More Ghost Stories from the Classics

I’ve posted two more ghost stories from classical literature on Ephemera: a short one, and a longer piece.

Murder in Chaeronea

The first piece is a short excerpt from the beginning of the biography of Cimon, an Athenian general and statesman, in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (circa 75 ACE). It’s got nothing to do with Cimon, but rather relates the legend behind a haunted and abandoned bath house in the city of Chaeronea. Vengeful murder, punishment and more murder permeate this bloody little tale.

Thrasyllus and Charite

Charite kisses
Charite embraces Tleoplemus. Illustration by Jean de Bosschère
Source: Wikimedia

The second piece is a much longer account, taken from Book VIII of The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius. The Golden Ass, an early precursor to the picaresque novel, tells of the narrator’s misadventures after he is accidentally transformed into an ass. The novel is full of digressions and side tales, which other characters tell in the narrator’s hearing.

“Thrasyllus and Charite” relates the fate of a rich young woman, Charite, who had been held captive by robbers, along with the narrator. She (and the narrator) are eventually rescued by her fiance, Tlepolemus. Alas for poor Charite and Tlepolemus, they don’t live happily ever after, as we learn in this tale of betrayal, ghostly visitations and brutal revenge.

Do enjoy!

The Inn at the Spessart

Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) was a German poet and writer of the Romantic school, best known today for his märchen, a word usually translated as “fairy tales” — generally implied to be for children. In Hauff’s case the description “folkloric tales” might be more appropriate, since some of his stories seem too dark for children’s literature. Perhaps that’s why his name and works are less well known to Anglophone readers today than, say, the work of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. This is a shame; the tales I’ve read are delightful, and like the work of Hans Christian Andersen, are as readable–or even more readable–for adults as for children.

Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827)
Source: Wikimedia

Hauff published his Märchen over the period of 1825-1827 as three Märchen-Almanach (yearly keepsake volumes): Die Karawane (The Caravan) (1825), Der Scheik von Alessandria und seine Sklaven (The Sheik of Alexandria and his Slaves) (1826) and Das Wirtshaus im Spessart (The Inn in the Spessart) (1827). Each collection is in the form of a story-cycle, with a framing narrative whose characters tell the individual tales, either to pass the time or to relate a part of their personal history. As you might guess from the titles, the first two collections are Orientalist fantasies patterned after the Arabian Nights. That’s well and good, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it, so instead I read The Inn in the Spessart, a tale of intrigue, impersonation, and highway robbers set in the forest of the Spessart region of Bavaria and Hesse.

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Ghost Stories from the Classics

Work has been quite busy lately, and likely to stay that way. I haven’t had much chance to blog. So a quick note to introduce a little set of stories that I collected a few months back, to share with you, my readers: ghost stories from classical literature.

None of these supernatural tales are at all spooky to the modern reader. What’s fun about them is that you can see in these usually brief anecdotes the germination of some well-known folktales and urban legends. Often, these excerpts from early writers of the classical Greek or Roman eras are the earliest examples of well-known tales. I’ve posted some examples to Ephemera, and I’ll post a few more as time permits.

Athenodorus The Greek Stoic Philosopher Athenodorus Rents a Haunted House

Some Ghost Stories by Pliny The Younger

The first of Pliny’s tales is a well-known haunted house story, and probably the origin of that stereotype of spectres in chains. Come to think of it, this is probably the only ghost story I’ve read where the ghost was actually in chains. The story is also an early example of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) folktale motif 326A (“Soul released from Torment”). One could argue that it’s an early example of the occult detective genre, as well, since Athenodorus rented the house in question specifically to investigate the rumors about the spectre.

The second anecdote could be considered a poltergeist tale, where again the poltergeist seemed to have a message to send.

Lucian’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

This is probably the original Sorcerer’s Apprentice story (ATU 325), with all the tale’s recognizable elements (except Mickey Mouse).

Tales of Mysterious Dreams

The first dream story, from Cicero, is an example of the Grateful Dead motif. In a Grateful Dead tale, the protagonist buries the remains of dead person at the protagonist’s own expense. The grateful ghost of the dead person then does a favor for the protagonist in gratitude. Cicero’s tale is quite basic, but the Grateful Dead motif eventually evolved into something a bit more elaborate. You can read my retelling of a Slavic Grateful Dead variant here.

The next two tales, one from Cicero and one from Aelian, seem to be two variations of the same story, about a murdered man who appears in another’s dream to expose the murderer. As Cicero points out, this story was already well known when he wrote it down, so I think we can call this one an urban legend.

Hope you enjoy these little excursions into the classics. I have at least two more, that I will post as time permits.


Featured image: Illustration by George Scharf for A History of Greece, by Leonhard Schmitz (based on the work of Connop Thirlwall) (1863). Source: Picryl.

“Athenodorus confronts the Spectre”: illustration by Henry Justice Ford for The Strange Story Book by Leonora Blanche Land and Andrew Lang (1913). Source: Wikimedia.

The Saga of Peter Rugg

I’ve posted a note over on Dark Tales Sleuth about “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” (1824), a landlocked New England version of the Flying Dutchman story.

PeterRugg1

This “cursed traveller” tale, about a man doomed to ride forever in search of his home in Boston, evidently caused quite an impression on readers. Like the Angels of Mons or the so-called Legend of the Three Crowns of East Anglia, Peter Rugg crossed over from fiction into the status of “authentic” regional legend.

“Peter Rugg” (and its author, William Austin) are said to have made an impression on a young Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shared Austin’s taste in New England supernatural tales. Hawthorne eventually included Peter Rugg as a character in his allegory “A Virtuoso’s Collection” (which is how I ended up reading and annotating the story not too long ago).

The Peter Rugg saga actually has two parts: “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man,” and “Further Account of Peter Rugg.” You can find a link to both stories together in the above post, as well as links to a few other interesting supernatural short stories by William Austin.

Check it out!


Illustrations from the John W. Luce & Co. edition of Peter Rugg The Missing Man (1910). This is a really pretty edition of the entire Peter Rugg saga as one volume, found at The Internet Archive.

Early Translation of The Necromancer on Ex-Classics

A few months back on my Dark Tales Sleuth site, I wrote about The Necromancer; or the Tale of the Black Forest, which was one of the seven “horrid novels” mentioned in Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey. The Necromancer is a 1794 translation of the German gothic novel Der Geisterbanner (1792), by “Lorenz Flammenberg” (Karl Friedrich Kahlert).

In my Dark Tales Sleuth post I wrote about having traced down an even earlier (1793) translation of the first half of Der Geisterbanner, by “T. Dutton.” In the post, I pointed to a convenient (but later — 1825) place to read it.

Now The Ex-Classics Website has posted T. Dutton’s translation, taken from the original publication sources, along with the translator’s original footnotes! So you can read this version of The Necromancer (Part I) as it was originally published.

Check it out.


Illustration from The Ex-Classics Website; I believe it’s taken from The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century (1825), where this story was republished.

A Virtuoso’s Collection, Annotated

While doing some research for a Dark Tales Sleuth post, I ended up reading a curious piece from Nathaniel Hawthorne, called “A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842). This is an allegorical metafiction where the (rather straight-laced) narrator happens upon an unusual museum, curated by a mysterious man known only at first as “the virtuoso.” The museum is full of exotic artifacts, culled from mythology, folklore, fiction, and history. But who is the virtuoso?

C W Peale: The Artist in his Museum (1822)

According to George Lathrop Parsons, who wrote an introduction to The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Volume II) around 1882 or so, this style of metafiction was a literary trend in the middle of the nineteenth century. Authors would compete to cram the most references into one story, sometimes at the expense of plot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s meta-fairytale “Curious, If True” is a fairly successful example of the genre, in terms of having an actual plot, of sorts.

“A Virtuoso’s Collection,” on the other hand, is fairly low-plot, albeit crammed with references; but it does work as a religious allegory, or maybe a parable. It’s also a peek into what might have been considered “common cultural knowledge” for a classically-educated white American in the mid-nineteenth century. I’m assuming, of course, that the reader is supposed to understand the majority of the references; though Hawthorne did slip in an allusion to one of his own stories, and there’s at least one item that seems just made up.

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Vincent Price and Hands of Glory

Over on Dark Tales Sleuth, I’ve revisited a tale from one of the Vincent Price’s Caedmon spoken word recordings that I did an attribution search on way back when.

Hand of Glory

One of the pieces that Vincent Price reads on his 1974 spooky tales album, A Graveyard of Ghost Tales, is a story called “The Ghostly Hand of Spital House,” by Dorothy Gladys Spicer. This is a fun and engaging tale about some bandits who try to rob an inn with the help of a hand of glory : a candle (or candle-holder) made from the hand of a hanged man. Lighting the hand of glory puts all the sleeping occupants of the house into an even deeper sleep, from which they don’t awaken until the hand is extinguished. You can see how this would be a (cough) handy tool for robbers and catburglars to have.

In the post, I also talk about a supposed pre-Colonial Mexican analog to the hand of glory as a housebreaker’s tool: the left arm and hand of a woman who died in first childbirth. While the source for that piece of folklore was not exactly disinterested (it was written by a 17th century Spanish friar), the story does in a way tie in with how Aztecs regarded women who died in childbirth, as equivalent to warriors who die in battle.

Have I intrigued you yet? If you’d like to read some earlier versions of the Spital House legend, give another listen to Vincent Price’s spooky reading, and learn how this relates to aspects of Aztec mythology, then head on over to Dark Tales Sleuth, and check out The Legend of Old Spital Inn.

Enjoy!


Featured Image: Detail of Jacob meets magician Hermogenes, Pieter van der Hayden, after Breughel (1565). Source: Wikimedia.

Illustration of Hand of Glory, annotated as from The Grimoire of Pope Honorius Grimorium Verum Petit Albert by Albertus Parvus Lucius. Source: Wikimedia.

Dark Tales Sleuth is Still On the Case!

Remember my other blog, The Dark Tales Sleuth? That’s where I’m tracking down the sources of the unattributed stories in the 1856 anthology, Evening Tales for the Winter, edited by Henry St. Clair. I’m still working on it!

MadelynMack books

After wrapping up Volume One, I started on Volume Two with what seemed like a straightforward case, which quickly turned super interesting. I began with what I thought was a plagiarism of one of the seven “horrid novels” from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and found what I think is an alternative (and earlier!) translation of the first section of the German source novel. Pretty cool!

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Reading Things We Lost in the Fire

A double entry for the Women Writers of Folklore and Fiction and Uncanny in Translation series.

First things first: “Adela’s House” is the best haunted house story I’ve ever read. It’s eerie and dark, enigmatic, and just a little bit bloody. Like most great ghost stories, it starts out in a quirky but fundamentally prosaic world and just…goes sideways. Real sideways. I love it, and for this story alone, I’d recommend Things We Lost in the Fire.

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez
Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enriquez. Translator Megan McDowell

But the rest of this collection, by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez (translated by Megan McDowell) is nothing to ignore, either. I sought her work out after seeing her featured in a BBC special on women ghost story writers, but not all the stories in Things We Lost in the Fire are supernatural. Rather than a “ghost story writer,” I lean towards calling her a “writer of the macabre.” The stories in this collection, supernatural or not, are all uncanny, dark, “weird” in the sense that the VanderMeers use the term, and sometimes outright horror. Whatever you choose to call them, they are compelling and unsettling, and a really great read.

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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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