And we’re back with three short stories this week. The first one was my favorite of the bunch.
“Split Second” Daphne Du Maurier
Mrs. Ellis is a fussy widow. She likes everything to be in its proper place and stresses a lot about her adolescent daughter who’s away at school. While taking a post-lunch stroll, a delivery van narrowly misses Mrs. Ellis, and things turn strange after that. As she attempts to make sense of the new world she finds herself in, we, the readers, get a deep dive into a story of paranoia and fear.
Is Mrs. Ellis insane? Has she been an unreliable narrator this whole time?
Why are all the details she gives to prove her identity partially right but partially wrong?
Du Maurier adds layer upon layer of details, and this is very much one of those claustrophobic stories where you wonder whether you could prove your own identity if everyone around you denied you were who you said you were. Not my favorite style of story to be sure, but Du Maurier makes it real and the slow progression from detail to detail makes the escalating tension masterfully done. It’s good, but maybe not for everyone. Du Maurier’s worth tracking down, but she’s a writer that you can’t rush and she’ll take as long as she needs to tell her story.
“August 25, 1983” Jorge Borges
A young man named Jorge Borges visits an old man named Jorge Borges, but they are both the same man and each claims to be dreaming the other. How does this work? Who knows! It’s a Jorge Borges story with a lot of talk of doubles, mirrors, suicide, and who can tell what is real and what is truth and yadda yadda. The whole thing has a masturbatory air. There’s better Borges to read.
“How Wang-Fo Was Saved” by Marguerite Yourcenar
Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman to be admitted into the French Academy. Her novel about Hadrian was a big deal when it came out, as it was an exploration of post-war Europe through characters from Antiquity. As a fan of Graves’s I, Claudius I hope to track it down some day. “How Wang-Fo Was Saved” is her rendition of a classical Chinese tale. Or at least so Manguel says. I have my doubts. My take is that Yourcenar used Orientalism to write fantasy that bordered on the Conte cruel.
Wang-Fo is an itinerant painter and little more than a beggar. Ling is his apprentice and deeply devoted to his master. But before they met Ling was a privileged aristocrat with a beautiful wife and a vast fortune. His life changed abruptly the moment he met Wang-Fo in a tea house and the old man described the world in a way that opened Ling’s eyes to wonder.
However, not everyone is pleased with Wang Fo. In particular the Emperor is more than a little pissed at him. You see all through the emperor’s youth he was kept in seclusion with nothing but Wang Fo’s paintings for company. The Emperor became so enamored with these paintings that when he eventually left seclusion everything in the actual world proved to be a disappointment. Now he hates Wang-Fo. So when Wang-Fo shows up in the city the Emperor promptly has him and Ling arrested.
The Emperor’s arranged a whole sort of punishment for Wang Fo that involves blinding the old man once he finishes an uncompleted painting from his youth. Ling protests and gets killed for his troubles.
Without any other choice, Wang Fo starts on his work, but here a strange thing happens. He paints an ocean and a boat appears on that ocean. In fact the room is now full of water. Inside the boat is Ling and he has come to rescue Wang Fo and take him away into his painting, which he proceeds to do. The End. It’s not a bad story, but Orientalist af.
Next week… more unless there’s less.
A strange thing has occurred: I am having a hard time reading. I keep starting books then setting them aside, and I’m not sure what the cause of the trouble is. Here’s two months worth of what I’ve finished.
Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham: I’m a big fan of boring and absurd spy novels and this book delivers both. Ashenden’s a thinly veiled Maugham stand-in and these stories all take place between the start of World War I and the Russian Revolution except the war’s far away and it’s more about intriguing in Swiss hotels than carrying out missions behind enemy lines. Maugham has a great skill in using prose to paint a portrait. One sour note is that these stories take place very deep in the Colonial project and so you get the bigotry that goes along with it.
Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary by Terry Jones: I am not up on my Chaucer scholarship, but Terry Jones is. Here he takes to task scholars who see Chaucer’s knight as an exemplar of chivalry, instead of the cut throat mercenary he is. Using The Canterbury Tales, Jones goes into the details of each and every reference, trying to get at how Chaucer’s contemporaries would have reacted to them. Instead of an exemplar of chivalry, Chaucer’s knight is revealed to be a blood-thirsty mercenary typical of the era. Part of what I loved about this book was how bite-sized it was. I could read a few pages one day then put it down for a few days while I read something else.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov: A seminal text, in fact dare I say… foundational? Eh? Eh? So I’d never read this before and was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Granted, I was amused by how the Foundation’s great project revolves mostly around setting up bogus religions and pyramid schemes. Every chapter is sort of the same too: two characters in a room first they react to plot event, then they plot more events. You simply keep cycling from character and events. And the tech is pure fantasy. Still… this was a big greasy meal and I regret nothing.
The Sign of the Labyrs by Margaret St. Clair: This is going to sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it that way: the faster I read this book, the better it was. The story takes place in the future after some unspecified apocalyptic event in an underground maze-like mega-structure. There’s a plague and traps and monsters, and a whole lot of Wiccan style paganism on display. This reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness, another post-apocalyptic SF novel that embraces the whole witchcraft versus church idea. This one is a heady ride.
How are you all holding up? What have you enjoyed reading lately?
Only one story this week because the Du Maurier was longer than expected. That’s okay because I’m slightly ahead of schedule so can slacken the pace a bit. That means we only have Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”.
This is actually one of my favorite Poe stories, but after this reread I have to admit very little of what remembered happening in this story actually happens in this story. And much of the cool shit I like about it is actually either made up whole cloth by my imagination or was from some movie version I saw somewhere.
So, let’s begin with the basic facts about “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”.
Valdemar is an invalid dying of tuberculosis. The narrator, a hypnotist, has convinced M. Valdemar to be hypnotized right at the point of death. There are a lot of descriptions of the sick room, done in that fever pitch purple prose Poe does well and which appeals to morbid teens of varying stripes. The plan goes off without a hitch, M. Valdemar dies, but his mind remains alive due to the hypnosis. There’s a creepy long passage about how M. Valdemar’s tongue lolls out of his mouth and speaks with a monstrous voice that comes from somewhere deep in the throat. It’s grisly. And the hypnotist keeps him in this state for seven months until he decides to see if it’s possible to wake Valdemar and return him to life. This does not succeed and as Valdemar’s tongue bursts with the word “Dead! Dead!” the body dissolves into a liquid mass of loathsome putridity. The End.
Now things I remember that aren’t in the story: the hypnotist has a motive for doing this beyond idle curiosity. He wants to know what happens after death, and his goal is to use the mesmerized Valdemar as a medium to explore the afterlife. Every day the hypnotist asks the corpse questions hoping to discover if the soul was immortal, and everyday the corpse replied that there was nothing, only void. The hypnotist refuses to accept this and continues to question Valdemar for seven months before the authorities force an end the experiment, at which point cue the putridity.
And none of that’s in the story. It might be in the Roger Corman version, but I don’t think it is. That version just has Basil Rathbone using hypnosis to get at Vincent Price-Valdemar’s wife and VPV rising from the death trance before Rathbone can seal the deal.
Maybe, I should write down my version.
Do you all have any story you misremember despite enjoying?
This week’s stories continue the thread from last week. As in Maugham’s “Lord Mountdrago” we have dreams, dreamers, and doubles. We also get another classic from the Arabian Nights.
We start with Giovanni Papini’s “The Sick Gentleman’s Last Visit”. Papini was an Italian writer active during the early half of the 20th century. As such he oscillated between reactionary and revolutionary politics, coming to rest on Catholic Conservatism and in particular Fascism. So that’s that. Jorge Borges called him “undeservedly forgotten”. Jorge Borges’s politics would likely disappoint me too.
In “The Sick Man’s Last Visit” we have another story about a troubled man coming to a stranger in the hopes the stranger can solve the man’s troubles. The Sick Man’s problem is that he’s realized that he’s not alive, but in fact being dreamt by someone else, and he’s desperate to find this individual and wake them up. Things get murky because as the Sick Man explains his troubles you kind of aren’t sure if he’s being dreamt by a human or some immortal being. And the story never resolves that question. Personally I’m fine with that. I like those stories that are just some character recounting some weirdness they saw and saying “Ain’t that some crazy shit?” before walking out the door. Your mileage may vary.
Next story, “Insomnia” by Cuban writer Virgilio Pinera, is a flash length horror story about a man who can’t sleep. After consulting with experts, and attempting all sorts of remedies without success, the man buys a gun and blows his brains out. This kills him, but it doesn’t put him to sleep. Insomnia is most persistent that way.
The other flash length story in this bunch is simply called “A Dream” and it’s from the Arabian Nights. This is another classic where a man dreams that there’s a great treasure in a house in Cairo and sets about traveling there. After many adventures he reaches Cairo and finds the house, but before he can go there, he gets caught in some mischief and arrested by the police. After a beating the police ask him why he was at the house in the first place. When he recounts his dream the chief of police laughs at him and says, “I too dreamt of a great treasure in a certain place, but I’m not a moron who listens to dreams”. Of course the certain place the police chief mentions is known by the first man and is in fact his house back home. He returns home, finds the treasure there as the police chief’s dream foretold, and lives happily ever after.
Last, we have “The Storm” by Jules Verne.
Confession time: this was my actual first Verne. So color me surprised by this story, which I take as being atypical for Verne as it’s more a weird story than a science fiction story.
Here we have a Doctor Trifulgas, who’s your awful miserly doctor. He’s inside while a storm rages outside, and so when a waif comes to his door to ask the doctor to come visit her dad who’s lying on his deathbed, the doctor says no because the man’s poor and the family can’t possibly pay him. After the waif comes the man’s wife, then his mother. Each time they offer more money to Doctor Trifulgas until finally he sees the trip out there as a bargain, and so he goes off out into the storm. The path’s horrible, rain slick and barren. The man’s mother disappears, and the doctor’s left with nothing but a dog to guide his way. He reaches the house, finally, but he doesn’t find the sick man in the bed he was told to suspect. Instead, he finds himself lying there, and things proceed to their inevitable bewildering conclusion from there.
This one surprised me. It was a lot more atmospheric than I expected. If life were longer
I would probably try to read more Verne.
Next week, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne Du Maurier!
What Ho, Black Water fans!
We have two stories this week, well actually, we have three stories, but the second one’s not really worth talking about much. So let’s talk about that one first!
Jean Cocteau’s “Death and the Gardener” is a flash length retelling of that story where a guy sees Death, and Death sees him, and the guy leaves town, only for Death to say to some other guy, “Funny seeing that guy here, because I have a meeting with him tonight in [whatever town the guy fled too].” It’s not a bad story, but once you know the twist there’s not much else going on with it. The good bit about this story is in the pre-story blurb where our editor Manguel gives us this quote from Cocteau:
“We need Death to be a friend. It is best to have a friend as traveling companion when you have so far to go together.”
Now to the heftier stories.
In 1975 the Times of London hosted a ghost story contest with Kingsley Amis, Patricia Highsmith (!), and Christopher Lee as the judges(!!). Our story “A Scent of Mimosa” by Francis King won second place. And while it’s a bit conventional in plot, it’s fun in its characterizations as it involves writers, literary prizes, and award ceremonies.
We follow Lenore who’s recently won the Katherine Mansfield prize. She’s in France to receive the prize, traveling with a trio of judges, who are all cringe-worthy literary types. Would you like to hang out with the snob, the surly one, or the one who’s always finding reasons to touch you? Congratulations! You don’t have to choose because you’re stuck in a car with all three! As the ceremonies proceed, Lenore finds her life echoing Mansfield’s (the tuberculosis parts) and finds herself drawn to a strange man she encounters while listening to the speeches. The two connect, and Lenore’s fascinated by him, but somehow he’s never around whenever she wants to find him. Of course, he’s a ghost (Mansfield’s brother who died during World War I), but it’s cool because he says he’ll see her soon and Lenore realizes she’s okay with that. Hence the Cocteau story and quote that follows right after.
Our third story is Somerset Maugham’s “Lord Mountdrago”. It’s about a Doctor Audlin who uses his powers of being very boring to become a therapist. You see he’s so boring he can hypnotize people by the power of his monotone voice alone. One day a new client shows up, our titular Lord Mountdrago, and he’s a conservative politician in parliament and a horrible snob. His trouble is that he keeps having dreams where he keeps running afoul of rival politician, a Welsh Labour MP named Owen Griffith. He fears he will go mad if these dreams aren’t resolved, but when Doctor Audlin suggests a simple cure, Lord Mountdrago refuses to do it, as it requires too great a sacrifice to his pride. And of course that choice ends in disaster.
Like the Francis King story, this one provides some rich characterization. The dreams where Griffith taunts Lord Mountdrago are funny because they’re banal junk described by a person who believes himself superior to such dreams. And the feud between the two men is less ideological than something out of an elementary school classroom. Maugham goes down deep into the particulars to suggest the universal. It’s an enjoyable ride, so vivid in its depiction that even ultra-boring Doctor Audlin gets a rich interior life. Although, by story’s end he’s had a shock that forces him to question everything he thought he knew about the world.
No joke. These are some good stories. And so far this anthology is one that I’m happy to have managed to track down.
Next week… a literal Fash, a little flash, and Jules Verne!
May we all be here to read it.
We have two classic stories of the ghost’s appearance heralds an approaching death sort: Charles Dickens’s “The Signalman” and Pedro Antonia de Alarcon’s “The Tall Woman”. Both also employ the tried and true “let me tell you a story” and the “f*** you and your explanations” techniques.
“The Signalman”… wandering narrator wanders to some remote spot and sees a lonesome signalman beside the train tracks. At first the Signalman is spooked by the sight of the narrator, but after some time he calms down and the two start a conversation.
Dickens in the early portion really digs into the atmosphere and paints the landscape around the tracks in hellish shades. You’d think you were walking into Dante’s Inferno and not some lonesome railway cutting in the English countryside beside a tunnel. Then when the Signalman starts to explain why he was so startled by the narrator we get his story about the strange apparitions he’s seen at the mouth of the tunnel, the appearance of which have always heralded some train-related death. Now a third apparition has appeared, and the Signalman’s in a bind because he knows a third death approaches, but can’t warn anyone without them thinking he’s mad. The narrator urges him to go see a doctor, and the Signalman agrees to do this, except fate intervenes and things reach their inevitable conclusion.
“The Tall Woman”… English readers might not be familiar with de Alarcon. I wasn’t. And Manguel in his introductory blurb doesn’t really sell him as a writer to track down, saying he’s most famous for writing the book someone else made a famous opera from. Elsewhere online, however, someone has called “The Tall Woman” the quintessential Spanish ghost story. I don’t quite know what to make of that, but as a story goes it’s creepy.
A bunch of guys go on a picnic. One of them tells a story about a deceased friend who told him a story about how he (the now dead guy) lived in terror all his life of meeting a woman alone at night. He knows the fear is illogical, but can’t help feeling it, and some strange things have happened that to his mind make the fear justified. You see on certain occasions, usually when he’s in some bad straits, he’s encountered this woman who has stalked him through the streets. The woman as described is something straight out of Goya’s Black Paintings: a gigantic toothless crone dressed in the ill-fitting costume of a much younger woman. It’s not so much a ghost as some demonic entity. Each time the man encounters her some tragedy befalls him, and he feels justifiable fear that she will appear again.
Of course she does, and once again the inevitable happens.
De Alarcon goes deep into classic creepypasta territory. We are in “there’s a knife wielding maniac right behind you, so close their hair is practically touching your collar, but they won’t kill you unless you turn around” territory. What’s spookier is the fact that the guy is haunted without cause. There’s no curse or past crime that he must atone for; there’s just this thing he’s been told to fear. The specter’s a sort of meme that can only haunt people who know about it. And now that the story has been told to an audience, the same creature will now haunt them too.
On a side note, what do you think would be the quintessential English-language ghost story? Not simply folklore ghost story, but written and published ghost story that everyone either knows or should know?
Leave your answers in the comments below.
Let’s do this.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that sparked a genre. That this genre, the Ruritanian romance, no longer exists is beside the point. Once you’ve read the original you’ll realize how much it saturates our collective imaginations. Its DNA can be seen to this day almost everywhere: romance fiction, travel writing, science fiction, even fantasy.
At its most basic, The Prisoner of Zenda is a swash-buckling romance. Slightly disrespectable upper class Englishman, Rudolf Rassendyll, is bored and kicking around for something to do. He decides to head to the continent, but after taking a detour to visit the central European country of Ruritania he quite quickly gets caught up in that country’s politics since he bears an uncanny resemblance to Ruritania’s soon to be crowned king. (The resemblance is explained by one of the hero’s ancestors having had an affair with a visiting Ruritanian dignitary ages ago.) The king’s younger brother, Black Michael, wants the crown for himself and attempts to do away with the king on the eve of his coronation. He might have succeeded too, but by chance Rudolf Rassendyll is on hand to fill in for the king and be crowned in his stead. From there the stage is set for intrigue, escapes, and romance as the Princess Flavia finds herself falling for the king who to her eyes has become a new man overnight. Will she discover that the man she loves is not what he seems? Will Black Michael succeed and claim the throne? Will Rudolf have the real king slain so he can remain king permanently?
It’s a good read. Hope can tell a story and keep it moving, but with just enough crunch to stay interesting. Doubling abounds, not just as impersonators but also as opposites. Rudfolf Rassendyll is the double for King Rudolf V, Princess Flavia is doubled by Black Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban. The villains Black Michael and Rupert von Hentzau have a relationship that mirrors that of the King and Rassendyll, even down to their love triangles.
Going into this I thought Ruritanian meant any sort of story in a made-up country and got caught up in that line of questioning. Why can we imagine fictitious countries but not fictitious US states? Were Latveria and Wakanda Ruritanian? Where’s the line between making up a country for fun and making one up out of ignorance? Etc. After reading The Prisoner of Zenda I felt that it’s not simply the fictional backdrop that makes something Ruritanian, but the outsider from a more “advanced” civilization who by stroke of luck is the ultimate insider in this less advanced civilization. This adventure tourism angle is as much a part of the genre as the made up countries. It allows our civilized hero to shed some of civilization’s restraints and engage in a way of life that they could not get away with back home. (Maybe that’s me being an American that lives abroad reading a bit more into the genre than what’s there. I don’t know.)
But it’s impossible now after the read not to see Ruritanian shades everywhere: portal fantasies where school children go to magic lands and become prince and princesses. Sword and Planet fantasies where Confederate Army veterans go to Mars, woo princesses, and become chieftains. Space Operas with vaguely Austro-Hungarian societies gallivanting about in starships. Even James Bond being James Bond. It’s all Ruritanian now, or at least a cousin to it like Rudolf Rassendyll’s relationship to the throne.
Next month, PLAGUE!
Next weekend, Black Water book club resumes!