A Winter Tale Double-Feature from Gustavo Bécquer

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Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870) was born in Seville and later moved to Madrid, without achieving either economic success or artistic acclaim.

That’s from the introduction — my translation of it, actually — to the unit on Bécquer from an old undergraduate Spanish reader of mine (believe it or not, I have a Minor in Spanish Literature, though you’d never guess it now). And it goes on to say that Bécquer was sickly all his life, too. Isn’t that the perfect introduction to a Romantic artist?

Bécquer, who was a poet, prose stylist, and painter, was once referred to as “the Spanish Poe.” I’m not sure who originated that description, and honestly, I don’t see it myself. I like much of Poe’s writing (and adore some of it), but his horror and gothic work has the miasma of insanity to it, the sense of staring into an internal abyss. To read Poe’s horror is to breathe in sickness. Bécquer did occasionally write about lonely and obsessed young men (much like himself, maybe?), but those pieces feel more like E.T.A. Hoffman to me — though his protagonists are much less emo. The air is cleaner in a Bécquer piece than in one of Poe’s.

If we have to make an analogy, then I would say that Bécquer is the Spanish Lafcadio Hearn, at least with respect to his prose. That doesn’t have the same zing to it as “the Spanish Poe,” but it’s more accurate. Hearn also has a Romantic sensibility in his writing; in addition, he has a sense of wanderlust, of curiosity about other communities and their cultures, and a taste for folklore. Many of Bécquer’s supernatural tales are framed as stories that he picked up on his travels through Spain, and are often connected to specific physical landmarks. They remind me of reading Hearn’s In Ghostly Japan — except Hearn was writing about an exotic locale  (even though he eventually chose to stay in Japan and become, as much as possible, Japanese), and Bécquer is writing about his own country.

But enough introduction. On to the winter tales:

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At Chrighton Abbey

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Today’s winter tale is a moody, slightly longer piece by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 – 1915), a Victorian gothic writer most famous for the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret.

In “At Chrighton Abbey,” Sarah Chrighton, a governess and poor relation of the distinguished Chrighton family, comes home for the Christmas holiday after several years of living abroad. She has a happy reunion with Squire Chrighton and his family, and meets the fiancé of her younger cousin Edward (the heir apparent). Edward’s mother is not overly fond of her future daughter-in-law, but is relieved that her son is marrying soon. For tragic endings stalk the sons of the Chrighton family, especially the unmarried ones.

The story revolves around Edward’s relationship with his fiancé Julia Tremaine. She’s a striking (and rich) woman, but not well liked by the rest of the Chrighton family, including Sarah.

She was tall and slim, and carried her head and neck with a stately air, which struck me more than anything in that first glance. Yes, she was handsome, undeniably handsome; and my cousin had been right when she said I could not fail to admire her; but to me the dazzlingly fair face with its perfect features, the marked aquiline nose, the short upper lip expressive of unmitigated pride, the full cold blue eyes, pencilled brows, and aureole of pale golden hair, were the very reverse of sympathetic. That Miss Tremaine must needs be universally admired, it was impossible to doubt; but I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman.

Julia’s behavior doesn’t endear her to Sarah, either. She seems stuck-up, and more, as when she declines to accompany Edward and other members of the family on their gift-giving visits to the tenants of the estate.

‘I don’t like poor people,’ she said. ‘I daresay it sounds very dreadful, but it’s just as well to confess my iniquity at once. I never can get on with them, or they with me. I am not simpatica, I suppose…. It is better that I should not affect any feminine virtues which I do not possess.’

Not a politically correct thing to say.

Reading the story, though, I couldn’t help feel an empathy, even a sympathy for Julia Tremaine — and I suspect that this was Ms. Braddon’s intent. Because while Julia is stubborn, and way too proud, on closer examination she doesn’t seem arrogant or self-absorbed; she seems introverted and shy. There’s a large house party going on at Chrighton Abbey; Julia refuses to sing or play the piano for the company, though she’s clearly extremely talented in both directions (and will sing and play for just the family). She doesn’t sled, or skate, or play billiards, but prefers to sit in a corner of the drawing room doing stitching and beadwork. Even her dislike for the company of poor people comes partly from her general discomfort around strangers, and partly from a discomfort with what she sees as “cringing” — that is, having to pretend more gratitude than they really feel — when the tenants receive charity from the estate owners. And I can see her point.

And, unlike the usual haughty beauty in stories like this one, she genuinely loves Edward, though one suspects the marriage will be rocky.

Will love be enough?

As ghost stories go, this one is a fairly mild one, but I like it because Braddon subverts the stereotypical characters of an English gothic. Julia is one example; in addition there is Squire Chrighton, who hates fox-hunting and would rather hide in his library reading Greek than cavort with his guests. And even though Sarah is a poor relation, she is treated with respect and genuine affection by the richer members of her family and their household. Braddon writes with ironic bemusement about upper-class Victorian society; yet all the while she manages to maintain an anxious mood in the story, a feeling of impending doom.

You can read “At Chrighton Abbey” here. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.


Account Rendered

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William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) is a member of that distinguished group, doctors who became writers, in such company as Arthur Conan Doyle, Weir Mitchell, and David H. Keller. He’s probably best known for the uber-creepy tale “The Beast With Five Fingers”, and the disquieting “August Heat,” but he wrote a lot of other macabre stories, both supernatural and otherwise. His style is brisk, with a dry humor; I like him a lot. If you’ve never read him before — and too many people haven’t — you should.

Today’s winter tale, “Account Rendered,” is part of his series Twelve Strange Tales, or as I like to think of it, the “Nurse Wilkie series,” which was published posthumously in 1951 as part of the collection The Arm of Mrs. Egan and other stories. The stories record the various macabre experiences that the nurse narrator (identified in a few of the stories as Nurse Wilkie) experiences in the course of her professional life. Most of the stories are crime stories, but there are a few supernatural tales as well, including this one.

Nurses at the time of Harvey’s medical practice seem to have occupied a limbo space between servant and gentlewoman (much like governesses and tutors, I imagine), and as members of an (at the time) all-female profession were largely undervalued. Dr. Harvey seems to have paid attention to his nurses, as people as well as colleagues; he voices Wilkie in a really empathetic and convincing way. He must have been a good doctor to work with (and to hear Wilkie talk, not all of them were).

In “Account Rendered,” our nurse and her uncle, a physician, meet a man with a strange desire: to be anesthetized on a certain December date, at midnight. And he’s willing to pay a lot for it. But why?

As the clock struck one Mr. Tolson stirred uneasily and began to mutter to himself. A little later he opened his eyes.

“Where am I?” he asked. “Where has he gone to?”

“Dr. Parkinson has been called out to a case,” I replied. “He will be back very soon.”

“It’s all over then,” he said. “it’s all safely over,” and he closed his eyes with a weary sigh of satisfaction….

Needless to say, this evening was not the last time that the narrator hears about Mr. Tolson.

You can read “Account Rendered” here.

Enjoy.


  • The image is Goya Attended by Doctor Arrieta by Francisco Goya, 1820. Source: WikiArt
  • Wordsworth has a good, inexpensive collection of Harvey’s short stories called The Beast With Five Fingers. I recommend it.
  • The list of all the winter tales I’ve blogged about previously is here.

Winter Tales Time! The Crown Derby Plate

The tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas is an old one, mostly a British one, I think, perhaps dating back before Marlowe. While it’s not one my family indulged in, it’s one I’ve happily adopted. Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around.

I try to focus on stories set on or around Christmas, or at least in winter. Sometimes, I’ll feature ghost stories that were originally published as contributions to the Christmas edition of a literary magazine. And often I’ll feature something that feels “winter tale-ish” to me, regardless of when it takes place.

This year, I’ll start with one from Marjorie Bowen (1885 – 1952), British author of historical romances and gothic horror: “The Crown Derby Plate.”

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Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, “particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.”

And of course, Ms. Pym, china collector and antique shop proprietor, gets her wish….

I’ll admit, it’s rather easy to guess the ending of this one, but it’s a fun, comic ghost story. I married into a family of antiquers, and I can rather imagine my mother-in-law or sister-in-law pulling a Martha Pym. Though I’m pretty sure my mother-in-law would keep the plate.

You can read “The Crown Derby Plate” here, at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

My review of Wordsworth’s collection of Marjorie Bowen stories, The Bishop of Hell, is here.

The Crown Derby plate pictured is circa 1790-1795, painted by William Billingsley. Image: Wikimedia

A Twenty-first Century Ghost Town

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I’m walking through the housing development where my parents live, in the Sierra foothills, a half-hour out of Reno. I can’t get over how silent it is. No cars drive by; no music or conversation leaks out of the houses that I pass. No birds. No insects. The sounds of the highway and the town don’t reach out here. There’s nothing but the sound of my footsteps. Even the lone dog that finally barks as I pass only serves to accentuate the stillness.

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Before there was Multo…

… there was Ephemera, a blog I originally had to share little pieces I wrote with my friends. I stopped using it after I started Multo, but I never deleted it.

I’ve been unearthing a few other pieces I wrote back in those days, pieces I wrote for writing classes and whatnot. Most of them are cringeworthy, but a few I can read and think, “Huh. Not too bad.”

Of all the old pieces I found, the one I like best is “Temptation,” which has a bit of a fantastic theme, and so fits with this blog. I’ve put it up on Ephemera, along with a couple of others, just because.

“Eating alone again, I see.” His tongue tickles my left ear as he whispers this, sliding past my shoulder to slip into the place across from me in the diner booth. “This is getting to be a habit.”

“She was tired. And I don’t like conversation over breakfast, anyway,” I reply, hoping that for once he’ll get the hint. He just tilts his diamond-shaped head to one side and smirks, his tongue continuing to flick in and out. The waitress comes by to take his order: rabbit, live, and a bowl of water. I look down at my plate and concentrate on my bacon and eggs over hard, hoping he’ll just find a newspaper and not torture me. But no.

When I wrote it, the group I read it to didn’t get it, but I’m hoping that people more attuned to the sort of things I like to read might be in a better position to see what I was trying to do.

Read the rest here.

Hope you enjoy.

Coconuts and The Creation: A Tagalog myth

In the beginning there was only the earth, and the clouds in the sky. And there were three living beings, three gods: Bathala, a giant who lived on the earth; Ililangkalulua, a serpent who lived in the clouds; and Galangkalulua, a winged head who had no set home, but wandered from place to place. Each one thought that he was the only living being in the universe.

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The Origin of Sex Differences: A B’laan myth

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Once upon a time, there were no men and women, only people. This is how the difference came to be.

Before there were people, there was the Supreme Deity, Melu. Melu had two assistants, Fiu Weh (the good spirit) and Tasu Weh (the evil spirit). Fiu Weh and Tasu Weh served as sort of the yin and yang of creation.

When Melu decided to create people, he assigned the job to Tasu Weh. Tasu Weh created people out of clay, and he gave them sex organs. But rather than split the sex organs fifty-fifty among his creations, he gave everyone both. The penis he put on one knee, and the vagina on the other.

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What I’ve been Reading: Javier Marías

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This was originally intended as a short little post on ello, but after I finished, it seemed long enough to post (slightly extended and modified) here, too.


I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Spanish author Javier Marías, my second one in the past month or so. The first collection was When I was Mortal, the second was While the Women are Sleeping. Marías was one of the authors featured in the anthology A Thousand Forests in one Acorn (which I reviewed here), and in that anthology, I noticed that one of his novels was described as a critic as “hybrid-genre” — which has overtones of “This has the plot of the sort of book I’d never admit to reading, but Marías writes well, and interestingly.” Whatever. If you read my blog, you probably don’t worry too much about the literary/genre fiction dichotomy.

Marías (at least in his short fiction) writes a lot of stories that I would classify as “crime fiction” — but often from a somewhat different perspective than you would expect from “typical” crime fiction. By this, I mean that the crime isn’t necessarily the focus of the story, but almost the excuse for the story, the frame on which to hang what Marías really wants to write about. His ghost stories also also usually not “typical” ghost stories, in that same sense. Often, his crime stories have a touch of the fantastic, the “weird” (not necessarily supernatural).

When I was Mortal was the more conventional collection overall; Marías notes that eleven of the twelve stories included were written on commission. But there’s still that “something else” about most of them. “Everything Bad comes Back” reminded me of Julio Cortázar’s “The Pursuer.” The title story, my favorite, is told by a ghost, who thought he had lived a good, contented life. But there was some darkness there he didn’t know about. And now he knows, because when you are dead, you know everything.

I not only remember what I saw and heard and knew when I was mortal, but I remember it in its entirety, this is including what I did not see or know or hear… but which affected me or those who were important to me….

In other words, the fact that it’s a ghost story is a choice about the style of storytelling, not a choice about the story’s genre.

A couple of the stories in When the Women were Sleeping were pale imitations of stories told better in When I was Mortal — but it still had some excellent, interesting tales. The title story was… interesting. It could be a crime tale, it could simply be a “literary” short story. Whatever one would call it, it’s worth reading. “Isaac’s Journey” felt a bit like something Borges would have written, and “The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban” is a delightful almost-“straight” ghost story. I’ve already posted about “Lord Rendall’s Song”.

Marías was a good discovery. I will have to check out some of his novels, too.

Recommended.


Image: The Novel Reader, Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Sourced from WikiArt.

Ghosts, Moments, and Miracles

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Somewhere else, I called Ghosts, by Argentinian writer César Aira, “a charming, meandering book of philosophical musings disguised as a novel.” That’s meant as a compliment. The story is nominally about the laborers, mostly Chilean immigrants, who are working on the construction of a luxury condominium high-rise in Buenos Aires. The construction site is haunted by ghosts, bawdy naked men covered in construction dust. The ghosts are invisible to the architects, designers, and project developers, as well as to the building’s wealthy future residents. They can only be seen by the workmen, who are about as visible to the project developers and future residents as the ghosts are. The Chilean foreman and his family live on the construction site as caretakers, and the ghosts take a special interest in the foreman’s thoughtful, dreamy, teenage stepdaughter Patri.

It’s a slim novel at 139 pages, and the plot itself is about enough for a short story. The rest of the book is filled with digressions, some by the omniscient narrator, some put in the thoughts of the characters. I picked up the novel expecting a regular ghost story, so at first the book seemed slow — it is slow — but after I adjusted to its reality, I enjoyed it. Aira rambles on about art, literature, architecture, how the arrangement of buildings in an African village reflect the expected modes of interaction among the villagers, homeopathy, marriage, the difference between the complacent Argentinian upper-middle-class and the immigrant Chileans…

This is a long-winded way of saying that arguing with the book while reading it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.

What happened? Late in the book, the ghosts invite Patri to their New Year’s eve party. She has to think about it.

Invitations to a magic party with ghosts were obviously going to be very rare. There might be another chance, but for Patri that was beside the point. She was wondering how many such invitations there could be in eternity. That was a different question. Repetition in eternity was not a matter of probabilities, no matter how large the numbers. In eternity, as distinct from “in life” or “outside life,” this party was an absolutely unique occasion.

No, no, NO! I wanted to shout at the book (I was in a restaurant, so I didn’t). In all eternity, this invitation is bound to happen again.

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