Aura and Constancia: Ghost Stories from Carlos Fuentes

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I’m on a Carlos Fuentes kick right now. A Latin American kick, really, but Fuentes seemed like a good place to start, if for no other reason than I’ve been meaning to read The Crystal Frontier for a while, and because I recently read an excerpt from Terra Nostra that blew me away (and another one that, unfortunately, really didn’t). Of course, being me, I didn’t actually start with The Crystal Frontier, but with the 1962 short novel Aura, relatively unknown to English-language readers, but arguably Fuentes’ most popular work among the Spanish-language reading public, and one that a Mexican blogger once wrote me was his favorite of Fuentes’ “horror stories.” Oh, and look: there on my bookshelf, patient and forgotten, is the collection Constancia, and other stories for virgins (1989) — I don’t go down my to-be-read pile in the order of purchase, and, well, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Or off my bedside table, as the case may be.

So, Aura first, Constancia next. This was a fortuitous ordering, because the novella Constancia (the first novella from the collection) is in many ways Aura revisited….

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Reading Pariah Missouri

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Pariah, Missouri – Book 1: Answering the Call
Decade Brothers Studios
Created and Written by Andres Salazar
Pencils by Jose Pescador
Finishes, Coloring, and Letters by Andres Salazar

Writer Andres Salazar contacted me not too long ago, about his new series Pariah, Missouri (Book 1: Answering the Call is due to hit comic book stores this Wednesday, August 28). I don’t normally do on-request reviews, but his supernatural western series sounded fun, and I had a little spare time, so here goes…

First off: this is a beautiful book. Artist Jose Pescador’s detailed yet uncluttered pencils and Salazar’s understated ink washes produce an old-timey, moody, almost noirish feel to the art that matches the story’s era and occult narrative quite well. I like the full-page splash of Marshal Kane, shown above, quite a lot — it’s almost like a woodcut. The use of isolated areas of contrasting colors in otherwise monochromatic panels (Kane’s yellow badge; the boys’ rust-colored trousers) is very effective.

Pariah

The narrative setup is fun, too: Pariah is a boom-town along the Missouri River run by a mysterious triad of “founders.” Hiram Buchanan is a young East-coast dandy and grifter who wanders into town, for no apparent reason. Why is he there? Are the sudden disappearances of the town’s Marshal and of two young boys related to a mysterious Punch & Judy show that arrives in town? Buchanan investigates, with the help of the fallen-on-hard-times orphaned daughter of one of the town’s late founders, and several loners with special magical talents…

It’s a good premise, and an interesting, suspenseful story. I like the cast of characters, there’s a lot of juicy drama simmering in the town, and the traveling Punch & Judy show was a nice creepy touch. My one complaint is that it all happens a bit too fast. I wouldn’t have minded if the story had been half again as long to give us more time getting to know the different characters and the town (and the monsters); there’s certainly enough meat here to justify that. For instance, there’s a lot of promise in the Kane character — and yet beyond the (kickass) scene where the splash page above comes from, we hardly see him at all, and he doesn’t really contribute to this episode’s denouement. Hopefully we get more of him in the next book.

And yes, there is a next book: the creators are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund Book 2 ; I’ve contributed, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

If you like westerns, supernatural horror, or occult detectives (or better yet, all of the above) — visit your local comic book store (and the Pariah, Missouri Kickstarter campaign) and check it out.

Google Translate vs. Bing Translate

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Just stumbled over a post announcing that Yelp will be using Microsoft Bing (rather than Google) to translate reviews on its iPhone app. I suppose this is noteworthy because one never thinks of Microsoft beating Google at anything (though I must say I like Bing maps better than Google maps, usually).

Normally, I use Google Translate, but just for fun, I typed the passage from the Garcia Lorca poem pictured above into both Google and Bing to compare. The poem, by the way, is called Casida del herido por el agua (Casida of the one wounded by water). According to Wikipedia, a casida (or qasida) is “a form of Perso-Arabic lyric poetry.”

From the translation by Paul Archer:

I want to go down to the well,
I want to climb onto Granada's walls
to gaze at the heart impaled 
on water's hidden spike.

It’s a lovely piece, though a mysterious one.

Here are the two machine translations:

Google:

Want to go down the well,
I want to climb the walls of Granada,
Heart to look at the past
By the dark waters of the punch.

Bing:

I want to go down to the well,
I want to climb the walls of Granada,
To watch the last heart
By dark waters punch.

Granted, poetry is especially hard to translate, and neither is very close on the last two lines — why do they both associate oscuro (dark) with las aguas (the water) instead of with punzon (punch, awl, or pick, according to my dictionary)? Still, comparing the two, I’d say Bing did the better job.

Unfortunately, Bing doesn’t translate Filipino (Tagalog), or any other Filipino languages, so I can’t give up on Google translate yet. And clearly, it will be a while before machine translation will do as well as a human translator. Mostly, it’s handy for gaps in your vocabulary.


Image: A plaque on one of the exterior walls of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain. It’s a tribute to Garcia Lorca on the centennial of his birth. Photo: Nina Zumel

Chac Mool

I’ve been awash in translations of Spanish-language literature lately (more on that in a future article); it’s been fascinating reading. One of the things I’ve learned in my reading is that Carlos Fuentes wrote quite a few short stories. In fact, his first book was a collection of fantastic fiction called Los Dias Enmascarados (The Masked Days), which, to my knowledge, was never translated into English. Given the general preference of the reading public for novels over short stories, I’m not surprised, and such early writing would probably be considered only a minor work of his — not the optimal candidate for the effort of translation. But hope springs eternal, and so I had to look around….

Sure enough, a little digging uncovered an English rendering of the short story “Chac Mool“, translated by Jonah Katz, currently a professor of phonetics and linguistics at West Virginia University. “Chac Mool” was first published in Los Dias Enmascarados in 1954, then again in the 1973 collection Chac Mool y otros cuentos (Chac Mool and other stories — also never translated).

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A chacmool is a particular form of Mesoamerican sculpture: a figure of a man reclining on his back, upper body supported by his elbows and knees bent. His hands are on his abdomen, holding a dish or a bowl for accepting ritual offerings. His head is facing to the side. Chacmools have been found throughout central Mexico and the Yucatan, down into Central America. Chacmools are often associated with the Aztec rain god Tlaloc or with the similar Mayan rain god Chac (or Chaac). Both these rain gods are associated with human sacrifice (the bowl the chacmool holds is often a cuauhxicalli: a bowl to receive human hearts).

In Fuentes’ story, the protagonist, Filbert (Filiberto in the original), buys a chacmool (or as the story puts it, a replica of the Chac Mool, used as a proper noun) from some little junk shop, and brings it home. After the Chac Mool arrives, the water pipes mysteriously burst and the roof springs leaks in the rain. Filiberto discovers that in all this moisture, the stone idol seems to be turning into flesh — a rain god coming to life. Slowly, the Chac Mool turns Filiberto into his slave….

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Musings on The Bone Key

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.

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The Ghost Stories that Haunt Me

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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.

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Reading Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales

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.

Redspectres

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.

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Friday Video: Une Excursion Incohérente

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.

Enjoy.

Friday Video: Ombilda

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

Enjoy.