Monday, 18 June 2012
Writers are often obsessives, repeatedly returning to the same emotional terrain to try and map it more thoroughly. This, I think, is the case with Peter Bell, whose stories constantly address the pain of loss or loneliness, and often do so by taking a character out of their familiar context. Thus in the first story collected here, 'Resurrection' an expert in psychiatric medicine who finds herself laid low by depression goes for a short holiday in the Lake District. She finds what seems at first an idyllic valley, but there's a distinct 'Wicker Man' vibe about the place: strange scarecrows, talk of the Beltane Fires, and an odd aside about the number of healthy children born lately. Sure enough, our protagonist is headed for a confrontation with the sort of festival that could never comply with health and safety law. But there is a twist, which is more a matter of emotional perspective than plot.
A similar scenario is played out in 'M.E.F.' but with important variations. Here a widower journeys to Iona, arguably the holiest of the British Isles. He once stayed there with his wife, but it is another woman who comes to influence him. Or rather, it is here absence, for in this story Bell takes a true account of the disappearance of an eccentric aesthete and around it weaves another tale - that of a lonely person seeking some truth that, by connecting them with life in some way, might help them transcend their isolation.
'The Light of the World' explicitly refers to Machen. Again we have a lonely person, beheaved and beset around by depression, seeking some kind of escape. A recurring dream and the strange connection between a Roman temple in Cumberland and the site of an Italian miracle provide the basic armature for an enchanting, disturbing and extremely satisfying tale. Read it aloud (a good policy with Bell's stories) and you get a feel for the powerful rhythm of the language. The central premise - that ultimate truth is unbearable because it is transcendent - is not new, but is seldom tackled by today's horror writers. This is a Machenesque story that Machen would not have disowned. As with all Peter Bell's stories there is a sense of nightmarish inevitability about the way an innocent character is the focus of... what? Possibly God.
Somewhat more traditional is 'An American Writer's Cottage'. This time our solitary, unhappy protagonist retreats to a bleak Hebridean island. Margaret is 'fleeing a particularly dire set of professional and personal circumstances'. Anyone who does this in a Peter Bell story has had it, really. It's just a question of finding out how their particular Nemesis will destroy them. Strange encounters with seals and less easily defined creatures give Margaret little cause of unease at first. The story is a good example of the 'not quite haunted house' genre, where spirits of place count for more than the mechanics of a conventional apparition.
'Inheritance' also has its roots in a venerable sub-genre, that of the Scary Doll. We've read about them and seen them in horror films aplenty, but it remains the case that little simulacra of human beings designed as mere toys have a capacity to unsettle us (well, me) more than vampires or zombies. The doll in this case provides a link to a hidden past of violence and madness. It's a comparatively slight tale, but stands out because it offers a slightly more positive take on life than the others collected here.
Somewhat jauntier in tone (if not in content) is 'A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians'. Here the time-honoured device of the discovered journal reveals a hitherto unexpected episode in life of the celebrated Victorian traveller and author, Amelia Edwards. What could be more natural than that our hero should try to retrace Edwards' steps? I'm not giving anything away by saying that, as vampire stories go, this is a very good one, and the element of historical pastiche works well. There are overtones of Dracula and Carmilla, not least in the full-blooded finale.
The last story, and arguably the best, first appeared in Supernatural Tales but has been extensively revised. 'Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy' is the archetypal Peter Bell story. A lonely, sensitive and erudite man goes to an unnamed island (but it's the Isle of Man) to attend to the funeral and bequest of his aunt. Sinclair recalls childhood holidays on the island and decides to revisit a much-loved part of the coast. Along the way he conducts some research into Victorian architecture - what could be more harmless? But a link emerges between his own origins, a neglected house, and a symbolist painter who became possessed with visions of chaos, madness and death. All the 'Bellesque' (Bellian?) ingredients come together perfectly in a story that qualifies as a modern classic.
This is one of the best short story collections of recent years, and bears comparison with the classics. In some respects it harks back to what I call (in my pretentious way) the Silver Age of the ghost story. by which I mean the period between the world wars. But Bell's stories - while offering touches of humour, not to mention humanity - have none of the cosyness that often prevails in the works of Benson or Burrage. Here there is rarely any hope for those who stray any great distance from life's well-trodden ways.