Exploring the dark tales of this Uruguayan author.
I recently found Horacio Quiroga’s short story “The Dead Man” in Clifton Fadiman’s 1986 collection The World of the Short Story, and it’s given me a new hobby: tracking down all of his short stories that I can find.
I’ve seen Quiroga’s stories compared variously to Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, William Faulkner, and Rudyard Kipling; he himself acknowledged the influences of Poe, Kipling and de Maupassant on his work. Like Poe, he had a theory of the perfect short story (one he often contradicted in his own work). Also like Poe, and he was incredibly obsessed with death, and fascinated with madness as well.
This morbid viewpoint is not surprising, given Quiroga’s own life history. His father accidentally shot himself on a hunting trip and later his stepfather deliberately shot himself (apparently, Quiroga witnessed it). In 1900, when Quiroga would have been about twenty-one, his two brothers died of typhoid fever. The following year, one of Quiroga’s best friends, Federico Ferrando, was challenged to a duel. Since Ferrando knew nothing about guns, Quiroga offered to check Ferrando’s gun for him — and accidentally shot and killed Ferrando in the process. Though Quiroga was found innocent of any crime, his own feelings of guilt led him to leave his native Uruguay for Argentina.
It is always hazardous to prophesy the future course of an admirable writer, but it is safe to say that the rich, human embodiment of the stories collected in this volume assure them a permanence in our literature for their imaginative reality, their warm color, and their finality of artistic execution. Almost without exception they represent the best that is being accomplished in America today by a literary artist.
— Edward J. O’Brien, Introduction to Land’s End and Other Stories (1918)
When I first read Wilbur Daniel Steele’s 1919 short story, “Out of Exile,” it struck me right away. The language was beautiful, the imagery evocative. I loved it. I felt immediately drawn into this New England fishing community, on the fictional Urkey Island, as the love triangle at the heart of the story unfolded through the filter of the narrator’s growing up and coming-of-age. And although the story was not in any way supernatural, somehow it felt like a ghost story. And that, of course, is a plus, as far as I’m concerned. I wondered: who is this Wilbur Daniel Steele? Did he write any actual ghost stories? What are they like?
He’s quite forgotten today (sorry, Mr. O’Brien!), but Wilbur Daniel Steele was one of the most popular American short story writers of the early twentieth century. He wrote both for prestigious fiction magazines and for women’s magazines. Between 1915 and 1933, at least ten of Steele’s stories appeared in Edward J. O’Brien’s annual Best [American] Short Stories of the Year. Over the same period, eleven of his stories were O. Henry prize selections: one more than John Cheever, one fewer than Alice Munro and William Faulkner.
After about 1933, he seems to have published fewer short stories, and these largely in women’s magazines. He had a revival of sorts around the 1950s, when some of his earlier work was republished in crime fiction magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. After that, he dropped off the radar. Steele passed away in 1970, at the age of 84.
I confess: I picked this up in the bookstore because it had “ghosts” in the title. But I didn’t put it down when I saw that it was a book of essays, and I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t familiar with Eliot Weinberger before this, and I’m a better person for having discovered him.
Eliot Weinberger is an essayist, political commentator, editor, and translator of Latin American and Chinese literature. This particular volume has two parts. The first part “continues his linked serial-essay An Elemental Thing” (note to self: pick up the first part of the serial-essay), and the second part collects various book reviews and essays originally written as introductions to other people’s works. The first part is wondrous. The second part is quite enjoyable, too.
Reading “The Story of Adam and Eve” was a revelation for me. In it, Weinberger reconstructs the story of what happened to Adam and Eve (and later, to Cain) after they were expelled from the Garden, based on several extant versions of the story (Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Georgian, Armenian). Not only is in an interesting tale in itself, but I felt like I had just discovered the ideal that I’ve been striving for in the retellings of folktale and myth that I attempt from time to time on this blog. It’s an ideal that I’ll likely never achieve, but now I have a conscious image in my head of what I’m trying to reach.
And then it gets even better; I have more literary goals to strive for.
A collection of Golden Age ghost stories that will be all brand-new to most readers.
I had been planning to post one more winter tale, but I just finished this anthology from the British Library Tales of the Weird series, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write about it instead.
In Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories, editor Mike Ashley has compiled eighteen previously unrepublished supernatural tales from British periodicals and magazines of the period between the 1890s to the end of the 1920s. Some of the stories are from writers who were well-known during the period but forgotten now; some are from writers who were relatively obscure (and possibly pseudonymous) even at the time. The jewel of the collection is a previously uncollected ghost story by E. F. Benson, written for the London Evening News in 1928. It’s a pleasant surprise, and quite a coup for the editor.
We spent a few extra days with my parents for Thanksgiving this year, as much to escape the choking smoke of the Northern California Camp Fire as anything else. In between cooking, eating, sleeping off all the yummy food, and teaching my mother how to use the Kindle that I bought her for her birthday, I found time for some reading, too. Two quite different books, as you will see.
The Croquet Player, H.G. Wells.
University of Nebraska Press. With afterword by John Huntington.
I picked this one up in the used section of Green Apple Books a while ago, but didn’t get to it until now. It’s a short novella—less than 100 pages—originally published in 1936, on the cusp of World War II.
The book opens with the narrator, the titular Croquet Player, introducing himself. He is an idly rich man who doesn’t have to work, but instead has spent his life becoming “one of the best croquet players alive.” He’s also pretty good at archery and bridge. He’s a bit of a Mamma’s boy (it’s his aunt, rather than his mother); and he’s just a bit too young to have served in World War I. Generally, his life is trouble-free and easy. I wondered why Wells spent so much time setting up this person as the narrator, but it makes more sense as the novel progresses.
The narrator and his aunt go to a resort in Normandy to “recuperate” from an exhausting conference of the Woman’s World Humanity Movement (an organization the narrator’s aunt is heavily involved in). There, the narrator meets a fellow Englishman, Dr. Finchatton, who tells the narrator the main story.
I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Solar Pons—the original 1972 Mycroft & Moran edition, in nearly new condition—on one of the “Used Books” shelves of Borderland’s Books. Not even in the Mystery section of the store, but in the Horror section, which tells you which section of August Derleth’s wide range of works may be most remembered today. I knew who Solar Pons was, but I wasn’t familiar with the stories. Still, I knew that true Holmes aficionados considered the Pons stories to be the best pastiches of the Canon out there, and the book was quite reasonably priced. So I bought it.
According to the front leaf of the book’s dust jacket, Derleth passed away not too long after finishing the final draft of the manuscript. So Chronicles is the last volume of the Derleth-authored Pons stories, and I began my journey at the end, so to speak. I had vague memories of running into a Pons story before, in some anthology or other, a long time ago; I think it was one of the stories Basil Copper wrote. I was not so into Sherlock Holmes back then, so the story made little impression.
The subtitle of this comic is “Tales of Fear and Food from Around the World,” but the stories are all from Japan.
I didn’t know this, but apparently Anthony Bourdain was really into Japanese yokai and yurei lore. He and his Get Jiro! collaborator, novelist Joel Rose, along with several acclaimed comics artists (Sebastian Cabrol, Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa Del Rey, Mateus Santolouco, Leonardo Manco, Irene Koh, Paul Pope, and Francesco Francavilla) got together to create this collection of yokai and food-themed tales, adaptations of some popular Japanese folk stories. This seems to have been one of Bourdain’s last projects before his passing.
The framing story of the collection is that an obscenely wealthy Russian businessman has “won” the services of eight famous international chefs in some sort of charity auction. After a lavish banquet, the oligarch invites the chefs to join him and his guests in a game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of 100 Weird Tales). To play the game, the participants sit in a room lit only by 100 candles. Everyone takes turns telling a spooky tale, then blowing out a candle. As the room slowly darkens, the game is said to summon spirits and ghosts. When the final candle is extinguished — look out! Something horrible may be waiting in the dark.
The pieces in Hungry Ghosts relate the stories told by each of the eight chefs.
I recently saw the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. It’s much better than I thought it would be. My husband loves cheesy 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, and that was what I expected Body Snatchers to be. But it’s really not that cheesy at all. It’s fairly suspenseful, and its moody cinematography makes the film feel more noir than sci-fi. The inevitable romantic relationship between the male and female leads felt refreshingly adult, and quite relevant to the story. Drop the “happy ending” frame story (which both the producer and director objected to), and make the alien pods look a bit less like giant Belgian endive, and the film would be even closer to perfect.
I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.
I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.
Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader. X writers write only to X-ians.
A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.
“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”
— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt
They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either. I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.
In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.
The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.