A spectre has haunted Netherton for generations.
Everyone has a theory, no one has an answer.
The woods that frame the housing estate uncover a series of heinous acts, drawing onlookers into a space of clandestine, queer sexuality: a liminal space of abject and uncanny experience.
A question echoes in the odd borderlands of being, of fear-fascination, attraction-repulsion, of sex and death…
Who put Bella down the Wych-Elm?
BLACK COUNTRY GOTHIC
I think of myself as a landscape writer, so the inspiration for Bella started there – the strange landscape of my home, the Black Country. In Dudley and its surrounding areas there’s an unusual mix of rural and urban, domestic and wild, industrial, post-industrial and hyper-modern. It’s off-kilter, in-between, not-quite-one-thing-not-quite-another. And this weird geography makes the sense of place odd too – both old and new, ruined and re-purposed, safe and unsafe, familiar and unfamiliar, attractive and repulsive. For a writer, these grounds are rich, charged and irresistible – the liminal arena of transition, transformation and transgression. I see it as the fertiliser and seedbed for narrative, drama and poetry – especially Weird tales like Bella. It’s a post-industrial sublime. A Black Country Gothic.
Writers like Joel Lane, Roy McFarlane, Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Liz Berry and Meera Syall all share a fascination and preoccupation with this region, and use its peculiar culture, topography, dialect and spirit of place as symbolic and literal setting for their explorations of sex, identity, murder, mayhem, joy and terror. In Bella, I’m trying to play my own part in this uniquely Black Country literary tradition. All of the writers above, but especially Lane, have been huge inspirations to my poetics and vision.
Speaking of cultural antecedents, this novella plays its part in another region specific literary tradition. The part-fact-part-fable mystery of Bella and the Wych-Elm; an unsolved murder of a woman whose remains were found in the hulk of tree. This story branches into witchcraft, satanism, Cold War espionage and domestic abuse in rhizomes that remain so enigmatic writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists continue to be pulled into her echoing orbit. As did I.
Bella’s secrets, set within the borderless Black Country are the limestone foundations of this love song to my home, its ghosts and its people.
R. M. Francis is a writer from Dudley. He completed his PhD at the University of Wolverhampton for a project titled Queering the Black Country and graduated from Teesside University for his Creative Writing MA.
He’s the author of four poetry chapbooks, Transitions (The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2015), Orpheus (Lapwing Publications, 2016), Corvus’ Burnt-Wing Love Balm and Cure-All (The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2018) and Lamella, (Original Plus, 2019).
Follow Rob on Twitter @rmfrancis
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