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!
Three short, grisly stories from Black Water this week and I’m starting to feel like this anthology is the mix-tape Alberto Manguel made to impress Jorge Borges.
The first story, “An Injustice Revealed” by Anonymous, comes from 6th century China and I feel that Manguel really missed an opportunity to talk about P’u Songling here. For anyone that doesn’t know, P’u Songling was an 18th century collector of strange tales from China and those stories, like this one, have a tone that’s simultaneously desolate churchyard and cosmopolitan city (with a good bit of the bawdy and scatological thrown in). The weirdness comes across in how commonplace the supernatural seems. “An Injustice Revealed” is typical of the style and shifts from the previous stories in the anthology by the fact that the ghost here is treated like any other welcome visitor.
Ye Ning-Fei, a government inspector, has come to the province to uncover the local Governor’s corruption. Ye’s friend, Wang Li, was the previous inspector to the province and died while investigating the same Governor. One night as Ye sits going over the books Wang appears and asks Ye to do him a favor. Basically, a bureaucratic snafu has caused his soul to get separated from his corpse and now he can’t pay the spirit-money necessary to cross from one spirit-province to the other. Would Ye be so good as to burn some spirit money for him so he can pay the tolls? Ye agrees, but wants to hear more about the afterlife. Wang tells him about his trial in the Court of Hell and the mistake that saw his soul locked up there. This mistake points to the Governor’s corruption and from it Ye gets the name of a person wronged by the Governor. But it doesn’t matter much because the Governor dies and goes to Hell, which Wang knew all about because he heard the details of the case while trapped down there.
It’s a good story, but reads more like a treatment than an actual story. Again, if you want to read more stuff like it I recommend you track down a P’u Songling collection. It’s like a collection of News of the Weird that’s a thousand years old.
“A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road” by Graham Greene continues this mix of the supernatural and the commonplace. In a throw back to an earlier story we get treated to another dilapidated movie house and the sad clientele drawn to such places. Only Craven, the story’s main character, is no Pablo Gonzales hoping to find love. Instead, Craven is your typical young male depressive out wandering in the rain beneath the burden of their own intrusive thoughts. To take his mind off his particular fixation, which involves graves and the fact that “under the ground the world was littered with masses of dead flesh ready to rise again”, Craven decides to stop by a rundown theater and watch a movie. Midway through a man sits down beside him, and as murder gets done on screen this man starts whispering to Craven how different actual murder is from the one depicted. At a few points this man even takes Craven’s hand and occasionally coughs on him. All told Craven’s utterly repulsed by the guy. When the movie ends the man leaves as the house lights come up but he doesn’t get away before Craven sees he’s covered in blood. Being a law-abiding sort Craven calls the cops, saying he’s found a wanted murderer. But the cops say it’s not the murderer that’s missing, but the victim’s corpse. At that moment Craven catches sight of himself reflected in the phone booth’s window and his face is covered in blood as if it had been sprayed with a fine mist. With this revelation he promptly has a nervous breakdown. The End.
The MR James piece is from “A School Story” and it’s a snippet of a conversation between two horror story connoisseurs one-upping each other with scary stories. Coming where it does, I can’t help but see it as a critique on Manguel’s project as a whole, warning us that the wondrous can become dull when we indulge in it too often.
Next week, a Signalman and a Tall Woman.
Two short ones this week: LP Hartley’s “A Visit from Down Under” and Saki’s “Laura”. They’re good, but also both very much the kind of story you see in anthologies of the Classic British Ghost Story sort.
Hartley is probably most famous as the guy who said a thing, which in this case is the quote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” See? You have heard of him before! “A Visit From Down Under” starts on a rainy London bus with a strange man all bundled up and sitting on the upper deck in the rain. He’s very peculiar. In particular he is cold to the touch. The ticket collector wants nothing to do with him and only reluctantly goes to tell him when they have reached his stop. Only when he goes to tell the man, the ticket collector discovers that the man has disappeared. FLASHBACK to five hours earlier and a Mr. Rumbold has arrived at his hotel (which is on the street where the strange passenger wanted to stop) after being away so long in Australia. He sets about drinking and making himself comfortable, exchanging some bantering talk with one of the hotel servants about murder. Then he dozes off while listening to a children’s show on the radio. The show takes on ominous overtones becoming increasingly more creepy the longer it goes on, until finally it triggers a panic attack in Rumbold who flees to his room. Later the strange passenger from the opening scene arrives and soon enough Mr. Rumbold is murdered with no trace left but for an icicle melting on the mantle piece.
All told this story exists entirely on the surface with inference made to Rumbold’s crimes. but nothing explicit is revealed. While the end is pretty basic with some wronged ghost coming back to have revenge on the person responsible for their death, the execution is quite good. The bit with the children’s radio show is great, genuinely creepy, as Rumbold can’t keep himself from getting caught up and eventually menaced by its whimsy. Kids’ shows are creepy! Track this story down and read it for that scene alone.
If Hartley’s story was all exteriority without much in the way of introspection, Saki’s “Laura” goes even further. Here the scenes are nearly all dialogue with people saying things that push the story along. We have Laura, a dying woman, Amanda, her friend, and Egbert, Amanda’s husband. Laura jokes about how after her death she’ll return as an otter or some creature, and to be frank she’d looking forward to it, especially if she can be an otter that kills all of Egbert’s chickens. When this comes to pass, Amanda tries to save the otter, but Egbert hunts it down. This results in Amanda having an episode, so Egbert takes her to Egypt to recover, where he is plagued again by another of Laura’s incarnations, and now Amanda is seriously ill. The End.
It’s light all the way through, maybe too much so, as I doubt I’ll remember it a month from now. Yet… well, I have to admire a story that’s all polished surface and light as cotton candy. The skill and craftsmanship on display in such a story are appealing no matter how light they seem. And it’s PG Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde territory, except with higher polish. So don’t be surprised if someday I own one of his story collections.
Next week… Anonymous and Graham Greene!
Welcome to portrait country.
Not physical portraits as in the Dorian Gray sense (although one does show up in our second story “Enoch Soames”), but the prose sort. First in the short ghost story “Importance” by Manuel Mujica Lainez, about a Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno, a self-important woman whose soul after her death lingers on for eternity among her possessions, and second in Max Beerbohm’s longer story about time travel, deals with the devil, and “Enoch Soames”, its titular self-important writer of dubious quality.
I’ve little to say about “Importance”. It’s a good story, concisely told and with a barb to it. Mrs. Hermosilla Del Fresno is a very important widow, nearly the most important widow in her city. The one blemish in her pedigree is that she comes from a less than spectacular family. All of whom she cut out of her life as she rose in society. Then, as these things happen, she woke up one morning only to find herself dead. At first she assumed it was only a matter of time before the angels appeared to take her on to her celestial reward, but as time goes by, and her dreaded relations reappear, she realizes that no angels are coming for her, and this is to be her eternity, her soul trapped in her bedroom, ever aware of how her family degrades her memory.
It’s a good solid shot of smugness followed by impotent rage towards God and man.
What’s not to like?
I hadn’t heard of Lainez until now and it appears his books were never much translated into English. The two that were, Bomarzo about an immortal Renaissance duke and The Wandering Unicorn a tale about the fairy Melusine set against the back drop of the Crusades, sound right up my alley and will likely warrant some tracking down or interlibrary loan next time I’m in the USA.
Now back to the Black Water and “Enoch Soames”…
I don’t know if Max Beerbohm is much remembered these days. He’s certainly someone that shows up a lot in any book about early 20th century English Literature, but more as a scenester than an actual writer. The sort who draws funny pictures of literati and has those pictures and his bon mots published in the smart set papers. Beerbohm’s funny, and perceptive, but a bit arch and smugly long winded in that British high society sort of way. If he were alive today, he’d very likely have a very popular podcast or even late night talk show.
“Enoch Soames” starts as a cutting satire of a certain type of wannabe writer. Soames is the arrogant dabbler who lurks at the margins of the literary scene whose overwhelming sense of self-importance is so distant from his actual ability and output to make him a farcical character. He apes the decadent style while also dismissing it and everything else that crosses his field of vision while working intently on some niche work he proclaims to be nothing shor of groundbreaking. When it’s published it has the title “Fungoids” and no more than three people buy it.
Beerbohm recounts meeting Soames on multiple occasions and finds him morbidly fascinating. As things progress, Soames worries more and more about his legacy and whether people will realize his genius after his death. He’s nearing a fever pitch when the devil steps in (or speaks up since he’s sitting next to Soames and Beerbohm in a crowded café) and offers to transport Soames exactly one hundred years into the future in exchange for his soul. Soames makes the deal and from that point on things go very badly for Enoch Soames.
First he’s not remembered as a significant writer at all. Second, he’s not even real but an imaginary character most famous as the subject of Max Beerbohm’s short story “Enoch Soames”. This leaves him crushed and deflated, so that when he returns to his own present day he’s unable to resist when the devil comes calling for him. The devil here is the theatrical sort dressed in pure Mephistopheles. Beerbohm describes him as looking like the sort of criminal that lingers around train stations in the hopes of stealing some high-class lady’s jewelry case.
As a rather Soamesian sort myself, the story did make me cringe. Beerbohm’s best remembered as a caricaturist after all. The portrait is perfect and Soames has a vividness despite his being described as “dim”. Trust me, if you have ever at all been near any sort of scene then you have met guys like Enoch Soames with their unwarranted high opinions of themselves. That Beerbohm paints his picture and then erases it in the same story is a clever act.
Next week. . . more writers I’ve only heard about but never read!