RED SPECTRES 03: THIS DIABOLICAL ORDINARINESS
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!