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Strange Epiphanies: John Kenny talks to Peter Bell

Peter BellStrange Epiphanies: John Kenny talks to Peter Bell

Originally appeared on the Swan River Press website (2012)

Peter Bell has written articles and stories for All Hallows, The Ghosts & Scholars M. R. James Newsletter, Wormwood, Faunus, and Supernatural Tales; his work has also been published by Ash-Tree Press, Gray Friar Press, Side Real Press, The Scarecrow Press and Hippocampus Press. He is a historian, a native of Liverpool, an inhabitant of York, and likes to wander the hidden places of Scotland and the North of England. His debut collection, Strange Epiphanies, was published by the Swan River Press in April 2012.

John Kenny: In your work the landscape features very prominently. Have you visited the settings for your stories in Strange Epiphanies and to what extent did they influence you?

Peter Bell: Probably the most decisive reason why I ever began writing was because of a fascination with landscape and the way it can conjure so many diverse moods. The ‘genius loci’ is a force I have ever been responsive to. I wanted to write about places I had been that had infused me with this sense. I have been a lifelong rambler in Cumberland, the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides; the influence of these places on my imagination is perpetual. Many of my favourite writers (though I never consciously thought about this until later) are those who capture this essence. I’m thinking of Machen’s mystical Wales, Buchan’s untamed Scotland, Blackwood’s Canadian wilderness, Lovecraft’s sinister Vermont woods and hills, Vernon Lee’s Italy, the Europe of Amelia B. Edwards; also Tolkien, whose books I read before the age of ten, was a compelling landscape artist. Nature and travel writers, too, have influenced me, like Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, whose cameos of the Scottish Highlands and Islands blend folklore, landscape and atmosphere. When I write, I see these places; writing for me is a visual, as much as an intellectual experience. It is as if I am revisiting the scenes, and every detail comes back with vivid clarity.

Most of the stories’ settings I have visited, and indeed they can be said to have directly inspired the stories. The scarecrows and the gardens in ‘Resurrection’ I encountered one early spring in Eskdale, Cumberland. ‘M.E.F.’ is set on Iona, a tremendously mystical place, based on a true story of someone who also fell under the island’s spell. ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’ takes place on a private island called Shona in western Scotland, where I once stayed, where there was a mysterious cottage ‘sometimes occupied by an American writer’. ‘The Light of the World’ draws upon many winter walks in Grizedale Forest in the Lake District, where I did see a sign like the one described, though Italy I have not visited; I constructed that part from maps and books. ‘Nostlagia, Death & Melancholy’ was inspired by a revisitation of a childhood holiday haunt in the Isle of Man and its decayed atmosphere. The small town in Germany, setting for ‘Inheritance’, I often visit; the doll beside the railway I actually saw in the long deep cutting leading into Liverpool. I have never been to Transylvania; the Carpathian story was inspired by Amelia B. Edwards’ atmospheric account of her trip to the Dolomites, embroidered by a perusal of maps, Internet pictures and The Rough Guide to Romania, as well as my own familiarity with wild places, especially the Cuillin Mountains on Skye. In none of the stories did I set out with the purpose of using a particular landscape setting; rather the places, and things that struck me, impressions that possessed me, incidents I experienced, created the ideas for the stories. Landscape was far more than a stage for strange events, it was the essential muse.

JK: The description of the landscape in your stories is so vivid, I’d go as far as saying it is essentially another character in the story. To what extent do you think this is the case?

PB: Landscape as character. Your remark reminds me of what one film critic said about the 1940s Film Noir Double Indemnity; that Los Angeles was a character in the story. I always thought it very apt, and testimony to the film’s power to evoke a sense of place. I am pleased that in my own stories you felt as if the landscape were a character. This phenomenon is apparent in Blackwood, Machen, Lovecraft, Lee, etc., and especially in Amelia B. Edwards, with whom one gets a sense that the places in which she set her stories were the reason for writing them; equally, her travelogues are so powerful because of her ability to imbue landscape with a wondrous and mysterious presence. Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (later renamed A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites), in which she describes ‘a very singular mountain’, which no local would identify, gave me the idea for my own story. As I have previously said, it was from a desire to evoke the mystical power of landscape that I began writing; and I think it might well be that many a routine plot can be transcended by the evocation of landscape. To bring a story alive, it is just as important as delineating convincing personal characters. Also I would say, from visiting especially the Hebrides, that landscape is in real life much more than a setting. Together with the weather and the seas, which are all part of this, one is very aware in these islands of the way in which a place defines the communities, and underlies their lives, their music, their entire culture. The atmosphere in the Hebrides is a vast palpable presence. To try and realise that in prose and narrative has been my aim.

JK: The Hebrides seem so wild and untameable, I have no doubt they shape and define its communities. I read recently that the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has issued a stern warning that faint-hearted urbanites seeking a fresh start there need not apply. Are the Hebrides really a ‘terrible beauty’?

PB: I know that often people retire or move to the Hebrides, and they just can’t fit in. Not because the islanders are unfriendly, but because island living needs a particular mindset. Also, the quantity of grim weather cannot be under-estimated, and it is dark longer in winter. Depression (and alcoholism) is common. I would say they have a ‘terrible’ beauty in the sense of awe. Gavin Maxwell describes how, when he was hunting sharks, he once saw the seas in the Outer Hebrides a lurid red in the setting sun, and he didn’t know whether it was beautiful or horrifying.

JK: You say ‘M.E.F.’ (the initials of Marie Emily Fornario) is based on a true story. Can you tell us a little about that?

PB: I have included as an afterword to the book a historical note about Marie Emily Fornario. As described in the story, in the late 1920s this young woman arrived on Iona, believing she had lived there in a previous life, and was responding to a spiritual calling. Once upon the island, she felt she could not leave, becoming obsessed with the southern moors, and a belief she encountered there spiritual presences. One freezing November night she disappeared from the farm where she was staying, and was found dead in bizarre circumstances on the moor. Rumours of her ghost persisted years later, and of other manifestations, like blue lights where she was discovered, and around her grave. As explained in my historical note, subsequent accounts have embroidered and corrupted the facts. It was said by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor that a small cairn was raised where she died. In 2007 I set out to find it, and believe I did. It was an uncanny experience. Her tiny gravestone can be seen by St. Oran’s chapel, near Iona Abbey. It was two years to the day since my girlfriend passed away on the Isle of Coll, visible from Iona, which emerged briefly from the mists swathed in a golden light like the land of Tir na nÓg.

JK: Personal experience, tragedy, childhood memories, can often make for the most powerful fiction. Is there a certain cathartic feeling in dealing these issues in a fictional setting or are they purely at the service of the story?

PB: Although I do not set out to write as a deliberately cathartic exercise, in practice I have sometimes found that it becomes so. ‘M.E.F.’ began as a fantasy about the case of Marie Emily Fornario but became something more personal. My own emotions then became a prism through which I interpreted the case. My own grief spilt over into my empathy with Marie Fornario; and as I wandered those moors, in that mood, it was as if, almost supernaturally, I entered into her soul. ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’, likewise, became a cathartic exercise, as it concerns someone who goes into the wilderness and is destroyed by it. Similarly, with ‘Resurrection’, I think that Amanda’s oscillating mood before the glory of the spring, though this was never conscious, reflected my own mood a year after my mother’s death. So these stories, in a way, became what they are as a result of the two greatest tragedies of my life. They would have existed in some form, but I believe their power derives from catharsis. They are, perhaps closer to poetry than fiction.

JK: Along with ‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’, which you’ve talked about earlier, ‘Resurrection’ ranks as one of my favourites in the collection. It put me in mind of The Wicker Man, but it ends on a note radically different to the film that manages to outdo it for chilling effect.

PB: This is a favourite of my own. The comparisons with Wicker Man are bound to emerge, though when writing it in 2003 the film was not in my mind (though I had seen it on the cinema on first release); I was, actually, influenced by Eleanor Scott’s tale ‘Randalls Round’, in which the protagonist gets caught up in a pagan festival, albeit in autumn. The story came to me after encountering one May evening numerous scarecrows, as described, ranged along the road in that village. I had wanted for some time to write a story featuring a lonely woman like Amanda, partly out of admiration for the way Robert Aickman so skilfully portrays such female characters in some of his tales, and for the way in which supernatural possession can serve as metaphor for existential crisis. In the story, are the events really supernatural or is the mentally disturbed Amanda experiencing a psychotic hallucination? I have always been moved by the strange mix of joy and melancholy that comes with spring. For anyone depressed, spring with all its promise of rebirth paradoxically can be a hard time; it is said that suicides increase in spring. All the elements of the story fell together and it was written in a single sitting, even though when I sat down I was not quite clear how the narrative would proceed or what its denouement would be. It was as if Amanda herself were my muse.

JK: There’s an implication there that this is not how most of your stories get written. Do you have a ‘normal’ writing routine or day?

PB: The genesis of ‘Resurrection’. This sense of a character taking over the narrative, it occurred most strongly in this case, but to a lesser degree it has also sometimes happened. I begin with an idea, usually connected with the mysticality of a place, and when there are enough vague ideas floating round I start to write. Never do I plan in detail, and rarely does what ends up resemble exactly what was in my mind to begin with. Often, though I know the beginning, I am not sure even when I start to write what will happen in the story; it makes it more interesting this way, as I feel as if I am not so much creating something as discovering it, as a reader does with a new story. Sometimes I also have a vague, but very vague, sense of how it might end; often I end up with alternative endings.

I write when the mood takes me, when an idea comes along. Usually, I write a continuous draft over a few days, often in long hand in pencil, though sometimes direct onto the screen. Once it’s on the screen the story undergoes endless minute editing and re-editing, sometimes for weeks or months, even years in some cases. The first draft is usually too long, too wordy, and so there is a lot of reduction. I read each paragraph as an entity, in arbitrary order; each has to sound right in itself, as well as fitting into the larger whole. I am very conscious that prose requires a certain rhythm, even if this is detectable only to me; so I often find I am changing words and phrases, not to alter the sense of the narrative, but its timbre.

I am fascinated by the idea of ‘voice’ and I am careful to imbue the language of different characters with authenticity, at least to my ear. It was fun emulating the slightly archaic, yet magnificently evocative, language of Amelia B. Edwards. I had been reading her book when I got the idea, and before writing that part of my story, I immersed myself in it again and in her fiction, so that when I wrote it, it was as if I were hearing her, and transcribing. Sections, of course, as the story makes clear, are literally taken from her work, and the challenge was to weave it seamlessly into the fictionalised imitation. An act of effrontery, probably! If I need more background for a story (e.g. historical detail, or folklore, etc.), I check it out as I go along, usually on the basis of facts I already know; thus there is a sense, even in the research, of spontaneous evolution. I think that, as a historian, I have to root the narrative in authenticity, albeit sometimes a spurious authenticity, or one that blends fact and fiction. The point is that, at the point of reading, it should sound authentic, it should have verisimilitude.

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