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.