Strange Epiphanies by Peter Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let me begin with the end. The end of the book, that is. It's an utter delight to see a well-researched explanatory essay at the end of this book of outstanding tales. Unlike an academic volume, it's not relegated to endnotes in a smaller font. "Marie Emily Fornario: A Historical Note" tells as strange a tale as any of the others included in Strange Epiphanies. The referent, the fine tale "M.E.F.," which I will comment on later, is bolstered by having this little essay in the back of the book. In fact, the whole volume is given more credence, if you will, once the reader realizes the careful research that Bell has done for this one tale. I have no doubt that he put a huge amount of work, as well as a bit of a personally revelatory experience, into the writing of "M.E.F." - he must have put a similar amount of work and craftsmanship into the other works, as well; and it shows!
The first story, "Resurrection," ticks off all the checks on the folk-horror list. Quite predictable, but still well-written. The emotional state of the protagonist at the end is an interesting twist. I've read my fair share of folk-horror (both fiction and non-fiction) in the past year, so perhaps I'm a little jaded. Despite knowing the trajectory before it happened, this was a satisfactory story. Four stars burning in effigy for this little tale.
"M.E.F." is pretty much perfect from beginning to end. I tend to like creepy stories that hint and infer, rather than openly shock. There's a certain warmth to the narrator not only accepting fate in this tale, but gently, smoothly easing into it. A kind of radiance of oncoming ineffable transformation suffuses the story. It glows with grayness. Five stars for this wonderfully gloomy, yet comforting story.
Similarly, "The Light of the World" has a sense of completeness that is hard to describe. It is wrapped up very neatly, perhaps just a touch too neatly, but only enough to strain credulity a bit, definitely not enough to ruin the tale. A satisfying read about destiny and connections across time and space, like a full literary meal. Having lived in both the UK and Italy, I greatly appreciated the descriptive settings, which Bell brings to light perfectly.
I'm usually a much bigger fan of "creepy" than "scary". "An American Writer's Cottage" was just plain scary. Here are my notes after reading it: I've put the book down, but every flash or shadow has me spooked. I'm hoping to never discover any heretofore-unseen attic doors in this house. I can't even think about that right now. Time for me to go hide under the covers until I can sleep.. I will state that the frisson caused by this one was acute and made for a nice change of mood from the other tales, without clashing with them.
I've read a lot of creepy doll stories in my day, but "Inheritance" has to be among the best. The creepiness is beyond bounds, but what makes the story marvelous is it's strangely redemptive ending, an unexpected conclusion that, through its banality, pushes the story into the transcendent. You may have read a creepy doll story like this, but the resolution is nothing like anything you've read before. Five stars.
While reading "A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians" I was mostly listening to the black metal band Reverorum ib Malacht. There could not be a more appropriate soundtrack to this gothic novella, which is redolent with illness, dreadful forebodings, and sweeping vistas of dark beauty. I hate mentioning the "V" word, but Transylvania + illness + wolves + Vlad = . . . well, you do the math. This was an amazingly realized story. Here is a sample of the beautiful prose:
"We crossed the pass soon after one in the afternoon; already, overhead, it was growing as dark as the hour preceding dusk. As we looked back, dismayed, clouds were seething over the cold, a grey, flowing cataract. The air rapidly assumed a torrid weightiness that sapped the very limbs, and made even breathing a trial. A helm of steely-grey hid Peleaga's brow, as if readying for conflict; yet across his southern slopes fell beams of an angry sun, escaping through a rent in the dismal heavens, colouring the mountain's sheer, black precipices in a dread, coppery lustre. Clusters of lesser summits nearby partook of this exhibition, streaks and splashes of the same fiery pigments colouring the wasteland, as if some great slaughter had been done there, in the old days of the world. At last, after insupportable tension, Vulcan's fire seared the firmament, again and again, like sparks shooting from a multitude of Satan's forges; ushering in a downpour such that we could see not a thing before us, and with blasts so terrifying that our ponies were grievously affrighted."
It is this prose and the method of hinting and inferring that I referenced earlier that steers this V-word story clear of the hackneyed tropes of the past. I sometimes get cagey when I encounter this subject in a story, but in Peter Bell's hands, the old subject takes on fresh new life . . . or undeath. Five stars for this tale, as well.
Finally, From the title to the last paragraph, "Nostalgia, Death, and Melancholy" weave a cohesive triptych of . . . well, just what the title says. This is the kind of tale that seems to meander until you find you're on a one-way path and there's no other way, yet the plot didn't feel forced in the least bit. Furthermore, there's an emotional depth here (nihilistic, to be sure) that one doesn't often find in horror shorts. Five stars here.
What a marvelous collection (plus essay) Bell has constructed here! It has been a while since I've read a collection with so many powerful supernatural stories - and I read a lot of collections of supernatural stories. Strange Epiphanies ensures that Peter Bell will sit on the shelf right next to Robert Aickman, on my shelf, at least. This is one you must find and read and savor. I'll be coming back to this one again in the future.
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