Agatha Christie’s Supernatural(ish) Writings

Covering two supernatural-inflected Agatha Christie collections, The Last Seance and The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Long before I was into ghost stories, I was into detective and crime fiction. I grew up reading old paperback anthologies from Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, and I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: everything my local library had. But it’s been years since I’ve read anything by either Christie or Sayers, or that style of “body in the library” detective fiction, in general.

The Last Seance - Agatha Christie

Christie and Sayers began their writing careers in the period between the two World Wars, a period when the English ghost story also proliferated. It’s not surprising that both authors tried their hand at supernatural tales. While I’d come across a few of Christie’s ghost stories amongst her short story collections, it was before I was as widely read in the supernatural literature of the period as I am now. So it was interesting to read the recent Christie collection, The Last Seance: Tales of the Supernatural, now that I’m more familiar with the landscape of ghost stories written about the same time.

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Bellamore’s Triple Theft

My schedule is about to get super busy, but I squeezed off another translation of a short Quiroga tale.

Dexter Horton National Bank interior ca 1920 SEATTLE 170

This is Quiroga’s go at ratiocination-based detective fiction, in the style of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The title of the story, “El triple robo de Bellamore,” seems to be a play on “El doble crimen,” the Spanish title for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”–at least the title of the translation that Quiroga read.

Or, possibly, this is Quiroga’s gentle mockery of ratiocination, and how implausible these elaborate chains of reasoning would be in reality. You decide.

Enjoy.


All the Quiroga stories I’ve translated so far, in the order I did them.

Image: Dexter Horton National Bank interior, ca. 1920. Source: Wikimedia.

The Other’s Crime

As promised in my last post, I’ve just finished a translation of the title story from Horacio Quiroga’s 1904 collection, El crimen del otro.

464px Ligeia Clarke
Harry Clarke, Illustration for “Ligeia” from Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919). Source: Wikimedia

Many of the stories in El crimen del otro are direct homages to Poe, and this one in particular is practically a love letter. It was a challenge for me to translate, partly because it’s appreciably longer than previous stories that I’ve attempted, and partially because neither of the characters in this tale are mentally stable. Much of what they say to each other straddles the border of nonsense, and it was not easy to, first, decipher what they were saying, and then to try to render it into “sensible nonsense” in English. Hopefully I’ve not botched it too much.

The fun thing about this story is picking out all the references to various Poe tales. Most of the titles transliterated into Spanish, so it wasn’t too hard to match them. Apparently the version of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” that Quiroga read was titled “El double crimen” (The double crime)–this cleared up the title of another Quiroga story for me: “El triple robo del Bellamore” (The triple theft of Bellamore), which is a riff on Poe’s Dupin stories. I plan to translate that story, too, as time allows.

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Horacio Quiroga and Edgar Allan Poe

Earlier this year I got quite interested in the short stories of the Uruguyan author Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), and I started translating and posting some of his stories. One of Quiroga’s literary influences was Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he shares a morbid fascination with death and madness. I’m sure Quiroga’s frequent themes of addiction and illness are also partially influenced by Poe, as well.

Horacio Quiroga 1900
Horacio Quiroga, circa 1900. Source: Wikimedia

Quiroga published his breakout collection Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte (Tales of Love, Madness and Death) in 1917. By then, his voice was coming into its own, merging Quiroga’s love for Poe with other literary interests, in particular de Maupassant and Kipling, along with Quiroga’s own life experiences living in the jungle province Misiones, in Argentina. But his earlier work shows Quiroga’s love for Poe much more strongly. Several of the stories in his 1904 collection, El crimen del otro (The Crime of Another) are direct homages to Poe’s short stories.

I translated one of Quiroga’s earliest stories back in July, but never posted it here. You can read it at the Ephemera blog:

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Reading Guilt is a Ghost

Full disclosure: Tim kindly sent me a review copy of this book.

The executive summary: Guilt is a Ghost is a fine second offering in the adventures of ghost hunter Vera Van Slyke and her assistant Lucille Parsell (nee Ludmila Prasilova).

Guilt is a ghost cover 1

The operative phrase is second offering: I’m honestly not sure what a reader’s reaction would be if this were the first Vera Van Slyke book they read. (Tim Prasil apparently disagrees with me). Having read Help for the Haunted first (my review here), I came into Guilt is a Ghost familiar with the two main characters, and already quite fond of them. And that’s good, because I feel there is less characterization of Vera and her friendship with Lucille in this book than there was in the previous one.

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Two More Stories by Horacio Quiroga

I’ve put two more Horacio Quiroga translations up on the Ephemera blog:

  • The Spectre (El espectro): Every night, two lovers go to the movies. Even though they’re dead.
  • Juan Darién: A rescued orphan jaguar cub magically turns into a human, and tries to live among other humans.
Detail from magazine article on The Money Corral
Detail of an ad in Moving Picture World, May 1919 for the film The Money Corral (1919), starring William S. Hart. Source: Wikimedia

This brings the total number of stories I’ve translated so far up to six, and I hope to keep going.

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The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology

Covering the third of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, first published in 1965, is rather different from Karloff’s previous two anthologies. Tales of Terror and And the Darkness Falls were both collaborations with Karloff’s friend, the editor Edmund Speare. Both those anthologies highlighted stories that, while macabre, could mostly be considered “mainstream” or “literary” tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, on the other hand, has more of a pulp magazine feel, and features almost all stories from the mid-twentieth century (nothing earlier than 1936; Table of Contents here). The one exception is Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is included because John Jake’s story “The Opener of the Crypt” is a sequel to Poe’s classic tale.

Boris Karloff, Date unknown
Source: Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

This difference raises a number of possibilities about the editorship of the anthologies:

  1. Speare had more to do with the editing of the first two anthologies than one might think.
  2. Karloff had less to do with the editing of the third anthology than one might think.
  3. Karloff’s tastes, and his thoughts on the definition of terror, had evolved in the intervening two decades.
  4. Some combination of the above.

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Karloff’s And the Darkness Falls

Covering the second of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

And the Darkness Falls is the second anthology of “terror tales” edited by Boris Karloff (with Edmund Speare’s assistance). It was published in 1946 by World Publishing, apparently to coincide with the release of the film Bedlam, Karloff’s third and final collaboration with producer Val Lewton (Cat People). While Tales of Terror is an anthology of mostly ghost stories, about half the stories in And the Darkness Falls have no supernatural element, but are naturalistic tales of the macabre. Reading it reminded me a little of an old Alfred Hitchcock anthology. This is not a bad thing; the Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks put out by Dell in the ’60s and ’70s were a staple at my local library when I was growing up, and I adored them.

Boris Karloff

And the Darkness Falls is a more ambitious and eclectic anthology than Tales of Terror: a whopping 69 stories and poems (Table of Contents here), each with a brief introduction by Karloff that gives biographical information about the author, and often a short rationale for the story’s selection, or its thematic connections with other stories in the book. The main criterion for inclusion in the anthology seems to be that the story be in some way dark. Karloff and Speare interpret the idea of dark broadly, leading to an interesting and diverse selection of tales. Karloff also wrote a short introduction to the entire anthology.

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Boris Karloff, Terror Tale Anthologist

Covering the first of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

Some time in the early 1940s, Boris Karloff was approached by his friend Dr. Edmund Speare, editor for Pocket Books and Knopf, as well as the author of several books of literary criticism and editor of World’s Great Short Stories; Masterpieces of American, English and Continental Literature (World Publishing, 1942). Speare pitched to Karloff the idea of “a collection of bogey stories selected by a professional bogey man” — Karloff. The deal was for Speare to gather the first round of candidate stories, and for Karloff to winnow them down for the final selection, as well as to write the introduction to the anthology. The result was Tales of Terror, released by World Publishing in 1943 with Karloff credited as editor.

Boris Karloff, House of Frankenstein (1944)
Boris Karloff, Publicity shot for House of Frankenstein, 1944. Source: IMDB

Tales of Terror collects fourteen tales, most of them quite well known by aficionados of the genre today, though perhaps they were less well known at the time (Table of Contents here). The collection is still a fine introduction to some classics of the genre for newcomers, but the real delight is Karloff’s introduction. Reading it (I like to imagine Karloff’s deep distinctive voice while doing so), we learn of Karloff’s distinction between terror and horror. To Karloff, horror carries a connotation of revulsion; the gory, the grisly, the Grand Guignol: that’s horror. The basis of terror, on the other hand, is simply fear: “fear of the unknown and the unknowable.” I’ve read elsewhere that Karloff preferred to call his own films “terror films” rather than “horror films” for this same reason.

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Reading Horacio Quiroga

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.

Horacio Quiroga 1897
Horacio Quiroga, 1897.
Source: Wikimedia

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.

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