RED SPECTRES 10: THE ONLY WOMAN WHO UNDERSTANDS
Only two more stories left, and I appear to have decided to draw them out for as long as possible.
One thing that’s been interesting reading this book is seeing how these stories shifted style and tone over the decades. The earlier ones owed more to 19th century lit like Pushkin, Hoffman, and Gogol, but by now in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century the style’s as indebted to modernity and advertising as the usual fare in Weird Tales.
Still, something of that old world horror remains even if the resemblance is superficial.
“The Woman With No Nose” by Georgy Peskov/Yelena Deisha (1927)
Our narrator is a scared man. There is typhus in the city and he needs to get away. So he’s at the train station trying to leave on one of the few remaining trains. Meanwhile there’s this horrible woman with no nose he keeps seeing wherever he goes. And then the story splits and we get the two threads of the narrator’s life presented almost simultaneously.
There’s the over-story of the man taking his seat on the train while he keeps seeing the woman with no nose: his thoughts and actions and fears. Then there’s the other story that’s taking place back at the hospital. There the man is being evacuated as the typhus outbreak emerges and of course he has the disease. So the delirium of the over-story is the manifestation of his fevered state, and as the train takes off the other passengers realize he is sick, but the man doesn’t care because the woman with no nose is with him now:
“And the woman with no nose hides in the dark corner under the seats and, from there, keeps watch over all of us.”
This one’s good. I know I harp on which of these stories would have sat alongside anything in Weird Tales, but I think there’s some value in framing them that way. A lot of these stories aren’t part of any genre tradition in the Anglosphere and that’s a shame. This story would sit comfortably alongside Poe and Everil Worrell. Plus, I’m a sucker for that fevered narrator whispering hot and heavy in your ear while the plot drives like a freight train to its inevitable conclusion.
Next week, the other kind of Weird Tale… that’s right. It’s time to bust out the soul juicer!
Only this time… Soviet style!
RED SPECTRES 07: THE SLEEP OF REASON
Today’s story made me miss the cheap vulgar soap selling style that the American pulps had. There’s a value in being able to write snappy ad-copy and avoid the sweaty intense existential scrutiny Dostoevsky gives us when he introduces the Grand Inquisitor to the Brothers Karamazov. I know some people prefer the latter, but the truth lies in the tension between the two.
Here’s the link to Krzhizhanovsky’s wikipedia page in case you want to do the homework.
Also, here’s a content warning: this story involves an embalmed fetus being “born” and then trying to live out a life while rotting.
“The Phantom” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1926)
A student sleeps on an open book. The book details obstetric procedures. The student wakes and goes to his exam. This exam involves him delivering a baby from one of these delivery-training mannequins. The baby in question is an embalmed stillborn. During the course of the exam a distraction occurs (the revolution?) and our student, Two-Sklifsky, looses focus on the birth yet somehow the embalmed baby, Fifka, manages to be born. Later he goes to find out what happened to the baby, and he and the janitor see little embalming fluid footsteps going out the door.
Years pass. Sklifsky becomes a field surgeon and there’s no end to his work. He becomes an alcoholic. One night as a storm lashes his hovel, Fifka returns. The embalmed baby recounts what its life has been since Sklifsky brought it into the world. Needless to say it’s an abstruse conversation full of philosophical ideas well above this reader’s head. Eventually, Fifka says he’s been signing Sklifsky’s name everywhere he’s been, and that’s a bit too much for Sklifsky to stand so he promptly has a nervous breakdown. Then he dies in a sanatorium. The End.
OK. This story… there’s this riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I love. Medical student creates life then abandons it only to have that life track him down for a final confrontation. And bits of Fifka’s life mirror Shelley’s Monster (although it’s less homicidal in its vengeance). And the fact that Krzhizhanovsky takes that story and uses it to critique the revolution, or at least that’s how it appears to me, is wicked* neat. Imagine it: student asleep on a book of theory gives birth to a materialist revolution that remains stunted and deformed because the student became distracted mid-revolution. Then that materialist revolution in its stunted form tracks down the revolutionaries that birthed it and confronts them with their failings. That’s certainly one reading of this story and one I wish it was. But to do that to my satisfaction would have required more soap-selling than Krzhizhanovsky wished to employ. Or more Grand Inquisitor than this reader could tolerate.
Next time, a grey motor car.
And for those of you brave enough, here’s a modern version of the sort of phantom Fifka is: obstetric phantom with fetal doll.
* If I have to watch hecking and hella enter common parlance then you all can deal with the exponentially superior New England “wicked.”
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.
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 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!
RED SPECTRES 02: RED PRIMROSE
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.
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.
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.
(Artwork by Berthe Morisot)