NOVEMBER NIGHT NOTES: AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER BELL
Conducted by Brian J. Showers, © December 2015
Peter Bell has written articles and stories for All Hallows, The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter, Wormwood, Faunus, and Supernatural Tales; he has also been published by Ash-Tree Press, Gray Friar Press, Side Real Press, The Scarecrow Press, and Hippocampus Press. In 2012, Swan River Press published, to critical acclaim, his first collection, Strange Epiphanies. In the same year, Sarob Press published A Certain Slant of Light, a collection of tales in the mode of M.R. James. An admirer of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, he wrote an essay for Reflections in a Glass Darkly, edited by Gary William Crawford, Jim Rockhill, and Brian J. Showers: " 'The Child that went with the Fairies': The Folk Tale and the Ghost Story". Recently he wrote the introduction to Swan River's new edition of Henry C. Mercer's November Night Tales.
Brian J. Showers: November Night Tales is a pretty obscure book, and one I’d not heard of until I read your article on Mercer in Wormwood. How did you first stumble across it?
Peter Bell: I visited a supernatural fiction dealer, at his house, where an astonishing collection of books were for sale. Many were classic gems, of which I bought a few. There were many books and writers I had never heard of. I quite like buying material that is unknown to me. There is a risk of course, if quickly buying something like that, of acquiring an item which a more leisured examination would have advised against; but I have acquired a kind of clairvoyance about these things, and my hunches are usually right. As I was about to leave I noticed a book I had overlooked (very easy amongst the endless double banked shelves), November Night Tales. It sounded fascinating. It was utterly unknown to me, as was the author. The dealer knew little about it either. I was intrigued by the story titles “The Sunken City”, “The Dolls’ Castle”, “The Wolf Book”, etc. I caught a reference in another tale to Wales, and a shining crystal. I thought immediately of Machen. I suspected, too, that “The Wolf Book” dealt with vampire/werewolf lore, as it was set on the Danube. I had barely time to assess the book, but my impression was of good writing and interesting ideas. I hesitated. How glad I am I decided to take a chance. When I read it, I knew I had found gold.
BJS: “The Well of Monte Corbo”, which is included in our new edition, was previously published separately as a posthumous, standalone volume. Any hunches as to why it wasn’t included in the original edition of November Night Tales?
PB: I don't know. It was found in his papers after he died. I suspect it was a later tale. He may have planned more. It is much the same length as the tales in the book. Possibly he was not satisfied with it or had not polished it. There is a good idea there, not quite finessed, so he may have still been working on it.
BJS: November Night Tales wasn’t written in a bubble — Mercer namechecks and alludes to quite a few other works of genre fiction in the stories including Bulwer-Lytton’s “The House and the Brain”. Do you think he saw himself as writing in the tradition?
PB: I have the impression Mercer was well versed in the relevant genres. “The Wolf Book”, displays distinct awareness of Stoker. “Castle Valley”, of Machen; though none are named. The stories over a range of genres, as if Mercer wanted to try his hand eclectically. But underlying them, more than any genre influence, is his tribute to his vast learning in archaeology etc. So, probably no conscious decision to write in a genre (unlike, say, the James Gang writers). Nevertheless, influences are there. A notable thing is that he is engaging with various strange issues of the day, in a manner detectable also in his contemporaries, like Lovecraft; thus “The Sunken City” which is almost simultaneous with “The Call of Cthulhu”, possibly is an example of parallel influences. I wonder if the 1920s saw renewed interest in the Atlantis myth? Or possibly the theory it really reflects an East Mediterranean catastrophe.
BJS: Do you have a favourite November night tale?
PB: My favourite story is “The Doll’s House”, because it creates an original spin on both the haunted house genre and the theme of weird dolls; and it also conveys the eerie atmosphere of run down city areas. But “The Wolf Book” is a close setting, an unusual and original tale of Lycanthropy that engages with the theme, but not in a slavish derivative manner; and which conjures an eerie context along the Danube.
Brian J. Showers is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. He has written short stories, articles, interviews and reviews for magazines such as Rue Morgue, All Hallows, Ghosts & Scholars: The M.R. James Newsletter, Le Fanu Studies, Supernatural Tales and Wormwood. His short story collection, The Bleeding Horse, won the Children of the Night Award in 2008. He is also the author of Literary Walking Tours of Gothic Dublin (2006) and Old Albert — An Epilogue (2011); with Gary W. Crawford and Jim Rockhill he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2011). He also edits The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. www.brianjshowers.com
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