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RED SPECTRES 06: YOU HAVE REACHED THE WRONG SPIRIT

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. 

What?

You don’t have half-a-dozen books like that on your shelves?

RED SPECTRES 05: “BROTHER, I CAN’T LEAVE THE SQUADRON.”

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. 

RED SPECTRES 04: A SUBTLE, CENTURIES-STORED VENOM

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. 

RED SPECTRES 03: THIS DIABOLICAL ORDINARINESS

It’s your boi, Dr. Mabuse!

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.

The End.

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!

RED SPECTRES 02: RED PRIMROSE

Albert Robida

Welcome back! 

In this entry we’re looking at Aleksandr Chayanov’s story “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin”. It’s an odd one. 

“The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” by Aleksandr Chayanov (1918)

We start in Moscow. Our protagonist is a popular architect noted for his romantic conquests. The scene’s less Russian and more French as our protagonist is both a dandy and flaneur. One night’s he’s out and about doing his best to defeat his ennui, when he gives up and decides to take a vacation in the provinces. Soon he’s infatuated with the red-headed wife of a local veterinarian and is all set to begin a new romance, when he comes upon a beautiful red-headed mannequin in a hairdresser’s shop window. He quickly purchases it and so begins his new obsession. Where did it come from? Who sculpted it? More importantly, who was the model? Etc. Etc.

And so a tangled tale is spun. The models were Siamese twins and the mannequin is but one of a set of two. The artist who sculpted them went mad and killed himself. No. No one knows where the twins are now. Mystery piles upon mystery. The architect is now in deep. By now he’s purchased both mannequins and is traveling with them all around Europe. Where are the twins? He becomes an expert in the side show-carnival-panopticon circuit. A chance encounter with another carnival aficionado provides him with the twins’ name, the Henrickson sisters. But there the trail goes cold. The twins have retired into seclusion for some reason. All hope is lost for our architect until he spies a billboard in Venice announcing the return of the Henrickson Sisters. 

From there the downward spiral really kicks in. Yes, he goes to the show. Yes, he goes backstage. Yes, he succeeds in wooing one of the sisters (Berthe). And yes, she gets pregnant. All this we learn from the diary of the other sister (Kitty). Kitty also explains about the sculptor’s tragic death (he didn’t know it but he was the twins’ half-brother a fact he found out only after he too slept with Berthe). Of course, Berthe gets pregnant, and also of course she dies during childbirth. This allows Kitty to be separated from her sister, and she takes off with her newly-born niece while our protagonist abandons everyone (including the mannequins he’s been carrying around) and returns to Moscow. 

Back home once more, the ennui returns. This time instead of the provinces he decides to go back to Venice. And he books the same room he stayed at before when he first saw the poster advertising the Henrickson sisters. Unfortunately all he can see are the mannequins he abandoned. They have been reunited in another hairdresser’s shop window. The sight of which promptly causes him to have a nervous breakdown. The end. Except there’s a bit of an epilogue as a fat rat back in his abandoned Moscow apartment gnaws the ribbon off a stack of love letters hidden in his desk. 

THE END.   

As I said this story is an odd one, and if you told me Chayanov meant it as a parody of the Gothic style I’d absolutely believe you. The fat rat at the end inclines me to this idea. It’s there gnawing away at the ribbon that ties it all together. When the rat succeeds, it only unleashes an avalanche of old love letters. 

Good stuff. 

Midway through I was struck by how science fictional this whole story was in an Albert Robida kind of way. I could imagine clones and robots alongside the stereo-cinematographs. Oddly the Europe depicted doesn’t appear to have just fought a terrible war. And the Russia depicted doesn’t appear to be undergoing a terrible war, so that date of 1918 might be when published instead of when composed. This story also made me look back at the Oskar Kokoschka/Alma Mahler affair. You’d think if two cultural icons had an affair that ended with one making a life-sized anatomically correct plush doll of the other it would earn a mention on one of theirs wikipedia pages. But no. Fortunately, the Paris Review has us covered. (Content warning for pictures and description of life-sized anatomically correct plush dolls and the men who buy and decapitate them.)  

Next time… A mirror? A mannequin? Another excuse for me to share unsettling facts from the past? Who knows?

RED SPECTRES 01: BEYOND THE CHEVAL-GLASS

.. and welcome back to Yesterweird.

I did a brief post over on patreon looking at the introduction. Red Spectres is going to be a very different read than our last one. For one, it’s not in the pulp tradition. For two, I can’t think of any Weird Tales writer who ever got “disappeared” by government agents. As a patron said, Soviet Lit is “too real”. But don’t be scared. Our first story, “In the Mirror” by Valery Bryusov, isn’t quite as real as all that. With it we’re still firmly in the late 19th century weird story tradition.

Bryosuv’s one of the big figures in Russian Symbolist literature in the first decade of the 20th century. The only other thing I’ve read by him is The Fiery Angel – which I absolutely recommend if you like weird 19th century novels. (You can read my reaction to it here.) It might not be as over-the-top as The Monk, but it’s still pretty juicy. “In the Mirror” is enjoyable too and works well as our first step into the anthology.

“In the Mirror” by Valery Bryusov (1903)

A young woman with a fascination for mirrors gets drawn into a confrontation with her own reflection after she buys a cheval-glass. Is the reflection a ghost? An other worldly being? A sign of the narrator’s disordered mind? The story does have “From the archive of a psychiatrist” as its subheading. If you stuck to the surface details you could certainly find an allegory against vanity here. But that doesn’t feel nearly as interesting as the ideas of identity boiling away under the story’s surface.

“There were mirror worlds that I loved; and there were some that I hated. I loved to project myself into some for hours on end, losing myself in their enticing spaces. Others I avoided. Secretly, I did not love all my doubles. I knew that all of them were hostile towards me, if only because they were forced to don my hated appearance.”

Our narrator isn’t vain or simply self-absorbed, but she’s fascinated by the possibilities mirrors offer her. She not only loses herself in these reflected worlds, but she becomes other selves. The mirror is a psychological comfort and escape. But when she buys a new cheval-glass and looks into it, the reflection there frightens her with its visibly cruel gaze and haughtiness. Soon the contest of wills begins, and very quickly the woman realizes her reflection is the stronger of the two. She fears what she sees, but remains compelled to look anyways. Then one day, her reflection commands her to approach the mirror. The woman does and when she reaches forward to touch the glass, her reflection takes hold and swaps places with her.

From there our narration starts to outline the world beyond the cheval-glass. It’s good and creepy: a numb fluid world of slumbering souls, longing for some stable reality where they no longer serve as puppets for those who live beyond the glass. And the more the free reflection stands before the mirror insulting the trapped woman, the more conscious of her predicament the trapped woman becomes. Before too long each duel returns her more to her self and a stronger desire to break free. The reflection senses this and orders to mirror boxed up and sent away. The woman, realizing it’s now or never, commands her reflection to stand before the mirror one last time. The reflection orders the workers away, and then the final duel begins. The woman emerges from the glass and throws the reflection back in its place. Free and overwrought by her experiences, the woman promptly has a nervous breakdown and collapses on her bedroom floor.

But there are a couple paragraphs more, as the woman tells us how certain she is that she is really herself and not her reflection. She is sure. Really, she is. But she wants to be absolutely sure – so she wants to look in the cheval-glass once more. One last time, to be absolutely, one hundred percent, completely, pneumatically sure. Let her look in the glass one last time and after that she’ll be cured.

Like I said it’s a good story. It delivers the weird without feeling like an over-wrought ad for a particularly salacious brand of soap. No offense to Everill Worrell and Greye La Spina, but the pulps aren’t far from that.

Next story brings us mannequins.

Until then!

(Artwork by Berthe Morisot)

THE LOCAL CAMPAIGN // MYSTHEAD

The local region map made on Inkarnate

Recently my game group wound down our D&D campaign for a bit of a breather. I’m the GM and we’re using Beyond the Wall as our rules. I’ve run Beyond the Wall before (here’s the first post about that game), but this time I leaned into its implied YA fantasy setting. The game had a teen delinquents and their up-tight friend solve/commit crimes and fight monsters feel to it.

Some notes and revelations:

  • Magic. BtW keeps it scary and unpredictable, so much so a few times the party had beneficial items that they were too frightened to use. Also every mage the players encountered was awful or at the very least damaged in some way. A downside to this is that the spells veer towards the looser end and require negotiation between player and GM.
  • Small setting. The furthest the players traveled from the village was four days away. Most of the time they were interacting with known people and places around town. Known dungeon sites got a bit of that Zone spice, never quite cleared out, but always there spooky and weird just beyond the edge of town. It also opens the calendar and locations.
  • The Calendar. Some places are more powerful at certain times than others. Some locations only appear on nights of the full moon. The cult is having their meeting a week from now. If you hurry maybe you can get there. I wasn’t that strict with it, but I certainly made it a bigger part of the game than I’ve ever done in the past. One danger is it can become grindy as players try to divide turns down into rounds like they’re riding Zeno’s Arrow.
  • Locations. Make places magic items. Light a fire in the old temple and no fire can harm you while you remain there. Stop by the local saint’s shrine before setting out and get a bonus. This is one way to keep magic limited and add a strategy element. This location has this effect. This other location has a different effect.
  • Pesky Kids. I dug the teen detectives uncover secrets and solve crimes angle and played up the fact that except with few exceptions no adult was going to take the teens’ accusations seriously. I did this until one player asked me to stop because they found it triggering. By then they hated the home village (with its stupid adults) so much they had to be coaxed into protecting it.
  • Reputation. Small town reputations provide a lot of pressure points for characters. At one point the delinquents got kicked out of their house by their guardians (the twins did burn a building down). They ended up having to pay rent at the inn. And they hated it! But I loved saying, “Master Barrelhelm wants his gold piece for the week.”
  • Who Gave the Kid a Knife? Despite the characters being 18-year olds, the players weren’t and for some reason those with kids of their own were reluctant for their characters to give an NPC teen friend a bunch of weapons. Go figure.
  • No Hirelings. It’s hard to hire a bunch of torch-bearers and Men-At-Arms to use as meat shields when you’ll have to see their widows and orphaned kids around town. Despite this the players had a couple of NPCs they could occasionally lean on.

If you want to read more about the game, here’s a link about its inspirations.

MYSTHEAD APPENDIX N / BEYOND THE WALL

Ivan Bilibin vibes

This is for those random persons who enjoy reading about other people’s TTRPG games. Here’s a look at all the material that went into the recent game my group and I finished*. Expect a lot of links to wikipedia pages.

THE RULES USED

Beyond the Wall

We use all the Beyond the Wall material to date. Its roots are as a retroclone of D&D, but it welds on bits from AD&D (race and class) while keeping the rules loose enough. I’d love to see it overlap more with more narrative games like Dungeon World and Five Torches Deep. Also since BtW leans into YA Fantasy for its inspiration I could easily see another table mixing it up with Monster Hearts. For what it’s worth, BtW’s version of the Banshee has one of the best save or die mechanics.

The one bad thing about the rule set is that it’s scattered across multiple books. Personally, I’d love to see an omnibus “Rules Cyclopedia” edition published some day. Through Sunken Lands (the latest iteration of the rules) does this somewhat, but TSL has a different vibe. TSL is bronze age sword & sorcery, and not the high medieval YA fantasy we wanted.

OTHER GAMES & SUPPLEMENTS

  • Dolmenwood: For the vibe more than the particulars, although I did lift the Haunted Abbey from here and tweak it.
  • Harn: I’m a fan but have little time for its level of detail. Doesn’t stop me from pillaging it for names and lore, especially its pantheon.
  • B10 Night’s Dark Terror: One of the greatest D&D modules. A good story and mix of wilderness and dungeon adventures.
  • The Gazetteer Series of D&D products. Again, it’s less the details and more the names and site tags.
  • Carse and Midkemmia Press’s Cities supplement

MOVIES

Some provided plots, others only atmosphere.

  • Night of the Demon: The cursed parchment, the hypnotism scene, the congenial devil worshiper, and the arrival of some inescapable doom at a certain time.
  • The Old Dark House: Nobody scares like Brother Saul!
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Every fantasy game needs a backwoods clan of cannibals. My players rightfully called me out when I gave them southern accents.
  • Phantasm: It, like my game, is stitched together from whatever seemed weird/cool at the moment.
  • Harold & Maude: Maude’s the model for the elderly shield maiden having a fling with the party’s wizard.
  • The Mummy // Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Do you need links to these? Both do a great job blending fantasy and naturalism. Okay, The Mummy doesn’t but the action’s fun and the props are bulky. It leans gracefully into the yakety sax.
  • Rankin & Bass’s Tolkien and The Last Unicorn movies for their cute but grotty weirdness and because they’re deeply imprinted in my brain.
  • Those Passolini Trilogy of Life movies set during the Middle Ages/Renaissance did similar imprinting from a different direction.
  • Spaghetti Western // Hammer Horror // Shaw Brothers movies all mashed together and left to ferment and link mycelia. In my opinion these three genres meld very well together.

BOOKS // AUTHORS

  • The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books by way of spoof covers.
  • Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories
  • The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter Beagle
  • The Book of Goblins by Alan Garner (Yallery Brown!)
  • One Thousand and One Nights (Especially that story where Sinbad gives a piggy-back ride to an awful man.)
  • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson
  • Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
  • The Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Chaucer’s Knight by Terry Jones
  • Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner

OTHER STUFF

  • Early American Serial Killers and Mississippi River bandits like the Harpe Brothers.
  • Every European folklore page on Wikipedia. I would try Stargazey pie.
  • Cherry picked bits of Medieval/Early Renaissance History.
  • Cape Ann.

*It’s not done, but we reached a good pause point and I wanted to take a break and other people wanted to run games. The goal’s to come back to it before the end of the year.

WOMEN OF WEIRD TALES 13: THE ANTIMACASSAR

Macassar oil. Do you know what that is?

Macassar oil was a hair product that became popular during the 19th century. It was made from coconut and palm oils. Everyone back then wore so much of it that the fabric headrests of chairs would get a worn polish on them. This was unseemly in the eyes of society. Enter the antimacassar: a thin, decorated bit of cloth you could slip over a chair’s headrest to protect the fabric. If you’ve ever ridden on a bus or train, you’ve likely encountered an antimacassar. I knew none of this before reading this week’s story. Now I do and so do you.

This cover… Damp Man? WTF?

The Antimacassar” by Greye La Spina (May 1949)

This is a decent story and one that makes for a good ending to the collection.

Our heroine, Lucy Butterfield, works for a textile company. She’s on the road showing samples, but really she’s trying to find her missing friend, Cora Kent. Cora was the sales representative before her and went missing somewhere in the back country. Our heroine has tracked her to a remote farm where a Mrs. Renner and her handy man live, along with the sickly Kathy Renner who is twelve years old and confined to bed.

Mrs. Renner claims not to have seen Cora, but Lucy suspects they know something. It was there that Cora made the strange antimacassar with its pattern of circles and snakes that puzzled Lucy so much to send her out here. She lingers around the farm maintaining the pretense that she’s simply the road rep for a fabric company. Soon Kathy’s whining that she’s hungry and there are strange sounds at Lucy’s door. Then the nightmares begin of a monstrous child that feeds on her.

Lucy finds herself growing weaker, and slowly she realizes she must leave, but Mrs. Renner keeps sabotaging her attempts. In between all this Lucy and Mrs. Renner discuss needlepoint and fabric. Finally, the monstrous child appears.  What a shock! Kathy is a vampire! But fortunately, the heroine’s strapping lad of a boyfriend, Stan, shows up right there and kills the monster child. Lucy sent Cora’s strange antimacassar to his mom and right away he realized the snakes and circles were an SOS message. What’s odd is no one is shocked by the vampirism. Apparently, everyone in this world must be a Weird Tales fan and expect such things. The End.

I dug this story. It had a nice mix of the morbid and the mundane. And enough of my family worked in New England’s textile industry, so it was neat to see something similar here. (It actually takes place in backwoods PA, but I imagine the two are similar.) And while the heroine is ultimately saved by a strapping lad, she is the one throwing herself into harms away to rescue a friend and do the detective work. I might have wanted the collection to end with more Everil Worrell, but this was not a bad place to finish. From here it’s easy to see Shirly Jackson and Stephen King on the horizon.  

And that’s it.

We have reached the end of The Women of Weird Tales. I hope you all have enjoyed it. The collection is great fun and I recommend it. Maybe if enough people buy it Valancourt will put out a fancy Everil Worrell collection!

I’ll post my top 5 favorite stories over on my patreon. If you’ve enjoyed this series, why not consider becoming a patron. Or not. You do you. You can expect the Red Specters reviews to start sometime in June.

Stay well!

THE WOMEN OF WEIRD TALES 12: IT’S YOUR BOI AGAIN… THE GREAT GOD PAN!

This is it. 

The penultimate story. And it’s a story that asks an important question: What if Weird Tale writers didn’t have so many sex hang-ups?

Cover by A.R. Tilburne

“Great Pan is Here” by Greye La Spina (November 1943)

Our narrator’s driving along after having five cocktails with his cousin Cecily and their chaperone, Aunt Kate. They are on their way to the symphony. Now Craig, our narrator, has the hots for cousin Cecily and fears that her upbringing under the old-fashioned Aunt Kate is making her too reserved. He wishes something would wake the girl up to the world of love and emotions. Especially his emotions for her. Then side the road he glimpses a pan pipe. It’s just lying.

Was it real? Was it not? 

He hesitates to bring it up. Aunt Kate hates missing the opening movements of a symphony. But he does, and no one believes him.

Later back at home our narrator drinks some more and appraises the effects of moonlight on his garden. He’s got a new nymph statue he brought back from Italy, and it’s pretty sweet. Musing such, he’s surprised when he glimpses someone in his garden. He goes to investigate and finds no one but hears the faint piping of a pan flute.

Was someone taunting him?

But no matter how desperately he searches he can’t find anyone, so eventually he goes back to the house.

The next morning Cecily’s dressed for yachting and our narrator’s thinking thoughts of love and goddesses and basically being a lusty horndog except in an Edith Wharton sort of way. He’s about annoyed when she suggests inviting along a friend, Tom Leatherman, they bump into. They all pile into the boat and our narrator fumes as he gets the yacht going. Meanwhile Tom’s talking about the pan pipes he found on the road the day before. Cecily hears that and apologizes to our narrator for not believing him the day before. Craig accuses Tom of sneaking into the garden and playing the pipes. But Tom denies it was him. Then Cecily startles everyone by saying she heard the piping too, and if it wasn’t Tom who was it then?

If only they had read the title of the story they are in.

There’s more sailing. More brooding over pan pipes. More talk of strange notes being played in the air. They go back to shore and ditch Tom Leatherman. Then Craig and Cecily go in the garden for a picnic. They’re starting to warm to each other. The mystery of the pan pipes has made a bond between them. But as they walk they find they’re not alone in the garden. A strange man is there.

Strange and foreign looking.

It’s the Great God Pan.

He then gives them the pitch. He’s an old god making his way in the new world and he’s looking for gardens that bear something of the old ways about them. Craig’s garden with the imported nymph statue is one such place. And Pan wants it. In exchange he offers to give Craig what he desires (Cecily).

This is where something interesting happens. First there’s talk of haggling and buying affection with gold, but Craig says that’s not how it’s done these days. Now it’s love that seals the deal and love that is exchanged freely between individuals. Cecily needs to give her consent in order for there to be a deal. And she does much to Craig’s delight.

Pan’s pleased and says he’ll be back later that night.

Now Craig and Cecily start to wonder what exactly they’ve done. They’ve invited an old god into the garden. That’s not something you can just admit to the yacht club. However they do decide to get married and when back inside they tell Aunt Kate and she’s happy, but still doesn’t want them to be alone together.

Night arrives. Time for bed. Once the house is asleep Cecily and Craig sneak out into the garden. The music starts. The Great God Pan is there.

Ecstasy, dance, sex, etc.

And it was all okay.

I’m not quite certain at the level of consanguineous between Craig and Cecily. I’m thinking they’re like third cousins, which strikes me as weird but not awful. There’s a bit more the next morning where Aunt Kate mentions the nymph statue seems to have lost her scarf, but that’s pretty much the end. But overall, nothing awful happens.

At least nothing awful relative to your views of conjugal relations between distantly consanguine relatives and Paganism taking root in the USA.  If you’re cool with all that this story is simply The White Goddess meets Edith Wharton. Premarital sexy times are had and no one is hurt who isn’t already more than a little bit dead inside, and they’re only hurt by having a bad night’s sleep.

La Spina likes her purple prose and manages to dress all her words in such a way that they wear diaphanous gowns. Sure, it reads a bit stilted and melodramatic, but it’s not without its charms. And the sex positivism and enthusiastic consent ideas are refreshing. Like why would I be outraged that two young adults who are obviously into each other sleep together? Is it because they do it under the influence of strange rites conducted by a swarthy foreign man? That’s silly.

Of course, it’s possible that I missed some sinister element in the story. But I don’t think so.

Next week, our last story from The Women of Weird Tales. It’s another from Greye La Spina, and it’s called “The Antimacassar”.

Until then stay well.