From my readings of his work, and about his life, M. R. James seems to have been a warm and gentle person, well-liked, with a joyous enthusiasm for his research, his writing, and other related interests (folklore and detective stories among them). I admire his ghost stories, his essays about ghost stories, and what I’ve read of his scholarly work, and I think that I would have liked him as a person.
I also get the impression that he was rather conservative in outlook. He didn’t seem particularly warm to the idea of women in academia. I think I would have liked him, but I’m not entirely sure that he would have approved of me.
So I find it interesting that some of James’ most prominent (and scholarly) fans are women: Rosemary Pardoe, certainly, and Jacqueline Simpson for the folkloric aspects of James’ work. And now we can add Sarah Monette.
I joined a “Classic Ghost Stories” interest group recently (It’s called “The Classic Ghost Story Tradition” on Facebook, if you’re interested); the group focuses on “classic” ghost stories, those from the mostly British tradition written around the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Authors from this tradition include M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Aickman. Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a few of these, too.
I’ve enjoyed the discussions, and gotten a few good recommendations. But I realized that while I very much like the authors and the stories that tend to come up, they aren’t the stories that have struck me the most, in my reading.
It’s got me thinking about what I like in a good ghost story.
They don’t have to be scary (though a little frisson is nice: just one scene, or even just a single image that makes me gasp or my pulse to skip a beat will do it). The ghost doesn’t have to be malevolent or evil. The story shouldn’t be gory or bloody, but a touch of gruesome is okay.
The stories that have really stuck with me — I won’t call them my favorites, but rather the stories that have crept into some corner of my mind and stayed there — aren’t always the best known stories by their authors. They aren’t always the stories by those authors that I think are the scariest, or even the best written. But for whatever reason, they haunt me.
As Chris Baldick pointed out in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, gothic fiction arose (and still thrives) as a reaction to “the tyranny of the past” — historically, the tyranny of the Catholic Church; but in more modern times, the tyranny of repressive societal mores or dysfunctional family histories. So if I wanted to be a cranky person, I could argue that the stories collected in Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century are not strictly gothic, because they evoke nostalgia for the past as a reaction to the tyranny of the present: to be specific, the tyranny of the newly emerging Communist state.
But they feel gothic. If you didn’t know anything about the socio-political milieu in which these stories were written (especially the earlier ones), you would unhesitatingly class them as such. And now that the Soviet Union is downstream of us in history, maybe these stories can indeed be considered true examples of the genre.
I recently discovered the silent film director and special effects master Segundo de Chomón, who produced a number of outstanding short “trick films” in Barcelona and in Paris for Pathé Frères, mostly in the period from about 1903 to 1912. He’s been favorably compared to the more famous French special effects filmmaker Georges Méliès.
I had a hard time choosing which de Chomón film to feature first; they’re all wonderful, and more of them will surely end up on Friday Video. I finally decided on the 1909 Une Excursion Incohérente for its sheer absurdity, with a touch of surrealism.
The film shows off different aspects of de Chomón’s technical wizardry: animation, mirror (or possibly double exposure) illusions, pyrotechnics. It also features one of his favorite themes: the mischievous haunted house.
Length: 8 minutes, 15 seconds.
Today, another selection from Late Night Work Club’s Ghost Stories film anthology. Ombilda is a gorgeous piece, done in deep velvety shades of gray, with a subtle and effective sound design, too. I love the fog and mists that permeate the entire film.
“Lovecraftian” isn’t the right word for this piece, but its theme of mysterious and terrible (and possibly alien) forces of nature does remind me of an early twentieth century weird tale. It’s a little surreal, too. Luigi Ugolini’s 1917 “Vegetable Man” is what came immediately to mind, though I’m sure there are other stories too, that I’m not recalling now.
Length: 4 minutes, 19 seconds
Once when demons had taken over the kingdoms of the earth, nearly destroying it with their wars, Mother Earth took the shape of a cow and went to Lord Brahma, pleading for his help. Brahma and the other demigods went to intercede with Lord Vishnu. Vishnu told the demigods that he would send Krishna to be born into the family of Yadu, to rectify things, and the other demigods should also be reborn into that family, to help Krishna.
Eventually, Krishna was born to Devaki, the wife of Vasudeva, of the Yadu family. Vasudeva and Devaki had been imprisoned by Devaki’s brother Kamsa, who had heard a voice prophesying that Kamsa would be killed by Devaki’s eighth son. He had already killed six of Devaki’s sons. The seventh son (who was, of course, an incarnation of one of the demigods) was mystically transferred to the womb of one of Vasudeva’s other wives, Rohini, who was in hiding at the home of the Maharajah Nanda, in another city. After the “miscarriage” of her seventh son, Devaki became pregnant with her eighth son — Krishna.
It’s Friday the 13th! And a full moon. Friday the 13th is considered an unlucky day in popular superstition, so today I’m featuring a sweet, gruesomely humorous little ghost story about bad luck. And about the Circle of Life, too.
Mountain Ash, by Jake Armstrong and Erin Kilkenny, was made as part of the Late Night Work Club’s animated collaborative film Ghost Stories. It’s one of my favorite pieces from the anthology.
Length: 4 minutes, 47 seconds.
Chester Nez, the last of the original WWII Navajo code talkers, just passed away.
Here’s an interview with him, from 2013:
Code talkers, for those not familiar with them, are speakers of rare or obscure languages who are used to transmit sensitive information over possibly unsecured communication lines. The combination of an obscure language and a (usually simple) code are enough to keep the messages secure. The most famous code talkers are the Navajo code talkers of WWII, but there have been code talkers in other Native American languages, as well as in Basque and Welsh.
I got curious about code talkers about a month ago, thanks to Eagle-Eyed Editor’s post on Mr. Nez’s memoir (co-authored by Judith Avila), Code Talker. As I poked around the internet after reading EEE’s post, I found the interview above, and (somewhere) a casual mention of code talking using other Native American languages. I made a note to myself to look that up, someday.
And that day was the day before yesterday, the day before Mr. Nez passed away. One of life’s odd juxtapositions….
When the sun sets in the city of Manila, don’t you dare make a wrong turn and end up in that dimly-lit side of the metro, where aswang run the most-wanted kidnapping rings, where kapre are the kingpins of crime, and engkantos slip through the cracks and steal your most precious possessions.
When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese.
One of the things I did over the long Memorial Day weekend was read all the Trese comic books I could get my hands on (since I’m in the U.S., that isn’t very many). Alexandra Trese is a mysterious woman who owns a nightclub called The Diabolical and investigates supernatural crime in Manila. Budjette Tan has been writing the series since (I believe) 2005. It’s tremendously popular, and I can see why.
I’ve seen a rash of complaints lately on Facebook pages that I follow, about how Facebook has been throttling the number of subscribers who see a page’s updates, basically blackmailing page owners into paying to “boost” their posts to increase their audiences. Facebook has been doing this for a while, so I don’t know if the problem has gotten worse recently, or if people have only just begun to notice it.
At any rate, I’ve been thinking about making this post for some time, and kept dismissing it as a silly idea. But given how often I’ve seen the above complaint recently, maybe it’s not so silly. So here it is. If you want to support a page that you like (by making sure you see its updates) then put it in an interest list, and encourage your friends who also like the page to do the same.
Pages I Watch
Facebook automatically gives you a couple of default interest lists, one of which is called “Pages I Watch”. You can get to it from the sidebar; I’ve circled it in the screenshot below. It’s like a more focused page feed (the other default list is called “Pages and Public Figures”, which I think is a feed for people you follow, but didn’t friend). I don’t remember how it’s initially populated, but you can use it to keep track of pages whose updates you especially don’t want to miss, or pages that update relatively infrequently and tend to get lost in the noise. The “See All” link (also circled in the screenshot) will give you a popup where you can see who’s in Pages I Watch, and lets you edit it.