Thursday, August 22, 2019

Revenants & Maledictions

Revenants & MaledictionsRevenants & Maledictions by Peter Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last month, my wife and I took a holiday to Europe – England, Wales, Germany, and Austria. We had a fabulous trip, and I hope, someday, to make it back again. As with any vacation, choices had to be made, and potential destinations had to be dropped. If we go back again, Scotland, Ireland, and more of Germany are on the list. Alas, I had to take my trips to Scotland and Ireland via Bell’s book. Or maybe “alas” isn’t quite the right word. And maybe it’s best to leave well-enough alone, to specifically not travel to the areas that he’s written about so as to preserve my imaginary view of these ancient, strange places. Bell paints an evocative series of pictures of the British Isles (and one of Iceland). Let’s explore:

Our first stop is "Apotheosis,” a somber, moody piece about a visit to a Hebridean isle. The narrator finds that he is or was an unknowing stranger visiting strange shores. I can't say it was "heavy handed", but the fingers fell just a touch too bluntly on the "X" of the plot map, and I like more subtlety in my reading material. Still, a four-star story and well worth the read.

"The House" is clever, with the perfect amount of creepy. Much is left to the imagination in this self-referential mobius-strip of a meta-story, pulled off to perfection! The story is a trap for the characters, but not one the reader can anticipate. Five stars to this excellent tale, a primer on how to creep your reader out! Fantastic!

Having been lost, alone, on an unfamiliar mountain at night, I had a strong reaction to "The Executioner". While not everything correlated internally, I know the sense of fear that comes with that situation. California or the Outer Hebrides, that fear is the same! This story is a horror of nature, along the lines of some of William Hope Hodgson's work. Respect nature, because it won't respect you, haunted or not! Four stars.

"Many Shades of Red" is a prettily written story set across a stretch of sea, in Iceland, but it was not very effective at pulling an emotional reaction from me. Three stars.

"The Virgin Mary Well" gave me shivers. Stories don't often do that to me. Reality maps on phantom reality in spite of efforts to contain or banish malevolent spirits. Not precisely the ending I expected, but a nice (that is, nasty) bit of a surprise. Bell caught me off-guard with this one. I shall not look at wells in quite the same way now, especially when young ladies are present. Five twisted stars.

"The Island" was well-written, but standard fair for an English-isles ghost story. Bell did well, James did it better. Three stars.

"Wild Wales," with an introductory quote by Aickman, is on the border of what I might call "Aikman-esque," but not quite up to the same standard. Still, what struck me is the strength of the voice in the story. The narration itself heralded the predilections and preferences of the narrator himself: His likes, his comforts, his dislikes, his fears. It was a view into the soul, through a glass, darkly. For this, and a story well-told, four stars.

Maybe "Sithean" wasn't the right story for me to read on the same day I had browsed travel information on the Isle of Skye and just returned from holiday in the UK AND the same night my wife is flying home from having visited her mother. Now I'm spooked. Five annoying stars. Thanks a lot, Bell. (P.S. She made it back here safe and sound. Still . . .)

Anyone who fell deeply in love in the summers of their youth will feel the sweet tugging of old joy and the profound sadness of loss upon reading "Blackberry Time". I can't tell if the ending was too abrupt or exactly terse enough. I'm leaning far enough toward the latter to call this a five-star story. Uncanny and melancholy, this story might set its hooks (in the form of blackberry thorns) into you, too.

Here, in "The Robing of the Bride," all my expectations for what I was anticipating when I bought this book are met - gothic atmosphere, a revelation of hidden things that ought not to be, an unholy masquerade un-veiled. Or, rather, veiled. To quote the sound advice of one character "it is best you do not see". Also, the history here correlates closely with what I am currently reading in Robert Grave's The White Goddess, which has added some verisimilitude for this particular reader/ing. This story, previously unpublished, shows that often in collections, the new works are the best. Five stars

Not a bad trip at all. Outside of a couple of flat spots that seemed all-too familiar, the scenery here is (darkly) beautiful. Stamp your passport and take the trip!

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