The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court Critical Essays

Peter Taylor

The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Peter Taylor has concentrated his fiction on examining the lives of Southerners who, if not affluent and respected themselves, have such figures in their family past. His is a special world, restricted more to a social than racial South, focused more often around World War II than the Civil War, but structured nonetheless by the Old South’s values and codes. An acknowledged master of the short story, Taylor maintains a careful gentility to his narratives, but threaded through his stories are glimpses of violence and dark desire, reminders that the ordered surface world is rarely true image of the faults and fears underneath.

Almost every piece in this collection turns on the inevitability of death, but most of them also delve into the supernatural, that is, the encroachment of death into life, of spirits into the world of the living. The title story, for example, suggests that one elderly woman’s desire for life can enable her to possess the body of a younger girl; “The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs” proposes similar unusual powers for another elderly and finally tragic figure; and “Cousin Aubrey,” among the more comic of the stories, also questions possible transferences between dead and living, in style if not in spirit. Each of the three one-act plays presents an actual meeting of ghost and kin. In them, the living are haunted by a need to understand and to explain, but the dead are beyond them, in knowledge and reason.

Most of the stories are told in the first person, and Taylor is expert at subtly revealing his narrators’ psychological complexities. Some of the tales offer brief sketches; others are more fully developed explorations, detailed by family and history. The collection as a whole continues Taylor’s portrayal of a South inspired by its past but doomed to its own death as time and the world move on.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXVIII, March 20, 1993, p.19.

Chicago Tribune. February 28, 1993, XIV, p.6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 21, 1993, p.6.

The New Republic. CCVIII, March 8, 1993, p.40.

New Statesman and Society. VI, April 23, 1993, p.39.

The New York Review of Books. XL, March 25, 1993, p.43.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, February 21, 1993, p.13.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXIX, December 28, 1992, p.58.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 19, 1993, p.21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, February 21, 1993, p.3.