Book Notes: Robert Shearman and Margaret Oliphant

This weekend I finished reading Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks and Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark.

I bought Miss Marjoribanks on a whim after reading Tom Crewe’s recent article about it in the London Review of Books. I’d heard of Oliphant before as a writer of ghost stories, but I was utterly unprepared for this delightful blend of domestic comedy and serious social novel. As Elisabeth Jay’s fine introduction to the Penguin Classics edition notes, it’s hard to be sure quite how Oliphant feels about her title character. It’s clear enough that Lucilla, who uses the admirable goal of “being a comfort to her dear papa” as a pretext for reshaping the social life of the country-town of Carlingford to meet her own standards, and who approaches even the most mundane domestic challenge like a general making battle plans with the fate of the nation on the line, is meant to be a source of amusement. But it’s equally clear that Lucilla is, within her limited field of endeavor, a kind of genius. The question, then, is how much we’re meant to share Lucilla’s belief in the sacred importance of a refined and graceful social order. I don’t have anything approaching an answer to that question, which is part of why this is a book notes post rather than an essay, but I do know that I want to read more Oliphant. (I’ve already bought a collection of her ghost stories.) The fact that very little of her work is available in high-quality digital editions, or even in print, in the U. S. is a frustrating reminder that I don’t have easy access to an academic library. Finally, a mere 12 years after graduation, a reason other than student loans to regret not pursuing an academic career…

I’ve been a fan of Robert Shearman’s since I started getting into Big Finish following the first series of the revived Doctor Who in 2005 (which included Shearman’s own “Dalek”). I haven’t kept up on his short fiction in recent years, though; I bought and read what appears to be a signed copy of his first collection, Tiny Deaths, a while back, and I have unread digital copies of his two ChiZine Publications collections, but I’ve cut way back on my weird fiction reading and collecting in recent years. When I followed Shearman for the “Dalek” tweetalong earlier this year, though, I found out about We All Hear Stories in the Dark, and knew I had to buy it and dive in. This massive three-volume collection is set up like a choose-your-own-adventure: after each story you’re given five choices for where to go next, based on some connection or similarity, however tangential. There’s only one route that will take you through all of the 101 (or so) stories without any repetition, but the branching paths are cleverly enough set up that it’s still easy to get most of the way through the collection without retracing your steps; I had read about 90 of the stories before I gave up and just went through in order picking off the stragglers.

This is a neat structural approach, obviously, and it means that most readers will have radically different experiences of the collection (though skipping around more or less at will in a book of stories is something plenty of people do whether the author intends them to or not– I used to sort them by length and get the short ones out of the way first, and I know I’m not the only person who ever had that quirk), but of course it wouldn’t amount to much if the stories weren’t good. Fortunately they are. Shearman tempts fate by calling one of them “The Disappointing Story in the Book” (it’s not a disappointment, actually, but a charming postmodern gag about the value of imperfection), but the striking thing is how consistently good the stories are. Nothing feels like it was thrown in to round out the 101.

I’m nowhere near mad enough to try commenting on every single story (though the indefatigable Des Lewis did so in one of his legendary real-time reviews), which makes me strangely reluctant to bother singling any of them out. There are ghost stories, both traditional and deeply unconventional. There are comedies and tragedies (rather more of the latter), and the odd tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. There are retold fairy tales, absurdist takes on Christianity that are somehow never irreverent, stories about the meaning of storytelling. There are even a couple stories where the surprise twist is that nothing strange is happening, or nothing stranger than the appalling losses and small gains of ordinary life. There’s quite a lot of grief, along with its close companions depression and guilt. There are more clowns than I suspect you would find in 101 stories chosen at random.

It shouldn’t be possible to sum up what a collection this massive is “about,” but I could, as could most people who have read it carefully and peeked into all its nooks and crannies. But to do so would give too much away on a couple different levels, and reduce the brilliance of what Shearman has achieved here. And as if Shearman’s own brilliance wasn’t enough, each story has an illustration by Reggie Oliver, who aside from being a first-rate writer of strange stories is an artist with an excellent sense of how to convey the disturbing and the uncanny. I’m not sure I can recommend We All Hear Stories in the Dark to readers who are new to Shearman, simply because it’s such a substantial project and his brand of strangeness is not for all tastes. The two ChiZine best-of collections are probably more appropriate for new readers (and include a number of stories that can also be found here). But if you know enough about Shearman that the only question is whether this collection is him firing on all cylinders, you can be sure that it is.

…And, oh, all right, I’ll talk about a couple favorites. The first choice you make is whether you want a story that’s sad, one that’s funny, one that’s bitter, one that’s sweet, or one that’s dark. Which is a false choice, because almost every story in the collection is all five. But in any case: if you pick the dark one, as I did to start with, one of your options afterward will be to pick something that’s even darker. And that story has the same option, and so on, leading you down a hole into what might be the darkest story in the book. Or not. Personally, I’d say not. For me, the darkest story might be one of the last ones I read, “Peckish,” a fairy tale turned inside out so that you can see the blood and bones and flesh… and taste them, if you’re so inclined. Or it might be “Please Me,” one of the first stories I read, in which the darkness seems to come from the games a spoiled rich girl plays as she experiences a sexual awakening, but which spins out at the end into something entirely different. One of Shearman’s many talents is that ability to devise concepts and characters that seem to be leading inexorably in one direction, and then go somewhere entirely in a way that’s still perfectly true. Although I just finished the 1700+ pages of We All Hear Stories in the Dark after several weeks of reading, I’m already looking forward to starting over from the beginning. I have the map this time, but I’m still eager to get lost in the woods.

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