The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court
In a review of Peter Taylor’s previous collection, The Old Forest and Other Stories, almost eight years ago, I observed that Taylor, among the finest living American writers of realist short fiction, avoided the melodrama and extreme situations characteristic of so many other southern writers, including Faulkner and O’Connor: in his stories of provincial life, death and sex take place offstage. There is no rhetoric and no hint of the gothic. Taylor has been preeminently an artist of the “normal.”
But the new collection gives the lie to these earlier observations. Taylor, now late in life (he is seventy-six), has taken a distinct turn toward the gothic: in his new stories we encounter the paranormal in the shape of weird coincidences, clairvoyance, mysterious voices, and ghostly visitations. One story seemingly light in tone abruptly ends with the death of an innocuous young man on the day before his wedding. In another, an old woman’s throat is cut. For a longtime admirer of Taylor, The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court poses difficult questions. Are these stories with their sensational edge to be welcomed as an overdue break with the conventions that Taylor has, with minor deviations, maintained for nearly fifty years—or are they an experiment for which the author is temperamentally unsuited?
One should not exaggerate the degree of change in these new stories. As before, his characters are largely drawn from the upper reaches of society in Memphis, Nashville, and, occasionally, St. Louis; they have strong ties to their families and to their region and its past. Their social rituals, their houses, their moral assumptions are carefully recorded. And, as is characteristic of Taylor’s stories, we are taken back to the Forties, Thirties, and even to the Teens of this century. Even when weird events take place, they are so hedged about with qualifications and uncertainty on the part of the narrator that a reader may well wonder just how seriously they are to be taken.
The two most ambitious stories—an eighty-five-page novella, from which the collection takes its title, and a shorter story, “The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs: An Account of Her Remarkable Powers”—are both told in the first person by elderly narrators who have led stunted lives. One can almost hear the quavering of their voices as they describe events long ago. In “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court,” the narrator has been a sergeant during the Second World War who finagled a temporary assignment in Washington in order to be near a “fantastically good-looking girl” named Lila Montgomery, whom he met at a USO dance in Tennessee. During a chaste pursuit of this “nice girl,” he takes her with him to call on an aged great-aunt, Augusta St. John-Jones, the widow of a Tennessee congressman and once a significant figure on the Washington social scene. Aunt Gussie, who always occupied an equivocal position in family legend, now lives in reduced circumstances in a tiny back apartment at Stoneleigh Court—which, we …