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.


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.

Eleven stories in all, the earliest written in 1903, the latest in 1927; the tales cover the period from immediately before the Russian Revolution to immediately afterwards. A few are by emigres who escaped to the West, but most are by writers who stayed, although their writings were often censored or suppressed. Several of the early stories take place in the pre-Revolutionary period, some of them in Western Europe. Even those which do take place either during or immediately after the events of 1917 have one foot firmly set back in the the old days, and reveal a certain amount of fear about the new regime.

Muireann Maguire, who selected and translated the stories in the collection and wrote the Introduction, points out that the State adopted Socialist Realism as the official literary aesthetic in 1934, effectively shutting down the publication of any other literature (including the fantastic). This was after the stories in this collection were written, but I suspect the nostalgic tone that permeates many of them didn’t exactly endear them to the official censors, at the time.

One thing that stood out to me was how often madness appeared as a theme or subtext of these stories — no doubt emblematic of the madness and chaos of the period. Valery Bryusov’s “In the Mirror” (1903), the story of a repressed housewife whose reflection escapes from her mirror and begins to lead a wild life, reminded me a lot of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In fact “In the Mirror” is subtitled “From the archive of a psychiatrist”, and there is a strong suggestion that the entire thing happened in the narrator’s head. Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Red Crown” (1922) is told by the inmate of a sanitarium, who appears to have had a nervous breakdown over the death of his brother (an officer in the White army). Alexandr Grin’s “The Grey Motor Car” (1925) is the story of a very disturbed, priggish young man who is in love with a rather unlikeable young woman, and Georgy Peskov’s “The Woman with No Nose” (1927) is a delirious story (literally) that takes place as the narrator struggles to flee the typhus and the Red Army, both of which are poised to take over his city.

The stories that struck me the most: Aleksandr Chayanov’s “Venediktov” (1922) about a young man named Bulgakov, whose soul, and the soul of the woman he loves, have been mysteriously captured by a man named Venediktov in a game of cards. The story is a direct influence on Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous novel The Master and Margarita. “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” (1918), also by Chayanov, is another good one, very gothic in theme, about a jaded collector who finds and falls obsessively in love with an exquisitely sculptured mannequin (modeled after one half of a pair of Siamese twins, no less).

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Phantom” (1926), about a preserved fetus that comes to life and imprints on a young medical student, starts out strong, though I thought it fizzled out halfway through (“Phantom” is a medical term for a model of the human body, in this case the model/mannequin of a pregnant woman’s torso that medical students used to practice delivering babies). Still, it’s worth reading, just for the beginning. Peskov’s “The Messenger” (1927) is a melancholy story about an lonely, elderly, formerly aristocratic couple whose son, a member of the White Army, has disappeared. They turn to spiritualism for comfort and companionship. Pavel Perov’s “Professor Knop’s Experiment” (1924) is a great Golden Age science fiction story — Perov left Russia in 1910 and spent most of his life in America, where this story is set (the story was originally published in Russian, for the Russian emigre community, I assume). Bulgakov’s “The Seance” (1922) is a funny satire about bourgeoisie trying to maintain some semblance of their old lifestyle in the new regime.

All of the stories are interesting, though often indirect, reflections of the time and place in which they were written. But more than that, they’re interesting, engrossing stories. I’ll be searching for more of these authors’ works in translation — and of course, rereading The Master and Margarita.


8 thoughts on “Reading Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales

  1. Thanks for making me aware of this one. I’ve been experiencing a growing appreciation of Russian writers due to having devoted a suit to them in my Deal Me In challenge, even if I’d read a lot of Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Turgenev already. The authors included in this collection are mostly new to me, which is a plus. 🙂

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