I featured a couple of winter tales by Spanish author and poet Gustavo Bécquer this past December; this week I’m sharing my favorite Bécquer ghost story, “The Miserere“ , in honor of Holy Week (the week leading into Easter).
In the Abbey of Fitero, the narrator (presumably, Bécquer) discovers a curious piece of sheet music, an unfinished Miserere:
This was what got my attention at first, but when I looked more closely at the sheets of music, I noticed that, instead of the Italian terms they usually use, like maestoso, allegro, ritardando, più vivo, pianissimo, there were some lines written in fine print in German, some of which mentioned things that would be difficult to do, like: “they are creaking…, the bones creak and it should seem like cries that come from the marrow”; or this other one, “the chord moans without being out of tune, the brass thunders but does not deafen; therefore, everything is heard and nothing is lost, and all of this is Humanity that sobs and moans”; and then undoubtedly the strangest of all, at the end of the final verse it declared: “The notes are bones covered with flesh; undying light, the heavens and their harmony…, strength!…, strength and sweetness.”
Naturally, the narrator is curious, and asks the monks about this. An old man then shares with the narrator the story of a musician whose mission in life was to compose the ultimate Miserere (as penance for a youthful crime), and of the ghostly monks, murder victims who died without last rites, who return to the ruins of their monastery every Maundy Thursday (Thursday of Holy Week) to pray for redemption — by singing the Miserere. This is the creepiest of all Bécquer’s ghost stories; the scene where the monks and their monastery come back at the stroke of eleven is just awesome.
As I’ve noted before, Bécquer has been referred to as “the Spanish Poe,” but I prefer to think of him as the Spanish Lafcadio Hearn, and “The Miserere” is a good example of why. The analogy to Poe, and the presence of a ruined monastery and ghostly monks may suggest a gothic tale, but really this story (and Bécquer’s ghost stories in general) are the opposite of a gothic. Gothic literature largely originated as a British genre, motivated by an anti-Catholic sensibility. Though the genre evolved into tales that are generally concerned with the oppression of the past (oppression due to repressive social structures or family dysfunction, for instance), originally they dealt specifically with oppression as represented by the Catholic Church — hence the evil monks and sinister Italians.
In many ways, I think, the classic British ghost story tradition in general has a bit of an anti-Catholic sensibility. For example, several of M.R. James’ ghost stories feature clergymen (not always Catholic, but often, to be sure) who have strayed into occult arts: think of Canon Alberic, of Abbot Thomas, of the Knights Templar in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” of Bishop Jörgen Friis in “Number 13.”
To be clear: I don’t think Dr. James was being deliberately anti-Catholic; I think what motivates most of his stories is the tension between the beauty of knowledge and the hubris of the learned. And historically, the clergy (Catholic and Anglican both) fall into the learned class.
There are Catholic writers in the English ghost story tradition (R.H. Benson comes to mind, and I’m pretty sure from his stories that Frederick Cowles was Catholic, too). By and large, though, Catholicism tends to be associated with either borderline occultism or foolish superstition in an English ghost story. Of course this “superstition” often has a basis behind it — there are a couple of Cowles’ stories I can think of where Anglican clergy reluctantly ask a Catholic colleague to perform an exorcism for them, which I find amusing — a reflection, maybe, of a general ambivalence about ghost stories. After all, these stories were written and read by highly educated people, exactly the kind of people who are supposed to “know better.” But they read and enjoy them, anyway.
But Bécquer is a Catholic writing in a Catholic country for a presumably Catholic readership, so his monks and priests don’t come with the same baggage. They’re part of the landscape, and the supernatural things that happen in a Bécquer story are also part of the landscape, just as they are in a Lafcadio Hearn story. This isn’t to imply that Catholics or Buddhists are more superstitious than Protestants, but rather that Bécquer’s and Hearn’s stories don’t have the air of ambivalence or reluctant belief that one often finds in a classic English ghost story, and in a lot of American ghost stories from the same period, too.
Bécquer and Hearn’s stories feel more folkloric: they tend to be set in the past, and are often presented as told tales. In these stories, yokai exist, the Devil exists, miracles and horrors happen, because of course they do. The events in the stories aren’t violations of accepted reality, but a part of it. “The Miserere” deals with souls trying to make their way to the next plane, but unable to do so until enough prayers have been said. This is a common theme in Japanese ghost stories, too.
The characters in a story by Bécquer or Hearn seem to embrace, or at least accept, the supernatural, not try to rationalize or wish it away. Ever notice how many protagonists of M.R. James’ stories utterly refuse to speculate on, or even discuss, the supernatural events at the end of the story?
As a modern educated reader, someone who should “know better,” I appreciate the sense of fear that comes from a classic English ghost story: the intrusion of something irrational or horrible into accepted reality. But as someone who enjoys folklore, I also like the “fantastic but real” atmosphere of a story by Bécquer or Hearn. Or in more modern literature, a story by Neil Gaiman or Karin Tidbeck. Reading both kinds of stories makes for a good variety.
The Miserere, by the way, is Psalm 51 (or 50, depending on how you count); in particular, that psalm set to music or chant for the services on the last three days of Holy Week. The first line of the psalm in Latin is Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. (Have mercy on me, O God, after Thy great goodness).
You can read or download Armand F. Baker’s translation of “The Miserere” at his website.
There is also a linked story “Faith Can Save Us” (subtitled “Rough notes for a novel”). The narrator tells the story of a fellow traveler, a young woman who visited the abbey of Fitero with him, and the man whom both she and her sister loved. It’s set in the midst of La Vilcalvarada, an uprising in 1854 against the corrupt government of Queen Isabella II. Romantic, sad, and just a little bit supernatural.
Top image: The Abbey in the Oakwood (1810), Caspar David Friedrich. Source: WikiArt
Second image: Illustration for “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” (1904), James McBryde