Peter Bell has quietly been building a reputation as an author of top notch short fiction for several years now. Until recently, however, his work had never been collected and made available in book form. Thankfully, the increasingly impressive Swan River Press has remedied this situation with its recent publication of Strange Epiphanies. Sarob Press quickly followed suit with its release of another Bell collection, entitled A Certain Slant of Light.
Brian J. Showers, the man behind Swan River Press, has said that while the latter collection focuses on Mr. Bell's ghost stories, Strange Epiphanies focuses on his mystical tales. While I haven't yet read A Certain Slant of Light, it is definitely true to say that Strange Epiphanies contains predominantly mystical tales.
A majority of Bell's protagonists are lonely individuals dealing with personal loss on such a scale that it threatens their very existence. Many have lost partners under tragic circumstances. The resulting tales are melancholy in the extreme and often involve these listless individuals coming face to face with a mystical reality whose intensity overpowers and ultimately annihilates them.
One of the finest tales in the collection in my opinion is "M.E.F." It is the story of a man who returns to the Hebrides every year to mark the anniversary of the death of his partner on one of the islands and, in a parallel vein, attempts to locate the cairn that marks the spot where another young woman died under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He soon finds that his passage to Iona has been more than just a physical one:
To arrive on Iona is to cross a series of borderlines: England to Scotland; Glasgow City, through the Highlands, to the Argyll glens; over the Firth of Lorne to Mull; twenty miles across the mountains, beneath Ben More, along the Ross, then the passage of the Sound of Iona. And there is a spiritual borderline too. At times, these past few days, I have felt I could remain here forever, that I belonged on Iona. I am not sure it is a wholesome thought; but if this journal is a record of anything, it is a record of borderlines, and the transgression thereof.The Hebrides prove to be a place of violently inconsistent weather: rain that lasts all day and howling wind that blows from all directions through the night give way to occasional moments of calm and beauty. And this physical tumult is accompanied by a spiritual one, as the protagonist vacillates violently between gray melancholy and religiously-tinged euphoria, to the point that we soon begin to doubt his sanity. It soon becomes clear that in coming to Iona, he has left whatever protections were afforded by daily life and entered a realm where he is exposed to a disorientingly intense reality.
Perhaps my favorite tale in the collection is the truly remarkable "An American Writer's Cottage," which appears in this collection for the first time. It is the tale of an intellectual who comes to the Hebrides seeking escape from her personal and professional obligations for a time. The same theme of crossed boundaries is present in this story from the very beginning, as the protagonist waits to be ferried to the island:
Emerging indistinctly from the gloom, his hunched spectacle called to mind Charon crossing the Styx....It was, she reflected, a threshold; and it made her ponder, not for the first time here in the isles, on the frailty of civilisation and our craven dependence on its trappings.Here, though, the annihilating reality she encounters is more overtly terrifying than in the other two stories discussed thus far. Through an increasingly thick haze of alcohol and cigarettes, what begins as a vague sense of personal loss and Hebridean gloom, steadily becomes something more ominous as she starts questioning the island's mysteries and as the nighttime darkness and isolation oppress her more and more.
The other tales in the collection, are good but are not in my opinion nearly as good as these three. Nonetheless, if the others don't seem quite as impressive it is only because these three are so fantastic.
Mr. Bell writes about an area of experience that seems to be almost wholly neglected by other writers. I'm not sure what to call it exactly. He writes about people whose experiences and dispositions have rendered them uniquely susceptible to the power that certain places can exert over the properly attuned. These people seem drawn to such places and experience a stunning combination of awe, fear, and melancholy once they arrive. It is a testament to Mr. Bell's abilities that their ultimate annihilation seems to be a completely natural consequence of their entrance into this more intense reality. I keep returning again and again to the image of a man walking stoically into a rough ocean and simply letting the waves crash over him until they finally carry him away. I can't wait to read his next collection.
The True First
Strange Epiphanies was first published by the Swan River Press in April of 2012 in an edition of 350 copies. Stunningly, as of the time of this review, there are still copies available for purchase from the publisher.
[This review was based on a review copy]