Thursday, 14 June 2012

'Lamia' by Peter Bell

Humourless, snobbish American academic Paul Ferrers is Visiting Professor of Gothic Literature at King's College Cambridge, and a great admirer of M.R. James. His scholarship is somewhat contentious, though. For instance, he holds that the creature released in 'An Episode of Cathedral History' is an actual vampire, which ruffles some academic feathers.

One day Ferrers sets off to scout around some interesting locations (Aldeburgh, Dunwich) and ends his East Anglian odyssey with a special event - a performance by Dr Rant. Anyone who's enjoyed a performance by Robert Lloyd Parry will know the score, here. Instead of a reading of a story Dr Rant, 'in character' as the late Provost of King's, tells it to an audience in a darkened room in a spooky country house. There difference between the Dr Rant and the real RLP is that nobody seems to know much about the good doctor. His background is mysterious, he never gives interviews - indeed, nobody seems to know where he lives. Rather odd for an actor, one might think.

But these considerations are pushed to the back of Ferrers' mind when he realises that, by happy coincidence, the country house where the performance is to be held has a remarkable library, one that has long been closed to anyone except the eccentric old lady who owns The Grange. When an opportunity to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house presents itself, Ferrers naturally accepts...

And there my very brief review must end, except to say that as a first story in a collection 'Lamia', previously unpublished, delivers the goods. Indeed, it is almost an object lesson in how to write a modern Jamesian 'tribute' without producing a rather soggy pastiche. The scholarship is there, the plot structure is sound, and the characterisation is economical and effective rather than sketchy and clich├ęd. The gradual accumulation of telling detail is well-handled, and the actual menace is very effective when it is finally revealed.

I may blog a few more stories as I go through the book.

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