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.
This is one those stories that has heaps of neat stuff in it, but which doesn’t quite come together. Partially this is because our POV character is the least interesting of all the character’s involved. But, mostly it’s because the ideas in it could’ve been expanded and made into a great novel.
Anyway, it’s the early 19th century Moscow and we are in for a story of satanic gamblers, young lovers, odd coins that are actually human souls, and a nemesis who’s apparently the offspring of a Prussian general who was hypnotized into believing himself a pregnant woman. It’s all a pretty heavy stew, so buckle up. I doubt I’ll do it all justice.
“Venediktov” by Aleksandr Chayanov (1922)
A mopey older man moping around the countryside remembers being a mopey younger man years ago moping around Moscow.
The year of these initial mopings is 1807 and it was then during one of his mopes he started feeling watched by some unseen power. Later while at the theater he spies an actress dancing on stage and knows she too is being watched by this same unseen power. Of course that unseen power is there in the theater as well that night, taking the form of a sinisterly nondescript man in a gray coat.
This man gets up and leaves during the interval, and our moper follows him. They take a back stair and pass through the maze beneath the theater. Outside the man boards a carriage, and very quickly afterward the actress appears and boards the carriage as well. It rides away, and our young moper goes back to moping through the night. Yet, he feels himself linked to the carriage and in a game of hot or cold knows when the carriage is closer or further away from him. Finally, our boy mopes himself into the park. There the carriage arrives and the actress emerges carrying some object and shouting that the man will no longer have power over her as she casts the mysterious object in the pond. After which, of course, she promptly swoons.
The man sees the young moper and tells him to assist in carrying the girl back to the carriage. He then tries to find the object but fails. The moper takes the actress home where he makes the coffee while the woman’s servant does the tending. Romance blooms! Except it doesn’t.
Upon waking the actress sends our mopey hero with a letter to that diabolical man, and so to him our moper goes. When he reaches the hotel, the diabolical man is there looking disheveled and packing his bags. Our moper gives him the letter and suddenly things turn around. The diabolical man appears extremely pleased by what he read. Our moper makes to mope away, but the diabolical man compels him to return. And so we hear the diabolical man’s story.
The important bit is that while in London the diabolical man came upon a witches sabbath for male witches that operated as a gentle men’s club. There’s excrement on statues (Bertie Wooster’s grand-dad’s?) and live-action porny playing cards that screw when you play them (the diabolical man wins by playing a full orgy). The most curious thing being that all the coins won don’t represent gold but human souls. Owning these coins gives the diabolical man control over that person’s soul, and of course he owns both the actress’s and the moper’s souls among others. The man describes how he came to realize what the coins represented – and there’s one that puzzles him above all, an odd triangular coin.
More stuff happens and our mopey hero gets invited to the wedding between his love and the diabolical man. Bit when the day arrives Mr. Diabolical doesn’t show upon which our Moper goes off to his hotel where he discovers the fellow dead. Much confused he returns to the actress who calls off the wedding. Thinking the circumstances weird, but too above his head, our moper goes home. Some time later the actress shows up at his door, claiming the diabolical man’s murder is after her. She and the moper flee town without bothering to pack. Out in the provinces they marry, but it’s an odd loveless marriage. Thinking they need a vacation the two head off to Paris, where some compulsion draws the actress on to a clearing. There the two witness a duel between an odd stranger and a French man.
This odd stranger had appeared earlier in the story. At a point or two he crossed paths with our moper. And while wondering after the stranger the moper heard a story about how he’s the son of a Prussian general who was hypnotized into thinking himself pregnant. Anyways, it was his soul in the diabolical man’s triangular coin and the two had done battle back in Moscow with the strange man winning with the coins of the actress and the moper. Now that he was dead the coins, the two were able to retrieve their coins, and thereby bring love into their marriage. As an afterward our moper tells how he loast his soul to the actress in cards, and she had the coin made into a pendant which even now wears after in the grave after her death.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on here. Enough for a novel I imagine. I enjoyed it but it was certainly a ride.
Next time, more mirrors and more Chayanov!