five stars.
Another case of liking a story up until the very end. "The Spooks of Shellborough" has compelling characterization (Oliver's characters are usually believable and familiar), an extremely compelling backstory, and a great set up . . . for what could have been a spectacular, eerie end. But the literal revealing of the "monster's" face just felt cheap. Four stars, but could easily have been three. Or five.
I'm usually not fond of stories in which the main character is dying throughout. But from start to finish, "Süssmayr's Requiem" held me in it's grasp, like the composer's own visions of blood and death, which are woven throughout the work. As you would expect, it's a solemn piece, and Oliver sustains the mood throughout, without making it drag, just like a great requiem should be! Five stars.
"Come into my Parlour" is a riff from the (in)famous poem "The Spider and the Fly". It was quite predictable, outside of one small twist near the end that proves inconsequential to the tale. Three stars.
Oliver is at his absolute best when he writes about acting, and "Lightning" is no exception. He captures all the pettiness that happens behind the curtain, the politics and personalities, with perfect clarity. It is clear that Oliver knows the stage. It would be very interesting to see this work staged as a play about a play. I loved this story, whose horror comes absolutely unexpectedly. Incredible. Five stars!
"Waving to the Boats" was an appropriate story to end the collection. Quiet and grey, with a morose bit of humor at the end. And while the subject matter and setting were languid, the story didn't have to be. Only three stars for this last tale, the collection ending with a whimper, rather than a bang. Then again, I think the author intended it this way. Still, a bit of a let down. The story "Flowers of the Sea" already hit a similar sort of theme as this story (at least peripherally) and did it much more effectively.
In all, a good collection, but not his best. I liked Mrs. Midnight and Other Stories and The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler and Other Stories much better. One thing that Oliver does as well or better than many other writers currently writing is creating characters that are, well, characters. They are unique and he reveals them, usually, in the most clever ways possible. Unfortunately, in the case of this collection, there is an over-reliance on a pithy last phrase in many stories that just does not tie out well. I'm going to hate myself for doing this, but I'm going to give it three stars and redirect you to his other outstanding collections.
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