‘Dancing on Air’ by Frances Oliver

Ash Tree Press (2004)


I’m starting below another of my real-time reviews. As ever, I shall attempt to draw out all the stories’ leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt.

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review as the items are posted below, before or during or after your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading the book. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here: http://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/.

My detailed reviews of the complete published fiction of Frances Oliver=============


The Visitor’s Book

“This place is as magical as ever…”

A literally ingenious tale of a ‘genius loci’ built up by by entries to a house’s Visitor’s book. Frissons and connections. Some Visitors write almost retrocausally to previous Visitors! Similar to (but also several stages further than) an epistolary type tale of a haunting, we have here several viewpoints, some insensitive to the atmosphere of the place, others less so. But they all have their implications, however insensitive … as if every reader will add to or subtract from the final inner gestalt of the story itself! Very impressive.

One extra frisson personally for me. The last entry is written by a Robert Liddell. Someone of this name features in ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’ by Nicola Beauman (Persephone 2009), a book that has effectively caused me to be reviewing ‘Dancing On Air’ in the first place, as a few of you reading this may know! (10 Feb 10)


Cyprian’s Room

“…but who on earth could be playing Schoenberg downstairs?”

Owing to the earlier context of this overall book being recommended to me, I was fully expecting to be generally impressed by it. But this story is quite beyond anything, I feel, I’ve read before, in view of my own interest in art and audience within the horror genre. Creativity as an incubus. Atonal plotting. False reviewing. Gender-freedom by neutralisation. Character intransference. The whole thing sort of just is without really becoming. If it truly ‘became’, I would hold no responsibility regarding what it might have become! It somehow prefigures Quentin S Crisp fiction that has emerged in recent years as well as ‘Cinnabar’s Gnosis’ (a new anthology by several writers from Ex Occidente Press in 2009). There is a character called Mr Meyer(beer) in this story. Cf Meyrink (who I recall is called Meyer once or twice in ‘Cinnabar’s Gnosis’). It is as if there is a sort of osmosis working here across several muses. This story is highly disturbing. Where has it been all my life? This is not at all what I expected. (10 Feb 10 – 5 hours later)


The Black Mare Midnight

“…that sense of being forever on the threshhold of something grand, never left me.”

Exquiste gem. A short piece covering a magnitude of time that left me with tears of sorrow and joy in my eyes. Literally. It tells of a Childhood partly reminsicent of ‘Calmahain’ by Sarban and ‘The Fruit-Stoners’ by Algernon Blackwood as a rite of passage into adulthood seeking the treasure that was lost when growing up. Faces that come and go as a dream of reality itself changing throughout the distillation of time passing, a precious reality within fiction that is in itself, in turn, within fiction, this short nocturne by a Chopin who thinks he’s Aickman.

So far, I’m beginning to think this book is not going to allow itself to be subjected to my usual methods in all my previous real-time reviews (even in those reviews of multi-authored anthologies) of encompassing the many stories’ themes into a gestalt of personal serendipities and synchronicities. It defies me. (10 Feb 10 – another 3 hours later)


Prester John

“It began from one day to the next. John simply opened his mouth and spoke, loudly and at length.”

A truly fascinating treatment of an autistic man who is eventually discovered (not expressly in the story’s words) ‘to speak in tongues’ – and we are led to believe that he becomes, perhaps, a living embodiment of the Prester John myth (Cf. John Buchan’s novel entitled ‘Prester John’).

A tale about exploitation and contrasting psychological approaches – and a crime mystery of cause & effect in more ways than one.

This story and the book’s three previous stories (reviewed above) have something in common: the accretion of themes towards a core stituation that transpires often over a sizeable span of time – comprising a display of clues in real-time without pre-empting hindsight.

The book itself somehow has a knack of instinctive ‘speaking in tongues’, fiction tongues within ordered internal texts (Cf those earlier concocted ‘reviews’ in ‘Cyprian’s Room’). (11 Feb 10)


The Monster Drawing

“Roderick, though a bit of an ass, was the only other man in the house and was, after all, writing about H.P. Lovecraft, and not quite so prone as Deirdre to see everything in terms of complexes and hang-ups.”

A disarmingly absurdist, yet still artfully traditional, weird-tale with haunting images. It tells of a Freudianly dysfunctional family, where the children seem delightfully to combine elements of those in ‘Calmahain’ and in ‘Just William’ and in some children-orientated Elizabeth Bowen stories. With a game of pictorial Consequences, prankish monster catching and, in tune with the previous story, a Lovecraftian ‘speaking in tongues’, I am now well and truly trapped by this book. With more Consequences yet to unravel no doubt like a concertina of leit-motifs. (12 Feb 10)

A Walk in the Forest

“And the cretin anyhow was an administrative mistake;”

Sometimes one knows one is reading a ‘Hospice’: a generic term, for me, that reminds me of when I first read a story with that title by Robert Aickman and, ‘in-media-res’, simply knowing that it will haunt me forever in a way that cannot be fully predicted. As if the future holds a literary retrocausality beyond my own jurisdiction as a participant in the story as reader. ‘A Walk in the Forest’ has today become, for me, another such ‘Hospice’.

It is written from the narrative viewpoint of a (dependable?) inmate of a “neglected garden of dementia“. Conspiracies, inspections, behavioural aberrations, angles on the ‘youth of today’ (as locusts?), one cannot do justice to this story without ‘spoiling’ it. Suffice to say that it has the artful accretions and ‘fiction tongues’ of the previous stories. It reminded me of the slippery concept of infinity: “millions and billions and trillions“, of waiting for a monkey to type out the complete works of Shakespeare. A maze of involuted Consequences.

Everyone can breathe if they want to do so. But even if one is laughing too much? (12 Feb 10 – three hours later)


The Man in the Blue Mercedes

“It sometimes seemed to me that anything could symbolize anything,”

This is a Gothic-Romantic exercise in ‘infinity’ (to follow the vague reference to ‘infinity’ I seemed to have already found in the previous story), written in beautifully textured prose.

Another dysfunctional family, and the narrator-woman’s impulsive display of passion in leaving home (for a while), then touching a (Freudian?) dream she perhaps wanted to avoid, one of love, even imaginary sex, with a stranger who haunts her in an equally haunting ‘genius loci’ of Bad Moor (a sometimes sinister community in the Austrian mountains to where she travels by train).

∞ = I + I.

A time-drowning mirror.

” ‘…you’re beginning to think every puff of imagination is something to be sold.’ ” (12 Feb 10 – another 4 hours later)

The Dinosaurs

“Some children are weathervanes to the winds of fear,”

This is a classic story of the psyche of childhood in the face of fears presented by some adults and by other things – innocence tested, petulance triggered, obsessions ignited, world affairs absorbed, once firmly fixed positions of interest ever on the point of unfixing…

Frances Oliver and Elizabeth Bowen, I feel, are tapping into similar veins within their fiction about children. In the former, we seem to have a more Sarbanised version (yet intrinsically original), in the latter, a style that is more literary mainstream…but both essentially within the precarious Soul of Child.

Accretions, speaking in fiction tongues, Freudian Consequences … a kaleidoscope of prehistoric monsters and contemporary monsters that one hears about on the wireless or that one calls ‘uncle’. All subject to passing ambivalences and fixities. (13 Feb 10)


The Married Man

“A big man in his field.”

For me, a hilarious social comedy of a ladies group who enjoy gossip and scandal – and even try to create scandal in their own lives beneath genteel innuendo but also sometimes with blatant erotic pretentiousness … plus a dark hint of an obsessive dream of a ghost or a real ghost (similar to that in the ‘Blue Mercedes’ story reviewed above).

This story also reminds me of the feminine rivalries and other interactions prevalent in the real life of Elizabeth Taylor in ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’ (the biography book that effectively caused me – by dint of a series of Consequences – to be writing this review in the first place) as well as the fictitious life depicted in Elizabeth Taylor’s stories and novels themselves. Amazing! (13 Feb 10 – three hours later).


Dancing on Air

“Not being a Stockhausen fan…”

This memorable story represents, for me, intentionally or serendipitously or synchronistically, a spinning waltz of the book’s accretions, hospices, relational dysfunctions, ‘tongues’, consequences in what I see as a ‘snow-shaker’ globe of dancers. Some avant-garde (like Stockhausen – or Schoenberg, earlier, in ‘Cyprian’s Room’), some weird like Aickman or Sarban, others dense and textured (like Elizabeth Bowen fiction), others more traditionally ghost-story. And, as I foreshadowed (by retrocausality earlier?), we indeed have express retrocausality in this story (!): “…you heard the story, but your brain makes you remember it as something you saw before.”

A female protagonist — attending a weirdly framed business conference in an Austrian city — emotionally / sexually tempted and shifted by fate with implications of experiment and potential viral as well as spiritual infection. An ambiguous ending. A perfect ending to the book. A book that has been a series of separate ‘Visitor’s notes’ all contributing their own leit-motifs towards an overall gestalt. This is perhaps the first book that has done that for me by its own volition. It did not really defy me (as I earlier thought) but somehow assisted me, whispered me towards its own end. (13 Feb 10 – another 3 hours later)


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