From relatively modest beginnings in 2003, Brian Showers’ small press Swan River Press has gradually graduated from small chapbooks to full-blown hardcover books. Recent titles of interest (most of which are sold out) include Rosalie Parker’s The Old Knowledge, Lucy Boston’s Curfew & Other Eerie Tales, R.B. Russell’s Ghosts, and the Peter Bell collection that we’ll be considering here in this post.
Like Swan River’s previous hardcovers, Strange Epiphanies is a beautifully-produced book, offered at a very reasonable price (€30.00 including shipping).
There are some consistent themes to be found across all seven stories (two of which are published here for the first time) included in this collection. For starters, virtually all of Bell’s protagonists are middle-aged, lonely (often widowed or otherwise left on their own) and melancholic — four of the stories feature solo female protagonists, and three utilize solo males. Furthermore, virtually all are on holidays or journeys — they are restless, wandering, and searching for something, usually something they’ve lost, whether they realize it or not. The sense of gloominess is impressively omnipresent, sometimes crossing over into dread in the stories’ darker moments.
Because it’s so apt, I feel compelled to quote a posting from a fellow member of the All Hallows mailing list, who said: “I might add that Bell is the absolute master of Weltschmerz…for depressive melancholics such as myself, this book is an extra special treat.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
As an example, the following passage perfectly captures the undercurrent of dark shadows and the general sense of melancholy that infuses virtually all of Bell’s tollings:
“The incident had enveloped him in a mist of grim foreboding; of precisely what, he could not put a name to, but it was no less menacing for being vague. One thing for sure, it had sabotaged any vestige of hope that this trip to the wild north country might resurrect him from the deep depression of the soul that had of late become his daily consort.”
And when Bell’s characters finally arrive at their destination, it should come as no surprise that it is neither peace nor fulfilment that greets them:
“She had felt uneasy ever since her arrival… the dwelling was unquiet, possessed… the things she had heard, sensed, imagined, glimpsed on the edge of sight… the feeling of being watched… the strange thoughts, the harrowing despair…”
Highlight stories include “An American Writer’s Cottage,” wherein the lone visitor to a remote Hebrides Island grows gradually more intrigued about the eponymous dwelling and the works of the writer who once resided there…but ultimately what she learns is nothing that she wants to know. The aptly-titled “Nostalgia, Death, and Melancholy” follows the footsteps of Sinclair, who has returned to a remote island he hasn’t visited since his youth, in order to attend his Aunt’s funeral and see to her estate. While going through her things, he finds an old, dimly-remembered photograph, which prompts him, in a fit of nostalgia, to visit a nearly-forgotten cove, where he discovers that even though it might be possible to go home again, sometimes you absolutely shouldn’t.
In “The Light of the World,” a forlorn widower, unable to move on from his wife’s death, visits a small village in the Cumberland mountains in search of some peace and quiet, but instead repeatedly encounters an unusual, unsettling older couple, whose appearance turns out to be the harbinger of an undesirable outcome. In “Inheritance,” Isobel’s visit to a friend in the German countryside prompts memories of her dead sister and a strange doll, and the tangled web that ensues is filled with both mystery and revelation.
Not every tale here is a resounding success — for example, “Resurrection,” cut from Wicker Man cloth, is a tad too predictable — but for the most part Bell delivers the goods on a highly consistent basis.
Strange Epiphanies is a truly dark and dreary collection, but I mean that in only the best way. For fans of quiet, subtly supernatural fiction, it doesn’t get much better than this. Although still in print as of this writing, Strange Epiphanies is limited to 350 copies and Swan River titles tend to sell out quickly, so if this collection is of interest — which it should be to the majority of readers of this blog — I’d suggest you move quickly to obtain a copy.