Here we are with the last story.
It’s been a fun trip. And the last story is a classic of the weird tales type. Not quite soul juicing, but its next door neighbor: soul-swapping.
“Professor Knop’s Experiment” by Pavel Perov (1924)
George Gibbs is a criminal awaiting execution for murder in Sing-Sing. He’s approached by one Professor Knop who asks if Gibbs would like to take part in an experiment. What kind of experiment? The soul-swapping kind! And so Professor Knop gives a very long involved bit of technobabble on polarized soul particles and swapping them between bodies, and how he’s only done it to animals and wants to test it on humans now. Gibbs figures he has nothing to lose and agrees to take part in the experiment. His one cause of concern is the fact that the Professor intends to swap his soul with that of a crazed rat. “Don’t worry,” Knop says. “I’ve done it to the rat a dozen times before.”
And so, the stage is set for our inevitable conclusion.
Gibbs’s soul gets swapped into the rat. The rat’s gets swapped into his body. Knop is delighted, and all for a moment looks like it’s going well. Except for the simple mistake that Knop forgot to tie Gibbs’s body down. The rat wakes inside the man and proceeds to beat the professor to death. The cops bust in then, see the raging Gibbs, and proceed to shoot him to death. Of course, the rat with Gibbs inside it tries to stop the cops and gets shot to death too. And there you go.
Some of you might remember the first soul-juicing story I wrote about here, Greye La Spina’s “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco.” This story is very much like that, if maybe with a veiled critique of the Revolution. You think you can make unintelligent beasts into men with the flip of a switch? Perov’s story would’ve sat well alongside a lot of those early Weird Tales stories. And who knows maybe some work by him did. The brief author biography in Red Spectres says he left Russia in 1910 and lived much of his life in the USA. I’d certainly enjoy reading more by him.
And so we’ve reached the end of Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century. It’s definitely a fun collection and worth tracking down. As for what’s next I don’t know. There will still be patreon updates, along with the occasional post on this site. Those will likely be RPG related. As for next year? Well, that’s next year.
As always, stay well.
Only two more stories left, and I appear to have decided to draw them out for as long as possible.
One thing that’s been interesting reading this book is seeing how these stories shifted style and tone over the decades. The earlier ones owed more to 19th century lit like Pushkin, Hoffman, and Gogol, but by now in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century the style’s as indebted to modernity and advertising as the usual fare in Weird Tales.
Still, something of that old world horror remains even if the resemblance is superficial.
“The Woman With No Nose” by Georgy Peskov/Yelena Deisha (1927)
Our narrator is a scared man. There is typhus in the city and he needs to get away. So he’s at the train station trying to leave on one of the few remaining trains. Meanwhile there’s this horrible woman with no nose he keeps seeing wherever he goes. And then the story splits and we get the two threads of the narrator’s life presented almost simultaneously.
There’s the over-story of the man taking his seat on the train while he keeps seeing the woman with no nose: his thoughts and actions and fears. Then there’s the other story that’s taking place back at the hospital. There the man is being evacuated as the typhus outbreak emerges and of course he has the disease. So the delirium of the over-story is the manifestation of his fevered state, and as the train takes off the other passengers realize he is sick, but the man doesn’t care because the woman with no nose is with him now:
“And the woman with no nose hides in the dark corner under the seats and, from there, keeps watch over all of us.”
This one’s good. I know I harp on which of these stories would have sat alongside anything in Weird Tales, but I think there’s some value in framing them that way. A lot of these stories aren’t part of any genre tradition in the Anglosphere and that’s a shame. This story would sit comfortably alongside Poe and Everil Worrell. Plus, I’m a sucker for that fevered narrator whispering hot and heavy in your ear while the plot drives like a freight train to its inevitable conclusion.
Next week, the other kind of Weird Tale… that’s right. It’s time to bust out the soul juicer!
Only this time… Soviet style!
Welcome back! This week’s story is “The Messenger” by Georgy Peskov, the pen name for emigre journalist Yelena Deisha. A cursory google search doesn’t reveal much about her, which is a shame because her stories are quite good in so much as they sit comfortably alongside The Women of Weird Tales and any of the better than mid-tier stories from Alberto Manguel’s Black Water.
“The Messenger” by Georgy Peskov (1925)
A much reduced husband and wife worry over their son’s fate. He’s away fighting in the Russian Civil War. The son is their parent’s last surviving child, and everyday the parents wish for some word from the him. Grasping at straws, the mother has taken to spiritualism (via automatic writing) and spends much of her time talking with the spirits. She figures that if the son’s dead she would receive some communication from him. The father goes along with this, reluctantly. And the village priest harangues, calling spiritualism blasphemy.
The mother persists, and one winter night while a storm rages outside, she and the father sit down to make a another attempt to learn information about their son. Their efforts have mixed results and the only decipherable words are “The Messenger. A blessing.”
Quite soon after that there’s a knock at the door. The father is suspicious. There’s a storm outside and anyone out at this time can’t be up to any good. But the mother at last opens the door and finds a stranger there. This is a soldier claiming to know her son. He tells her their son lives, having managed to leave the country. He also tells an odd story about two sick friends and the nurse who cared for them. She and the son had a relationship but when it came time to flee the nurse refused to abandon the hospital while a sick patient was there. The soldier gives the nurse’s address, and refuses all hints of help from the couple before going back out into the storm.
The next day the couple writes the nurse and days later she writes back. She does admit to knowing her son. But the soldier they say visited them can’t be alive, because he died when the hospital was taken. The implication for the reader being that the visiting soldier was the ghost come to the couple in order to ease their mind and as a way to pay off his debt to the nurse who stayed behind to care for him despite the likelihood of very awful things happening to her when the Bolsheviks took over the hospital
And here the husband and wife’s opinions of events diverge. The husband is inclined to believe the whole story nonsense and the soldier was a spy. He complains to the priest about his wife’s spiritualist practices, and the priest once again harangues the wife to give it all up as blasphemous. The wife however believes the soldier was a spirit and their son is still alive, yet when she tries to write the nurse again she gets no reply. The End.
This story didn’t so much remind me of the Bulgakov seance story from earlier in the book, as it did WW Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” Except Peskov’s story lacks the (somewhat corny if singular) ironic slant. It’s more unsettling. What gets me is that Peskov is writing her supernatural stories not straight from her imagination, but taking scenes from events that impacted her life and that of her associates. It puts a very different spin on things.
Next time, a date with Miss Muerte!
I’ve put together another issue of “Mysthead” my RPG fanzine. You can get it and the first issue by supporting me on patreon. CLICK THIS TO GO THERE. In this issue you’ll find lore about Mysthead’s elf and goblin populations, a playable gossiping spider race-class (“The Rumormonger Spider”) for Old School Essentials, and tables to generate whispering skulls, hot spider gossip, and elf-goblin political structures. So as not to make this post a complete advertisement, I’ve included the elf-goblin political structure generator below.
Take care for now!
Elves and goblins often have peculiar ways of governing themselves. While all manner of geases may determine what actions may or may not be taken when within either ones domain, there is usually some higher authority consulted in times of great peril or confusion. Often these have a clear criteria they follow: the most cunning, the eldest, those who achieve some renown. Other times the criteria is more obscure.
Below you will find an assortment of odd sovereigns to rule over your goblins and elves. Roll, choose, and/or mix and match:
- A class of astronomers who seek advice from the stars. Their wisdom is renowned.
- An ancient tree at the center of the Arkenwyld and served by an order of life-bound guardians.
- A sacred book that rewrites itself every day.
- A great elder abstracted with age and lingering on the brink of stupor.
- A young sovereign wrestling with their first bout of nostalgia.
- Your mom. My mom. Every body’s mom. The literal All-Mother
- An ancient ethernaut stranded in this world by the vortex shoals.
- A squabbling court of siblings intriguing against each other and eager to find allies.
- A council of ancients, so old they resemble cicadas. Time has no meaning to them.
- A singing harp, whoever can master its song rules for a decade.
- A council of white-coated priests who read the movements of rats in a maze.
- A set of bone dice kept locked in a vault. They bear no numbers or glyphs and can only be read by a trained seer.
- A human child, obnoxious and utterly spoiled. The child’s about eleven.
- Three gnomes in a trench coat. It started as a gag but now they’re in too deep.
- A spider of epic proportions that feeds on secrets and makes its lair in a darkness beyond reason.
- The movements of some infernal or divine beast like a hen or a pig. It is attended by priests and kept within a heavily guarded enclosure.
- The winner of an extreme athletic event done without assistance and far from sober. Not all who attempt it return.
- An odd stone that weeps a slurry that induces visions. It’s not from this world, nor even this reality. The hangovers are abysmal, but it works.
- An elf sovereign exiled from another land. They are keen to get their revenge and regain their kingdom.
- An intelligent monster like an ogre magi, dragon, or sphinx kept as a prisoner. They are treated with reverence but know they live in a gilded cage and long for their freedom.
Beware of Objects!
That’s the message of today’s story, or at least the one the narrator would have us believe. But this narrator is not to be trusted and something else is going on here. Grin’s an author who was popular enough to get put on a postage stamp. His wikipedia page would suggest he’s in the same mode as Robert Louis Stevenson, which he is, but he suggests JG Ballard, especially Ballard’s stories set amid the decaying pleasure resorts of Vermilion Sands. The bits of Grinlandia depicted here have the same jaded air, but the decay hasn’t claimed the resorts yet.
“The Grey Motorcar” by Alexander Grin (1925)
Our narrator is a young wealthy man at odds with the modern world. One can imagine him as the sort of privileged guy who comments online about the decline of western civilization, creeping multiculturalism, and the fact that other people aren’t as real as he is. He hates cars and movies and noise and speed and he’s basically a judgmental prick of the young, smug, and rich sort. He’s attracted to a woman named Corrida El-Basso who he also simultaneously despises, because she’s too modern and frivolous.
One night, our guy and a buddy go to the casino to gamble and watch another player who is having an epic winning streak. Our narrator plays this gambler and wins a huge sum of money. The gambler then has a stroke and dies, but not before giving the narrator his car. The narrator hates the car and doesn’t want it. That’s too bad. It’s his now. But he keeps running away before the car can be delivered.
(A side note: this story was made into a movie in Russia during the 1980s called Mister Designer. Here’s a clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly7xdZZMcFQ The music’s great in a Goth nightclub sort of way.)
After his win, Corrida’s more interested in the hero and she agrees to take a ride with him to his “laboratory”. Except he doesn’t take her to his lab but to a cliff where he explains that she’s not real, but a mannequin, and that the two of them should jump, die, and be reborn. Corrida, being a resourceful woman, must have expected such a thing because she draws a gun. When the narrator gets grabby, she shoots him. The bullet grazes his head and Corrida goes back to the house to get help. The narrator doesn’t wait but staggers away. When he sees the gambler’s car coming down the road he tries to hide but fails. The car stops and a group of men come out and take the narrator to the hospital. He urges a doctor to let him leave, but the doctor sees that the narrator is not well. The story ends with the narrator writing an account of events and pleading with the reader to watch out for that evil mannequin, Corrida El-Basso.
Imagine coming upon Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft cold. That’s what reading this felt like. Grin seems like a writer with his own particular set of obsessions, and unless you’re keyed into them it’s a lot of wtfry. The story is overly long and meandering, set in a fictional country, and the whole thing hinges on how long it takes you to realize the narrator’s not well. That the whole thing could be summed up as an incident of Capgras syndrome lessens the impact but makes it more comprehensible.
But… despite all that I liked it and I’m curious to read more Grin. How can you resist a writer at the intersection between RL Stevenson and JG Ballard?
Next time, automatic writing!
(The artwork is called The Disquieting Muses by Giorgio de Chirico)
“The only domestic animal known to return to feral life as swiftly as the cat is the goat.”
There in the barn, biding its time, watching the villagers go about their daily business, the goat waits. Something strange has happened to the goat, and it is no longer right. Yesterday, it was as normal as any other goat in the field. Now an uncanny intelligence burns behind its horizontal pupils.
What happened to the goat? Roll below to find out:
- A skyrock landed in the back fields. The chromaspectral beings within changed the goat before they died.
- A bored fae taught the goat to read and write for a laugh.
- Long ago a mindlord’s ethership crashed near here. Its engines have slowly released mutagens into the soil. Fortunately, the goat ate most of it.
- It’s not always demons, but often it is. This is one of those times.
- The goat stayed out overnight, and the full moon’s light made it weird.
- A passing saint blessed the goat. Now the goat seeks to free other goats from demonic domination.
- The goat was found unconscious beside the alchemist’s garbage heap. No one knows what it ate, not even the alchemist, but the goat hasn’t been right since.
- A terrifying night with nature cultists scared wits into the goat.
- Those little red mushrooms that sprout in the cow pasture after the rain.
- The goat saw a goat on a passing aristocrat’s coat of arms. The goat thinks it’s royalty now.
- Drunk scholars kept the goat as a pet. The goat had the best manners of them all.
- Unknown to all, the goat’s descended from the Thunder God’s pets. A single thunderclap was all it took.
- The goat is the chosen one. It was supposed to be the orphan swineherd, but destiny’s arm slipped. Now only the goat can save the world.
- One too many head-buts with a rival goat.
- A passing fiddler played in the fields and the music was enough to make the goat dance.
- The goat is the last great project of Vinssloss Nerkutt, the legendary animal trainer.
- One of the goat’s parent’s was a dragon in disguise. The goat may occasionally breathe fire.
- A voice on the wind gave the goat a true name before disappearing.
- A recently deceased soul has been reborn inside the goat. The goat must finish a task the soul failed to do.
- It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all. Heartbreak made the goat strange.
If you would like to see the full playable goat class for your tabletop games, it’s available for free on my patreon: THE UNCANNY GOAT.
Today’s story made me miss the cheap vulgar soap selling style that the American pulps had. There’s a value in being able to write snappy ad-copy and avoid the sweaty intense existential scrutiny Dostoevsky gives us when he introduces the Grand Inquisitor to the Brothers Karamazov. I know some people prefer the latter, but the truth lies in the tension between the two.
Here’s the link to Krzhizhanovsky’s wikipedia page in case you want to do the homework.
Also, here’s a content warning: this story involves an embalmed fetus being “born” and then trying to live out a life while rotting.
“The Phantom” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1926)
A student sleeps on an open book. The book details obstetric procedures. The student wakes and goes to his exam. This exam involves him delivering a baby from one of these delivery-training mannequins. The baby in question is an embalmed stillborn. During the course of the exam a distraction occurs (the revolution?) and our student, Two-Sklifsky, looses focus on the birth yet somehow the embalmed baby, Fifka, manages to be born. Later he goes to find out what happened to the baby, and he and the janitor see little embalming fluid footsteps going out the door.
Years pass. Sklifsky becomes a field surgeon and there’s no end to his work. He becomes an alcoholic. One night as a storm lashes his hovel, Fifka returns. The embalmed baby recounts what its life has been since Sklifsky brought it into the world. Needless to say it’s an abstruse conversation full of philosophical ideas well above this reader’s head. Eventually, Fifka says he’s been signing Sklifsky’s name everywhere he’s been, and that’s a bit too much for Sklifsky to stand so he promptly has a nervous breakdown. Then he dies in a sanatorium. The End.
OK. This story… there’s this riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I love. Medical student creates life then abandons it only to have that life track him down for a final confrontation. And bits of Fifka’s life mirror Shelley’s Monster (although it’s less homicidal in its vengeance). And the fact that Krzhizhanovsky takes that story and uses it to critique the revolution, or at least that’s how it appears to me, is wicked* neat. Imagine it: student asleep on a book of theory gives birth to a materialist revolution that remains stunted and deformed because the student became distracted mid-revolution. Then that materialist revolution in its stunted form tracks down the revolutionaries that birthed it and confronts them with their failings. That’s certainly one reading of this story and one I wish it was. But to do that to my satisfaction would have required more soap-selling than Krzhizhanovsky wished to employ. Or more Grand Inquisitor than this reader could tolerate.
Next time, a grey motor car.
And for those of you brave enough, here’s a modern version of the sort of phantom Fifka is: obstetric phantom with fetal doll.
* If I have to watch hecking and hella enter common parlance then you all can deal with the exponentially superior New England “wicked.”
Here we are with our second foray into Mikhail Bulgakov.
He’s certainly the most pulpy of the writers we’ve encountered so far. If he had managed to emigrate to the UK (he was close after the Russian Civil War but typhus prevented it), I believe his literary output would have been colossal and made him better known. This one is short and wry with tongue firmly in cheek.
“A Séance” by Mikhail Bulgakov (1922)
Various aristocrats are meeting for a séance. All formerly posh, they’re now living in dingy apartments as they come to terms with Communism. Despite that, they stick to their flirty Liaisons Dangereuses games and polish their former glories. Tonight’s a sort of grab bag of characters out of a much diminished social circle. And there’s lots of chatter of how scary to make things. All this is depicted in brusque choppy fashion.
Meanwhile, their servant girl has no idea what to make of things. She watches as windows are covered, lights are turned out, and strange sounds start occurring. Eventually she gathers up her courage and starts peeping through the door to where the former nobles are gathered. She overhears talk of emperors and how the spirits give Bolshevism three months at best. All this is unnerving for her, so she goes downstairs to her friend’s apartment and tells her all about these wacky people she works for. As she does so she’s overheard by an outlandishly dressed soldier fellow who follows her back upstairs to see what apartment she works in and he then goes off to tell someone who tells someone. Before long the aristocrats hear a loud banging on the door, and at first they think it’s the spirits. But, it’s not. It’s the Cheka and they want to see everyone’s papers please… The End.
This story has the barest hint of the supernatural about it. That outlandishly dressed soldier fellow? Is he human or supernatural? Regardless of what he is, he does his duty informing the authorities of the strange doings in the apartment building. And the squalor is played up to point at an absurdity in the aristocrats. They’re playing old games from a world that’s gone, unaware that the new world has new games and they’re fast approaching the door. You can laugh at them, but it’s not a laugh without despair.
Next time, a story by a writer I have a collection of but haven’t read.
This is it.
Our first story from The Master & Margarita author, Mikahail Bulgakov. A man with the worrisome fate of being someone Joe Stalin had opinions about. Go on and read his wikipedia page for the details if you want to.
More in line with the whole yesterweird thing, this story is the first Soviet Gothic story that reads like it could’ve been in Weird Tales.* However it’s one thing to write about being haunted by a ghost after getting hepped up on Edgar Allan Poe and a whole other thing to write about ghosts when you nearly died fighting in your own country’s civil war.
“The Red Crown” by Mikhail Bulgakov (1922)
In classic Weird Tales form we start in an asylum where our patient dreads the approach of any unknown footstep. He is quite obsessed with having the right paperwork and remembers the poor dead fellow he watched get strung up from a lamp post during the recent war. But that dead fellow is not the ghost he’s worried about.
The ghost he fears is his brother Kolya who he failed to save. It was their mother that gave the narrator the quest. She wanted to see Kolya again and sent the narrator off to find him. The narrator tracked him to a cavalry unit and reaches them right before they were about to attack a town. Kolya tells him that he will go see their mother after the town is taken.
“Brother,” he says. “I can’t leave the squadron.”
The narrator agrees to wait at the Red Cross tent for Kolya’s return. A few hours later Kolya does return, propped up in the saddle by two wounded companions, the top portion of his head nearly blown off, the ominous red crown of the story’s title. And it’s that blood spattered ghost that haunts the narrator, raising his hand in salute to his demolished forehead, saying the same thing: “Brother, I can’t leave the squadron.”
It was that failure so close to his quest’s success which drove our narrator insane and makes him fear unknown footsteps.
Like I said, this reads as a classic weird tale. Bulgakov has enough of that 20th century soap seller’s style that the story feels a lot more comfortable for lack of a better word. This isn’t the 19th century British eerie story with its chonky paragraphs. It’s more clipped and snappy. Give it a read for yourself!
Next time, more Bulgakov and a seance!
* A possibly dubious distinction, I know.
Another update, another story about mirrors.
This one reads a bit rushed, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since it’s dated 1922 London. Emigrating to another country is liable to distract anyone. Again, I’m struck by how much Goethe, Baudelaire, and Pushkin seem to be Chayanov’s foundational trio. Or maybe I should say German Romanticism, French Decadence, and Russian Literature.
“The Venetian Mirror, or The Extraordinary Adventures of the Glass Man” by Aleksandr Chayanov (1922)
Aleksey’s our boy here, and he’s less of a moper than Chayanov’s previous character. When the story opens Aleksey’s in Venice prowling around the antique stores for that particular something that will clinch the decor of his new house in Moscow. Of course that last piece is proving allusive. Aleksey was noticeably losing his sang-froid. Then in the basement of a shop he spies the Venetian mirror that reflects the world with alien intensity. He buys it, has it boxed up, and together the two return to Moscow*.
And, of course, the mirror’s cursed.
One day, after cuddling with Kate, his mistress, he finds himself staring at the darkened glass.
“The glass reflected him as though upon a moving film of oil, breaking his outline into intersecting Cubist planes.”
As he stares he reaches forward and that’s when his reflection exchanges places with him.
The mirror world Aleksey finds himself in is similar in some ways to Bryusov’s. It’s cold, impersonal, and haunted by these entities that might once have been people. But unlike Bryusov’s mirror world, this one is more an ocean of mercury, a nightmare world of liquid metal T-1000 terminators, silvery Odos, and whatever Natalie Portman fought at the end of Annihilation.
Aleksey starts to lose himself in this sea, while forced to watch the crass and vulgar glass man** on the other side menace Kate and basically make a mess of his apartment and life. His anger grows so great that one day when the glass man seems poised to commit rapemurder on Kate, Aleksey throws himself against the glass and breaks free. Kate reacts with terror at the sight of both men, and the double flees before Aleksey can stop him.
Time passes. Aleksey no longer casts a reflection when he stands before a mirror. His friends tell him all manner of outlandish stories about all the infamous places he’s been seen. Aleksey realizes the double remains out there. On the street he thinks he catches glimpses of himself walking away in the crowd. Then a card appears from his double. The creature wants a duel. Aleksey arrives at the appointed place, but it turns out to be a ruse. While he was away, the glass man broke into his house, killed his butler, and abducted Kate. Of course, the police blame him, but he’s eventually able to establish an alibi.
Once clear of the accusation, he sets off to find Kate, going to a fortune teller’s address he found on a card behind her table. The place is empty. He explores and realizes all the magical trappings aren’t simple decorations. Whoever operates the place knows real magic. Deciding to leave, he discovers the room he first entered is now a vast hall of mirrors. And the glassman is there waiting for him in every one. They chase each other until finally the two clash in a pool of liquid mercury. There Aleksey chokes the glass man until the creature dissolves into goo.
Next thing Aleksey knows, he’s waking up on the floor in the backroom of the fortune teller’s shop amid a puddle of some hardened glassy substance. He checks his reflection in a nearby glass and is pleased to see himself once more. He returns home where he finds the lovely Kate waiting for him. The end.
I don’t know what to tell you.
This story progressed at a breakneck pace, but while writing this recap I began to see more subtlety to it. In the imagined movie version of this story that played in my head, I envisioned everything from the duel forward not taking a span of weeks but hours. Kate’s abduction, the butler’s murder, and Aleksey’s questioning for days by the police is all an illusion. The card he found was not Kate’s but his own. The duel taking in the absent fortune teller’s backrooms where the glass man can work its magic.
This is another neat story that has that Universal Monsters feel to it. If ever I get the chance I’ll likely try and find a larger collection of Chayanov’s works.
Next time, a story from that saucy bad boy of Soviet literature: Mikhail Bulgakov!
Until then, be well.
* By train. I don’t know why this sticks with me. Maybe it’s just that as an America the idea of riding a train between countries seems utterly fantastic like something straight out of Narnia. “Here’s a lamp post in the wood, here’s a talking badger, and here’s a train that will take you from Moscow to Madrid with stops in Berlin and Paris. MAGIC.”
** I’ll admit that on first read of this story, I did wonder how popular cocaine was in Moscow around 1920.