Strange Epiphanies, from Swan River Press, is a collection of short stories by Peter Bell. Swan River Press specialises in horror fiction of the macabre and supernatural tale variety, taking its cue from the work of writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Machen, M.R. James and others. The emphasis is very much on a slow build of tension and fear with little or no graphically portrayed gore. Old style horror, beautifully written, and all the more genuinely chilling for its implied denouements.
And Strange Epiphanies fits this category perfectly. In ‘M.E.F.’, based on a true story, a grieving widower visits the Scottish island of Iona on the anniversary of his wife’s death on a nearby island. They had both formed a fascination for the story of the death in 1929 of Marie Emily Fornario (the M.E.F. of the title), a visiting aesthete with an interest in the local folklore. The widower is visiting Iona one last time with the intention of finding the exact spot where Marie died and, as he attempts to garner clues from books on relevant associated topics and journeys out into the wild landscape of the island, he is slowly but surely drawn into the reverberations of that terrible event, which echo down through the decades to today.
‘The Light of the World’ tells the story of a bereaved man who rents a cottage in the wild Cumbrian north country in an attempt to shake off his deep depression by getting away from it all. A knock at the door of his cottage in the tiny village he has fetched up in reveals a bizarrely macabre old couple on his doorstep who confront him with an obtuse and vaguely sinister religious message that sets him on a course of discovery that ends in enlightenment of a sort that he could never have predicted.
The main focus of ‘Inheritance’ is a valuable porcelain doll, whose provenance uncovers a sad and horrific tale of cruelty, neglect and madness. The work of a forgotten and underappreciated artist provides the sense of unease and gathering malice in ‘Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy’. And the vestigial presence of an American author haunts the wild and untameable landscape of ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’.
All of the above are perfectly pitched and highly effective stories, but the absolute standout stories, for me, are ‘Resurrection’ and ‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’.
‘Resurrection’ is an evocative and original spin on the basic premise of The Wicker Man that captures brilliantly the close community of the remote village that features in the story and ends on a note radically different to the film that manages to outdo it for chilling effect.
‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’ is a vampire story of the classic sort, told in diary form through the eyes of the travel writer Amelia B. Edwards and those of the woman who accidentally discovers Edwards handwritten account a century later. Bell manages to capture the voice of the Victorian writer with stylish precision and what unfolds is a beautifully written travelogue full of incident and descriptive detail, with a gathering sense of impending doom and a suitably spine-tingling ending.
A major feature of Bell’s writing is the landscape, which is sumptuously described and dominates the work to the extent that it almost constitutes another character in each of the stories. The sense of menace and melancholy sown into the pieces emanates primarily from the locales in which they are set and is in large part the reason I can’t recommend Strange Epiphanies highly enough.
Note: Strange Epiphanies is a beautifully produced limited edition hardback that is available for pre-order here.