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 are told, is still a prestigious address. There, amid inscribed photographs of Grace Coolidge and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Tarot cards, the signs of the Zodiac, and a statuette of the bleeding Saint Sebastian, this spirited old lady indulges her passion for the occult. Welcoming the young soldier, she sets out to instill in him the ambition that characterized his distinguished ancestors, one of whom, a former senator renowned for his oratorical powers, is her ghostly visitor. She also exerts her spell on Lila, encouraging her to find herself a man who will amount to something in politics.
Does Aunt Gussie really possess supernatural powers? Is her influence on the two young people mischievous or benign? It is hard to tell. The narrator’s account of his climactic visit to his great-aunt’s apartment is carefully hedged:
The apparitions that Aunt Gussie produced that afternoon in her narrative or by her stagecraft or by her mesmerism—I know not which it was—momentarily made me forgetful of the drabness of my camp life during the previous year and a half and oblivious to my overseas experience, which I knew lay ahead of me. I gave myself wholeheartedly to the phantasmagoria that my aunt served up for my beguilement. My grandfather appeared to me first in the guise of a young man lecturing in the Chautauqua series of the 1880s…. Then clearly under the influence of Aunt Gussie he appeared as the occupant of the Tennessee gubernatorial chair…. And at last I saw him in full feather on the floor of the Senate chamber, and delighting that body with his fine flow of rhetoric. Next there appeared my own sainted grandmother, managing to be both elegant and saintly in her suede gloves and her feathercovered hat.
Fired by these visions, he rushes out to propose to Lila, whom he has hardly even kissed. She turns him down, having been inspired during her own sessions with Aunt Augusta to rise in Washington and find a husband more likely to distinguish himself there than this rather melancholy and passive soldier.
The story then shifts to the end of the war, when, after two years in a military hospital, the narrator (who was a conscientious objector before being drafted) returns to Memphis a war hero, who had single-handedly captured two dozen German soldiers at the time of the Normandy invasion. But he can remember nothing of this exploit, having fainted and struck his head on a stone while carrying it out; he knows only what other people have told him, though he pretends that his memory has returned. Deeply embarrassed by his notoriety, he is further alarmed when he encounters the now worldly and elegant Lila, who arrives in Memphis with the mortally ill Aunt Gussie. He is now the hero Lila has been looking for, and, still under Augusta’s spell, she is determined to capture him. Her aggressive pursuit horrifies him and he decides to marry a meek local girl he has been seeing. When Lila hears the news, she faints—at the very moment when Aunt Gussie dies across town in a Memphis hospital.
What is one to make of this? The unreliability of the war-shocked narrator, together with the wavering and uncertain—as well as somewhat pedantic—manner in which the story is told, left this reader in a state of frustration. The personality, background, and above all, the speech of Aunt Gussie seem merely stagy rather than arresting or eerie. Lila, glimpsed only through the narrator’s clouded sensibility, is never enough of a person to make her transformation either plausible or dramatic. The big scenes themselves lack drama—again because they are so dimly lit. The novella’s disparate elements, whether realistic or fantastic, never add up to anything coherent.
“The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs” begins with an old man’s charming evocation of the clusters of lovely girls that so appealed to him at the various stages of his growing up, most particularly during “the hot Depression summers” of 1933 and 1934 when he was an adolescent. The boy is fascinated by their “bonding,” their “tender camaraderie,” and by the details of their dress, to which he pays obsessive attention. The setting for this infatuation is the old-fashioned summer resort of Owl Mountain Springs, to which Tennessee landowning families had been coming for generations. Of all the families at this resort, the one with the most distinguished lineage is the Pettigrus, and of all the lovely jeunes filles en fleur, Lizzy Pettigru is the most enchanting to the boy. A couple of years older than he is, she nonetheless singles him out for her special attention and confides in him that she considers herself different from the other girls—though in what respects it is not clear. He idolizes her to such a degree that he cannot imagine that she might love him.
Lizzy becomes engaged to a rich young man, who runs off with her best friend. The pair go to Hollywood, adopt new names, and become second-rate film actors, meanwhile, the jilted Lizzy and her humiliated family remain at their Owl Mountain Springs Cottage, and withdraw into isolation. Decades pass. The old resort falls into decay. The hotel and other buildings are burned down, presumably by an arsonist. The parents die, and Lizzy grows old, acquiring a reputation for witchcraft among the local mountain people. The narrator, who has never married, returns to Owl Springs, where he observes Lizzy’s transformation into an old crone. They have not spoken since the day her fiancé betrayed her. With her “powers” Lizzy is able to summon old acquaintances to visit her, only to refuse to see them when they arrive. Her final visitors are the couple from Hollywood who had wronged her nearly sixty years before. As they are driving at high speed up the mountain in a rented Cadillac, they run off the road, and are killed. That night, Lizzy’s cottage catches fire and Lizzy herself is found with her throat cut.
Much remains unclear. Even more than the narrator of “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court,” the man telling this story makes a point of his unreliability, telling us at one point that he has been periodically subject to episodes of amnesia under high stress. The story circles and digresses, moving backward and forward over a sixty year span. The extreme response of Lizzy and her parents to her being jilted never becomes credible, nor is the behavior of the narrator. We are told—but never made to feel—that the change in Lizzy’s appearance has disenchanted him and that he recognizes in himself a kind of hatred “for this creature I once idolized.”
Why had I come back to Owl Mountain Springs all these years? Why had I been destined to live so long as to see all vestiges of what I could love in Lizzy’s face and figure entirely vanish? And at the last I found myself asking myself: was I ever in her mind any different from the others? And did she still have some hideous fate in her mind for me?
By the time these questions are asked, they seem merely rhetorical. Not even the possibility that the narrator himself in a fit of amnesia murdered Lizzy and set fire to her cottage can produce a frisson of horror. The atmosphere at Owl Mountain Springs is simply too thin, the characters disembodied, the discursive mode of narration, which can be so effective in Taylor’s realist stories, too diffuse to produce what we expect from tales of the uncanny—whether the fevered intensity that we associate with Poe or the psychological complexity and sinister suggestiveness that distinguish the ghost stories of Henry James. The problem, in both the story and the novella, is not with the fantastic plots or with the gothic elements per se; it is, rather, with what one senses as a lack of conviction, almost a hesitancy, on the author’s part as he ventures into what seems alien fictional territory.
A similar lack of conviction weakens the other stories involving the supernatural, despite the potential interest of their themes; these include the story “Demons,” in which a boy’s perceptions are much affected by the mysterious voices he sometimes hears, and a group of three one-act “ghost” plays, all of them concerned with the radically different ways the members of a family see the same person. The dialogue in the plays unhappily too often relies on the clichés of melodrama.
But the book contains two stories in Taylor’s more familiar vein that are first-rate, well worth close reading. One, “The Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church (In the Year of Our Lord 1952),” is a comedy of manners set in the small town of Blackwell, Tennessee. At the apex of the town’s society is an old gentleman, Mr. Thurston Roundtree, the last surviving member of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the rest of the congregation having otherwise died or moved away. The church itself has been derelict for a long time and is now being torn down on the grounds that it has become a “hazard.” To the town’s busybody lawyer, Tom Elkins, old Mr. Roundtree seems curiously detached from the fate of the church, though he goes each day to watch the progress of its demolition from across the street. The man in charge of the wrecking crew is a roughneck named Sam Flemming, whose father, a Free Will Baptist, was once employed as what Sam calls the “section,” i.e., sexton, of St. John’s. When Sam, who, despite appearances, has gentlemanly instincts, offers to let Mr. Roundtree have anything he wants from the church on the eve of its demolition, the old man laughs and rejects the offer. Hurt and insulted by this rebuff, Sam turns around to shout orders to his workmen.
The core of the story concerns the disposition of the marble baptismal font, which Sam finds in the church and sets up as a birdbath in the yard next to his ramshackle cottage. His bedraggled wife is so delighted by this acquisition that she and her daughters plant flowers around it—the first flowerbed the Flemmings have ever had. But the good Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists of the town are outraged by this sacrilege and demand that the font be removed. Only Mr. Roundtree doesn’t seem to care what use the font is put to. As the situation unfolds, we learn of the combined awe and resentment with which the whiskey-drinking, card-playing, rich (and now almost extinct) Episcopalians have been regarded by the rest of the town. Even the good-natured and usually deferential Tom Elkins, who is a Methodist, is offended by Mr. Roundtree’s indifference, though the old man explains to him that the church had been deconsecrated by the bishop many years before. “That.” Tom thinks,
is what Episcopalians were like! For them it was as simple as that: the holiness was removed with the wave of that bishop’s hand. It was as primitive as that. It was a matter of pure magic.
Sam Flemming has another motive for revenge. He tells Tom Elkins, who comes to persuade or bribe him to give up the font, that his Daddy, disillusioned with the Free Will Baptists, once said to Mr. Roundtree’s late sister that he was thinking of leaving the Baptists and joining the Episcopalians.
“….But she said to him, ‘No, Jack, you have your church and we have ours. It’s better to keep it that way.’ ” Sam, while he spoke, had been looking directly at Tom, but when he quoted the Episcopal lady he dropped his eyes momentarily, and a smile came to his lips, a somewhat mechanical smile that parted his lips and showed a row of uneven, tobacco-stained teeth. “That’s why I was kind of glad,” he said presently, raising his eyes again and looking quite solemn, “to keep something out of the old church like my woman’s birdbath yonder—sort of in memory of my old man.”
Sam charges Tom twenty dollars for the font, but on the day it is to be removed, he offers to return Tom’s money so that Mr. Roundtree can have it. Again Mr. Roundtree refuses. “Tell him I think it looks pretty up there, Tom. Why not leave it there?” But it is now too late for that, and even the outraged cries of Mrs. Flemming and her daughters cannot keep the font from being carried off.
Here Taylor draws on his acute sense of the tensions and class envy that lie beneath the surface of the town to create a shrewd social comedy. By contrast, the situation explored in “In the Waiting Room” is almost unremittingly grim. The story is essentially plotless: Taylor assembles a small group of people in a waiting room in a downtown Memphis hospital and lets them talk. Though they all differ in class and dress and manners, they have several things in common: they all come from Arkansas, across the river, they are all waiting for an elderly relative to die, and they are all filled with grief and guilt over the inevitably unsatisfactory provisions they have made for the last years of their dying relatives.
With the attention to detail he has shown in his best work, Taylor allows each of his characters a brief but distinctive moment that is full of implication. How, we are led to wonder, did the life of the businessman in his elegant navy-blue suit and houndstooth tie happen to be so widely different from that of his bachelor brother in khaki trousers and high, waterproof shoes? And what of the solitary young man sitting against the north wall of the room? “He was dark haired, dark eyed, dark suited—he even wore dark, pointed-toe shoes. But his socks were white, and he wore a white shirt, open at the collar.”
Such drama as there is in the story occurs with the appearance at the doorway of the solitary young man’s “grandma,” a tall old country woman in a bright print dress down to her ankles. Three of the men stand up, leading her to say, “I do declare I never saw so many gentlemen in one room.” Only her grandson fails to look at her. After exclaiming over the beauty of the view of Memphis from the window, she tells about the trouble they had last night with her husband, whom she always calls “Mr. Glover.” He got out of bed, stripped off his nightshirt, and announced that he wanted to leave the hospital.
“I hauled myself up out of my chair and asked him, ‘And where do you think you’re going, Mr. Glover—naked as a bluejay?’…’I want my clothes,’ he said, like some bad little old boy.” The old woman rolled her eyes around the room almost kittenishly. She put her hand to her mouth and seemed to laugh into it.
When the grandson, at last looking at the old woman, asks why she didn’t send for him, she replies that he had already done his share of sitting with his grandfather. What she does not tell her grandson and the others is that Mr. Glover died earlier that morning.
The talk continues. Everyone present has tales—most of them shocking or heartbreaking—to tell about nursing homes and the terrible choices that have to be made in dealing with the very old. Some are guarded, some are politely euphemistic, some are painfully direct. “But what is one to do with old people?” demands one woman, for the moment oblivious of the fact that an old woman is in the room with them. We learn that the grandson, appalled by the effect that caring for her husband was having on his grandmother, had, against her will, tricked the old man into visiting a nursing home and then left him there, having already made arrangements and paid the entrance fee. Though his grandfather never forgave him, he has no regrets—“You can’t let them take the living with them!” It is a sentiment with which most agree. “But it’s hard,” two of them say.
A nurse finally appears at the door and tells the now weeping old woman that her husband has “gone”—meaning that his body has been taken to the undertakers’. The grandson is furious at his grandmother for not telling him sooner, and she replies that he wouldn’t have wanted to see the way his grandfather was at the end—nor would she have wanted him to. Together they leave the room and walk down the corridor toward the elevator.
Just as the doors slid closed, those in the waiting room saw the young man withdraw his arm from his grandmother’s waist, turn away from her in a sudden, spasmodic motion, and quickly throw both his hands up to his face. Then they saw the old woman, herself, turn her back to the young man and hide her own face in her hands.
The story ends with the silence of those left in the waiting room and with an almost Chekhovian reflection by the hitherto unobtrusive narrator:
What could their silence mean? Perhaps until a moment before the elevator doors closed they had imagined that the death of the old man would draw his old wife and his grandson closer together, would draw them into closer understanding of each other, that for all their differences they would be of comfort to each other now…. And for them was there any other prospect than that view down the corridor and the image of the pair on the elevator, turning their backs to each other, burying their faces in their hands, each…shedding his own tears for what he had not been able to do and all he had to do?
While neither “The Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church” nor “In the Waiting Room” is on the scale of Taylor’s richly conceived earlier novels-in-miniature, “The Old Forest” or “In the Miro District,” for example, they rank, I think, with many of his best stories and remind us of just how good a writer he can be.