The Fourth Wall

After last post’s Lovecraft tale, I’ve decided on a kind of “theme” for this year’s series of Winter Tales: Something a little different.

I’m going to try to share stories where the haunting is some way atypical. Not just the usual suspiciously cheap rentals full of restless spirits, and dusty haunted manors rife with dark family secrets. Well, maybe there will be a few of those, but with a twist.

This time, I have an early story (1915) from A. M. Burrage. who was an extremely profilic writer of short stories in many genres, including romance. He’s best known today for his supernatural tales, including the spooky Christmas ghost story, “Smee,” written under the pen name Ex-Private X.

The story I’m sharing today, “The Fourth Wall,” is quite a bit different from “Smee,” but I think it’s fun, and the haunting is different and clever.

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Five people take a cottage in the country for a couple of months starting in December. No, it wasn’t absurdly cheap; it fact it’s perfectly delightful. Almost too delightful.

‘It’s a ripping old place,’ he said; ‘but do you know it seems to me rather self-conscious of being a cottage.’

‘What do you mean?’ Mrs Forran laughed.

‘I mean that everything about it—the furniture and all that—is so very “cottagey”. It seems to keep on shouting at you: “I am a cottage. Everything in me is just right for a cottage.” I don’t express myself very well.’

Helen laughed.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘You mean this room is, somehow, just a little stagey.’

“A perfect stage cottage,” is what they call it, but if that’s the only complaint they have, it’s not a bad thing. Is it?

You can read The Fourth Wall here.

Enjoy.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Images

Featured image: Set Design for staging Diary of Satan (by L. Andreev), Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1922). Source: WikiArt

Comedy/Tragedy Masks Source: Pixabay

Winter Tales Time! The Festival

Winter Tales time already! I’ve had a tradition on the blog for several years now: from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around.

327px The Shadow over Innsmouth by Mushstone

It snuck up on me this year, and I’m starting a little late and a bit unprepared, but there’s a silver lining. While rummaging amongst the files and lists on my computer for a good story to open with, I found a cache of tales that I’d forgotten about. So I can start this year’s round off strong, with a story a bit different from what I usually present: The Festival, a tale of Yuletide horror from H. P. Lovecraft.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden…

The narrator journeys to spooky New England, in accordance with family tradition, to participate in a once-every-century winter festival. What he experiences is ancient, eldritch, and adjective-laden.

I poke fun at Lovecraft’s style, but this story has moments of evocative atmosphere and genuine creepiness. I don’t think I’ll look at Midnight Mass in quite the same way this year.

So find a hot beverage and a warm blanket, and kick off this year’s Winter Tale season with a Cthulu Christmas story.

You can download “The Festival” here.

Enjoy!


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Images

Featured image: The Nameless City, leothefox (2013). Source: Wikimedia

The Shadow over Innsmouth, TY Kim (Mushstone), (2012). Source: Wikimedia

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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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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Vincent Price reads Tales of Witches, Ghosts and Goblins

In my last post, I tracked down the probable literary sources for A Graveyard of Ghost Tales (Caedmon Records, 1974), an LP of ghost stories and other goodies read by Vincent Price. In this post, I do the same thing for Tales of Witches, Ghosts and Goblins (Caedmon Records, 1972), also read by Vincent Price.

Tales of Witches, Ghosts and Goblins, Vincent Price

As with Graveyard, the stories Price reads here are folktales, not horror. There are a couple of “recipes,” some verses, and a passage from an account of a witch trial. Three stories are again from Carl Carmer, just as lovely and romantic as the pieces on the other LP. “The Smoker” was delightful, and “Gobbleknoll” was fun, too.

In his readings, Price only gives the authorship of one piece, the first verse of “The Broomstick Train” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. So here’s my educated guess at the rest. Thanks again to Jenny Ashford from the Facebook group Alone with the Horrors: Horror Fiction for her research. Again, I haven’t read all of the texts mentioned below, so these attributions aren’t guaranteed. But I’m pretty sure they’re right.

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Vincent Price reads A Graveyard of Ghost Tales

Caedmon Records, founded in 1952, was the first company to sell spoken word recordings to the public; the predecessors of the audiobook, you might say. I spent most of this past Sunday afternoon listening to some wonderful Caedmon recordings from the 1970s, of ghost tales and fantasies read by Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. They were the perfect way to relieve the tedium of folding laundry and other chores.

A Graveyard of Ghost Tales, Vincent Price

The first one I listened to was A Graveyard of Ghost Tales (1974), read by Vincent Price. You can (at the moment, anyway) find the entire LP on YouTube; I’ve linked to it at the bottom of the post. Price’s smooth and expressive voice is always a pleasure to listen to, and the stories were engaging, more like ghostly folktales or urban legends than horror stories, but that suited me just fine. I especially liked “The Ghostly Hand of Spital House.” Price’s rendition of “The Leg of Gold” was fun to listen to, as well.

I was surprised, though, that neither this LP nor the second one I listened to (also read by Price) gave any credits for the readings. The listing for the album on Discogs gives editing and illustration credits, but very little information about who wrote the pieces that Price read. I couldn’t find any information on literary sources anywhere online. So I decided to do a little digging on my own.

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Revisiting Wilbur Daniel Steele

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?

Wilbur Daniel Steele
Wilbur Daniel Steele, circa 1918. Source: Wikimedia

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.

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Friday Video: Return to Glennascaul

“A story that is told in Dublin”

Return to Glennascaul is a lovely short 1953 film written and directed by Hilton Edwards, one of the major figures of Irish theater. Orson Welles appears as himself, narrating this nice variation on the Woman in White urban legend.

On his way to Dublin during a break from filming Othello, Welles picks up a stranded motorist, who in turn tells him this spooky little story. I like the harp that accompanies the main section of the film. It sets the mood nicely.

Here’s Peter Bogdanovich introducing the film (length 4:08):

And here’s the film itself (length 22:21):

Enjoy.

The Ghosts of Byland Abbey

Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories

Near Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, ghosts walked. If only someone would pray for their sins.

I

A traveller, carrying a load of beans, encountered a whirling haystack on the road. Inside the haystack, a strange light glowed. The traveller invoked the haystack; it became a man. This man insisted on carrying the traveller’s beans. When they reached the river, the man disappeared, leaving the traveller with the beans on his own back. The traveller had masses sung for the soul of the revenant, and the ghost was laid.

II

It looked like an injured crow; the tailor tried to help. The crow shot sparks from his sides; in fear, the tailor crossed himself. With a terrible screech, the crow attacked; injured, the tailor prayed for protection. The crow turned into a dog; the tailor invoked the creature to speak. In life, the dog had been a man; he had been excommunicated for a terrible crime (What crime? No one says). Now his ghost wanted absolution, and one hundred and eighty masses to be said for his soul. If the tailor helped him, the ghost would tell him how to heal his wounds; otherwise, the tailor’s flesh would rot, and his skin would waste away.

The tailor went to the priest who had excommunicated the man; the priest refused to give absolution. The tailor begged—who wants their own flesh to rot, or their skin to waste away? Finally the priest agreed. The tailor went to all the monasteries in York, and got one hundred and eighty masses for the man’s soul. The tailor went to meet the ghost; the ghost arrived as a goat, then turned into a flame. Satisfied, the ghost told the tailor to bathe in the river and scrub his body with a certain rock; then the tailor’s wounds would heal. The ghost then left on his journey to heaven; the tailor returned home, and fell ill.

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Reading Glimpses of the Unknown

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.

glimpses of the unknown

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.

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