The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court
Although Peter Taylor’s novel A Summons to Memphis (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1987, he is best known as a master of the short story, having published seven collections including The Collected Stories of Peter Thylor (1968) and The Old Forest and Other Stories (1985). Taylor most often writes about well-to- do Southerners in his native state of Tennessee, families with manners and heritage and lore out of the old South. Yet he places these characters in the changing world of the twentieth century, a world reduced in some ways, altered by the incursion of a more varied society. Taylor’s characters are often attempting to adjust to new expectations or to avoid admitting that a new world exists. Taylor usually concentrates on an early and mid-twentieth century South, one within touching distance of legend but constrained on all sides by modern realities.
Although there is always a strong social stratification in Taylor’s stories, he rarely romanticizes his people. Indeed, his ability to look beneath the surface of these well- bred lives, to see there the confusions and fears and hatreds and perversions, is one of his great gifts. Yet he examines them quietly, almost delicately, even respect-fully. The majority of the works collected in The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court center on death, but few of them are violent, and the violence that does occur is distanced by irony or even humor. Most of the works are also motivated by the supernatural, but Taylor’s ghosts are rarely horrifying, although they may very well be threatening or destructive (or sometimes edifying). Like Henry James and Edith Wharton, Taylor uses the ghost story to reveal more about this life than about the one hereafter, more about the person haunted than about the spirit haunting. “I think all people who see ghosts see them because they need to,” Taylor said in a brief New York Times Book Review interview with Laurel Graeber, and such is certainly the case with the people in these stories and plays.
Most of the stories in this collection are told in the first person, usually the voice of a Southern male remembering his youth and events that changed his life. The first story, which gives the collection its title, is actually closer to a novella and is vaguely connected to A Summons to Memphis. The narrator is a friend of Philip Carver, the protagonist of that book, and of Alex Mercer, another of the novel’s characters. The “oracle,” however, is his Aunt Gussie, Mrs. Augusta St. John-Jones, “longtime widow of a Tennessee congressman who had in fact died of a heart attack while midway through his maiden speech on the floor of the House.” The old woman (who, Taylor has said, is modeled to an extent on one of his own relatives) has continued to live in Washington, D.C., remembering the old days, her brief experience with influence and power before the unexpected death of her husband. At the time of the story, she is a practitioner of the occult, reads the tarot, and claims to be in contact with the narrator’s deceased grandfather, himself a former governor of Tennessee and U.S. senator.
The narrator, who is recalling these events from a later date, is also an unusual, and perhaps not entirely reliable, character. Having declared himself a conscientious objector at the beginning of World War II, he is nevertheless drafted and stationed near Washington while awaiting shipment overseas. There he comes to know his Aunt Gussie and falls in love with a young woman, Lila Montgomery, also from Tennessee. The first part of his story recounts these days in Washington and reveals how Lila, who is a fiercely ambitious woman, determined to benefit from the war, and Aunt Gussie, who has briefly held power and lost it, form a secret and strange relationship. When the narrator asks Lila to marry him, she refuses, explaining,
You see, I want so to be somebody who matters. Your aunt has introduced me to any number of people-people of considerable influence and importance. …I am afraid that you have never understood what an ambitious creature I am. It’s my future I am wrapped up in, and I am afraid I can’t give myself to anybody else while that is the case.
The second part of the novella is set in Memphis three years after the war. The narrator has become a hero, acclaimed for his exploits during the Normandy invasion, but significantly he can remember nothing about it. “What my acts of heroism had been, remained for me to discover from chance remarks I heard dropped from other soldiers who came upon the scene and from accounts I uncovered in old newspapers,” he admits. Back home, he has begun dating a local woman and is comfortable with his life, if not with his celebrity. Into this world Aunt Gussie and Lila reappear. The old woman is very ill and has come home to die; Lila accompanies her as a companion but soon...
(The entire section is 2008 words.)