Strange Epiphanies, from Swan River Press, is a collection of short stories by Peter Bell. Swan River Press specialises in horror fiction of the macab...moreStrange Epiphanies, from Swan River Press, is a collection of short stories by Peter Bell. Swan River Press specialises in horror fiction of the macabre and supernatural tale variety, taking its cue from the work of writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Machen, M.R. James and others. The emphasis is very much on a slow build of tension and fear with little or no graphically portrayed gore. Old style horror, beautifully written, and all the more genuinely chilling for its implied denouements.
And Strange Epiphanies fits this category perfectly. In ‘M.E.F.’, based on a true story, a grieving widower visits the Scottish island of Iona on the anniversary of his wife’s death on a nearby island. They had both formed a fascination for the story of the death in 1929 of Marie Emily Fornario (the M.E.F. of the title), a visiting aesthete with an interest in the local folklore. The widower is visiting Iona one last time with the intention of finding the exact spot where Marie died and, as he attempts to garner clues from books on relevant associated topics and journeys out into the wild landscape of the island, he is slowly but surely drawn into the reverberations of that terrible event, which echo down through the decades to today.
‘The Light of the World’ tells the story of a bereaved man who rents a cottage in the wild Cumbrian north country in an attempt to shake off his deep depression by getting away from it all. A knock at the door of his cottage in the tiny village he has fetched up in reveals a bizarrely macabre old couple on his doorstep who confront him with an obtuse and vaguely sinister religious message that sets him on a course of discovery that ends in enlightenment of a sort that he could never have predicted.
The main focus of ‘Inheritance’ is a valuable porcelain doll, whose provenance uncovers a sad and horrific tale of cruelty, neglect and madness. The work of a forgotten and underappreciated artist provides the sense of unease and gathering malice in ‘Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy’. And the vestigial presence of an American author haunts the wild and untameable landscape of ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’.
All of the above are perfectly pitched and highly effective stories, but the absolute standout stories, for me, are ‘Resurrection’ and ‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’.
‘Resurrection’ is an evocative and original spin on the basic premise of The Wicker Man that captures brilliantly the close community of the remote village that features in the story and ends on a note radically different to the film that manages to outdo it for chilling effect.
‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’ is a vampire story of the classic sort, told in diary form through the eyes of the travel writer Amelia B. Edwards and those of the woman who accidentally discovers Edwards handwritten account a century later. Bell manages to capture the voice of the Victorian writer with stylish precision and what unfolds is a beautifully written travelogue full of incident and descriptive detail, with a gathering sense of impending doom and a suitably spine-tingling ending.
A major feature of Bell’s writing is the landscape, which is sumptuously described and dominates the work to the extent that it almost constitutes another character in each of the stories. The sense of menace and melancholy sown into the pieces emanates primarily from the locales in which they are set and is in large part the reason I can’t recommend Strange Epiphanies highly enough.(less)
There is the danger that a casual perusal of the contents page of Carole Lanham’s collection The Whisper Jar may give the potential reader the impress...moreThere is the danger that a casual perusal of the contents page of Carole Lanham’s collection The Whisper Jar may give the potential reader the impression that this is a work of whimsy, but nothing could be further from the truth. There is certainly an element of whimsy sown into some of the stories, but it is a whimsy that can turn suddenly dark and in the most unexpected and subtle ways. Characters find themselves enticed along a path of discovery that is childish innocence itself, each new stage of discovery obliging a further commitment that slowly but surely entangles the protagonist in a web that ultimately proves impossible to escape.
Two poems, ‘The Whisper Jar’ and ‘The Adventures of Velvet Honeybone, Girl Werewuff’ set the tone of dark whimsy; the short stories delve more deeply and subtly into this realm. In ‘The Good Part’ we see a young boy try to come to terms with a sudden and dreadful change in his sister, how he tries to normalise her behaviour and how, ultimately, he is willing to sacrifice everything in order to continue being with her. ‘Keepity Keep’ is a fairy story like you’ve never read before. The reader is drawn into a story that on the surface revels in a magical recounting of childhood enthusiasms, but at its heart is a story of jealousy and competition and the inevitability of growing up and leaving childish things behind. The focus of ‘The Blue Word’ is the imminent graduation of a group of children from a Catholic run orphanage in a post apocalyptic world. There’s a hint of Never Let Me Go to this story, but Lanham creates a world radically different to that of Ishiguro’s novel, with horrific discoveries along the way and an achingly sad denouement.
All the stories in The Whisper Jar are told from the viewpoint of children on the verge of puberty and Lanham demonstrates a remarkable facility in capturing perfectly the voice of innocence and insatiable curiosity that presages this difficult rite of passage. There is also a genuine unpredictability to the stories; the reader has no real idea what’s going to happen. Markers are placed along the way in each story and readers can indulge in second guessing the outcomes, but even when they are close, there will be intangible differences of emphasis and meaning to anything they care to posit.
‘Maxwell Treat’s Museum of Torture for Young Girls and Boys’ tells the story of a boy who loses his parents to an accident on a railroad track and is sent to live on a farm with his cousins. Maxwell Treat, the elder of the cousins, enrols the hapless orphan in assisting in the development of a museum of torture out in one of the barns on the farm and it things rapidly get out of control. In ‘Friar Garden, Mister Samuel, and the Jilly Jally Butter Mints’, Esme Padora, along with her friend Sam Bell, is drawn into the dream-like, surreal world of her mentally deficient sister Estrella. The innocence of this world is slowly darkened by emotions and desires they have little or no control over and struggle to understand. Misunderstanding, when the children intersect with the adult world, eventually leads to disaster.
There is a timelessness to these stories; only two make any attempt at placing themselves in time: ‘The Blue Word’ is plainly set in a post apocalyptic timeframe and ‘The Forgotten Orphan’ seems to occur sometime before the First World War. There is a deceptively simple beauty to Lanham’s style and approach to the language of each piece, an intense sense of place if not time, unless we consider childhood as ‘time’. A hint of Bradbury can be detected in several of the stories, but there’s a distinctly darker edge, suffused with an erotic undercurrent and a gentle and understanding humour, that is all Lanham’s own.
I cannot recommend The Whisper Jar highly enough.(less)
The wonder of The Floating Order, a collection of short stories by Erin Pringle, is that it is impossible to pigeonhole. At their heart the stories ha...moreThe wonder of The Floating Order, a collection of short stories by Erin Pringle, is that it is impossible to pigeonhole. At their heart the stories have a darkly fantastic edge, but this aspect is more often than not a component of the character’s view of the outside world.
Skewed perspectives dominate, particularly i9n the first half dozen or so stories, which offer the fragmented observations of damaged personalities. In ‘The Floating Order’ a young mother commits the most heinous of crimes; as a sustained study of mental disorder it’s hard to beat, delivering as it does an achingly melancholic and horrific impact. In ‘Cats and Dogs’ a young girl waits anxiously for her mother to drop out of the sky like rain so they can return to some semblance of a normal life. ‘Losing, I Think’ focuses on the loss of children in all its guises.
Some stories stray into more macabre territory. ‘Sanctuary’ tells the story of a furniture removal man, tasked with the job of moving an upright piano from one church to another, who makes a truly gruesome discovery. What makes the story stand out is the thoughtful approach Pringle takes with the piece and the unexpected denouement. As ‘Halfway There’ unfolds, every parent’s nightmare is realised with an appalling, slow-motion intensity. In the surreal ‘Digging’ a young brother and sister try to come to terms with their homicidal mother and search for ways out of their imminent dispatch. ‘All I Have Left’ has something of the folkloric feel about it, but with the dark brutality of early folk tales before they were sanitised in more modern times.
Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of a child and are all the more effective for that, allowing Pringle to illustrate genuinely awful acts and situations with an innocence that heightens the tension and drama. ‘Raw as Hands’ shows how a young girl copes with a twin sister addicted to scrubbing herself clean perpetually. In ‘Rabbits’ a little girl with measles outfoxes her nurse with shocking results. ‘Skeletons/My Fourth Birthday/Hell is Channel Three’ portrays a four-year-old’s perspective on the loss of her father to war. ‘Why Jimmy’, one of the highlights of the collection (along with ‘The Floating Order’, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Halfway There’ and ‘Rabbits’), brilliantly catches the casual, and yet innocent, brutality of a young girl committing a bizarrely grisly act. Sown into the narrative is a healthy leavening of humour, all generated by the young girl’s unintentionally comic observations. This same innocence in the face of terrible events is used to good effect in ‘Every Good Girl Does Fine’, which revolves around a chain reaction of events at a choir practice that result in a bloody finale.
It’s Pringle’s ability to get inside the mind of a child and see the adult world from their perspective that is the real strength of this collection. Another is the shifting nature of reality from this perspective. There is also very little in the way of gratuitous detail when it comes to revealing exactly what happens; it’s all the more chilling when your imagination is engaged in this exercise.(less)