A Budget of Book Reviews, February 2017

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Time for another budget of (mostly ebook this time) reviews, featuring ghosts and scholars, mythological creatures and occult detectives. Really, the only thematic commonality here is that I’ve read all these books (and one magazine) recently.

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Christmas Eve

This winter tale offering isn’t a traditional Christmas ghost story — there isn’t a ghost to be found. But it’s just the kind of story I like.

640px Trutovsky Konstantin Kolyadki v Malorossii

“Christmas Eve” is from Nikolai Gogol’s two volume collection of short stories, known in English as Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the collection that helped make his reputation. Gogol was born in the Ukraine, and all the Dikanka stories brim with bits of Ukrainian folklore and details about Ukrainian village life. This particular story is full of supernatural hijinks, witches and the devil. However, this devil is more comical than frightening, and the whole story feels a bit like a Chaucerian farce. “Christmas Eve” also has a rather cinematic feel, in the way it cuts back and forth between multiple simultaneous situations. No wonder Wikipedia lists four film adaptations, as well as three or four (depending on how you count) operatic versions. It’s a bit longer than the pieces I usually share, but if you haven’t read it before, it’s well worth it. Continue reading

Two Bottles of Relish

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I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me! Continue reading

Creepy TV and other Thanksgiving Fun

Back from Thanksgiving weekend with my parents: four days of non-stop eating and family and wine (I blame my sister for that last part). It was the first time in a long time that we, my parents, my sister’s family and my closest first cousin’s family were all in the same place at the same time, to celebrate the birth of my youngest nephew (or whatever the proper term is for my first cousin’s child).

We happen to be a family with strong introvert tendencies, even the men who married into the family, and we are also very loud, in that stereotypical ethnic family sort of way. So periodically, certain people would disappear from the gathering, to be found hiding in another room with a device of some kind…

Which is a long-winded way of saying that my ten year old niece has started me down a wormhole of recreational reading and tv-watching time sinks, just in time for the holidays. Follow me down the path: Continue reading

Another Budget of Book Reviews

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October has always been a busy month for me, which is why I’ve been not so vigilant about blogging — I’ll get back to my Hummingbird Folklore series, promise! But I’ve still been reading. In time for Halloween (and rolling into Winter Tales season), here’s my take on three excellent short story anthologies that I finished recently. Continue reading

Not Holmes: American Detective Stories from a Century Ago

American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.

What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.

Here’s Greene:

Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.

Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.

  1. Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
  2. When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
  3. That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.

The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?

It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.

— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading

The Italian’s Story

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I’ve been reading Catherine Crowe’s Ghosts and Family Legends (1859) over lunch break the last several days. Those of you who have read Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted, the chronicles of the ghost-hunting, turn-of-the-twentieth-century journalist Vera van Slyke, know that Ms. Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature was Vera’s trustiest reference tome. I believe she actually wore out her copy at some point in the book. Like The Night Side of Nature, Ghosts and Family Legends is a collection of “true” ghostly anecdotes, in this case told over the course of several evenings at a Christmas gathering.

Though it may surprise some of my readers, I’m not actually that interested in true ghost story anecdotes, at least not as reading material. Most true ghost anecdotes — most true anecdotes, period — lack narrative structure, and almost always have no closure. They may be great recreation when told to you by your grandmother, or by your friends on a dark winter’s night while drinking hot toddies, but fiction generally makes better reading. Most of the stories in the first half of Ghosts and Family Legends are no exception. Still, I’m always on the lookout for novel stories to share with you during the winter tales season, and a few of the anecdotes are well-structured enough (and fun enough) that I may feature them come December.

The second half of the collection is called “Legends of the Earthbound,” and (so far) these seem to be fully structured stories. It’s not clear if these are still stories told to Ms. Crowe by others, or whether they are fiction written by her (I assume the second). Either way, they are enjoyable reading, and I thought I’d share one with you today.

Our family claims to be of great antiquity, but we were not very wealthy till about the latter half of the 16th century, when Count Jacopo Ferraldi made very considerable additions to the property; not only by getting, but also by saving—he was in fact a miser. Before that period the Ferraldis had been warriors, and we could boast of many distinguished deeds of arms recorded in our annals; but Jacopo, although by the death of his brother, he ultimately inherited the title and the estates, had begun life as a younger son, and being dissatisfied with his portion, had resolved to increase it by commerce.

So begins the story of Count Francesco Ferraldi, about his ancestor Jacopo Ferraldi, a truly detestable man. This one is kind of two ghost stories (and two haunted houses) in one, but it isn’t the ghosts that are scary. It’s the man.

You can read “The Italian’s Story” here (a pdf download), or you can download the entire Ghosts and Family Legends from Project Gutenberg.

Enjoy.


Image: The Letter of Introduction, David Wilkie (1813). Source: WikiArt. It may seem an odd choice of image, but it’s relevant to the story.

A Budget of Book Reviews

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I’ve been a bit behind on the blogging, it’s true; but I’ve still been reading. Here’s some notes on a few of the books I’ve been reading these past few months. I received a free review copy of The Mark of the Shadow Grove; the other three books I bought and read on my own.

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Reading Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

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I’ve long been a fan of Zack Davisson’s Japanese folklore blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (named after the game of 100 Weird Tales), so I was eager to read his new book, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost. It did not disappoint.

Davisson traces the origins of the yurei from their basis in Japan’s belief systems and traditions about the dead, starting with early animistic beliefs and their mixture with beliefs from Shintoism and Buddhism. The worlds of the living and the dead are perhaps nearer to each other in the Japanese conception than they are in Western belief systems. Your obligations to your ancestors continue past their deaths — and perhaps their interest in your life outlives their deaths, too. Becoming a ghost might be as simple as dying with something pressing on your mind — and moving on as easy as fulfilling the goal that keeps your ghost here.

The book also presents the literary history of the Japanese ghost story or weird tale (kaidan), beginning with the story behind Maruyama Ōkyo’s famous 18th century painting The Ghost of Oyuki. Oyuki is the prototype of the modern image of the yurei: pale, dressed in white, with no feet; she also graces the cover of the book. From there, we follow the weird tale through Japanese art, Japanese literature (and Chinese contributions to Japanese literature), Noh and Kabuki theater, and film. We learn about the three great yurei of Japan: the lovelorn Otsuya, the vengeful Oiwa, and the earth-bound (or maybe well-bound) Okiku. As with the Latino legends of La Llorona, there are many versions of the stories of Otsuya, Oiwa, and Okiku, and Davisson introduces us to several variations. He also shares other classic ghost tales and legends from Japanese and Buddhist mythology.

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The Story of a Mussalmani

Last year, while looking up folktales related to the Punjabi winter solstice festival Lohri, I came across the legend of the bandit Dulla Bhatti. Dulla Bhatti was a 16th century “Punjabi Robin Hood” who led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar. He robbed the Mughal officials who collected taxes and tributes for the emperor, and redistributed the money to the poor. One of the tales told of him is that after a Mughal soldier raped a young Hindu woman, Dulla Bhatti — a Muslim — took her in because no one else would. He arranged her marriage to a Hindu man, gave her a dowry, and even officiated the wedding in as close to an approximation to a Hindu wedding ceremony as he could manage. The stories of Dulla Bhatti are linked to Lohri; you can read my take on that relationship here.

Why am I bringing Dulla Bhatti up now, in the middle of June? Because as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore liked to play with folklore and fairy tale. “The Hungry Stones” is one example that comes to mind; there’s also “Once There Was a King,” “A Fanciful Story” (called “A Kingdom of Cards” in this online translation), and “The Wedding Garland” (“Malyadan” in Bengali — I can’t find it in English online), all of which play with folktale tropes and structure, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more subtly. Tagore’s last short story draft, from about a month and half before his death, is perhaps another example, one with some similarity to the Dulla Bhatti story I mentioned above. In the Oxford Press translation Selected Short Stories, it’s called “The Story of a Mussalmani.”

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