Reading Yellow Glass

I don’t remember how I came across Yellow Glass and other ghost stories, but I am glad that I did. This debut collection by historian Francis K. Young just came out in September, and it’s a fine contribution to the antiquarian ghost story genre.

Yellow Glass and other ghost stories

Francis Young was born and raised in the same Suffolk environs as M.R. James, and seems to share many of James’s professional and personal interests. His collection opens with a short but thoughtful essay on the relationship between historians and ghost stories, and the affinity of one for the other. I liked the idea that writing ghost fiction can give professional historians a way to express their relationship to the past, in a way not possible through the drier medium of scholarly writing.

M.R. James famously expressed a preference for ghost stories placed in familiar settings and near contemporary times: “a slight haze of distance is desirable” [1], but “the seer of ghosts must talk something like me, and be dressed…not too much like a man in a pageant” [2]. I love James’s ghost stories, which in my opinion hold up quite well; but after a century these tales may no longer qualify as having “nothing antique about them” [3] — and that’s not getting into the cultural differences among international readers. So it’s always a treat to see solid, well-written, modern tales with an antiquarian sensibility.

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The Uncanny in Translation: Iginio Ugo Tarchetti

As if I didn’t have enough to do, a new series: The Uncanny in Translation! Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in non-Anglophone weird fiction. In this series, I plan to share interesting works in translation that I come across, which are possibly less well-known to English language readers.

348px Tarchetti Paolina 1875 page 5 crop
Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869)
Source: Wikimedia

First up: Fantastic Tales (Racconti Fantastici),  by nineteeth century Italian author Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869), translated by Lawrence Venuti. According to the book cover, Tarchetti was “the first Italian writer to experiment with the gothic style,” and is “often compared to Edgar Allan Poe.” He was part of the Scapigliatura movement in Italian literature, a sort of anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment movement influenced by German Romanticism, French bohemians, Baudelaire — and Poe.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Lettice Galbraith

Not a lot seems to be known about Lettice Galbraith. She published two short story collections (New Ghost Stories, and Pretty Miss Allington and other tales) as well as a novel(?) (Spin of the Coin) around 1893-1894. A further story from her pen came out in 1897, and then, as far as I know, nothing. I suppose we don’t even know if Lettice Galbraith is the author’s real name.

NewGhostStories cover

I’m including Ms. Galbraith in my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series for New Ghost Stories (1893), a really delightful collection. The stories are crisp and well-paced, and are frequently more direct about unsavory topics like adultery, seduction, and suicide than one might expect in Victorian-era tales. The characters are generally well-fleshed out, and every story is quite different in its haunting, as well.

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Some Recent Faustianish Posts

Just an update on some recent(ish) posts to my other blogs. By coincidence, both posts relate to the theme of Faustian bargains, so they go rather well together.

Over on Ephemera, here’s the latest of my Emilia Pardo Bazán translations. This is from a few months ago, but I got distracted by Pedro Escamilla and Dark Tales Sleuth, so I never announced the translation here.

Faust, Rembrandt, c 1652
Faust, by Rembrandt (c. 1652).
Source: WikiArt
  • The Spell (El conjuro): A philospher performs an incantation of the last day of the year, in hopes of summoning a being that can grant his desire.

The protagonist of the tale is referred to as “el pensador” (the thinker) in the original Spanish. I rendered that as “the philospher” in my translation, because it felt better to me in English, and in my opinion still retains the connotations of the original Spanish term.

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Introducing The Dark Tales Sleuth!

As if I didn’t have enough to do, I’ve started another blog. Introducing The Dark Tales Sleuth!!

MadelynMack books
Image: From Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, by Hugh C. Weir (1914).
Source: Internet Archive

It started when I came across an old anthology called Evening Tales for the Winter (1856). The first few stories included some interesting gothic tales, some implied to be translated from German; the book looked to be a potential source for good stories to share for Winter Tales season. So I started reading.

I noticed, though, that nothing was attributed: no authors, no translators, no information at all. This annoys me.

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The Stories of Pedro Escamilla

Although he was one of the most prolific Spanish authors of the 19th century, Pedro Escamilla seems little known today, even (as far as I can tell) in Spain. Not even the dates or circumstances of his birth and death are certain; the website Ganso y Pulpo estimates that he was born around 1840 and died around 1890.

Retrato Escamilla
Pedro Escamilla
Source: Ganso y Pulpo

And yet he is said to have published something like 400 stories, 35 or 40 plays, and at least 34 novels. some of them under the pen name Félix X. He was also rumored to have ghost-written works for other authors.

Today, he is probably best remembered (if at all) for his short stories in the fantastic and horror genres, which have been compared to the work of Poe and of Erckmann-Chatrian.

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Tales of the Dead

In 1812, the French geographer Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès anonymously published a collection called Fantasmagoriana, his translations of eight German supernatural tales. Some four years later, Fantasmagoriana found its way into the hands of a group of young people on holiday in a Swiss villa during an unusually cold, wet, summer. With little else to do, they read Fantasmagoriana to pass the time. Among that group were Mary Shelly and John Polidori, who in the course of that summer wrote, respectively, Frankenstein and the The Vampyre, two influential works that shaped the genres of Gothic literature, horror, and in the case of Frankenstein, science fiction as well.

Castle overlooking a river
Castle Overlooking a River, Maxime Lalanne. Source: WikiArt

In 1813, an Englishwoman named Sara Elizabeth Utterson translated five of the tales from Fantasmagoriana into English; she published these five tales, along with an additional story of her own, as Tales of the Dead. And on a cold, gloomy, foggy San Francisco August afternoon (“the coldest winter…”, as Mark Twain wrote), having discovered this little treasure, I curled up under a blanket and started to read.

Tales of the Dead is not just interesting for its influence on Frankenstein and The Vampyre; it’s enjoyable reading on its own, for fans of gothic tales and old-fashioned ghost stories. Fairy tale and folktale lovers will probably enjoy some of the stories here, too.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Zen Cho

Another contemporary addition to my Women Writers of Folklore and Fantasy series: England-based Malaysian-born author Zen Cho. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and as she puts it herself, “stories positing that what the ordinary Malaysian believes about the world is true. This can sometimes lapse into the supernatural.” What a great quote!

Zen Cho, photo by Jim C. Hines
Zen Cho
Photo by Jim C. Hines

I had been planning (and still am) to pick up Cho’s latest work, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which sounds awesome, but then I discovered an ebook copy of her 2014 short story collection Spirits Abroad in my virtual To Read pile, so I started with that. I loved it! Why did it take me so long to get to it?

I saw Ms. Cho refer to this collection on Twitter as being “10 out of 10 on the Malaysian scale” (when compared to her other writings), and it certainly feels like a collection of stories aimed at Malaysian readers. The characters speak Manglish (Malaysian-English), and generally the Malaysian vocabulary and references to clothing or food go unexplained. I personally prefer this (as I’ve written before); the meanings and connotations are clear from context, and if you are really curious about some particular article of clothing or whatnot, well there’s always the internet.

Spirits Abroad, by Zen Cho

What drew me to the collection is that the stories in Spirits Abroad are full of the creatures of Malaysian folklore (or its “lower mythology,” as Filipino folklorist Maximo D. Ramos called it), as well as figures from Chinese mythology: hantu, pontianaks, orang bunian, hungry ghosts, and so on. I didn’t recognize all the creatures, at least not under their Malaysian names, but Filipino lower mythology is sufficiently similar to Malaysian lower mythology that several of the creatures and their habits felt familiar. And of course some aspects of Malaysian culture and food and so on feel a bit “Filipino-adjacent” as well, which was nice.

I really like the humor in Cho’s writing, as her characters confront the ordinary travails of life — family relationships, friendships, love and dating, school — all complicated by various, often unwelcome supernatural twists. The dialogue crackles naturalistically, the characters are quirky, well-drawn and endearing (when they’re supposed to be), the relationships feel authentic. In fact, I was surprised how familiar the families in the stories felt to me, especially the feisty aunties and grandmas.

The ebook version of Spirits Abroad contains additional stories and other bonus material not included in the print version, so I recommend you get that. I enjoyed all the stories, but here are a few that stood out for me:

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The Booth at the End

What will you do to get what you want? What will you do, for you?

 

I found the short-lived TV series The Booth at the End on Amazon Prime some time back, and finally got around to watching. I’m so glad I did. I clicked on the first episode on a foggy Friday afternoon, meaning just to watch one, and then move on with my day. Instead, I sat curled up on the couch and binged the entire first season (5 episodes, 25 minutes each), enthralled.

A mysterious man (played by Xander Berkeley) sits at the corner booth of an all-night diner, with his notebook. Desperate people come to him with desperate desires: for their son to be cured of cancer, for their husband to be cured of Alzheimers. The Man can grant them anything they ask of him, if they strike a bargain with him. No, not anything so obvious as their soul (well, not exactly). The deal is that they must execute the task that he finds for them in his notebook, and they must come to him regularly to report on their progress, which The Man writes down in the notebook. Once the task is done, the wish is granted.

Sometimes the task is somewhat related to the wish: to see his son cured of cancer, James must kill someone else’s child. Sometimes, it seems arbitrary: in order to become prettier, Jenny must rob a bank of $101,043. And while some of the tasks are horrific, others are difficult but relatively benign.

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The Long Arm

While reading some commentaries on Pauline Hopkins’ short story “Talma Gordon”, I came upon a mention of another short story that is likely based on the Lizzie Bordon case: “The Long Arm” by Mary Wilkins Freeman. Oooh! I thought; I didn’t know she wrote crime fiction! And of course I had to go find it.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman Source: Wikimedia

The heroine of “The Long Arm” is one Miss Sarah Fairbanks, who is, like many of Wilkins’ protagonists, an unmarried schoolmarm. Sarah has a sweetheart, one whom her father objects to, for some reason. He berates Sarah loudly about her sweetheart one night during Sarah’s visit home for the summer vacation. The next morning, Sarah discovers her father’s body in his bed, murdered. Soon, Sarah is the only plausible suspect.

Like Lizzie Borden, Sarah is arrested, put on trial, and eventually acquitted–but not in the public mind. Unlike Lizzie Borden, Sarah decides to investigate the case herself, and she does a pretty good job, up to a point. Will Sarah be able to clear herself?

You can read The Long Arm at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, here.

It’s an interesting short story, and Sarah is a strong protagonist (as are the majority of Freeman’s heroines), with a highly analytical mind. Freeman wrote the story for an anthology called The Long Arm and Other Detective Stories (1895), which is available in its entirety at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, though the other three authors are men. The rest of the anthology is enjoyable as well. I particularly like “The Twinkling of an Eye” by Professor Brander Matthews.

Enjoy!