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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The Bishop of Hell

Catchy title, eh? Alas, I cannot take credit for it. I came across Marjorie Bowen’s The Bishop of Hell by way of E. Nesbit’s excellent Grim Tales (a.k.a. The Power of Darkness)–they’re published in the same series by Wordsworth Editions, Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural.

I’m not sure how to feel about this collection. The stories are mostly memorable, but the author tends to treat her characters with disdain, even cruelty. In “Elsie’s Lonely Afternoon” a neglected orphan living in her bedridden grandmother’s rambling, spooky old house seals her own fate through her simple desire to be loved and appreciated. There’s no ghost in this story, merely the illusion of one, yet it’s the most disturbing tale in the book. In most of the other stories the protagonists aren’t so worthy of our pity–in fact, they’re so unlikeable, and the author so thorough in describing their despicable natures, that the denouement is much less satisfying than it might have been were the characters rendered more sympathetically.

Despite this thread of cruelty, there are several stories that leave you feeling uneasy in a pleasurable way, as in all the best gothic tales. There is romantic revenge and murder, and revenants aplenty. In my favorite story, “Kecksies,” a man who’d sworn to have the wife of his enemy lies dead on a pallet in a remote cottage. The enemy arrives, decides to play a trick on the small group of mourners, and dumps the body in the brush so he can take its place under the shroud. You can guess where this one is going, but what a thrill! The prose is so much fun–“The clouds overtook them like an advancing army”; “his naked chest gleamed with ghastly dews.” Even in this memorable tale, though, there’s not a single character you can get behind…not even the poor rejected dead guy.

I don’t usually place much stock in Amazon reviews–I tend to find them more useful after I’ve read the book, as in this instance. The lone review of The Bishop of Hell echoes my feelings quite neatly, noting the “heavy current of bitterness” that runs through the collection. According to the book’s biographical note, Marjorie Bowen, a.k.a. Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long, “spent the early part of her working life providing for a demanding and ungrateful family.” So it seems the series editors and/or critics felt the need to provide at least a partial explanation for that all-too-noticeable “current of bitterness.”

It may sound like I’m giving The Bishop of Hell a lukewarm recommendation, but you’ll really enjoy these stories if you’re in a certain frame of mind. E. Nesbit’s gothic tales are perfect for a melancholy evening (as Victor Hugo said, it’s the pleasure of being sad), whereas this collection is just the thing when you find yourself hating the world and nearly everyone in it. Nothing like an unrepentant scoundrel coming back from hell wearing a mitre of fire to make you feel good about the state of humanity, eh?

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.