Swan River Press, 2021 (originally published 2012)
I've been more than a bit depressed lately, coping with the recent death of one of my friends, and figured I needed to get off my can and do something other than simply sit and stare into space. My go-to therapy is cleaning and organizing, and the target this time around was the bookshelves in our bedroom. While going through each and every book in a "this stays, this goes" sort of mode, I came across quite a few unread volumes (including this one) that I had haphazardly shelved behind other books and promptly forgot about. Peter Bell's Strange Epiphanies was one of these. Off of its shelf space it came, and grabbing a cup of tea, I settled in to read, not putting it down until sadly and all too soon, it was over.
From the first page onward (and as is the case with all of the stories I've read by this author so far), what stands out is the author's stunning evocation of place. In his introduction to Strange Epiphanies, Brian Showers, the founder of Swan River Press, notes that what Bell does here is to
"scratch beneath the top soil to unearth the true genius loci -- the unsettling spirit of place -- and show its effects on those who tread these exposed surfaces. Landscapes, that with each turn, Peter skews and rearranges into something resembling nightmare."
Strongly allied with his emphasis on genius loci, Bell's work here also draws on history as well as local/ traditional folklore including (but not limited to) Beltane fire rites in the first story "Resurrection" -- the opening of which reminded me so very much of the beginning of Robert Aickman's "The Trains," selkies in "An American Writer's Cottage" and even vampires in "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians" which I'll discuss later. Upping the eerieness, his stories are populated with characters with troubled, damaged psyches who, in the isolated settings in which they find themselves, are more than susceptible to the influences and strange pulls the genius loci seems to exert on them. In this sense, I would argue, the landscape (with the inclusion of its spirit) can be viewed as a character present in each tale.
|Sithean Mor, aka Angels Hill, Iona. From Strange Outdoors|
Each and every story included here is beyond brilliant, but I did have a few favorites which in my mind were all perfect in every sense of the word. In "The Light of the World" a man who has spent time since the death of his Rowena in "pursuit of exotic avenues of escape" has decided it's time to "regain the simple pleaures." Looking to find peace, he retreats to his "spiritual home" in village of Bleng in the Cumberland Mountains foothills, "beneath the spruce-clad heights of Blengdale Moor." On this particular day, he is walking an old forest route along the edges of the moor, looking at "the light of the winter solstice," which "seemed to speak of something beyond the veil" when an early twilight falls. Already in a "melancholy mood," he knows the return journey will be risky: a snowstorm threatened, trees were bending because of the wind, and he's unsure about cutting through the forest on an untested route. Also on his mind is the strange couple he'd seen earlier that no one else recognized, but that he'd encountered years earlier elsewhere, "on the other side of Europe." That is really about all I can say about this story, except that a) it begins with an epigraph by Arthur Machen which is a huge clue and b) it is one of the most eerie stories in this volume. Next up is "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians," in which Julia P. Flint, a modern-day "dealer in antiquarian books and maps, specialist in topography" stumbles upon what the Leyburn book auction catalogue described as "Private journal. Handwritten. Travelogue. Carpathian Mountains. No date. Incomplete..." Letting it sit for a few weeks, she finally decides to examine it, and can't believe her luck. It seems that she's acquired an unpublished travel account by Amelia Edwards, which turns out to be a "record of a journey through the Southern Carpathians." As she reads through it, what emerges is an intensely-atmospheric account "that could have been taken from the pages of a Gothic novel..." as Edwards and her companions make their way through remote "wilderlands," a journey Flint will soon replicate herself. And finally, there's "M.E.F.," a story narrated by a person grieving for his partner Alida, now gone three years and whom he misses with "a deep consuming passion." M.E.F. (Marie Emily Fornario) was a woman who believed that she'd lived on the Hebridean island of Iona "in a previous life," and who, in 1929, came seeking "spiritual calm." Intending to stay only a few days, she "never left." She was found dead on a night in November, her body left in a peat hollow. Rumor had it that a cairn had been erected at the site where her body had been discovered. There is, of course more to the story of M.E.F. revealed in this story, and our narrator admits to an "obsessive fascination" with her. He has come to the island, about which he detects "a strange otherness," journeying there every November since Alida's death, "on her anniversary," the two having originally found there way to Iona while exploring "the antiquarian sites of the West." It was at that time they had originally discovered M.E.F's grave; since then, our narrator has read more about M.E.F., leading him to undertake a search for M.E.F.'s cairn. No more about this story except to say that I read it twice and got a serious case of the shivers both times. There is also an excellent essay about the real M.E.F. at the end of this book, which should not be missed.
Going back to this book's introduction, Brian Showers says that the stories in Strange Epiphanies are "stories of revelation," which may bring to mind "mystical enlightment or awe," but he warns readers that "we must always remember that not all revelations are welcome ones." There is just something in the way that the author captures the sadness, loneliness and isolation of his characters throughout this book that truly speaks to me, especially now in my own life; combining those very human traits with the resonances that in these stories seem to emanate from the landscape itself is a stroke of genius on his part. Bell's work here is truly one of the best works to come from Swan River Press, and it is a story collection I know I will read again in the future.
So very highly recommended -- I can't even begin to express how very much I loved this book.