I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. A hardback book I purchased from the publisher & received today.
Strange Epiphanies – by Peter Bell
There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
All my other real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/
“It was a mystery house, of the kind she had read about so often as a child in the ‘Famous Five’ stories of Enid Blyton:”
That early sentence filled me with yearning for some past in my own childhood. And I was not to be disappointed, except my appreciation — of good-hearted stories with old-fashioned mystery and coincidence and impending danger and, by paradoxical force, wholesomely nostalgic (from a lifetime’s reading point of view) occult forces gathering nearer — was threaded through with the well-characterised Jane Austen-reading female protagonist’s fragile mental condition: her own old-fashioned principles being seriously challenged by undercurrents of uncouthness and by more than just puppety scarecrows: all within a finite community steeped in the “ancient heathendom” of Beltane ‘festivities’. Beautifully written (if simply), alerting me meaningfully, inter alia, to the distinction between “exultation” and “exaltation“; a truly felt ‘genius loci’ of Lake District wildness – and then we have the house itself. Wonderfully conveyed gradually. It possibly affected me more than most as it strongly and repeatedly features an ornate balcony with balustrade. And I have been wrestling with ‘The Last Balcony’ concept for the last few years. The story’s ending, therefore, was even more poignant for this reader. An amazing synchronicity, yet again in my real-time reviews over the years! So, a delightfully old-fashioned tale with a definite edge – to look over… (28 Apr 12 – 12.50 pm bst)
M. E. F.
When starting a real-time review, I usually look at the copyright page to see if I have read any of the stories before. (That is the only extraneous thing I do look at, as I like publicly to review all the fiction before reading any foreword or story notes or other reviews.) It appears that I have read ‘M.E.F’ before; in fact, in 2009, I real-time reviewed it here with the Peter Bell by-line under a different title. I do intend to re-read this story and real-time review it anew below. Meanwhile, I shall not actually re-read my first real-time review of it. (28 Apr 12 – 1.20 pm bst)
“I spent today re-familiarising myself with the island -”
This text (as a ‘found’ diary after the events) is richly textured, when compared to the relative simplicity of the previous story: beautiful, again, but differently so. Suffused with exultation and exaltation. A man’s quest for Iona’s hidden site of a death: its last cairn as it were (the equivalent, I suggest, of the previous story’s ‘last balcony’) where a ‘cross’ between his love-bereavement in real-life and a mythic or theosophical or, even, Christian femininity is transfigured, transcended into some poetry of the soul emblemised by, inter alia, my favourite hymn from school, ‘Immortal, Invisible’. And Rutland Boughton’s opera ‘The Immortal Hour’ (that also explicitly appears in my own published novella ‘Weirdtongue: The Glistenberry Romance’ if I may be indulged with that reference). ‘M.E.F’ also features a hotel like a library, plus a spirituality through explicit ritual as well as, implicitly, through this vehicle of ‘magic fiction’ itself; there is another well-conjured ‘genius loci’: here of Scottish wildness with sea-storms and fairy mounds, ‘Arts and Crafts’ echoing those in the previous story, “wonderful, euphoric moods” as a foil to other moods that steer the two bi-polar protagonists in the book’s first two stories: and an explicitly conjured sense of predestination – the same predestination that seems to have brought me to this book. (28 Apr 12 – 3.50 pm bst)
The Light of the World
“…accused of heresy for alleging human souls to be the angels who stayed neutral when Lucifer rebelled.”
And thus the angst of humans – and another ‘depressive’ protagonist – like the one in the previous story suffering bereavement for his loved one – a vehicle for deja-vu and recurring dreams: Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’ which, more than incidentally I understand now, I used to see often at lunchtimes in St Paul’s Cathedral during my heyday City days: but the stunning ‘genius loci’ here is Italy. As if exaltation, if not exultation, spans continents: because of some universal soul that transcends geographic logic. This story is full of things like ‘heights’, ‘rocky outcrops’, ‘promontories’, ‘balconies’ (at least twice), ‘edges’ … and this reader (tutored by the ‘light’ of this story) does not need to be a visionary to understand what horror is seen when the protagonist opens the final door… (28 Apr 12 – 8.00 pm bst)
An American Writer’s Cottage
“Hermione Lake wrote in a trite populist style, far removed from the poetic, heartfelt tone of Karen McTavish.”
[My halfway declaration: I have a set of Fiona Macleod books on my bookshelf and I, Des Lewis, once visited the Hebridean Lewis, with my then young family, during the 1970s, so this story and one or two others in this book have a running start with me.] This story has another protagonist – Margaret – who is love-bereaved (now travels on her own without her Frank) and with maudlin tendencies – with a weakness for cigarettes and wine – who now earths herself off in a secluded setting – the ‘genius loci’ (explicitly called a ‘genius loci’ in this story perhaps for the first time) being a small relatively unknown Hebrides island, staying, as she does, in a cottage by a seal-occupied loch. In telling contrast to the previous stories’ ‘balconies’ etc., this cottage nestles rather than perches, ‘heightened’ by the mention of ‘vertigo‘ at one point, a vertigo that resonates with the thought of what we learn had probably happened to the American Writer. Returning to the quote I’ve given above, there is a sense of schizophrenia (Hermione and Karen being the same American writer with two different names when writing) not only within Margaret (one side of her attempting to ovecrcome weaknesses in another side of her), but also within the story itself: a constructive tussle between the two facets: the old-fashioned plain read that comforts as much as it attempts to disturb by means of the (enjoyable) sinister and the undercurrents or myths or ineffable haunting things that are more complex (even more complex perhaps than the author intended – cf: my slavish regard for the literary theory of ‘The Intentional Fallacy’). All this evokes for me the ‘Path of the Beam’, as Stephen King calls it in ‘The Dark Tower’ series, here in this story taken literally: with great force. Puritans lurking, too, in the wings. The ending itself is indeed more than it seems, despite conveying the implicit finality of tantamount to someone writing another diary that is discovered after the events. A real-time retrocausality. Some beautiful atmospheric touches regarding the loch, glimpses of figures in the distance, and the sound of the seals. All round, more than it seems. Or less than? My own readerly version of Margaret’s anxious paranoia. Being watched by those reading me reading it. (29 Apr 12 – 11.10 am bst)
I’ve just started the next story ‘Inheritance‘ which has one of the most brilliant opening lines of any story, which I may use as the starting quote for my review. But meanwhile, I thought I should record here, before I forget, that, disregarding any other themes, the protagonists so far in this book remind me constructively of one of my favourite novelists’ protagonists: those of Anita Brookner. Any of you familiar with her work and with Peter Bell’s work will surely know what I mean. (29 Apr 12 – 3.40 pm bst)
“As the train snaked into the dark heart of the city, Isobel fell to wondering why it was that railway lines everywhere seemed to pass through undiscovered country. A country of the mind as much as anything material.”
And so this story begins. A story about which I ask: where have you been all my reading life? Let’s take it in stages. A lonely Bellian protagonist, then reminding me of the anxious, depressive train journey and stop-over in a Stephen Poliakoff film. Reminds me, too, of some Frances Oliver fiction, or vice versa. Which of those two (S. Bell and F. Oliver) am I stating the best superlative when saying that? A perfect nugget of dark fantasy, combining regret, loneliness, attempts at sociability while yielding finally to the crystallisation of the cigarette, pursued by the company of wine – and the Ligottian doll amid a collection of antique mirrors. And above all the essence of retrocausal synchronicity here expressed. Far-fetchedness brought close to home as the instrinsic reality. This story also conveys two significant feelings, for me: sitting in a delayed train while staring at a piece of the external world, like a plant or a bit of concrete, and all the thoughts that you and I know go on in the mind about this but only this author in this story happened to express such a feeling. And the horror radiated by an object, without immediate obvious reason. (29 Apr 12 – 7.25 pm bst)
A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians
“…now gloomy, now sad, now joyously hysterical;”
Julia, antiquarian book dealer, explores what she feels is an original Amelia B. Edwards manuscript – another ‘diary’ discovered after the events? – and via much highly-honed inter-narrative toing and froing in the Real and the Gothic-fictional (learning much of the History, Customs, Geography etc of the Romanian, Hungarian, Balkan part of ‘Secret Europe’*): extrapolating upon what I have often called ‘the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction’ (“…fact and fiction continued to dissolve“): a varying synergy or symbiosis or host/parasite tussling between History and Lore, Religion and Superstition, Environment and Humanity, bi-polar tropes echoing that within the human mind. A feminine Algernon Blackwood vision: entailing gender-disguise and wan collapse into fragile beauty. This represents the High Church story crammed with crucifixes threatened by its own internal fantasies and nightmares. The Profane and Sacred within Jesus himself. More simply, it’s a great Gothic tale. There is one remarkable scene when, “gazing over a vast precipice beyond which the land plunges vertiginously“, we are shown the most sublimely fearsome moment of looming mountain – something that will haunt your dreams. [*This story reminded me in places of the book ‘Secret Europe’ (real-time reviewed here) wherein, I have to mention in view of the ‘cigarette’ theme of some of Bell’s other stories, there is a work by Mark Valentine that is the ultimate Carpathian cigarette story!] (30 Apr 12 – 11.25 am bst)
Nostalgia, Death & Melancholy
“…the verandah had long ago yielded to the elements.”
That title seems to encapsulate much about this book, yet there is more than just that as this story itself attests. The verandah in the “sacred grove” – so crucial from within an old photo in the nostalgic non-photographic memory of a Bellian protagonist in pilgrimage for his lost childhood, a lost domain, upon a Bellian island where his aged aunt has recently died – neatly brackets this book with the ‘last balcony’ of the book’s beginning. This story starts with a W.G. Sebald quotation. This reminds me that a number of years ago I read all Sebald’s book over a short period. I should have thought of his work before now in relation to ‘Strange Epiphanies’, with his semi-fictional studies of the ‘genius loci’ and Memory Maps. I am then also reminded of two other favourite writers whom I’ve not yet mentioned: Elizabeth Bowen and Robert Aickman: both I am sure residing somewhere, to varying degrees, in the gestalt of ‘Strange Epiphanies’. Meanwhile, this story echoes the book’s earlier ‘Arts and Crafts’, Pre-Raphaelite art (cf: the Holman Hunt) evolving now into disturbing Goya-like visions, and Theosophical matters in tussle with more acceptable yearnings for transcendence to defeat depression. Like many of the stories, the plot ends with a frightening, sinister danger impending and possibly winning out. But equally there is a comfort here. The comfort of the sinister in literature. A wonderful book. [This last story apparently was first published in the Spring of 2007 and so, when you consider the timing, it was highly premonitory upon the very promontory of financial disaster: with its ‘cri de coeur’: ‘Criminals or bankers, what’s the difference?’]
I shall now read the Introduction by Brian J. Showers and the Afterword (by Peter Bell?) for the first time. As is common with my real-time reviews, I will not be back here to review them, but I am sure they will give me some valuable food for thought.
END (30 Apr 12 – 1.45 pm bst)