Monday, 9 January 2017

Phantasms



The latest collection of stories by Peter Bell is published by Sarob Press, and as always comes with a splendid dust-jacket illustrated by Paul Lowe. Subtitled 'Twelve Eerie Stories', this book represents a good investment for anyone who enjoys the traditional ghost story. There are five new stories here, The rest have been published elsewhere and in several cases been praised here.

Many of these stories were published under the auspices of M.R. James expert Ro Pardoe, either in her Ghosts & Scholars newsletter or the Sarob G&S Books of Shadows. So it's not surprising that Monty casts a long shadow over both style and content.

Thus 'Glamour of Madness' (a fine title) takes another look at 'A Vignette', suggesting a convincing and tragic backstory for the haunting. 'The Island of One Sheep' and 'Party Line' offer Jamesian stories against the setting of the Hebrides. Bell, like James, is very good on topography and the byways of local  history, and these are very different but equally satisfying tales.

Of the new stories 'The Books of Balgowrie' takes us into the familiar, more-or-less reassuring world of book dealers and college librarians. There are some nice nods to classic tales as the plot unfurls, with the customary warning and the inevitable transgression leading to dire developments. 'Materials for a Ghost Story', by the same token, looks at A College Mystery by A.P. Barker and offers 'real' documentary evidence for it.

Not all stories are Jamesian, or at not entirely. The Irish story 'Princess on the Highway' was published in Swan River's Le Fanu tribute volume, and stands up well on re-reading. Like other stories such as 'Sands O'Dee' and 'Last of the Line' it takes as its source material the often brutal interaction between the English and their Celtic neighbours.

Not that the English are particularly safe. 'Abide With Me' gives you a strong incentive to avoid remote country churches, while 'Southwold' offers phantoms on the mist-haunted coast near sunken Dunwich. Reading Bell is always an education for the likes of me, as he is so good at conjuring up a spirit of place in an old-fashioned, scholarly style.

Overall, then, this is another excellent collection from Sarob, upholding the tradition of the traditional ghost story that suggests just enough horror to give the reader a pleasant frisson of fear, but never strays into the realms of outright gore. These are tales of things glimpsed, intuited, and suspected. Bell's characters, who are often lonely academic types, often stray into danger through curiosity over a minor scholarly issue. The idlest of whims can have the direct consequences. We must be wary, he seems to say, and even wariness is not always enough.

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