There is a very familiar landscape evoked through its variants
in this seven story collection. Uncanny, rural settings, long
ago delineated by the hand of Blackwood or Buchan (the latter
actually namechecked during one tale, 'M.E.F.'), are found
resurrected here, larded with appropriately modern references.
('Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy' for one - described at the
back as 'substantially revised' since first published in 2007 -
takes a pleasing, if unexpected, dig at the bankers).
Such settings demand an unreliable narrator; usually a lone
explorer with issues; and perceptions, perhaps, skewed by a
dependancy or obsession. The whole gamut is so represented
although alcohol encroaches with its less-than-benign influence
through most, and 'An American Writer's Cottage' in particular.
While the depictions and situations feel very familiar, they
are often approached from an unexpected angle.
The clearest example here is 'A Midsummer Ramble in the
Carpathians.' You read the last word of this title and assume
you'll know what you'll get. But Bell's historical knowledge
lends an outsider's credence to the researcher-protaganist and
her ultimate fate.
This is what avoids the usual shameless poncing-off of other
authors work, so prevalent in current transatlantic fantasy;
the authenticity of the voice. Clearly, Bell knows his subject
through personal exploration, as much as, say, M.R. James
knew his. The back flyleaf confirms his Northern Briton bard
status: 'He is a historian, a native of Liverpool, an inhabitant
of York, and likes to wander the hidden places of Scotland...'
You leave his Afterword - a historical note on one of the
earlier tales - feeling there may be more psychologically
autobiographical than is stated, almost making Bell one of his
own characters. You also leave recalling what enticed you to
such tales in the first place.
* * *
Back in the Pan Review (dated 5th July 2012) I briefly reviewed
John Shire's 'An Antique Land.' This slender little paperback
was put together to represent an incomplete tale patched
throughout by serendipitous little deviations to contemporary
quotes and illustrations. This purposefully gave that modest
piece an air of mystery, exoticism and scope it might otherwise
have lacked if penned as complete.
Such is the case with Brian J. Shower's latest, also just out by
Swan River. Like Shire's title, it sells itself as the spawn of an
accummulation of arcane research from a secondhand source,
where the lines of fact and apochrophal hearsay are wilfully
blurred in the service of presenting an intriguing tale.
(What might be deemed a stranger, less mainstream version of
Kate Summerscale's semi-fictional biographies).
A stuffed skylark, sent by a friend, its curious provenance from
a seemingly cursed house named Larkhill, Rathmines, in the old
sector of Dublin, and its original amateur taxidermical owner,
(the hermetic, bird-like figure of Ellis Grimwood), all trigger the
Parallel to this journey is 'Old Albert' "himself," the name
derived from an obscure Dublin nursery rhyme that seems
strangely to evoke a sense of deja-vu in the exploratory life of its
narrator. What opens as exposition almost too dry, soon flowers
into a beautiful mystery of hidden motive and intimating curse as
Larkhill's unconnected, but oddly like-minded, new owners take
over the property and pay their own price.
Realising how this sounds, still we are most definitely not in
Stephen King territory - thank God. The prose is excellently
concise and the mood appropriately ominous, with no
irrelevant domestic intrusions to disturb the narrative flow.
At under sixty pages its economy is also admirable, being
closer to a long short story than novella.
An afterword by Adam Golaski stretches the antique,
ectoplasmic finger of 'Old Albert' to the present day with an
equally intriguing, if less economic, 'anecdote.'
Both these Swan River titles come recommended.