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!
Welcome back! This week’s story is “The Messenger” by Georgy Peskov, the pen name for emigre journalist Yelena Deisha. A cursory google search doesn’t reveal much about her, which is a shame because her stories are quite good in so much as they sit comfortably alongside The Women of Weird Tales and any of the better than mid-tier stories from Alberto Manguel’s Black Water.
“The Messenger” by Georgy Peskov (1925)
A much reduced husband and wife worry over their son’s fate. He’s away fighting in the Russian Civil War. The son is their parent’s last surviving child, and everyday the parents wish for some word from the him. Grasping at straws, the mother has taken to spiritualism (via automatic writing) and spends much of her time talking with the spirits. She figures that if the son’s dead she would receive some communication from him. The father goes along with this, reluctantly. And the village priest harangues, calling spiritualism blasphemy.
The mother persists, and one winter night while a storm rages outside, she and the father sit down to make a another attempt to learn information about their son. Their efforts have mixed results and the only decipherable words are “The Messenger. A blessing.”
Quite soon after that there’s a knock at the door. The father is suspicious. There’s a storm outside and anyone out at this time can’t be up to any good. But the mother at last opens the door and finds a stranger there. This is a soldier claiming to know her son. He tells her their son lives, having managed to leave the country. He also tells an odd story about two sick friends and the nurse who cared for them. She and the son had a relationship but when it came time to flee the nurse refused to abandon the hospital while a sick patient was there. The soldier gives the nurse’s address, and refuses all hints of help from the couple before going back out into the storm.
The next day the couple writes the nurse and days later she writes back. She does admit to knowing her son. But the soldier they say visited them can’t be alive, because he died when the hospital was taken. The implication for the reader being that the visiting soldier was the ghost come to the couple in order to ease their mind and as a way to pay off his debt to the nurse who stayed behind to care for him despite the likelihood of very awful things happening to her when the Bolsheviks took over the hospital
And here the husband and wife’s opinions of events diverge. The husband is inclined to believe the whole story nonsense and the soldier was a spy. He complains to the priest about his wife’s spiritualist practices, and the priest once again harangues the wife to give it all up as blasphemous. The wife however believes the soldier was a spirit and their son is still alive, yet when she tries to write the nurse again she gets no reply. The End.
This story didn’t so much remind me of the Bulgakov seance story from earlier in the book, as it did WW Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” Except Peskov’s story lacks the (somewhat corny if singular) ironic slant. It’s more unsettling. What gets me is that Peskov is writing her supernatural stories not straight from her imagination, but taking scenes from events that impacted her life and that of her associates. It puts a very different spin on things.
Next time, a date with Miss Muerte!
Beware of Objects!
That’s the message of today’s story, or at least the one the narrator would have us believe. But this narrator is not to be trusted and something else is going on here. Grin’s an author who was popular enough to get put on a postage stamp. His wikipedia page would suggest he’s in the same mode as Robert Louis Stevenson, which he is, but he suggests JG Ballard, especially Ballard’s stories set amid the decaying pleasure resorts of Vermilion Sands. The bits of Grinlandia depicted here have the same jaded air, but the decay hasn’t claimed the resorts yet.
“The Grey Motorcar” by Alexander Grin (1925)
Our narrator is a young wealthy man at odds with the modern world. One can imagine him as the sort of privileged guy who comments online about the decline of western civilization, creeping multiculturalism, and the fact that other people aren’t as real as he is. He hates cars and movies and noise and speed and he’s basically a judgmental prick of the young, smug, and rich sort. He’s attracted to a woman named Corrida El-Basso who he also simultaneously despises, because she’s too modern and frivolous.
One night, our guy and a buddy go to the casino to gamble and watch another player who is having an epic winning streak. Our narrator plays this gambler and wins a huge sum of money. The gambler then has a stroke and dies, but not before giving the narrator his car. The narrator hates the car and doesn’t want it. That’s too bad. It’s his now. But he keeps running away before the car can be delivered.
(A side note: this story was made into a movie in Russia during the 1980s called Mister Designer. Here’s a clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly7xdZZMcFQ The music’s great in a Goth nightclub sort of way.)
After his win, Corrida’s more interested in the hero and she agrees to take a ride with him to his “laboratory”. Except he doesn’t take her to his lab but to a cliff where he explains that she’s not real, but a mannequin, and that the two of them should jump, die, and be reborn. Corrida, being a resourceful woman, must have expected such a thing because she draws a gun. When the narrator gets grabby, she shoots him. The bullet grazes his head and Corrida goes back to the house to get help. The narrator doesn’t wait but staggers away. When he sees the gambler’s car coming down the road he tries to hide but fails. The car stops and a group of men come out and take the narrator to the hospital. He urges a doctor to let him leave, but the doctor sees that the narrator is not well. The story ends with the narrator writing an account of events and pleading with the reader to watch out for that evil mannequin, Corrida El-Basso.
Imagine coming upon Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft cold. That’s what reading this felt like. Grin seems like a writer with his own particular set of obsessions, and unless you’re keyed into them it’s a lot of wtfry. The story is overly long and meandering, set in a fictional country, and the whole thing hinges on how long it takes you to realize the narrator’s not well. That the whole thing could be summed up as an incident of Capgras syndrome lessens the impact but makes it more comprehensible.
But… despite all that I liked it and I’m curious to read more Grin. How can you resist a writer at the intersection between RL Stevenson and JG Ballard?
Next time, automatic writing!
(The artwork is called The Disquieting Muses by Giorgio de Chirico)
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.
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.
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?
.. 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)