BOOK REVIEW / Lost world of Southern comforts: The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court - Peter Taylor: Chatto, pounds 14.99

PETER TAYLOR is from Tennessee, and has been paying attention to it, one way and another, for almost 80 years. He is a master of the Memphis scene of the Thirties, and of the modern short story; his work is little known in Britain - where he is apt to be spoken of as a friend of the poet Robert Lowell - and is less than prominent, despite honours and awards, in America itself. His stories hark back to the Civil War South, and proceed towards the deluge of the Second World War, which enlists the sensitive young man who tends to narrate them, a young man fond of words and play and girls, and prone to acknowledgements of a genteel weakness. Many of Taylor's Southerners think of themselves as 'the special urban remnants of an old gentry out of another time'.

The stories in this new collection keep saying 'of course'. Sometimes there's no 'of course' about it. Sometimes, to the point of redundancy, there is: 'I was 14 in the summer of 1933 and of course 15 the next summer.' This recurrence of the expression seems inattentive of Taylor, but it isn't entirely so. The expression speaks of the course of time, and of matters of course, of the unchanging. His book can also give a sense of the arrival of a doubtful new world, after the deluge of the war. But it would be hard to read it as that of some Southern conservative, a praiser of the past.

These antediluvian stories are interested in comprehension, in power, and in strange powers. They are a lot taller than the ones I remember from 10 years ago: you have to ask yourself whether this Southern gentleman has gone supernatural. Each of the two main tales here, near-novellas, has its witch. The first witch is an old Washington hostess, astrological Aunt Gussie, who comes between the drafted narrator and his delicious date. The narrator is conscious, in retrospect, that his relations with the girl have been platonic, maidenly. Later he couples with her, brutishly, in the wartime manner, when the three meet again 'down in Memphis', where the sorceress has been taken to die.

The other story stars a jilted belle who goes queer in a fine old fairly shabby summer resort, amid a blaze of suspicious fires. Both stories are in the vein of the Jamesian occult, which forms part of an Edwardian occult, where the approach to the supernatural is, as often as not, hypothetical or tentative. In any naturalistic sense, they are not fully believable. Yet the possible presence of strange powers doesn't detract from, and can even enhance, preoccupations which are altogether authentic and which are very much Taylor's.

The book includes three ghostly playlets, charged with the intensities of family life. They are a bit too big for their one-act boots, and are no match for the human interest afforded by each and every one of the stories, the curiosity they arouse, the precise and delicate language of their narrators - those ghosts of Peter Taylor's childhood and youth. He has the ability to make lively and funny even so unpromising a theme as a fuss over the fate of a deconsecrated Episcopalian font at the back of the Tennessee beyond.

His talent suggests a common ground, rarely looked at now by literary historians, between the modern literatures of Britain and America, and it can bring to mind the work of certain English storytellers: Elizabeth Taylor, for example, and Francis Wyndham, whose stories do some of the things Peter Taylor's do with the advent of the Second World War, and have some of the same quiet and important virtues.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there