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 in the last week or so.
A Certain Slant of Light: Ghost Stories – by Peter Bell
Sarob Press 2012
Illustrations by Paul Lowe
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.
My previous review of a Peter Bell book: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/strange-epiphanies-peter-bell/
All my other real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/
“She exuded an aroma of patchouli oil, as if disguising something worse.”
This is a hilariously striking M.R. James extrapolation where an American academic explores the byways of Cambridgeshire in the sometimes genuinely spooky or monstrous, sometimes populist or “plebeian”, sometimes downright farcical-satirical world of the showman or showwoman he finds himself experiencing as a singular third person singular protagonist who is guided, in a very engaging style, nicely sub-claused, by Bell. I was wondering whether this was a pastiche of a delightful Reggie Oliver story or actually featured that wonderful gentleman himself acting out a MRJ story. Probably both! Whatever the case, the story seemed personally appropriate for me, having in the last few weeks visited the Isle of Ely on holiday and Oliver Cromwell’s house there. And a well known haunter of Dunwich, Suffolk, too, over the years. (24 Jun 12: 10.10 am bst)
“Fair gave her the shivers, I can tell you,…”
A story that takes me back to what I sense to be the early Fifties, where boys could be called “cissies” by big girls and health-&-safety hadn’t been invented: frissons of the past war, a cobbler’s shop on the corner, and the acceptable insanity that the war had doled out, and the “superstitious awe”, and the mis-alignment of souls by literal ‘bewitchment’. Where a ‘shrunken head’ could be ‘upstaged’ by another dubious talisman among the William Brown or Jane Turpin set – and old people were what they always were, even more demons on the inside than they were on the outside! (Tantamount to an old man myself now). Loved the story’s eventual synergy between the eras bracketing my life and/or, as I was then, am now, ever with ‘nothing between the ears’! “Bad for me, worse for you.” This book’s second amorality tale in a row with monstrousness as coda. (24 June 12: 1.05 pm bst)
“I reckon what freaked him was those sand dunes. You can get lost in them and some of them are bloody high, you feel all shut in.”
A compelling, substantive, markedly ‘genius-local’ scenario of an obscure Hebridean island where our protagonist – invited by an old University friend not seen for a while – spends the Millennium New Year’s Eve, with merely a reference to a flu epidemic in wordplay with the Millennium Bug! Highly haunting, with a coordination of beach-side McGoohan-‘Prisoner’ and MRJames-‘Oh Whistle’ scenes and then, by later realisation, ended by shades of the protagonist’s fate in The Wicker Man – the coda paragraph after the ‘***’ being a slight disappointment of ‘rationalisation’ but not at all spoiling the excellent previous atmosphere of man against the wilds of sublime nature and nightmarish supernature: including the coordinates of (a) two separate ‘messages in a bottle’ from different places in the world arriving on a single Scottish shore and (b) two separate accounts of Boswell and Johnson concerning the same trip they made all those years before. (24 June 12: 6.55 pm bst)
“In her blue two-piece suit, Natasha reflected, she must look as conspicuous as a parakeet amongst urban pigeons.”
For me, this perfectly sized story (not too short, not too long) is a genuine classic of horror, weird, ‘ghost story’ fiction (call it what you may) especially of the M.R. James scholarly mode, but more than that, it has resonances as a discrete entity beyond anything M.R. James wrote and, with the book’s previous context, it becomes something very special indeed. Genuinely frightening, with its Liverpool ambiance, visiting a church in the now seedy area (called ‘Shrike’ with resonances of both normal nature when the place was more scenic in the past and today’s urban nightmare): in tune with ‘hoody’ culture of street gangs etc. (well observed and believable) as symmetrised with ‘Victorian vandalism’ upon the art of churches … and a ‘hatchment‘ which resonates, for me, with a Russian Orthodox iconostasis: and the words ‘religious symmetry’ are actually used in this story disarmingly with ‘weeping chancel’ (a real term) adding to the atmospheric build-up that one needs to be a sensitive reader to be thus frightened by, as I hope (fear) I have been. Luckily I am not sufficiently sensitive to go the extra mile with this story. Perhaps you are? And the earlier ‘bad for me, worse for you’ symmetries threading this book so far only serve to accentuate the ‘awful’ symmetries here. Astonished. Burne-Jones eat your heart out. Has to be read. (25 June 12: 11.15 am bst)
“As you see, the windows of this house, they have glass that you cannot see through, only the light.”
…like an iconostasis in spiritual terms? This latter day botanical tour of Norway by a man with his daughter reminds me of my own tour of Norway nearly four years ago, including Bergen, and a statue of a composer whose work I do not like: Grieg. And lots more, including the photo by the side of this review, one that I took in Oslo. I view this story as a holding one in the journey of this book. One with a background of Nazi crimes, Quisling matters bubbling in the past but now affecting the present, via shapeshifters, business corruptions, uncanny feelings of legend and foolhardy explorations (that seem a common habit of Bell protagonists!). And a sudden bereavement at the end of the story that does not seem to impinge as much on the one bereaved as you might expect,..? Very well-written. But a stock story as if taken off the shelf. Or perhaps it will demonstrate a “persistent intermarriage” with the rest of the stories yet to be read … a ‘hatchment’ dividing (or a filter facilitating?) those from (or with) those stories that went before? [I note the story starts with a quotation from Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and once lived many years ago as rector of an off-beaten church in a place (East Mersea, Mersea Island) nearby-familiar to me. Cf the Mersey of the previous story’s Liverpool? And note the parallel geography of Scotland and Norway, as well as divided by a narrow iconostasis of spirit, a special relationship expressly relevant to this story?] (25 June 12: 1.40 pm bst)
“…indeed, she doubted if he had even heard of M.R. James.”
I am not the best MRJ-orientated person to review this section. I hesitate to call it a story, but it is definitely some form of fiction relating to antiquarian research regarding an unfinished story by MRJ, I infer, one where we have gone from ‘Mersea’ mentioned in my previous review to ‘Merfield’. To “swine flu” as an answer to the famous Spanish Flu Epidemic of the Great War, and in view of the parakeet, shrike and ‘urban pigeons’ earlier, we now surely fear for the avian version? Another amorality tale? Seriously interesting with reference to a mysterious amulet, medieval Templars and (topically, today) Aleppo and Syria, and involving epistolary ‘foolhardy explorations’, as it turns out, by our lady antiquarian who seems to think that MRJ’s fiction is of no value compared to his antiquarian research! The Assassination at Sarajevo – and Peterborough Cathedral with its own ‘weeping chancel’? Antiquarian abstruseness as another ‘hatchment’ or filter: to guard us (or entice us) against (or into) knowing too much, with some very nice evocative writing that will cause me to re-read this ‘story’, whatever the danger! Tittle-tattle and hard-nosed facts. “…as if a deep shudder passed through Nature.” (25 Jun 12: 7.45 pm bst)
“Why was it that the wings of an angel looked so much more terrifying than those of a bird?”
A fine, eerie, meticulously documented tale of the protagonist’s exploration of a Cumberland church, its graveyard (sometimes more fitting for Highgate and Highwaymen (Michael Row the Boat Ashore) than Wordsworth’s Grasmere), its history, its denizens both living and dead: being a ‘slant of light’ upon its dark history from the coordinates of distance and closeness, re-depicting the book’s erstwhile ‘vandalism’ theme here through Cromwell (again) and Miltonic/Caspar Friederich ambiances of Heaven versus Hell. The reference to Nutwood was also a feeling of Heaven and Hell, nostalgia and a frightening sense of fear that not even nostalgia can conceal but even enhances. Christian soldiers, Eastern Orthodox Church, Perpendicular style of panes, Grünewald: these mentions and more that accrete fear and growing creepy alarm, as well as the paradoxically accompanying nostalgia and a pleasure in reading a great ‘ghost story’, but like other Bell’s protagonists, one fears, often justifiably, for his or her fate (even if otherwise their lives may be miserable back home like Anita Brookner’s characters) – and, here, hardly pre-hinted at, I wonder if the detail in the ending is justifiable, or even believable. Both a good and bad sense of ‘dying fall’ [from Sorabji’s MRJ music that I listen to when reading this wonderful book, this wonderful story. Reminded me of my visit to Chaldon Church a few years ago when I lived in Coulsdon.] “…except high in the firmament, where beams of the descending sun were forging an avenue through the massing cloudbanks.” (26 Jun 12: 9.40 am bst)
“Full-faced, however, her beauty was seriously flawed by an odd asymmetry of features.”
…describing a Russian woman as another form of iconostasis… but I am leaping ahead of myself: this is a spooky tale, sometimes self-consciously so or even satirically so, like ‘Lamia’, with all the trappings of a ghost story that would please MRJ fans (and the boy who is haunted in an Isle of Man guesthouse by the long corridor leading alongside his non-ensuite room surely deserves being spooked by reading MRJ stories just before going to sleep!) – but, artfully transcending that feeling of mine, the story is genuinely scary. And the ambiance of Douglas, the Russian woman’s ‘Don’t Look Now’-type bereavement, the decor of the guest house, with shreds of Robert Aickman or Elizabeth Bowen… Mentions of the River Mersey, of beams in the rafters as well as beams from a lighthouse, of a “screen” of sycamore and privet, all lend to the symmetry/asymmetry of this book, enhanced by Lowe’s excellent drawings, one with what I saw as a confessional screen like a barred cell or railings around gravestones (here “caged-in tombs“) ….and the dreaded “unconsecrated ground” ie unscreened by God? And the millennium ball toing and froing upon these tides of fiction. This book, I recommend to any reader wanting to be scared. No facelift can relieve that threat, I suggest, from the twisted visage within you or represented by the mask you hide under the normal face, a mask that upstages any talisman of self even if only by dint of ‘superstitious awe’. I wonder if this book is the prime example of what I call ‘ghorror’ (a word I coined recently as a result of a typo, pronounced ‘gore-or’) where ghost story trappings are accompanied by gory upstagings of one’s very soul. But that is just me idly rambling from the other side of the page. Or foolhardily rambling like Bell’s protagonists … to seek some oxymoron of destiny. A fate that is only sleeping. Or slanting from the vandalised past toward you with some mixed hope and despair for the future. (26 Jun 12: 12.05 pm bst)
In tune with my lifelong interest in ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, I shall now read any extraneous matter from this book (including the Afterword) for the first time, as is my wont when real-time reviewing. I am sure it will give me additional food for thought, but I shall not be back here to review it.