|Art by Paul Lowe|
Sarob Press (Robert Morgan), La Bliniere, 53250, Neuille-Vendin, France
Dust jacket by Paul Lowe
This review appeared first in the Ghosts and Scholars newsletter.
This is a thrilling and truly creepy collection of stories by Peter Bell. All the elements are there - the setting, slightly distanced in place or time, the coded (it mustn't be too obvious) 'theory' of the haunting, warnings or hints of menace - and the sprung trap. Whether that trap closes on an actual victim, or merely (merely?) leaves the narrator changed, it has to close the circle, leaving the reader thinking "ah!" or else dreading what the last paragraph will bring. All of the stories here deliver that, meeting and building on the best Jamesian standard. And in the course of the volume Bell explores some particular preoccupations - such as with the Hebrides and their folklore, and more widely, those of the celtic fringes in general, which feature in several stories here.
Apotheosis, the first story in the book, is one of these. The unnamed narrator, a distinguished historian now retired, relates an uncanny episode that happened to him many years before on visiting one of those islands. Ingeniously bound up in the neglected paintings of a lost master, the penny drops here for the narrator slightly after the reader may have joined the dots - but is no less effective for that. The Executioner is another Hebridean tale, focussing on the dangerous mountain peaks of the Black Cuillin - their Gaelic names recited in a hypnotic, spell-like litany - and the perils of climbing them unprepared. As in the best stories, it unsettles while leaving a lingering doubt as to what really happened. Similarly, while not 'Celtic' - venturing instead to the north of Iceland - Many Shades of Red also uses a remote and sublime setting, with its own dark mythology, to bring a sinister mystery from the past into the present.
In The Virgin Mary Well, we visit the Isle of Man (this book has an excellent geographic reach) - a setting I haven't encountered much in Jamesian fiction (I think I can recall one story by Robert Aickman?) and therefore with a sense of the unfamiliar that adds to the air of menace. An ancient well has been rediscovered, but there's an ambivalence about it from the locals because of a link with the Fair Folk. Despite this, Norman and his twelve year old daughter Alice, visiting from the mainland, decide to take a look...
The Island returns to the Hebrides, with an account of a traveller who wants to set foot on every Scottish Island. Sometimes, though, it's hard to find a way to land on an island, almost as though someone thinks it might be a bad idea... Perfectly realised, this story left a real sense of lingering unease both abut the reason for the abandonment of the island, and about what might have become - or might still become of - our brave narrator.
Sithean - my favourite story in this book - has a similar setting, with a mystery surrounding a holiday cottage to which a young couple have come for a week of climbing and walking. (Seriously, shouldn't there be some kind of regulatory authority to make sure that cottages inherited form distant relatives are properly checked out for hauntings, fairy infestations and feelings of dread before they are let to unsuspecting tourists?) You just know something bad is going to happen. Just not how bad.
Wild Wales has again, of course, a 'Celtic' setting which this time hosts a classic ghost story when a somewhat fussy National Trust bureaucrat bites off much more than he can chew while on business in a remote district. Despite the story, in some respects, repeating a fairly familiar outline, Bell makes it distinctive by a startling juxtaposition of cultures. He also (and I know this seems unlikely) brings out the political and cultural background of the 1940s in a way that makes the supernatural seem almost a reaction to the pressures and stresses falling on stately homes and the landed gentry (I thought of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger which pulls off a similar trick).
I'm going to place Blackberry Time firmly in the Celtic group here. Set on the Wirral, it takes place in a region that remained British longer than much of the rest of England and - even if the deity referred to on 'Thorphinstry Hill' has been Norseified - Bell suggests an older, much older origin for the evil he describes here. An eerily effective look back at the time - not that long ago - when two young children could go off blackberrying in the country unaccompanied by adults, this story has a sharp edge of horror.
The Robing of the Bride, while again set on Skye and based on the menace of ancient mythology, struck me as slightly different to the other stories in the book, almost more Lovecraftian than Jamesian in being focussed on the evil wrought by true believers as much as by the entities they worship. A story with a truly unsettling premise, this is, I think, really one to keep the reader awake at night.
The House departs from the theme of the Celtic fringes to narrate a wicked occurrence in the staid suburbs of North Oxford. These are streets I'm very familiar with (my son's school was on one of them) and I was amused to see three academics, bunking off from a conference, wander into trouble so close to their cloistered world.
In all, the stories in this collection meet the highest standards and deliver genuine chills. I'd strongly recommend them.
Finally, I always feel that cover artists get too little recognition. Paul Lowe's dust jacket for this book - illustrating Apotheosis - is especially effective at conveying the weird atmosphere of these stories and is a thing of beauty in itself.