The Family of a Vourdalak

I had hoped to get this one out before Christmas, but I didn’t quite make it. It still makes a great winter tale, though…

Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875), Leo Tolstoy’s second cousin: poet, novelist, playwright, and diplomat. He is best known for his historical dramas, in particular the trilogy The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1866), Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870).

He wrote several vampire-related novellas, most notably The Family of a Vourdalak (originally in French) and The Vampire (or Oupyr — originally in Russian) while in the diplomatic service in the late 1830s and early 1840s; he left diplomatic service in the 1860s to pursue his literary career full time. He seems to have been an opinionated, iconoclastic man, politically controversial, impatient with both the Left and the Right. He died in 1875 from an overdose of morphine.

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La Famille du Vourdalak was written about 1839 on a trip to France, while Tolstoy was with the Russian Embassy in Frankfurt. It is the story of a womanizing French diplomat, the Marquis d’Urfé, who encounters a Serbian family (with a beautiful daughter, naturally), whose patriarch disappears into the mountains to hunt down a bandit who has been terrorizing the countryside. Before leaving, he warns his family not to let him back into the fold if he is gone more than ten days, because by that time he may have been turned into a vourdalak (vampire). Luckily, he returns home just in the nick of time — or did he?

The story is told in flashback, during an evening round of ghost stories (a traditional winter tale format, which is one of the reasons I picked this story).

A vourdalak, by the way, is a made-up beastie. Tolstoy probably based the name on the Serbian term for the werewolf, vlkoslak, though Sabine Baring-Gould claimed that the same term also refers to vampires:

The Serbs connect the vampire and the were-wolf together, and call them by one name vlkoslak. These rage chiefly in the depths of winter: they hold their annual gatherings, and at them divest themselves of their wolf-skins, which they hang on the trees around them. If any one succeeds in obtaining the skin and burning it, the vlkoslak is thenceforth disenchanted. [The Book of Were-Wolves, 1865]

Tolstoy’s description of the vourdalak is a bit different:

I should explain to you, mesdames, that vourdalaks, as the Slavic peoples call vampires, are believed in those countries to be dead bodies that come out of their graves to suck the blood of the living. Their habits are similar to those of all vampires, from any country, but they have one characteristic that makes them even more dreadful. The vourdalaks, mesdames, prefer to suck the blood of their closest relatives and dearest friends who, once dead, become vampires in turn. They claim that in Bosnia and Hungary entire villages have become vourdalaks.

You can see where this might be a problem.

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Winter Tale Time! The House on the Cliff

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It’s that time of the year again! Winter tale season is here!

There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories– Ghost Stories, or more shame for us–round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.

— Charles Dickens, “The Christmas Tree”

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. Every year, I try to share a few good winter tales, and other Christmas-related stories, to celebrate the season.

This year, I’ll start with a story from W. J. Wintle’s Ghost Gleams (1921), which I’ve posted about previously. The stories in this collection were originally tales told ’round a campfire to the boys who attended the school at Caldey Abbey, in Wales. Not all of the stories are creepy, but of the ones that were, my favorite was “The House on The Cliff”.

Cyril stood there as the sun sank down in a bed of opal grey flushed with purple sapphire; and long flashing feathers of ruby played across the drowsy waves. A passing boatman saw him from the distance outlined against the sky, and wondered who it could be: and that was the last time that any human eye saw him alive.

Poor Cyril. All he wanted was some peace and quiet. Normally, a week at a quiet cottage by the sea with nothing but my books would be my ideal getaway — which just added to the creepiness of this story, for me. To be honest, I think that Wintle could have dropped the last paragraph, but overall, this one is pleasantly shivery, especially when read alone in bed late at night.

Enjoy.


You can read more about the Ghost Gleams collection (including where to download it) in this previous post.

You can find all the winter tales that I’ve shared on my Winter Tales page.

The image above is from the cover of The Cottage on the Cliff (1834) by Catherine G. Ward. Courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Chatting with the Books Spirits Again

I meant to put up a Halloween post this year, continuing the book-scrying theme that I started last year. Alas, the last couple of weeks have been ridiculously busy, and I missed the date. But today is All Saints’ Day, and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, also known as Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos — a time to remember and honor those who have gone before us. So I can still put up a book-scrying post, as a way of honoring writers from the past and the wisdom of the words that they’ve left to us.

Besides, it’s fun.

Here’s the procedure: write down the question, close my eyes, open the book at random, and point. Read the sentence or paragraph at my fingertip.

This year I chose The Book of Fantasy, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. It was a glorious mistake, this choice, because I really have just barely the time to squeeze out this post, but I haven’t read the book in a long time, and now I want to…

Skull book

So here we go.

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Reading The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories

I re-discovered this book in a box in my garage a few weeks ago. I didn’t remember much about it, other than feeling underwhelmed the first time I read it (hence, banishment to the garage). On impulse, I fished the book out of the box and brought it back inside with me. I’m glad I did.

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The book is a collection of thirteen stories selected from several thousand that were submitted to the first Times of London ghost story competition, held in 1975. The competition’s judges included Kingsley Amis, Patricia Highsmith, and actor Christopher Lee. The competition awarded four prizes: a First and Second prize, and two consolation prizes. I don’t know if the judges also selected the additional nine stories that were included in this collection, but whoever did had a good eye. There are two eventually-to-become-notable literary names, neither of whom had published before this contest: Penelope Fitzgerald and Julian Barnes.

The book improved for me on this second reading. I suspect that when I read the book the first time around, my idea of “ghost story” was fairly narrow, colored mostly by pulp fiction, a la the classic Weird Tales magazine. The stories in this collection, for the most part, are not like that: there are fewer twist endings, and relatively little classic horror. Since then, my ghost story reading has expanded, especially after I discovered the editor Ellen Datlow and her anthologies. I’m in a better position now to properly appreciate the Times anthology. Also, this time around, I found myself making connections with other “real life” phenomena that maybe influenced the stories, which added to the fun.

It looks like The Times still runs that competition, but a casual google search didn’t turn up subsequent anthologies. If you can find this collection, and you’re also an Ellen Datlow fan, I definitely think you should give it a try. Here a few stories that caught my eye, in no particular order.

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It’s the Season of Peril Again!

NewImageImage: Jennifer Gordon and Roman Sirotin, for RIP

Thanks to Acid Free Pulp for reminding me: it’s time for that annual Fall reading challenge R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, which runs from the beginning of September until Halloween. I did this last year, and it was fun not only to share the stories I read with a new (to me) audience, but also to read about the books and stories that they liked, as well. I found a lot of new book blogs that way.

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As with last year, I’m going to do this in a small way; I already know this will be a busy fall. I’m committing to two books that I’ve been meaning to read for forever, and this is the perfect time:

  • Lower Myths by Eliza Victoria. Nancy Cudis at the memoriter mentioned this one a long long time ago, and it’s time for me to take it off my “To Read” list.
  • The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

Again like last year, I’ll participate in Peril of the Short Story on the side. Looking over my entries from last year, I notice that the collections and anthologies that I said I would be sampling from weren’t the ones I ended up reading, but here’s my planned list, anyway:

  • The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories.Yes, I used this one last year, but it’s huge, and I still haven’t finished it. Though I’ve loved everything I’ve read in it, so far.
  • The Best Horror of the Year, 4. Ellen Datlow. ‘Nuff said.
  • Great British Horror, Vol 1

And a bonus! While doing research for my last post, I came upon Paul Wegener’s Weimar-era silent film The Golem. I was already planning to watch it and blog about it; it will fit nicely into Peril on the Screen.

And on we go!

Kitaro and the Beast with Five Fingers

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Ge Ge no Kitaro is quite possibly the single most famous Japanese manga series you’ve never heard of, even if you happen to be a manga fan.

— Matt Alt, from the introduction to Drawn and Quarterly’s new Kitaro collection

Except for Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work and the series Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (written by Eiji Ōtsuka and drawn by Housui Yamazaki), I don’t read manga; nor am I an expert on Japanese folklore. So I confess, I hadn’t heard of Kitaro or of his creator Shigeru Mizuki until recently. But when I found out that Mizuki is a cultural anthropologist as well as being the creator of one of the most enduring yokai (supernatural being, shape-shifter, “spirit monster”) characters in Japanese popular culture, I was sold. After all, one of the reasons that Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service resonates with me so much is because Ōtsuka is also an anthropologist and folklorist. The way he weaves traditional folkloric elements into his stories, with a twist, really appeals to me — for example, a story about Japanese ghost marriages where the ghosts of the deceased grooms want living brides (who don’t stay that way long).

So with that in mind, a series about a little yokai boy who uses his supernatural powers to help humans, written by an author who is an expert on Japanese folklore (and folklore in general) seemed right up my alley. Plus, Mr. Mizuki just sounds fascinating. And now the new Kitaro collection (which showcases tales from 1967-1969) is here with me, and NonNonBa and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths (both memoir works) are on my list.

The first two stories in the collection were a bit disappointing. They were too sketchy, the narrative jumped along too abruptly. They felt like outlines of stories that he never got around to writing. But the third story, “Cruise to Hell”, was great, and I’ve hit my groove with the collection. Plus, I did get a little unexpected treat from the first story, “The Hand”, which is the reason for this post… .

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“Nothing” in Polish is “Nic”: A Lem Fairy Tale

Fairy tales disguised as science fiction. That’s how I described Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad in the last post, so I thought that I’d share one with you. It’s kind of Lem’s version of the Fall of Adam and Eve, except with machinery (Trurl and Klaplaucius are constructor robots). I’m just going to retell it, but you should really read the original, which is online at Lem’s official website (maintained by his son, I think). I can’t do justice to Lem’s lovely wordplay, or to Michael Kandel’s impressive translation of it, either.

NewImageStanisław Lem in 1966, courtesy of his secretary, Wojciech Zemek.
Image: Wikipedia

How The World Was Saved

One day Trurl the constructor invented a machine that could create anything — as long as it started with the letter N. Trurl had it make needles and nankeens for the needles to stitch into negligees; narghiles that were filled with “nepenthe and numerous other narcotics”; numbuses, noodles, neutrons and naiads. He tried to get the machine to make natrium — that’s salt in Latin — but the machine said nothing doing.

“Look, old boy,” said the machine, “if I could do everything that started with n in every possible language, I’d be a Machine That Could Do Everything in the Whole Alphabet… . It’s not that easy.”

After Trurl was satisfied with his machine’s performance, he called his friend Klapaucius over to show off the machine. Trurl lavished such praise on his creation that Klapaucius got maybe a teensy bit jealous. Certainly, he got a lot annoyed. He asked Trurl if he might test out the machine himself. Trurl agreed.

Klapaucius asked the machine to make Nature.

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On Reading Stanislaw Lem; and a pointer to my other blog

I tripped over this old post by Acid Free Pulp the other day, and I had to laugh at her offhand remark about one of her bigger misadventures in teaching undergrads:

Valis might not be the best selection to teach to 19-year-olds.

If you read Philip K. Dick, you’ll know why I thought that was so funny.

It reminded me of a long ago conversation with a friend, S; I’d told him that Stanislaw Lem was my current favorite author. He asked for a recommendation. I recommended the first book that popped into my mind (probably because I’d just finished reading it): Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

Do you read Lem? You’ll understand why Acid Free Pulp’s anecdote reminded me of this. Memoirs didn’t go over well with S.

My then-boyfriend-now-husband, on hearing the story, just shook his head. “Try Tales of Pirx the Pilot,” he told S. “or The Cyberiad.” S took the second suggestion; it went over much better.

P1020451Why yes, we do have two copies of The Cyberiad: one for me, one for hubby.
Photo: Nina Zumel

I don’t know why I didn’t recommend The Cyberiad; it’s my favorite of all Lem’s work. It’s labeled as science fiction, and it’s about robots and involves space travel; but it’s only sci-fi in the same sense that The Martian Chronicles are sci-fi. Really, both of those books are collections of fables or fairy tales, disguised as science fiction.

Anyway, these thoughts got me flipping through The Cyberiad again, and inspired a little post on my other blog, partly about how hard it must be to translate the book. Lem could toss discussions about mathematics and statistics around like a pro, which is why the post is over there, but readers here might enjoy it, too.

Or if that’s not your speed, here’s another post from BLT on Dick, Lem, and Bradbury, written when Bradbury passed away last year.

Life From Death: Dema Deities

This is the story that started my current mini-obsession with food origin myths: the story of Ogetsuhime, as mentioned in volume 13 of the horror manga The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Note that the panels read right to left (and so do the voice balloons).

Ogetsuhime

Ogetsuhime is a Shinto goddess of food and grain, and is also associated with Inari (or Oinari), the goddess of rice. The story above is similar to the story of Dewi Sri, the Javanese rice goddess, that I posted a few days ago. Though the vomiting and defecating of the banquet food in the Japanese tale is… different.

There is an Indonesian tale (from the Molucca Islands) with the same motif: Hainuwele, the coconut girl.

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Cranky Thoughts about Language

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Photo: Paul Zumel

Poger Rock: a “forgotten, moribund collection of buildings tucked into the base of wooded valley” in rural Washington State.

Next to a dumpster, a pair of mongrel dogs were locked in coitus, patiently facing opposite directions, Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu for the twenty-first century.

And about a paragraph later, the protagonist limps into a bar — excuse me, a tavern — where a stuffed black wolf “snarled atop a dias near the entrance.”

Hmmm, I think as I read this. The author is trying a bit too hard, isn’t he? Because this is a horror story, light reading. But I kept reading anyway, because certainly, I am often guilty of trying too hard, myself. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to throw away the first thing I write after having read Nabokov, because I fall so in love with his language — so beautiful, so luminous — that I try to emulate it. It doesn’t work, mostly because I’m not Nabokov, but also because, honestly, the subjects I tend to write about don’t lend themselves to his style. That’s how I felt about the use of language in this piece.

I read far enough to learn that the protagonist was fleeing from her abusive husband, to a remote hunting cabin where she was staying with her lover. I suffered through said lover discovering an old fur cloak in a hunting blind in the woods. Oh, and by the way, did you know the man who built this cabin was driven out of Scandinavia because of rumors that he was responsible for the gory unexplained murders in his village? And that Scandinavian legend says that to wear the skin of the beast is to become the beast? All this information was given to me in a fire hose of exposition, the kind that makes for awkward narrative and really clumsy dialog. I stopped reading and went to the next story.

Last, the bullet blooms agains steel. Still almost pristine until that moment, now its conical head flattens. Its copper jacket splinters into shrapnel needles, wire-fine, scattering. The core splashes, the force of impact so great that cold metal splatters like syrup, droplets blossoming in an elegant chrysanthemum. The butt of the casing flattens against the engine block for a split second before it peels away and falls.

But it’s already exited the girl, and the girl is falling.

That’s the opening of “The Romance”, by Elizabeth Bear. I had to read those lines a few times, because I was still in a bad mood from the last story, and my brain refused to work at parsing the “fancy language”. But in the end it was worth it. The narrative cuts back and forth between the slow-motion shooting above, and a middle-aged children’s librarian who is attending a fiftieth-birthday party that features a haunted carousel. Naturally, I was hyper-vigilant for clumsy exposition, but Ms. Bear managed to inform me of the carousel’s history, and the protagonist’s history, without irritating me. She even used the phrase “the ineffable,” and I didn’t hurl the book across the room. It’s all about having a light touch.

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