Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Sacred and Profane by Peter Bell (Sarob Press 2021)


Dustjacket art by Paul Lowe 

A new collection of seven stories from Peter Bell is always a joyous event for those who like their weird fiction to be intelligent, well-crafted, and humane. I added 'humane' there because Bell's work is often centred on human suffering above and beyond the usual rigmarole of the ghostly horror tale. And the lead story here is an excellent example. 

'Lullaby' is set in Ireland during the terrible (and, from a British perspective, eternally shameful) period of the the famine. During the 1840s potato blight ravaged Europe. Ireland was especially hard hit, not least thanks to the contemptuous dismissal of the famine by the Tory elite. (Sound familiar?) In this story the great hunger strikes a small fishing community in Donegal, where a young widow, Sheelagh, lives with her daughter Erin. 

Unfortunately Sheelagh is forced to abide with her late husband's mother and aunt, two awful old ratbags who scare Erin with dark folk tales when Sheelagh is away. Erin shivers in fear of the Dearth Bird that swoops in by night to take its victims. Sheelagh, however, enriches Erin's life with more positive stories, involving a wonderful Blue Bird. Erin is also shown a special, sacred place in the mountains, where the old gods were worshipped. 

As the worst of times approaches, the Blue Bird and the Death Bird feature more prominently in Erin's dreams and daytime imaginings. At the same time the community starts to blame Margot Bailey, an old 'wise woman', for a series of deaths. Eventually this leads to a hideous crime. Sheelagh vanishes, and then Erin is visited by night by what might be a ghost, or something altogether stranger. The story ends with a coda as an old man recalls a bizarre experience in the scared place, which offers the reader some closure. It's an intensely poetic story. I was surprised that it begins with an epigraph from Wilde, but by the end I got the point. Wilde would have approved the way that Bell finds beauty and hope even in the most terrible tragedy. 


'The Ice House' is another story that looks back to harsher times. An academic is part of a group that visits a priory in Northumberland, where a silent order of nuns has lived since mediaeval times. He escapes a tedious colleague by venturing into a gallery above the chapel, where he sees a solitary nun, who sings. 

'Never had he heard singing so beautiful... His heart was filled with pathos, for she had looked young - sustained by her devotion and the support of this silent, secretive community, so alien to interlopers like himself...'

Later he encounters a former nun of the order who reveals a grim secret about the figure at the chapel altar. This is a traditional ghost story with subtle overtones of social commentary, and a reflection on what love - religious and secular - can be. 

'The Shadow of the Cross' is set in modern-day Yorkshire during a heat-wave. A group of friends on a ramble get slightly lost and end up in church. The main character is intrigued - and disturbed - by a picture of what seems to be the Good Shepherd. An inverted cross in the painting hints as unorthodox beliefs. Later, we discover that in the 19th century a clergyman more than flirted with Manichean ideas. This short, atmospheric tale is almost a traditional ghost story but offers a more enigmatic ending than most. It is, like all the tales in this collection, infused with that spirit of place Bell conveys so well. 

'Haunted', the inspiration for an excellent frontispiece by Paul Lowe, is set in the author's native Liverpool. The setting comes to life as the narrator, a woman in her thirties, describes an incident in her childhood that led to a break with her best friend. The house at the focus of the mystery is perfectly described, the kind of run-down place that every neighbourhood used to have, and perhaps still does even in these days of gentrification. As events unfold, a ghost story of a rather unconventional kind develops. It's a very satisfying read.

'A Wee Dram for the Road' is - you may not be surprised to hear - set in Scotland. A whisky merchant is caught in a storm in the hills and his car is written off. He seeks refuge at a farmhouse where an elderly woman offers him a fire, a couch to rest on, and some humble fare. The following day she is gone, and our narrator has a tale of mystery to tell at business gatherings. Many years later he finds himself in the area and discovers the truth behind the haunting. This is a good example of the 'meteorological' school of ghostly fiction, in which the build-up of atmosphere works perfectly with the plot.

'Stigmata', set on the Catalan side of the Pyrenees, also features a snowstorm, but is a very different tale in theme and mood. A woman returns to a pilgrim-infested town where someone close to her tried and failed to find a miraculous cure. Here Bell gives us some fascinating information on religious history, particularly that of the Cathars. The title gives a clue to the ultimate horror, which takes place after the protagonist gets lost on a walk in the hills. 

'The Strange Death of Sophie Van Der Wielen' concerns history at its most fundamental. A British art expert working in the Sixties encounters the eponymous Dutch professor who is seeking lost works by a neglected Renaissance painter. The quest leads them both to the Eastern bloc and a church where terrible truths about the recent past - the atrocities of World War 2 and its aftermath - intermingle with the legacy of older wrongs. It has a hint of M.R. James in its stress on scholarship and unwary exploration, but is altogether darker than most of the Provost's tales. It provides a sombre closing movement to a kind of symphony in which each movement has something to say about the spirit of place, and our place in the world.

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