Tag Archives: Peter Bell

Swan River Press


All my Swan River Press reviews:

The Sea Change & Other Stories by Helen Grant

The Old Knowledge – by Rosalie Parker

Strange Epiphanies – Peter Bell

GHOSTS – R.B. Russell

Old Albert: An Epilogue – by Brian J Showers (this eventually became a Swan River Press book)

Here With The Shadows by Steve Rasnic Tem

The Dark Return of Time by R.B. Russell



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A Certain Slant of Light – Peter Bell

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)

Millennium Ball

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)

The Barony at Rødal

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)

Merfield House

“…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)

Only Sleeping

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.


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Strange Epiphanies – Peter Bell

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

Swan River Press 2012

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)

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