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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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 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!

This and That, Stuff to Read

As promised, I’ve been meaning to write a post specifically about the Philippines-related articles in the October, 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine (the issue with the Pauline Hopkins’ short story “Talma Gordon” in it).

Filipino Business Woman, from Colored American Magazine, October 1900
“A Typical Filipino Business Woman”
Printed in Colored American Magazine, October 1900. It was apparently sent to the magazine from Manila by a clergyman(?) C.S., who wrote a brief (and somewhat patronizing) note entitled “Filipino Women”

But in the end, I can’t think of anything to say, except: read the articles for a view of what some contemporary Black American writers had to say about U.S. expansionist policies at the time, and about their various perspectives on the world in general. Read multiple issues from The Digital Colored American Archive, for that matter. I’ll just quote a passage that caught my eye, from the article “Negro and Filipino,” which was reprinted in the October 1900 issue from the Lewiston Journal (author unknown):

Political demagogues who cry upon the corners for liberty to the Tagalogs and the Sulus shut their eyes and ears to the disfranchisement of this people whom Lincoln freed.

Anti-imperialists who sweat blood because McKinley, in obedience to the Senate, assumes to place the flag in Manila and to defend it there, are silent over the act that Louisiana and Mississippi pass laws that admit the vote to white men who cannot read or write and deny it to black men because they cannot read or write.

The fact is, that here in this nation the very sins which they wrongfully impute to the Republican party in the Philippines, they cultivate and promote within the body politic of the states of the nation that hate the Negro and seek to relegate him to ignorance and superstition in order to perpetuate his servility and his dependence.

What else?

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Reading The Conjure-Man Dies

I recently finished reading The Conjure-Man Dies, the first and possibly only Golden Age detective novel by an African-American author

The Conjure-Man Dies
Reproduction of the original cover for The Conjure-Man Dies; also the cover for the Collins Crime Edition hardback. Artist: Charles Alston

It was sooooo good.

The plot is complex and twisty, but not overly complicated. The novel, which came out in 1932, has both aspects of a classic “murder in the library” Golden Age mystery, and of grittier, hardboiled crime fiction as well. It even has a little bit of mysticism and some supernaturalish elements — but don’t worry, there’s no “cheating:” the crime and its solution are strictly down-to-earth.

The novel’s author, Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934), was a practicing physician and medical researcher, a radiologist, and a member of that eminent group, Doctors Who Write — in such company as Arthur Conan Doyle, W. F. Harvey, David H. Keller, and probably more that I’ve forgotten about. Fisher puts his knowledge to good use in this story, which features, among other things, a nice description and use of (pre-DNA) methods of blood sample comparisons, and other clever forensic things.

As the story opens, Dr. John Archer is summoned late at night to the house across the street, where he finds the dead body of N’Gana Frimbo, a “Psychist”, or as he’s known in the neighborhood, a conjure-man. One of Frimbo’s clients discovered the body, and it soon becomes clear to Archer and Detective Perry Dart (one of only ten black detectives in Harlem) that the murderer must be one of the clients who consulted with Frimbo that evening. It doesn’t take too long to find a suspect, but then things take an odd, odd turn….

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