Classic Crime: A Man Built in a Wall

The last time I posted to my Classic Crime series, it was to share a relatively unknown Edgar Allan Poe murder mystery. Today, I’m sharing a tale that might be one of the inspirations for one of my favorite Poe stories.

Joel Headley (1813 - 1897)
Joel Headley (1813 – 1897) Source: Wikimedia

“The Cask of Amontillado,” first published in 1846, has inspired countless readings and presentations. The one I like best is Vincent Price’s recital from An Evening with Vincent Price (1970). I also recently discovered this interpretation by Lou Reed, featuring Steve Buscemi (Fortunato) and Willem Dafoe (Montresor), which is worth a listen. It probably doesn’t make as much sense if you don’t already know the story, but I doubt that’s an issue with most people who come across it.

I’d never given much thought to where Poe might have gotten the idea — he’s Poe, after all; but, then, I stumbled on a reference to Joel Headley‘s anecdote, “A Man Built in a Wall,” from his travelogue Letters from Italy, and its possible influence on “Cask.” In 1843, Headley wrote of viewing a skeleton immured in the wall of the Church of San Lorenzo, in the town of San Giovanni. The skeleton had been discovered during renovations of the church, and left in place.

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Reading Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book

I don’t remember quite how I tripped over this little collection of “true” ghost stories, but it turned out to be a fairly entertaining read. Charles Lindley Wood, the second Viscount Halifax (1839-1934), was president of the English Church Union, an Anglo-Catholic advocacy group, and also an enthusiastic collector of ghost stories. After he passed away, his son, the third Viscount Halifax (also named Charles Wood), published a selection of tales from his father’s “ghost book,” as Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book in 1936. The book proved to be so popular that Halifax put out a second selection, Further Stories from Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book, in 1937.

Charles Lindley Wood, 2nd Viscount Halifax
Charles Lindley Wood, 2nd Viscount Halifax (1885-1934).
Source: Wikimedia

Lord Halifax was particularly interested in “true” or “authenticated” ghost stories, and a large number of the stories in The Ghost Book come from letters written to Halifax by his friends, often with additional attestations from the people involved (not included in the collection). Halifax fils tries to annotate each story with their sources, and a number of interesting names come up.

It’s also inevitable that the occasional urban legend, FOAF tale, or misremembered literary tale should pop up, and astute readers have found at least one. Here’s a few tales with additional, external, points of interest.

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The Vampire, a Literary Fairy Tale Adaptation

I’ve posted a new translation to Ephemera, a literary fairy tale called “The Vampire.” It’s another find from Ganso y Pulpo, the archive of forgotten nineteenth century Spanish literature. The tale is by an author that I’ve not translated before: the journalist, essayist, playwright, and author of short stories, Ramón García Sánchez (c.1840 – 1885).

ElVampiro

  • The Vampire (El vampiro): When a mysterious rich old man moves into an ancient castle, healthy young men from the surrounding villages begin to vanish. Their disappearances coincide with the occurences of wild but unexplained festivities in the castle. Finally, the young women of the village unite to solve the mystery and combat the evil that has come amongst them.

“The Vampire” is a variation of folktale type ATU 514, commonly referred to as A Shift of Sex. Folktales of this type feature a young woman who must disguise herself as a man to complete a quest; the transformed “hero” then becomes the object of amorous affection for another woman in the story. The interesting part is that in many folktales of this type, the disguised heroine magically becomes a man, and marries the woman who loves him! That doesn’t happen here, but it’s still a fun and interesting tale.

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Fährmann Maria

Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria) is a 1936 fantasy film that IMDB calls “The last classic German Expressionist film made in Germany before the film industry was swallowed up by the Third Reich.” Deutsche Filmothek calls it “arguably one of the 10 greatest films of the Third Reich and together with the 1935 version of Student von Prag, the last great, dark fantastic film from the German tradition in this genre until the end of the Third Reich.”

It’s a lovely film, directed by Frank Wisbar; a mood piece whose style is an interesting mix of silent and sound film techniques. The atmospheric and sometimes abstract cinematography and lighting design show the clear influence of the Expressionist school. It’s a bit short on story, but the visual design and lead actress Sybille Schmitz’s striking presence make it worth a watch.

Sybille Schmitz in Fahrmann Maria
Sybille Schmitz in Fährmann Maria

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TV Take: Strange New Worlds

What do Mario Bava and Star Trek have in common? Hopefully, Strange New Worlds. Let me explain…

Watching television

I don’t consider myself a particularly die-hard Trek fan: the only Star Trek series that I’ve seen in their entirety (and the only ones I rewatch) are The Original Series and The Animated Series. I’ve seen parts of all the Trek series from the nineties/early 2000s, and enjoyed them well enough, but I can’t say I was ever a super enthusiast.

The first Trek series comes from the era of The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and other similar anthology series. It definitely shares some of the weird tale sensibilities of those shows, as well as Rod Serling’s insight that speculative fiction is an effective and relatively subtle vehicle for addressing current events and controversial ethical issues. And as speculative fiction goes, I prefer the uncanny to science fiction. To the extent that later Trek shows lost that eerie, weird tale vibe, I correspondingly lost interest.

So I’ve not been following so-called “Nu-Trek,” nor had any desire to. But my husband watches Star Trek (pre Nu-Trek) more enthusiastically than I, and he’s been following the fan discussions about the new shows. The word on YouTube seems to be that Strange New Worlds has got that Original Series vibe. My husband got curious enough to sign up for a trial period of Paramount+, and so far, we’ve watched the first three episodes. I’m liking it.

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Reading Apparitions

Tsundoku: Japanese, from tsun (to pile up) and doku (reading). The act of acquiring books faster than one reads them.

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo, Miyuke Miyabe

I have a serious, and probably uncurable, case of tsundoku. The ever-growing “to-read” stack on my bedside table is continually on the verge of falling over and injuring me. Periodically, for my own survival, I demote part of of the stack to some nearby bookshelf, where the books can languish for years, waiting for me to rediscover them. Finally, in a moment of boredom with whatever I’m reading at the moment, I’ll pick up one of these poor waifs instead. And sometimes, I kick myself for having waited so long. This is one of those times.

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013) is a wonderful collection of short supernatural tales, based on the folklore and ghost story traditions of Japan. They are set in Old Edo (Tokyo), during what’s known as the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Each story is a fascinating look at the lives of ordinary people in urban old Edo: shopkeepers and their families, servants, workers, apprentices, landlords and employment agents.

Ghost stories set in this era tend to revolve around the lives of the upper class: the nobility and their retainers; samurai or scholars. So it’s refreshing to get a view of Japanese lives from another milieu. These people aren’t always in control of the ship of their lives; often, they must deal with whatever the winds and tides of fate sail them into. At times, the supernatural serves as a metaphor for the “mundane” issues that the characters struggle with; in other stories, it’s the instrument of karma, or of hope for the future.

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Classic Crime: Thou Art the Man

LitHub’s This Week in Literary History for the week of April 17-23, 2022 commemorated the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Magazine April 1841, thereby launching the modern detective story.

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, engraving by Thomas Welch and Adam Walter, circa 1840s. Source: Wikimedia

One might take issue with the statement that Poe “invented” the detective story: E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1819 Mademoiselle de Scuderi certainly counts as a detective story, in my mind; and you can trace demonstrations of Holmesian-style ratiocination all the way back to at least the 1557 story cycle Peregrinaggio (you can find my retelling of the specific tale I’m thinking of here). But it is true that Poe’s Auguste Dupin and the adoring narrator-friend of Dupin’s cases defined the framework that gave us Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the entire genre of ratiocination-style tales as we know it today.

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The Devil’s Rosebush

Here’s an interesting combination: a pastiche of an eighteenth century German gothic “deal with the devil” story, written by a nineteenth century Spanish author, featuring a protagonist with the not-terribly-Germanic name, “Dick.” How could I resist translating that?

Rosal Del Diablo

This is another odd little tale from Pedro Escamilla, courtesy of that treasure trove of forgotten nineteenth century Spanish periodical literature, Ganso y Pulpo. I’ve just put it up on Ephemera.

  • The Devil’s Rosebush (El rosal del diablo): Our hero Dick is in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, Federica. He’s so desperate to win her hand that he even ventures into the Black Forest on St. John’s Eve, a night when they say the devil is out, looking for souls, and willing to bargain for them. Will Dick gain his heart’s desire?

Unlike, say, Poe’s “Metzengerstein” (“A Tale in Imitation of the German”), or even L.A. Wilmer’s “Spukenswald,” “The Devil’s Rosebush” doesn’t feel in the least like a German story. One gets the impression that Escamilla was only familiar with German gothic to a limited degree, but it’s still a fun piece. I hope you enjoy it.


Illustration for “El rosal del diablo” from El Periódico para Todos, No. 26, 1875. Illustrator unknown. Source: Hemerotica Digital (Digital Periodical Archive), Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Featured image: Vintage rose illustration, artist unknown. Source: Rawpixel Ltd.

Classic Crime: A Ripper of Yesteryear

To be fair, this isn’t really a “crime story,” it’s a narrative that leads up to a crime. But it’s an excellent read, with some striking imagery, and I like it. That’s all the reason I need….

Santiago de Compostela desde atrio Hospital Real acuarela por Mariano Pedrero (detail)

Originally published in 1890, Emilia Pardo Bazán’s “Un destripador de antaño” (“A Ripper of Yesteryear“) tells of the tragic intersection between the lives of a young orphaned peasant girl and a mysterious apothecary. It’s set in the author’s native Galicia, in and around the historic city of Santiago de Compostela, the ending point of the famous pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. The story’s introduction implies that it may be inspired by an old Galician folktale:

The legend of “The Ripper,” the half-sage, half-sorcerer assassin, is a very old one in my homeland. I heard it at a tender age, whispered or chanted in frightful refrains,… I will tell it to you. Enter valiantly with me into the shadowy regions of the soul.

It’s also seems related to a certain Andean folklegend, which I won’t mention here, for fear of spoilers. But if you’re interested, you’ll find a pointer in the footnotes of my translation.
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The Ghost and Josephine Leslie

Because I always appreciate a good bit of literary sleuthing.

I’m not sure what got me thinking about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s a movie I remember enjoying, one that’s right up my alley. Wikipedia tells me that it’s based on a short novel by R. A. Dick, the pseudonym of an Irish writer named Josephine Leslie (1898-1979).

The Ghost and Mrs Muir Posters

On an impulse, I bought the novel; and while I was at it, I did a little digging for other work by Ms. Leslie. I got intrigued by the title of a play she wrote, Witch Errant; the only plot information I could find is from an old playbill. I can’t find a copy of the play to read.

But while I was searching, I came across something fun.

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