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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The Swaying Vision

Happy Boxing Day! My folklore-themed winter tales series continues until Epiphany, so I have at least one more story to share with you this round.

Admittedly, this one is a bit of a stretch, both in terms of its winteriness and its folklore connections, but I like it. It’s an occult detection/haunted house tale that touches on a certain infamous real-life incident. The sort of incident that is so notorious that it often finds itself moving into the realm of legend. I won’t spoil it for you.

Poor Mr. Chadwick buys a house as an investment upon his retirement. He’s a careful buyer who researches before purchasing: whether it’s a respectable, healthy neighborhood; whether the house is watertight, with good drainage and in good repair. But no matter how careful you are, you always forget something.

‘It was really nobody’s affair,’ the next-door neighbour protested. ‘How could anybody warn you? Of course you might,’ he added, as the aggrieved Chadwick breathed threats relating to the ex-landlord of his new demesne and the house agent. ‘Still, I must remind you it’s a penal offence to kill people, even if they have landed you with one of the most notorious haunted houses in England.’

But you guessed that already, because you read my blog.

600px Pentagram Levi

After a bit of investigation of his own, Chadwick turns to his old schoolfriend Lester Stukeley. Stukeley’s day job is Civil Servant, but on the side he’s a psychic investigator who seems to follow the Carnacki school of investigation (William Hope Hodgeson’s Carnacki stories were originally published over the period 1910-1912; Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s “The Swaying Vision” appeared in 1915, in the The Weekly Tale-Teller). What could possibly haunt this ordinary, and quite newly-built house? Chadwick and Stukeley mean to find out.

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The Ghost of the Cross-Roads

I have time for one more folklore-themed winter tale before Christmas Eve! But I plan to keep sharing until Epiphany, so never fear….

Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story. Throw on the logs! Draw the curtains! Move your chairs nearer the fire and hearken!

“The Ghost of the Cross-Roads,” by one Frederick Manley, is an especially Christmasy tale. It was published in the South London Press for December 23, 1893. I found it in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume 3. If you aren’t familiar with the series, I recommend it.

It’s a cold, blustery Christmas night, and jolly festivities are going on at the humble Sweeny household. Suddenly, a wealthy upper-class stranger stumbles, half frozen, to the house. He has a strange tale to tell about a mysterious dark man, and a card game at the crossroads.

“It’s all very strange, to be sure,” said the gentleman. Then he added, with a little forced laugh that would hardly come from a person whose nerves were in good condition, “I will tell you all that happened.”

At these words, which promised the glorious entertainment always to be had from a ghost story, more especially when you sit in the midst of friends before a roaring, crackling fire, with a sparkling punch in your hand, listening to the storm that rattles the windows and doors….

…No wonder the cottagers huddled round the fire! So Andy’s guests being Irishmen, and having adamantine faith in the existence of all manner of “uncanny” things, awaited the stranger’s story with breathless interest.

The story’s title refers to a ghost, but really, who do you meet at the crossroads? The events of this story aren’t a surprise, but I liked the way the devil got around to proposing the deal. It was a bit different. The notion of the crossroads as a place where mortals meet devils to make dark bargains is widespread in Western folklore. Selling your soul at the crossroads for amazing musical prowess is a rumor that’s told about many great musicians, like Blues guitarist Robert Johnson — and Paganini. Though Paganini’s deal might not have been at the crossroads, and it might have been his mother who struck the bargain. Anyway….

You can read “The Ghost of the Cross-Roads” here.

The story is a little long-winded getting to the point. Manley spends a lot of time describing the Sweenys’ party, especially all the food. It made me hungry, reading it. Once the gentleman starts his tale, though, the narrative moves at a good pace. The interjections by the listening partygoers are fun, too.

Find a warm fire and a sparkling punch, and savor the tale for Christmas Eve.

Enjoy! And a Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a lovely day to all who don’t.


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

Nice article about “The Devil’s Violinist,” Nicolo Paganini. Includes one brief version of the Robert Johnson story.

A post I wrote a while ago about the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I don’t think the tale in the song explicitly happens at a crossroads, but it’s a fun song anyway. The post includes a different brief version of the Robert Johnson story.

Images

Featured image: Winter Landscape, Caspar David Friedrich (1811). Source: Wikimedia.

Playing Cards: Original by Alexas_Fotos, modified by Nina Zumel. Source: Pixabay

The Other Side: A Breton Legend

Next up on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a werewolf story from Decadent writer Eric, Count Stenbock.

This is an odd and interesting one. It’s not particularly Christmasy, though it does start with a scene of several old women warming themselves around a fire telling what sound like winter tales:

Oh, yes, then when they get to the top of the hill, there is an altar with six candles quite black and a sort of something in between, that nobody sees quite clearly, and the old black ram with the man’s face and long horns begins to say Mass in a sort of gibberish nobody understands, and two black strange things like monkeys glide about with the book and the cruets–and there’s music too, such music….

And that’s a good enough connection for me. The other reason I picked this one is that it reminded me a bit of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, in that it’s the story of a young boy who is seduced away from his home by a beautiful, sinister female supernatural being. In both tales, the young boy is saved in part because of a young girl who loves him. So the story’s fairy-tale aspect—plus the werewolves—seemed appropriate for this year’s theme.

Werewolves leaning against the wall of a cemetery

In The Other Side, a gentle and misfit young boy named Gabriel falls prey to a mysterious woman from “the other side” of the brook near his village. There, on the other side, live “the were-wolves and the wolf-men and the men-wolves, and those very wicked men who for nine days in every year are turned into wolves.” On this side of the brook is Gabriel’s dear friend Carmeille, who tries to keep Gabriel away from the evil influence that entices him. Who will win?

Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock (1860-1895) published relatively little in his lifetime (three volumes of poetry and one volume of short stories; two more collections of short stories were published in 1999 and 2002), but he was definitely known amongst the prominent creative figures of his time. He was a friend or acquaintance of the painter Simeon Solomon, the poet Arthur Symons, W. B. Yeats, and Aubrey Beardsley. He had a play rejected by The Yellow Book. And, at least according Ernest Rhys (the founding editor of Everyman’s Library), he was too emo even for Oscar Wilde.

While living, he was apparently better known for his persona than his creative output, and I have to say his life sounds like a stereotype of the Decadent movement: Dorian Gray come to life. He was a convert to Roman Catholicism, he dabbled in occultism and Buddhism and Paganism, he had exotic pets and wore flamboyant clothing. Supposedly, towards the end of Stenbock’s brief life, he traveled with a wooden doll that he dubbed “le petit comte,” and whom he believed to be his son. He died at the age of 35, of cirrhosis of the liver.

I get the impression that Stenbock’s poetry was pretty terrible, and it’s his short stories that have carried on his posthumous literary reputation. The two short stories that I’ve read by him are lush and heavily steeped in folklore and nature imagery. The other story, The True Story of a Vampire is a companion piece to The Other Side. It also features a young boy named Gabriel, who is unaccountably drawn to a mysterious stranger named Count Vardalek. Vardalek is a Slavic term (or a variation of one of the terms) for vampires/werewolves; that is, a creature that partakes of the aspects of both. It’s worth noting how the Count gains so much emotional influence over both Gabriel and his father, yet Gabriel’s sister Carmela and his governess remain relatively unaffected.

The theme of seducing the innocent obviously resonated with Stenbock. One wonders who Gabriel and Carmeille/Carmela represented in his life.

You can read The Other Side here.

It’s not a traditional Christmas ghost story, but it’s a dark and eerie little tale.

Enjoy.


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

I also recommend David Tibet’s essay on Stenbock and his writing, at the Public Domain Review.

Images

Featured image: Illustration from The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865). Artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia

Werewolves leaning against the wall of a cemetery. Maurice Sand (1858) Illustration from Légendes rustiques by George Sand (1858). Source: Wikimedia

Anne Lisbeth

Next on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a fairy tale that is also a great ghost story.

I have to confess, when I was a child I was never super fond of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. So many of his tales that I knew—The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier,— are, well, pretty depressing. Even The Emperor’s New Clothes isn’t exactly cheerful (though I always did like The Ugly Duckling). I liked happy endings.

I revisited several of his stories recently, via M.R. James’s charming translations, Forty-Two Stories (1930). As an adult, I appreciate the melancholy beauty of his writing much more. And I appreciate Andersen’s wit, too. Though I still prefer happy endings.

Many of the stories borrow freely from Andersen’s native Danish folklore, including the story that I’m sharing today: Anne Lisbeth.

Anne Lisbeth on the beach

A proud woman abandons her own child, leaving him with another family, to become the nursemaid to the son of a Count. Mother’s and son’s lives take different directions: she becomes affluent and respectable; he goes out to sea. Their fates eventually collide again — in quite a spooky way.

As M.R. James says of Anne Lisbeth (and several other tales): “popular beliefs or anecdotes are… conspicuously drawn upon”; specifically the legend of the strandvarsel, which Jean Hersholt rendered as “sea ghost” in his definitive translation (circa 1949):

As she continued on her way she remembered many stories she had heard as a child about the old superstitious belief in the “sea ghost” – the ghost of a drowned body that lay still unburied, washed by the tides on the wild seashore. The lifeless body itself could harm no one, but the “sea ghost” would follow a solitary wanderer, clinging fast to him and demanding to be carried to the churchyard and buried in consecrated ground.

James rendered strandvarsel as “shore-crier”— a transliteration, I suspect.

Andersen had a pronounced religious and moral center that shows strongly in his work; as I’ve said before, these aren’t just fairy tales, but parables. And Anne Lisbeth, with its nightmares and apparitions and unhallowed dead, with the moody calls of the ravens that echo throughout the second half of the tale, is very much a ghost story as well.

You can read Anne Lisbeth here. (Link to The Hans Christian Andersen Centre; translation by Jean Hersholt.)

It doesn’t happen in winter, and it’s got nothing to do with Christmas, but I think it’s still a great winter tale. And it seems appropriate for the Christmas season, too.

Enjoy.


Reference

Preface by M.R. James to Hans Andersen: Forty-two Stories, Hans Christian Andersen, M.R. James, translator. First published 1930. Faber and Faber Edition, 1971.


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

Other posts I’ve written about Hans Christian Andersen here and here.

Two more short anecdotes about the strandvarsel can be found here, from Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2 (1851).

Images

Featured Image: Anne Lisbeth’s Boy, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive

Ann Lisbeth Found on the Sea Shore, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive

Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning

Next up in Winter Tales: Folklore Edition is a story by one of my favorite 19th century ghost story authors: Irish writer Charlotte Riddell. Mrs. Riddell wrote a great haunted house story, and I featured one of them as a previous winter tale. This time, I give you “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” (1873), about a dashing Irish doctor whose family has their very own banshee.

…and then with a start and a shiver, and a blanched face, he turned sharply round, whilst a low, sobbing, wailing cry echoed mournfully though the room. No form of words could give an idea of the sound. The plaintiveness of the Eolian harp — that plaintiveness which so soon affects and lowers the highest spirits — would have seemed wildly gay in comparison to the sadness of the cry which seemed floating in the air. As the summer wind comes and goes amongst the trees, so that mournful wail came and went — came and went.

Banshee

The banshee is a female spirit from Irish mythology, generally attached to a specific family. She heralds the death of a family member by wailing and moaning just before the death occurs. She’s usually portrayed as an old woman (as she is in this story), although sometimes she can be young and beautiful. There’s a nice passage in the story where Mrs. Riddell details several banshee anecdotes in succession; she also slips in some pointed commentary about British upper-class society, which I imagine was heartfelt, as she spent most of her life in poverty, despite having been for a time a popular and well-regarded author.

In “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning,” the titular protagonist lives in London, having been estranged from his family in Ireland for twelve years. He begins to hear a mysterious wailing that no one but himself and his dog can hear. He knows it’s the family banshee. But is she wailing for him, or someone else in the family? Things come to a head on Christmas Eve.

Rather than “once upon a time,” the story takes place “before cholroform was thought of.” Wikipedia tells me that the obstetrician James Y. Simpson first demonstrated the use of chloroform on humans to induce sleep in 1847. So that would place this story in the first half of the nineteenth century, or perhaps even in the late eighteenth century. This fact about chloroform serves mostly to help describe O’Donnell’s strength of nerve, since as a surgeon he would have to operate on conscious patients. Rather clever, I thought.

You can read “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” here.

Enjoy.


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

Illustration: Illustration of a banshee, from Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825). Source: Wikipedia

Glámr

Welcome to Winter Tales: The Folklore Edition!

I’m starting off with Sabine Baring-Gould’s version of a story from the Grettis saga (or as Baring-Gould refers to it, the Gretla), a thirteenth century Icelandic saga about the outlaw hero Grettir Ásmundarson. It details Grettir’s fight with the draugr (a vengeful revenant of Norse mythology), Glámr. The bulk of story occurs during the winter months, and the key events on the eve and day of Christmas, making this a perfect way to kick off this winter tales season.

Grettir

The story first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Baring-Gould’s Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (1863), under the title “The Valley of Shadows,” then again in his Book of Ghosts (1904) under its present title. In his earlier work, Baring-Gould prefaced the story with this quaint footnote:

Gretla, chaps. 82–85. I give this story as a specimen of a very remarkable form of Icelandic superstition. It is so horrible, that I forewarn all those who have weak nerves, to skip it.

The reading public’s nerves have hardened a bit in the intervening century and a half, but it’s still a great story.

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