Filler content with curfew and epiphanies

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #30:-

THE SWAN RIVER PRESS

Dublin based Swan River have only been around for a few years, but in that time they’ve produced some of the most attractive books I’ve seen.

Case in point, CURFEW & OTHER EERIE TALES (SRP hb, 195pp, £25) by Lucy M. Boston, which is printed on high quality paper, with an evocative dust jacket illustration and underneath that a wraparound painting of the author’s home and inspiration for much of her work, Hemingford Grey Manor. Boston (1892 – 1990) was and probably still is chiefly known for her Green Knowe novels written for children, but during her life she produced a number of stories in the tradition of M. R. James, six of which are collected here along with the text of a two act play. With an introduction by Robert Lloyd Parry, Curfew was published in a limited edition of 350 and is already shown as ‘out of print’ on the publisher’s website, though copies may be available elsewhere.

The stories are entertaining enough, well written and with the requisite supernatural McGuffins to cause the desired chills, but I suspect even when they first appeared none of them were cutting edge or especially original. ‘Curfew’ concerns the discovery of what appears to be a lost tomb and the reinstallation of an old bell that was used to ring curfew, the two events connected by means of an ancient legend about what happened to those who missed the tolling of the bell. ‘Pollution’ has perhaps the most modern feel out of the stories on offer, with the local water supply beset by an unexpected infestation and the ‘expert’ sent to investigate tracking the problem down to a nearby Water Tower, the story reading like early Hutson minus any longueurs and most of the gore, though what we do get in that department is quite vivid and appropriately unappetising. In ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ a terrible revenge is worked out over a period of time, while ‘Many Coloured Glass’ involves a fabulous ball, a war hero, a beggar and a woman who finds love in an unlikely place only to have it snatched away in the cruellest of circumstances. ‘The Italian Desk’ brings a curse with it, and so too does ‘The Tiger-Skin Rug’, though in the latter case the story is far more developed, with hints of something seriously awry in the English countryside and a mysterious, compelling villain in the form of house guest Dr. Sathanos.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, we have the play in two acts, ‘The Horned Man’. Imagine the English setting of Witchfinder General crossed with the psychological insight of Miller’s The Crucible and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. It demonstrates admirably both the amoral perfidy of young children and how easily good intentions are twisted to evil ends when a climate of fear prevails.

Produced to the same lavish standard, STRANGE EPIPHANIES (SRP hb, 192pp, £30) contains seven stories by contemporary author Peter Bell and an introduction by SRP publisher Brian J. Showers. Again it’s limited to 350 copies, but if you’re quick the publisher probably won’t have sold out just yet.

To categorise Bell’s work as formulaic would be unfair, but he does seem rather fond of recurring tropes and ideas, such as the solitary protagonist and isolated settings, so that at times it starts to feel a bit like ‘been there, done that’.

Leading off is ‘Resurrection’, the story of lonely and mentally troubled Amanda, who visits an isolated village where the May Day celebrations are somewhat more traditional in nature than elsewhere, the story well written and disturbing at points, but overall rather predictable and little more than The Wicker Man revisited. It’s the weakest of what’s on offer though. ‘M. E. F.’ is more interesting, with bereaved James visiting the island of Iona and becoming obsessed with the fate of the woman whose initials appear in the title, found naked and dead on a mound many years ago. The story develops well, with various subtle hints that something is terribly amiss, but all the same at the end it is rather predictable and the real events behind the story (revealed in an afterword) sound far more intriguing. In ‘The Light of the World’ a widower is haunted by a childhood vision, one that translates into his adult life with horrifying consequences, the story not quite convincing but with a payoff that is extremely unsettling all the same.

Another lonely woman and another distant island feature in ‘An American Writer’s Cottage’, with a fine line between madness and the paranormal for alcoholic Margaret, as she appears to fall foul of a local legend, one that captured the American writer of the story’s title years before. While the story is well written and intriguing, after promising much it turns out to be a routine supernatural chiller with no real surprises. Much better comes from ‘Inheritance’, the only story to have an urban setting. Protagonist Isobel uncovers the family secret that lies behind the fate of her adopted half-sister and the strange doll that haunts her, the story oddly compelling and with an ending that is admirably restrained.

The best work comes at the end. ‘A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians’ was my favourite, with an antiquarian book dealer locating what appears to be a notebook that belonged to Victorian explorer Amelia Edwards, detailing a trip that is not part of the official record and, in the final passages, endeavouring to recreate the journey. Naturally, given the location, vampires are part of the mix, and the ending is entirely predictable, but Bell makes up for this with his evocative descriptions of the land beyond the forest, its people and their customs, the foreboding scenery which is filled with menace at every step, creating a sense of dread expectancy. Sinclair, the protagonist of last story ‘Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy’, travels back to an island of which he has fond memories when he inherits his aunt’s house, and while there the search for buildings designed by a famous architect leads him to the discovery of art work of an otherworldly provenance, with dire consequences. While I preferred the previous tale, this was perhaps the most impressively executed, striking for the gradual and assured development, and the horrific nature of what Sinclair discovers. It was an excellent end to a collection from a writer of potential, albeit one who would perhaps benefit from breaking away from the familiar paths on which he currently seems settled.

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