Friday, November 12, 2021

An Interview with Peter Bell

In August, Sarob Press announced Sacred and Profane, a new collection of seven supernatural stories by Peter Bell, and in September the Swan River Press published a paperback edition of his 2012 collection Strange Epiphanies. 

We’re pleased to present an interview with Peter about his work.

Q Do you think your background as a historian influences the themes of your stories? For example, do you see the hauntings in your fiction as metaphors for the way history continues to resonate?

Inevitably as a historian many of my stories draw on a deep fund of historical knowledge and understanding; but it is very much on an instinctive or subconscious level, rather than due to an intention to write a ‘historical’ tale―as M.R. James likewise employed his antiquarian erudition. Moreover, I see my historical expertise as part of a wider spectrum, embracing folklore, literature, culture and general knowledge. A historian’s skills however―researching and interpreting a complexity of fact and opinion―are crucial.

In Sacred & Profane empathy with the cruel events of Irish history infuses ‘Lullaby’, but it is equally a tale about ‘second sight’, omens and legends, as well as being an account of an ancient shrine I visited, hidden away in the Blue Stack mountains of County Donegal. ‘The Strange Death of Sophie van der Wielen’ addresses the most notorious atrocity of the last century, but its motive force is broader: a quest into the ancient, violent heartland of Europe, land of the vampire, a meditation on the persistence of evil―thus an exploration of the book’s central theme: the dubious boundary between sacred and profane. Stephanie, in ‘Stigmata’, is haunted by echoes of the Albigensian Crusade, but the story has broader relevance as a fantasia upon religious angst and her crisis of faith, with an ending that can be seen as serendipitous or ironic. In ‘The Ice House’ historically authentic cruelty and moral bigotry are apprehended through psychic phenomena. Indeed, most of the best stories in the supernatural canon are about the shadow of the past menacing the present, and I work myself within that accommodating framework.

One thing I have learned from History is that there is no such thing as absolute truth, only different versions, mediated through layers of fragmentary, erroneous, tendentious or otherwise unreliable narrative. The ‘unreliable narrator’ is, of course, a constant of fiction. In my story ‘Haunted’ the personal history of its tragic heroine, Virginia, cannot be ascertained, even in her own mind: the narrative moves through a series of potentially defective accounts: her friend, narrator Pauline’s testament; a mother’s gossip; news reports of varying credibility and veracity; the local history booklet’s fusion of fact and fable; the man who invents his own urban legend; Virginia’s incomplete, half-remembered or misremembered, account of her experiences; the speculative hearsay relayed by a third party; and the inconclusive verdict on Virginia’s fate. ‘Haunted’ can equally be interpreted as a ghost story or as a tale of psychological trauma. Structurally, I was influenced by the novels of Phyllis Paul, especially Twice Lost, wherein the same pattern of evidence can furnish several, mutually inconsistent, ‘explanations’. This kind of ambiguity permeates many a historical controversy. Truth is subjective, not objective.

Q Many of your stories are notable for a strong sense of place. Do you find that particular places seem, when you encounter them, to call out for a story?

Genius loci is central to my stories, typically arising from a landscape seeming to invite a weird tale, not so much its physical reality as its mood. This also encompasses internal space, like the church in ‘The Shadow of the Cross’―encountered one stifling day last year in the Yorkshire Wolds―or the abbey in ‘The Ice House’, which I visited one chilly day on a university ‘away-day’. The church in ‘Strange Death’ was partly inspired by an uncannily vivid dream, in which I witnessed an Orthodox service in all its panoply: years later, entering such a church in Germany, the interior, disconcertingly, replicated my dream!  An eerie sense of place underlies ‘Haunted’ where a mysterious ‘unadopted road’, beside a Liverpool park used to fill me with a strange disquiet. ‘A Wee Dram for the Road’ evokes the moors of Aberdeenshire, depopulated by the hunting estates, grimly inhospitable in winter, where a friend ran aground as described―fortunately finding rescue amid more worldly Highland hospitality!

A few of my tales are set in places I have never been: the Pyrenees in ‘Stigmata’; Eastern Europe in ‘Strange Death’. And in my first book, Strange Epiphanies (now reprinted in paperback by Swan River Press): the Italian Apennines in ‘The Light of the World’; and Transylvania in ‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’. By extrapolation from more familiar landscapes, and some basic research, my imagination is left free to extemporise and complete the picture.

Certainly, I would testify to a nuance of the uncanny in some places. In Strange Epiphanies I have a story ‘M.E.F’ based on a true tragedy, which I was inspired to fictionalise as a result of a strange atmosphere possessing me while searching the wild moors of Iona. Many a writer and traveller have recorded similar. Level-headed John Buchan recounts in his memoirs how he fled in inexplicable panic from a woodland in Bavaria; intrepid nature writer, Roger Deakin, tells of shunning a deserted church in the Ukraine, similarly menacing. Such is the essence of Pan, a myth much to do with genius loci..              

Q Your stories also draw convincingly on genuine folk traditions, still surviving in modern times. What role do you think such traditions still have – what need do they meet?

Folklore affords a rich treasury of ideas for supernatural fiction, as numerous authors display, like Machen and Blackwood. Folklore is important for me, infiltrating many of my stories. Hebridean and Celtic lore fascinate me: the fearful ‘Washer at the Ford’ and the eerie ‘Selkie’ legend infuse a favourite tale ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’ in Strange Epiphanies. And the setting for this story was critical: a remote cottage on a private island in western Scotland that had its own strange atmosphere, which demanded a tale. Indeed, folklore cannot be divorced from a sense of place. Nor from the historical context. After all, what is folklore but the oral record of a more ‘primitive’ community? It should not be sniffed at indulgently as mere ‘fairy tales’ as if its originators were childish or stupid. And there are many aspects of folklore still respected in the Celtic fringes, which even if regarded as metaphor, hold enduring significance. There is much sense in the ‘old wives’ tales’. Folklore has always been a way of apprehending a world which―despite  the conceit of our contemporary era―is, in Machen’s phrase, ‘still all mystery’.

1 comment:

  1. Mark and Peter, Many thanks for this probing interview and the insight-filled details about the stories. It also makes me--and doubtless others-- curious to know more about Peter's own past--his upbringing, education, current activities.