This week’s weird fiction selection.
Review: “Countess Otho”, Reggie Oliver, 2009.
This is another ghost story from Oliver and one drawing on his theatre background. Like most Oliver stories I’ve read, it can, from a certain perspective, be seen as a ghost story, but it’s also more than that.
There are menaces from the past and a play that may drive people mad and secrets to be pieced together from old letters and theatrical memorabilia.
The story starts on December 1, 1987 and is narrated in the first person.
Strictly, speaking some passages, like the opening one, could be argued to not be relevant to the story, even as characterization or mood setting. But Oliver makes them interesting, so I didn’t mind.
The story starts out, in the first two pages, with the narrator talking about how he despises the autograph seekers, the “Book People”, who hang about theaters. He is an understudy to the lead in a musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s work called Rue Morgue. The theater is on a street between the Strand and Maiden Lane in London. The play’s lead is Ricky Dee, formerly in a boy band (in fact, it was called Boy Band). The narrator says Dee is not as bad as expected but not as good as him.
The narrator gets a letter from his condescending brother (who calls him “Bro”), a lawyer. The narrator learns his great aunt Cecily died, and his brother is passing on some of her stuff. (He sold the good stuff and is basically sending stuff to the narrator that he doesn’t want to sort through.) The narrator was fond of Cecily who was an actress early in her life.
As he heads backstage during the performance, he hears one of the Book People ask “Ye have it with ye?”.
Going through Cecily’s stuff, he comes across a play, Countess Otho, a drama in four acts by Richard Archer Prince. It’s written in an “uneducated hand”, and he doesn’t read it right away.
A week later, Ricky Dee takes a fall, and the narrator is now in the lead as Poe. Around the stage, he hears an unknown member of the Book People ask “Have ye read it yet?”
Three days later (this is all told in a dated journal), he finally reads Countess Otho. He is not impressed:
Of course as a play it’s utterly hopeless, written by a complete no-talent, probably a madman of some kind. The plot is only intermittently comprehensible, but it seems to reflect the turn-of-the-century vogue for Ruritanian Romance.
He then goes on to describe the plot which is not as “accessible” as he makes it sound, “more dull than strange.
He notes that parts look like they were corrected by a different hand.
He hears from the theater doorman (a job he notes usually held by ex-cons) that some unpleasant, smelly person with a Scottish accent has been asking for him. The narrator, of course, doesn’t know him.
The next day the narrator says he can’t get the play out of his head.
There’s a memorable, absurd (and unstageable) bit where a fly in the prison cell with the Countess becomes giant and disappears. He also hears from the stage manager that somebody has been looking for him.
That night, leaving the theater, he hears a voice say “I have made ye; I can break ye.”
On December 20th, the narrator hears he may be replaced by a tv soap star. He also gets another parcel with memorabilia from his Aunt Cecily’s stage days. He then talks about her life and the increasingly solitaire mode of his life. He wonders why Jacob Sammons, a publisher of plays, sent her the play. (His letter to Cecily is dated December 19, 1918.) The narrator finds out she never looked at the play – perhaps because she quit acting because she ran out of ambition, didn’t like what theater life did to people.
A couple of days later, we hear that the prospective lead for the play was knifed and is in the hospital. This makes the narrator restless, and he goes for a walk in the fog – which makes him feel he might be in Bratislava or the London of 1897.
This is suggestive since the figure who comes out of the fog is not a normal person, perhaps a spirit or ghost. The stranger says,
My name it is MacGregor and my foot is upon my native heath. And you are my heir.
Asked what he wants, the stranger says, “Meat, money, and fame.” He goes on to say they are both actors and that he wrote Countess Otho. Given that it’s 99 years (to the day almost) of Sammons’ letter, the narrator finds this extraordinary.
MacGregor says his “hour has come”. They are bound together, blood brothers, says MacGregor. His touch is cold, and the next the narrator knows he’s in front of his theater again.
Several weeks later, the narrator gets more of Cecily’s stuff. He sees a story that Richard Archer Prince, “Mad Archer”, stabbed an actor to death in 1897. Archer was deemed insane and sent to the Broadmoor Hospital until 1937 where he often took the lead in inmate theatrical productions. (It’s unclear if he died in the hospital.)
The narrator then finds another letter from Sammons Plays Ltd, but it’s not from Sammons, but from an anonymous party. It tells of a creepy guy hanging around the office with a play – “we kind of saw him and yet we didn’t” (which matches the narrator’s experience of MacGregor). Sammons assistant, Cresby, suggested the play be burned, but Sammons has a better idea and mails it to Cecily.
William Terriss was the man MacGregor killed. The play was given to Sammons by William Abingdon shortly before the latter committed suicide. We learn that Abingdon provoked Mad Archer into killing Terriss because Abingdon was professionally jealous of Terriss. There is also the suggestion that Sammons and Cecily had something going. The letter says Sammons is “awful bitter about the way things broke up between you two”. Sammons sent the play to Cecily out of malice. (Perhaps this is an example of what Cecily meant by the theater corrupting people.)
The narrator’s final journal entry, dated March 4, 1988, implies MacGregor has been bothering him. The narrator’s friends have shunned him, suspecting him mad. Then a solution occurs to the narrator, a solution from a line in the play:
My Acts of Madness must be proclaimed from the church tower. They must be sung and rung throughout the land. They must reach the lowliest rat in the street, and the foulest drab in her fœtid sheets, They must pierce like a dagger through the hearts of proud prelates and psalm-singers. They must be in the minds of merchants and newsboys and sting them to life!
The story ends with the narrator putting Countess Otho into a Sotheby’s auction of crime memorabilia.
He and MacGregor have a sense of triumph and vindication. When he goes to that night’s performance, he sees, in the line of the Book People, MacGregor smiling and nodding.
We have heard mention of how MacGregor smells of mothballs, and the final two sentences of the story are
He nods and smiles again. We smell of success. The whole world rings with our madness.
The implication is that the manuscript is a cursed object releasing madness to those exposed to it which will, soon, be the world. This play doesn’t curse its performers. It’s sort of a theatrical version of H. P. Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep summoning an apocalypse out of humanity.
There are some unresolved matters (not at all a bad thing for a good weird story, which I think this is). Why does Sammons bear Cecily malice? Did he have some idea that it was a sort of magical artifact? If so, why? Did Abingdon collaborate with MacGregor on the play (that second hand)? Why is Prince listed as the author of the play? Was he fronting for MacGregor? Or, more likely, are MacGregor and Archer the same man? Was Abingdon’s contact with the play what drove him to suicide?
I wonder also, with the Scottish MacGregor, if Oliver is having a little fun with the theatrical superstition of referring to Shakespeare’s Macbeth as “the Scottish Play” rather than risk bad luck by using its real name. This play is cursed and Scottish.