Tag Archives: quiet horror

Peter Bell’s Strange Epiphanies — A Serendipitous Discovery

From relatively modest beginnings in 2003, Brian Showers’  Swan River Press has gradually grown 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.

No One Can Hear You Scream – Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Quiet Houses

A few months back I read Simon Kurt Unsworth’s collection Lost Places from Ash-Tree Press and found several highlights contained within, but also a couple…less-exceptional pieces. Unsworth’s new mini-collection from Dark Continents Press, Quiet Houses displays no such problems with inconsistency, instead presenting a uniformly excellent line-up. As the title implies, the horror found within these pages is of the “quiet” variety, as perhaps best exemplified by the work of the late Charles L. Grant — no gore or in-your-face creatures, but nonetheless very, very chilling.

Quiet Houses is a portmanteau collection of seven linked stories, five original to this volume, all revolving around paranormal researcher Richard Nakata, who — we eventually discover — has been hired by the attorney Tidyman to locate people who’ve had genuine experiences with the supernatural and document their encounters, so they can be used as reference material in a trial. In some of the stories, Nakata winds up being the protagonist, while others relate the experiences of his interview subjects. Throughout the first few entries, there are numerous allusions to an incident at the Glasshouse Estates involving Nakata’s former girlfriend Amy, although much is left unexplained.

The stories are simply named,  reflecting their locales (which, by the way, are extremely well-rendered), as with “The Merry House, Scale Hall,” which is related via a letter sent from the adult son (since disappeared) of one of Nakata’s subjects. While helping to search for a missing little girl, the son discovers the eponymous house, and the ultimate darkness within. “There is another world below this one,” the son says in his letter, “a world inhabited by ghost and demons and all the things that we have lost that we should not find again.”

The chilling “Beyond St. Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham Head” is a pitch-perfect tale in which Nakata visits a cemetery and finds several invisible beings, their presence betrayed only by the trail they leave across the grass, following him and then “herding” him into a cul-de-sac before he manages a narrow escape.

“The Temple of Relief and Ease” concerns the haunting of a most unlikely locale — a public men’s room — by the ghost of a wounded WWI veteran, whose injuries relegated him to the role of washroom attendant for more than four decades, a sentence that imprinted his frustration as a palpable presence in the now-abandoned room. Encountering that presence, Nakata wonders: “Forty three years, he thought. Forty three years here… How had the war affected Tulketh, he wondered?  Was he missing an arm… Or was it something less obvious, damage written on the inside of his skin rather than the outside.”

When Tidyman finally forces Nakata to face his own memories, we find out why Nakata refers to Amy in the past tense, and why he has avoided thinking about the incident. As he muses: “Since Amy…he sometimes felt like the things he investigated: only half there, less than real.” The collection closes with the story of the trial for which Nakata has been gathering data, and a nighttime field trip by the jury to the scene of the crime, complete with a barn full of homicidal ghost-cows (it’s much more frightening than it sounds!).

Quiet Houses is a darkly brilliant collection, a dusky jewel that deserves your attention as well as consideration from award judges.