By Reggie Oliver

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

Since I read the outstanding debut collection The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini & Other Strange Stories, I've been looking forward to the next volume of short stories by Reggie Oliver. My expectations were very high and I have not been disappointed: The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler is as good as Vittorini, which means an excellent collection of very fine dark fiction.

The book features sixteen 'strange stories', the large majority of which are absolutely first-class.

As in the oppressive title story an impossible collection of classical music becomes the cornerstone of a nightmarish experience, so in Lapland Nights does an apparently harmless old couple.

The Garden of Strangers is a gentle piece, a sort of Spoon River set in a public garden in Naples, while Among the Tombs is a great, disquieting story of demonic possession told in an unassuming but fascinating manner by an old priest ("We all carry our own shadows. They run by our side when we are young; they creep behind us when we are old; they sleep with us in the grave.")

In the entertaining The Skins dark things take place behind the joyful fašade of a variety act performed by a couple of ham actors and in the pleasant Jamesian pastiche The Sermons of Dr Hodnet the devil takes hold of a pastor's preaching faculties. Oliver's a gifted storyteller endowed with an elegant, compelling prose which makes you fully enjoy the pleasure of reading. Even in the stories which to me seem less accomplished (the inexplicable Parma Violets, the unremarkable The Constant Rake, the rather implausible Bloody Bill and the moralistic, Dickensian A Christmas Card) you will neither experience a single moment of ennui nor succumb to the temptation of skipping a paragraph- which, for a fiction writer is not a minor merit!

At his best Oliver is simply superb, as in The Time of Blood, where dark secrets of the cloister are finally revealed and the prophecies of an unhappy nun cast shadows on the world's past and future, or in Difficult People, about an odd portrait, a difficult, elusive beauty and the unfathomable mysteries of the human soul. Another excellent story is The Babe of the Abyss a deeply unsettling tale about the physical manifestations of Evil, partly set in a lonely chalet in the Alps.

The themes and the atmosphere are quite varied, from a funny, erotic episode taking place in a peculiarly haunted room (The Blue Room), to the report of the bizarre involvement of a playwright with a coven of Satanists (A Nightmare Sang) to the splendid retelling of the Doppelganger myth in the framework of a crime story (The Magus Zoroaster).

In addition to the excellent quality of the stories, it must be added that the book looks gorgeous, is beautifully produced and is complemented by terrific black-and-white artwork by Oliver himself.

When you turn the last page of this magnificent (in every sense) volume you'll be just begging for more...

The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler & Other Strange Stories by Reggie Oliver. Hb, 432pp, £28.50. Published by The Haunted River.

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