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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Reality or Delusion?

The trick or treat festivities may be curtailed for us this year, but that just leaves more time for reading! In time for Halloween, an All Hallows’ evening themed ghost story, by Ellen Wood (1814-1887), the long-time editor and eventual owner of Argosy magazine.

Ellen Price Wood small
Ellen Wood (1814-1887) Source: Wikimedia

“Why, that,” said Harriet. “They believe that the dead are allowed to revisit the world after dark on the Eve of All Souls; that they hover in the air, waiting to appear to any of their living relatives, who may venture out, lest they should forget to pray on the morrow for the rest of their souls.”

Strictly speaking, Harriet is talking about the evening of November 1, not the evening of October 31, but if you interpret “Hallowe’en” to mean “All Hallows’ evening” rather than “All Hallows’ eve,” then we still have a Halloween ghost story, right?

Ellen Wood first published “Reality or Delusion?” in Argosy magazine in December, 1868. The story was then recollected into her short-story-cycle novel Johnny Ludlow (1874), the first of six such novels/collections. Johnny Ludlow is the narrator and attributed author of several stories that Wood wrote for the Argosy, starting in 1868; apparently she published anonymously to hide the fact that she was in fact the primary contributor to the magazine that she also edited. She acknowledged her authorship when she began to publish the stories in book form.

“Reality or Delusion?” is a nicely told ghost story on its own, and also an inviting introduction to Johnny Ludlow, his family the Todhetleys, and the village of North Crabb. The story teases more anecdotes from Johnny’s life, and I do plan on checking out the full collection (maybe several of them). More tales from Ellen Wood may be forthcoming!

In the meantime, enjoy this tale, and have a safe Halloween.


For more on Ellen Wood, see The Ellen Wood website.

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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The Uncanny in Translation: Iginio Ugo Tarchetti

As if I didn’t have enough to do, a new series: The Uncanny in Translation! Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in non-Anglophone weird fiction. In this series, I plan to share interesting works in translation that I come across, which are possibly less well-known to English language readers.

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Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869)
Source: Wikimedia

First up: Fantastic Tales (Racconti Fantastici),  by nineteeth century Italian author Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869), translated by Lawrence Venuti. According to the book cover, Tarchetti was “the first Italian writer to experiment with the gothic style,” and is “often compared to Edgar Allan Poe.” He was part of the Scapigliatura movement in Italian literature, a sort of anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment movement influenced by German Romanticism, French bohemians, Baudelaire — and Poe.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Lettice Galbraith

Not a lot seems to be known about Lettice Galbraith. She published two short story collections (New Ghost Stories, and Pretty Miss Allington and other tales) as well as a novel(?) (Spin of the Coin) around 1893-1894. A further story from her pen came out in 1897, and then, as far as I know, nothing. I suppose we don’t even know if Lettice Galbraith is the author’s real name.

NewGhostStories cover

I’m including Ms. Galbraith in my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series for New Ghost Stories (1893), a really delightful collection. The stories are crisp and well-paced, and are frequently more direct about unsavory topics like adultery, seduction, and suicide than one might expect in Victorian-era tales. The characters are generally well-fleshed out, and every story is quite different in its haunting, as well.

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Some Recent Faustianish Posts

Just an update on some recent(ish) posts to my other blogs. By coincidence, both posts relate to the theme of Faustian bargains, so they go rather well together.

Over on Ephemera, here’s the latest of my Emilia Pardo Bazán translations. This is from a few months ago, but I got distracted by Pedro Escamilla and Dark Tales Sleuth, so I never announced the translation here.

Faust, Rembrandt, c 1652
Faust, by Rembrandt (c. 1652).
Source: WikiArt
  • The Spell (El conjuro): A philospher performs an incantation of the last day of the year, in hopes of summoning a being that can grant his desire.

The protagonist of the tale is referred to as “el pensador” (the thinker) in the original Spanish. I rendered that as “the philospher” in my translation, because it felt better to me in English, and in my opinion still retains the connotations of the original Spanish term.

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Introducing The Dark Tales Sleuth!

As if I didn’t have enough to do, I’ve started another blog. Introducing The Dark Tales Sleuth!!

MadelynMack books
Image: From Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, by Hugh C. Weir (1914).
Source: Internet Archive

It started when I came across an old anthology called Evening Tales for the Winter (1856). The first few stories included some interesting gothic tales, some implied to be translated from German; the book looked to be a potential source for good stories to share for Winter Tales season. So I started reading.

I noticed, though, that nothing was attributed: no authors, no translators, no information at all. This annoys me.

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The Stories of Pedro Escamilla

Although he was one of the most prolific Spanish authors of the 19th century, Pedro Escamilla seems little known today, even (as far as I can tell) in Spain. Not even the dates or circumstances of his birth and death are certain; the website Ganso y Pulpo estimates that he was born around 1840 and died around 1890.

Retrato Escamilla
Pedro Escamilla
Source: Ganso y Pulpo

And yet he is said to have published something like 400 stories, 35 or 40 plays, and at least 34 novels. some of them under the pen name Félix X. He was also rumored to have ghost-written works for other authors.

Today, he is probably best remembered (if at all) for his short stories in the fantastic and horror genres, which have been compared to the work of Poe and of Erckmann-Chatrian.

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Tales of the Dead

In 1812, the French geographer Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès anonymously published a collection called Fantasmagoriana, his translations of eight German supernatural tales. Some four years later, Fantasmagoriana found its way into the hands of a group of young people on holiday in a Swiss villa during an unusually cold, wet, summer. With little else to do, they read Fantasmagoriana to pass the time. Among that group were Mary Shelly and John Polidori, who in the course of that summer wrote, respectively, Frankenstein and the The Vampyre, two influential works that shaped the genres of Gothic literature, horror, and in the case of Frankenstein, science fiction as well.

Castle overlooking a river
Castle Overlooking a River, Maxime Lalanne. Source: WikiArt

In 1813, an Englishwoman named Sara Elizabeth Utterson translated five of the tales from Fantasmagoriana into English; she published these five tales, along with an additional story of her own, as Tales of the Dead. And on a cold, gloomy, foggy San Francisco August afternoon (“the coldest winter…”, as Mark Twain wrote), having discovered this little treasure, I curled up under a blanket and started to read.

Tales of the Dead is not just interesting for its influence on Frankenstein and The Vampyre; it’s enjoyable reading on its own, for fans of gothic tales and old-fashioned ghost stories. Fairy tale and folktale lovers will probably enjoy some of the stories here, too.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Zen Cho

Another contemporary addition to my Women Writers of Folklore and Fantasy series: England-based Malaysian-born author Zen Cho. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and as she puts it herself, “stories positing that what the ordinary Malaysian believes about the world is true. This can sometimes lapse into the supernatural.” What a great quote!

Zen Cho, photo by Jim C. Hines
Zen Cho
Photo by Jim C. Hines

I had been planning (and still am) to pick up Cho’s latest work, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which sounds awesome, but then I discovered an ebook copy of her 2014 short story collection Spirits Abroad in my virtual To Read pile, so I started with that. I loved it! Why did it take me so long to get to it?

I saw Ms. Cho refer to this collection on Twitter as being “10 out of 10 on the Malaysian scale” (when compared to her other writings), and it certainly feels like a collection of stories aimed at Malaysian readers. The characters speak Manglish (Malaysian-English), and generally the Malaysian vocabulary and references to clothing or food go unexplained. I personally prefer this (as I’ve written before); the meanings and connotations are clear from context, and if you are really curious about some particular article of clothing or whatnot, well there’s always the internet.

Spirits Abroad, by Zen Cho

What drew me to the collection is that the stories in Spirits Abroad are full of the creatures of Malaysian folklore (or its “lower mythology,” as Filipino folklorist Maximo D. Ramos called it), as well as figures from Chinese mythology: hantu, pontianaks, orang bunian, hungry ghosts, and so on. I didn’t recognize all the creatures, at least not under their Malaysian names, but Filipino lower mythology is sufficiently similar to Malaysian lower mythology that several of the creatures and their habits felt familiar. And of course some aspects of Malaysian culture and food and so on feel a bit “Filipino-adjacent” as well, which was nice.

I really like the humor in Cho’s writing, as her characters confront the ordinary travails of life — family relationships, friendships, love and dating, school — all complicated by various, often unwelcome supernatural twists. The dialogue crackles naturalistically, the characters are quirky, well-drawn and endearing (when they’re supposed to be), the relationships feel authentic. In fact, I was surprised how familiar the families in the stories felt to me, especially the feisty aunties and grandmas.

The ebook version of Spirits Abroad contains additional stories and other bonus material not included in the print version, so I recommend you get that. I enjoyed all the stories, but here are a few that stood out for me:

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