Strange EpiphaniesStrange Epiphanies
Peter Bell

Swan River Press, 2012
Review by William Simmons

Poetic in style and emotionally intimate, the 8 stories in this debut collection combine sound craftsmanship with visionary imagination, reaffirming the emergence of an author whose fictions tell deep and disturbing truths about the human condition. Genuinely macabre and beautiful settings both reflect and are reflected by Bell’s minutely detailed characters. In his Introduction, Publisher Brian J. Showers emphasizes the author’s obsession with the ‘Genius Loci’ of place, and setting is a crucial element in these elegant nightmares that seduces the intellect and senses with equal vigor, arousing not only horror but the wonder and awe inherent in spiritual fear.

From Eastern Europe to an island in Iona, ‘place’ is revealed in all its unnerving, rich, and dangerous life. Mountains, resorts, and Carthapian hideaways envelope supernatural discovery, brimming with a sensual and alert existence that makes them characters in their own right. The Italian Landscape of “The Light Of The World” embodies the mystical revelations of the protagonist in the touch of its earth, the feel of its winds, the natural elements that suggest a secret life within the existence that we are taught (and falsely believe) we know. Shadowy and heart breaking revelation waits each of these men and women in turmoil with their hearts and histories. The discovery of a lost diary by Victorian ghost story author Amelia B. Edwards in “A Midsummer Rambling in the Carpathians” sends a wanderer through an Eastern Europe very much alive with the remnants of vampire folklore.

“Inheritance” injects vitality and belief into the trope of evil dolls who spell disaster to those unlucky enough to encounter them. Extremely disquieting and relentlessly grim, this fascinating variation on a theme emphasizes Bell’s ability to suggest more than he tells as well as a skill for infusing pathos and human tragedy into brazenly supernatural contexts.

Visionary terrors are housed in the misleading settings of everyday reality and serve as catalyst to characters’ disturbing discoveries.

Bell’s spirit of place interacts with the human psyche in a manner reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. Like them, he depicts a sentient and awe-inspiring Nature whose properties and consciousness pose a threat to the frail humans who encounter it. Favoring the disquieting shadow and philosophical idea to simplistic violence, Bell avoids homage by imbuing universal terror in the intimacy of people’s dreams, pains, and disorientation.

In “Resurrection” a lingering suspicion that reality is fluid and unknowable pervades as a clinically depressed woman vacationing in a ancient community experiences a macabre throw back to pagan mystery rites. In “M.E.F.” a man’s obsession with the former inhabitant on the island of Iona invites his subsequent haunting by a woman, and in “Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy” the inner quest for lost childhood triggers the deadliness of magically charged art.

This is an exhilarating tour through the secret geographies of nature and humanity, heart and mind. Bell questions the boundaries between the individual and the universal and denies is clean explanations. Similar to Robert Aickman, with whom Bell shows a thematic affinity, these epiphanies suggest a world, a life, that is horrifying and ultimately unknowable … and where shattering discoveries lead to darker mysteries still.

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