Nine stories—from very short to very long—and a one-act play encompass the devil, a ghost, romance (straight as well as gay), afterlife, humanity in time of war, meditation on death and dying ... from profound tragedy to high comedy.
Nocturne, by Peter Marshall Bell: Truths so simple that it hurts to be reminded
Nocturne, by Peter Marshall Bell; R.L. Boyington, Ed.: Truths so simple that it hurts to be reminded of them.
Part of the pleasure and the sadness in reading Peter Marshall Bell’s Nocturne—a collection of nine chronologically arranged stories and a one-act play—lies in witnessing the progression of Bell's talent up to the moment of his untimely death from AIDS in 1994. That is because on every page can be found the evidence of a talented writer evolving toward distinction.
The author's early tales, most notably "The End of Tribute," "Nocturne," and "The Enemy," introduce Bell's lifelong thematic obsession: the human struggle toward wholeness and personhood, a battle that for many—gay and straight alike—pits a survivor's instinct against the forces of an externally motivated self-hatred. It is a struggle that presents formidable and particular challenges for the homosexual and latent homosexual protagonists peopling Bell's work.
In the collection's title story, "Nocturne," Bell's thematics find expression in a child's early recognition of unacceptable difference amply cued by parental disappointment. Perhaps drawing on personal experience, the author offers almost a case study of how children may internalize and process—usually at the expense of their psychological well being—a steady diet of subtle and not-so-subtle censure. In "Nocturne," the resulting damage is manifested (initially) in secrecy and insomnia:
Indeed, the impetus to avoid discovery drives several of Bell's protagonists to self-harm—as in "The Enemy," where two men, complete strangers from opposite sides of a war zone, meet, and manage to bridge their political and cultural chasms in a few moments of almost romantic sexual congress—before one of them self destructs.
These early stories by Bell showcase a writer's steady progress toward proficiency and an understanding of the human condition. Indeed, the underlying strength of Bell’s work is his uncanny ability to expose human truths so simple and obvious that it sometimes hurts to be reminded of them.
These gifts are on full display in several of Bell’s latter works. My particular favorites include the wonderfully full-bodied story, "We Have Always Been the Same Person," and Bell’s archly funny one-act play, “We have the stars…”.
That the term `full-bodied' should apply to a `ghost story' is one of the delightful ironies of Bell's mature fiction. For in “We Have Always Been the Same Person,” the author weaves a richly atmospheric sojourn reminiscent of Henry James—but without the Gordian sentence structure.
Like most of Bell's fiction, the story does not present a definite conclusion so much as open the door on several possibilities. In this case, I prefer to think that Charles, the story's narrator, will eventually find safety, self-acceptance. Love.
The same can be said of the characters in Bell’s short play, “We have the stars…” which places the two male leads, both recently deceased, in a kind of gay purgatory. That these ‘lost souls’ transcend their earthly burdens by engaging in ‘Queenly’ (and often hilarious) repartee—the kind of banter that is as mercilessly self-condemnatory as it is all inclusive—before achieving a compassionate and distinctly humane armistice seems in keeping with Bell’s thematic quest for wholeness.
It is strange to consider how the lives, perhaps even the spirits, of people who never meet face-to-face—an author and his or her readers—become inexorably intertwined through literature. Such is the wonder and the mystery of the human quest to create and experience art. That seems a good enough reason to share and celebrate Peter Bell's work here. Although his time amongst us was brief—only a scant thirty-five years—in Nocturne, his spirit and his artistry remain very much alive. On page after page.