Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Revenants and Maledictions: Ten Tales of the Uncanny, by Peter Bell


"Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidiis."

Sarob Press, 2018
123 pp

hardcover (read in October) 

In his Foreword to Revenants and Maledictions,  the author refers to the tales in this book as  "excursions into the uncanny."  He also lists a number of "artistes whose voice and vision echo through these stories," including Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, John Cooper Powys, MR James, Vernon Lee, Robert Aickman and many, many more; Bell also notes that the stories in this volume are presented "in tribute" to these people and all he has learned from them.  "In tribute" they may be, but Bell's voice is original enough that someday, perhaps, his work will in turn inspire an entirely new generation of writers of the strange. 

Bell's stories take place in a number of different locales  which are "largely inspired by real places" where he'd felt "a nuance of, in that inimitable German word,  the Unheimlich."   These include

"A graveyard in the Outer Hebrides. The leafy suburbs of Oxford. The Black Cullin ridge.  A strange museum in Iceland. A Manx fairy glen. A deserted Scottish isle. A Welsh woodland mansion. A haunted cottage on Skye. A pagan site on the Wirral Peninsula. A forbidden estate on Mull" 
 which together would make for a great travel destination in terms of  a "weird stories" sort of tour.  Until someone actually dreams one up, this book is a great substitute.  

 The first story, "Apotheosis," tells of the narrator's "strange experience" during a visit to a small isle in the Hebrides. Hoping to find a particular gravestone that he'd seen previously only in a photograph, he makes his way to the graveyard; it is only later after he returns to normal life that he realizes just how very strange it had been. The less said about this one the better, but it is a great tale to attune yourself to the weirdness that follows; the dustjacket art by Paul Lowe captures it beautifully.  In "The House," which is an absolutely perfect tale, three academics who are attending a conference on the Gothic novel decide to skip  "the evening plenary" and go out on their own.  They have two specific objectives in mind.  First, they plan to visit a certain pub and second,  they're on the trail of a certain "little known writer of supernatural tales" who has been dead for fifty years.  Her book of ghost stories was entitled "The House: Seven Eerie Tales," but enigmatically, there are only six stories within, none of which were called "The House."  When they eventually discover the residence where the writer lived, one of them decides to go and take a peek inside while the others wait at the pub. But when he doesn't come back ... Quite frankly, this story completely creeped me out, largely due to its headscratcher of an ending -- so much so that when the penny dropped, I could actually hear the not-so-quiet gasp coming out of my mouth. Another fine tale follows with "The Executioner."  Having been made to wait because of weather, the day finally arrives for Sara, a guide,  to take her rather impatient (and it seems, unprepared)  client Hans up a mountain in the Black Cuillin.  Let's just say that when the weather begins to change, the headstrong client failed to heed her warnings and things didn't go as planned.  There's much more to it than that of course,  but exactly what I won't say.   Moving on to Iceland, "Many Shades of Red" delves into local mythology and ghost lore as a visitor comes across the Culture House and views a bizarre painting of a doctor with "the head of a black wolf."  As the librarian tells him something about the strange history of the Culture House, she has a story of her own to tell, related to her by her grandmother, involving a red cape and the Ulfjökull region, where it is said that "the last wolf in Iceland was killed."  "The Virgin Mary Well," one of my favorites,  takes place on the Isle of Man, where a man and his young daughter are spending time at a "holiday cottage" at Ballasalla.  On their last day there, dad hopes his somewhat uninterested daughter might be willing to go with him to look for the "secret site" of a particular well dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Luck isn't with them but when they return in October, the daughter by now into things antiquarian, things turn out a bit differently. Only too late does dad learn of the warning, "Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidis" and only too late does he learn the strange,dark history of the place.

Hebrides graveyard, from Christopher Cores 

In  "The Island"  a man who has visited every Scottish isle accessible by ferry decides it's time to venture onto the less accessible islands. He's particularly intrigued by a deserted "small and lonely isle" by the name of Eilean Beag.  His request for transport is turned down several times, for various reasons until one lobster fisherman agrees to take him.  Warned to be back at a certain time, the fisherman leaves while the man alone to wander the island.   Unfortunately, the man misses the return time and is forced to find shelter -- and that's when the weirdness begins.  "Wild Wales" comes in the form of an event recounted decades after it happened, as an  agent for the National Trust recalls one visit to a particular home named Plaid, owned by a former star of stage and screen, now a "bit of a recluse."  Picturing  "Norma Desmond" from Sunset Boulevard, he finds himself more than surprised when he finally meets his host.  "Sithean" is the story of a couple who make their way to a cottage in Eabost West for a bit of vacation time. Immediately the narrator senses there's something wrong there, but his feeling of uneasiness is nothing compared to what's in store.  I suppose they were never told that  people should know better than to trespass into the place of the fairies.  I loved this story,  which is filled with Celtic myth and fairy lore, and I'm not talking those sweet little pixie things. In  "Blackberry Time" a man recalls his childhood visits to the home of his aunts, Combe Villa, a happy time when the family would go blackberry picking together.  As the aunts' health takes a turn for the worse, he is left alone to his adventures, and it is then he meets Freda, who is more than happy to accompany him on Thorphinsty Hill and who seems to have an in-depth  knowledge of  the area's history as well as the horrors that may still remain.  And last, but absolutely by no means least,   "The Robing of the Bride" is just downright menacing, turning up the terror to the highest degree.  Commissioned to photograph several locations for a coffee-table book called The Haunted Hebrides, Ari is reluctant at first, but soon gives in to the idea of roaming the Hebrides, "all expenses paid, visiting strange places, photographing curious antiquities."  While her editor has a specific locale in mind, Ari gains permission from the owner of  a different place, Colquhoun, where she'd heard that there were some "remarkable old Italian statues."  Her photos unsuccessful, she returns to try again; all I will reveal is that it was probably a really bad idea on her part.

When a book begins with an epigraph from Arthur Machen,  I just know it's going to be good, and I wasn't wrong here.  I love the gothic tone, the interweaving of Celtic lore and mythology, and, above all, as Ari alludes to in " The Robing of the Bride,"  the "strange interaction between the psyche and the landscape" that the author invokes in each and every one of these stories.   Do what you need to to snag a copy, because this is a book that is just perfect for those readers who love to find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of the weird and the strange.  

very highly recommended

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