This week’s story is a gem.
It has ghosts, gamblers, tragic love affairs, and hints of black magic. All that in a short story set against the backdrop of 19th century Russian high society.
“The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin
Hermann is a young soldier from a poor German family. He is obsessed with improving his station, but lack of prospects, money, and connections. He regularly joins his friends at gambling halls, but he never gambles, because he knows he doesn’t have the money to risk. This, however, doesn’t prevent him from developing a passion for cards. If only there was some way to guarantee he could win every time he played. Enter his rich buddy, Tomsky.
One night after coming back from the gambling hall Tomsky tells Hermann a story about how his grandmother, the Countess Anna Fedotovna, was a great beauty in her youth with a spendthrift gambling habit. When her husband refused to pay her debts, she turned to noted disreputable historical figure Saint-Germain for help. He taught her the three cards that will always win every game. The fact that the old woman now lives in the city makes Hermann concoct a scheme to seduce the Countess’s ward,
Lizaveta Ivanovna, in order to get close enough to the Countess to learn the secret. Lizaveta at first resists, but soon she’s in love with Hermann despite his true intentions. Eventually, Hermann convinces her to let him into the house one night while everyone is at a ball, and while he’s supposed to wait in Lizaveta’s room, he in fact hides in the Countess’s.
There he waits until everyone returns from the ball. From hiding he witnesses the “hideous mysteries” of the Countess’s toilet as the old woman prepares for bed. Finally she retires, at which point out comes Hermann to beg for the secret. The old woman is shocked and refuses to give it to him (is the story even true or simply gossip?). He then gets angry and pulls a gun, causing the Countess to drop dead from fright. Hermann flees to Lizaveta and tells her everything. He threatens to reveal her role in the scheme if she doesn’t help him to escape. She agrees and provides Hermann a key to a secret passage that leads to the street. He flees.
Then comes the Countess’s funeral and the entire town comes out to attend. Hermann goes too, in order to pay his respects to the family and the woman he’s accidentally killed, but when he approaches the coffin, the body appears to wink at him. This makes him have a breakdown and require being carried out from the church. Later as he lies with a fever in his quarters, the Countess appears to him in all the finery of her youth, and she teaches him the three cards that will win every game.
There are some rules that go along with their usage. First, only one card can be played an hour, and second, once the third card is played the player must never gamble again. Hermann agrees to all this and memorizes the cards, eager to try them out the next time his friends go gambling. Of course, everything goes side-ways at the end, because hahaha the Countess’s ghost was messing with Hermann the whole time.
Believe me folks, this story is great, an absolute ride that has made me happy that I chose to read through this book. I’m even excited for the end of the year when I’m done with this project and putting together my highlight list. “The Queen of Spades” will be high upon it.
If you like the yesterweird at all, then search this one out, or one of the movie adaptions of it. You’ll dig it.
And we’re back!
Two stories today: Italo Calvino’s novella “The Argentine Ant” and John Collier’s “Lady on the Grey”. They could not be more different from each other.
“The Argentine Ant” by Italo Calvino
In a lot of ways this story is a straight realist story about a young couple that moves to a new town and have their hopes of finding an easy life there all dashed by the ants that infest the village. As the couple is increasingly tormented they seek help from their neighbors, all of who have pursued different methods to deal with the ant problem. One builds elaborate mechanical traps, another adheres to a complicated routine of poison application, a third lives in complete denial of the ants’ existence even though they torment her. And that’s when you start to think maybe the ants are a metaphor and underneath the realist veneer this story is an allegory for life.
What the ants represent is open to debate. My take is that they embody unfettered nature that contains pleasure and pain, stability and entropy, and which can’t ever be stopped only accommodated. As the story progresses and the ants become more of a nuisance, the situation deteriorates until the couple finally seeks out the man from the Ant Company. He’s supposed to be exterminating the ants on behalf of the government, but no one trusts him and most people in the district believe he’s in league with the ants.
The only relief comes when the family leaves the neighborhood and goes to the beach where the sight of the waves and the sun break the hold the Argentine ants have over them, but there’s no sense that the couple have escaped, only that they’ve discovered a balm for a time.
Give it a read sometime and let me know what you think.
“The Lady on the Grey” by John Collier
Ringwood and Bates are two roguish fail-sons of the penniless aristocrat sort. They’re hangers-on and leeches, living on modest allowances as they travel Ireland in search of game, be it fish, fowl, fox, or human female. Neither are the letter writing sort, and their communications are done via third persons: mutual acquaintances, train agents, barmen, etc. One day while Ringwood’s wondering at his prospects, a message arrives via one-eyed horse dealer that Bates has gone to Knockderry and if anyone saw Ringwood they should tell him that. Ringwood assumes Bates has come upon something good and sets off for Knockderry at once. Of course, when he arrives there’s no sign of Bates and no one in the village knows where he can be found. No matter, thinks Ringwood, he’ll see for himself what the town has to offer (mostly in the way of farm maids he can assault). As he spies a potential victim, he’s interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful woman on a grey horse and the mangy dog that travels behind her. She initiates a seduction and Ringwood can’t believe his luck, despite how annoying her dog is. He doesn’t care that the dog keeps accosting him. So she tells him to come by her lonesome tower house later that night, and Ringwood goes back to the inn to prepare himself. From the innkeeper he learns the woman is the last of an ancient Irish family, and from that Ringwood’s predatory fantasies blossom.
But, of course, things aren’t as they seem.
This is one of those stories you enjoy not because you’re rooting for the characters, but because you like seeing the trap spread around them. When Ringwood finally gets his, you can’t help but feel satisfied.
Do people still talk about John Collier? I feel like he’s one of those writers no one ever talks about but whom provided the seed-story to a dozen well-remembered Twilight Zone episodes. Like Bradbury, he’s the sort of writer you think you know based on one story or book, but whose work as a whole offers a lot more complexity than you realize. Also, there’s the sheer level of craft on display in his stories. The plot might be predictable, but the joy’s in the execution. They’re perfectly designed little narratives.
If you like the Neil Gaiman/Michael Chabon style you might want to check John Collier out.
Next week, a long one from Pushkin!