The Italian’s Story

The letter of introduction 1813 1 jpg Large

I’ve been reading Catherine Crowe’s Ghosts and Family Legends (1859) over lunch break the last several days. Those of you who have read Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted, the chronicles of the ghost-hunting, turn-of-the-twentieth-century journalist Vera van Slyke, know that Ms. Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature was Vera’s trustiest reference tome. I believe she actually wore out her copy at some point in the book. Like The Night Side of Nature, Ghosts and Family Legends is a collection of “true” ghostly anecdotes, in this case told over the course of several evenings at a Christmas gathering.

Though it may surprise some of my readers, I’m not actually that interested in true ghost story anecdotes, at least not as reading material. Most true ghost anecdotes — most true anecdotes, period — lack narrative structure, and almost always have no closure. They may be great recreation when told to you by your grandmother, or by your friends on a dark winter’s night while drinking hot toddies, but fiction generally makes better reading. Most of the stories in the first half of Ghosts and Family Legends are no exception. Still, I’m always on the lookout for novel stories to share with you during the winter tales season, and a few of the anecdotes are well-structured enough (and fun enough) that I may feature them come December.

The second half of the collection is called “Legends of the Earthbound,” and (so far) these seem to be fully structured stories. It’s not clear if these are still stories told to Ms. Crowe by others, or whether they are fiction written by her (I assume the second). Either way, they are enjoyable reading, and I thought I’d share one with you today.

Our family claims to be of great antiquity, but we were not very wealthy till about the latter half of the 16th century, when Count Jacopo Ferraldi made very considerable additions to the property; not only by getting, but also by saving—he was in fact a miser. Before that period the Ferraldis had been warriors, and we could boast of many distinguished deeds of arms recorded in our annals; but Jacopo, although by the death of his brother, he ultimately inherited the title and the estates, had begun life as a younger son, and being dissatisfied with his portion, had resolved to increase it by commerce.

So begins the story of Count Francesco Ferraldi, about his ancestor Jacopo Ferraldi, a truly detestable man. This one is kind of two ghost stories (and two haunted houses) in one, but it isn’t the ghosts that are scary. It’s the man.

You can read “The Italian’s Story” here (a pdf download), or you can download the entire Ghosts and Family Legends from Project Gutenberg.


Image: The Letter of Introduction, David Wilkie (1813). Source: WikiArt. It may seem an odd choice of image, but it’s relevant to the story.

O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).

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Kwaidan (Ghost Story)

THERE was a young Samurai of Kyōto who had been reduced to poverty by the ruin of his lord, and found himself obliged to leave his home, and to take service with the Governor of a distant province. Before quitting the capital, this Samurai divorced his wife,—a good and beautiful woman,—under the belief that he could better obtain promotion by another alliance. He then married the daughter of a family of some distinction, and took her with him to the district whither he had been called.

— “The Reconciliation” from Shadowings, by Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan (1965), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The film consists of four short stories, taken from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn.


At first, it seemed odd to me that a Japanese film, about Japanese folklore, should be based explicitly on versions of this folklore as rendered by a westerner — even a westerner as fully assimilated into Japanese culture as Hearn apparently was. Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece, raised in Ireland, lived much of his adult life as an American, and finally moved to Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen in 1895. He taught English literature at the Imperial University in Tokyo, changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi, and married a Japanese woman. His previous wife, in Cincinnati, was African-American — this, at a time when miscegenation was illegal in the United States. Although he is best known for his writings on Japan, he also wrote extensively on New Orleans, where he lived for about ten years. In a sort of foreshadowing of his future Asia-based writings, he wrote the first known article (for Harper’s Bazaar) about Filipinos in America: the “Manilamen” of Saint Malo, Louisiana.

On the face of it — especially when reading his lovely prose — one might accuse him of Orientalism — that is, of promoting an overly romantic view of the far East, especially Japan. On the other hand, much of what I’ve read while researching him for this post suggests that Hearn was a champion of “cultural miscegenation”. His goal was not to appropriate the cultures of The Other — the Creoles of Louisiana, the Japanese — but to try to understand them (and encourage understanding of them), to find the commonalities in all human experience, and to create literature, colored by his own multicultural, “perpetual outsider” experiences.

And as far as I can tell, his writings on Japan are looked on favorably by Japanese readers and folklorists, even now. So it’s not so surprising, after all, that Kobayashi would base his film on Hearn’s stories.

So. Back to the movie.

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Saltair and the Carnival of Souls

Saltair III on an overcast March evening.
Photo: Nina Zumel

I was in Salt Lake City all this past week, on business. It’s a beautiful area, the Salt Lake Basin, and the weather was fantastic. It’s too bad I had to spend most of my time indoors, in meetings and working sessions. Being able to see the snow-frosted peaks of the Rockies in every direction whenever I did step outside almost made up for that — but only almost. One of these days, I’m going to take an extra weekend after visiting our Salt Lake client, to hike and really see the Great Salt Lake, but this trip I had to make do with a quick trip to the Saltair Pavilion, on the shore of the lake, before heading to the airport for home.

It was after hours (and off season, of course), so the gates to the pavilion were closed. The clouds had thickened, and a chill settled in after a week of unseasonably warm weather. The lake stank of sulfur. I didn’t want to scramble through the fence in my business clothes, so I contented myself with a few snapshots from the road while a few curious roadies (Saltair is a concert venue now) looked on.

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Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts

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I found this in the “Customers Also Bought” section while buying an ebook version of Stephen King’s Different Seasons — another great collection. Hill is King’s son, and also writes horror, as well as mainstream fiction. 20th Century Ghosts is mostly a mix of horror and fantastic realism, with a few mainstream fictions thrown in.

It’s interesting to see the themes that repeat in multiple stories: Sons’ relationships with their fathers, or with their brothers — sometimes positive, sometimes not. Boyhood school friendships. Autism and other developmental disabilities. Missing children. Child abuse. Fratricide. Patricide. There’s a certain ambiguity in how mothers are represented, leaning towards the negative.

Some of the tales could be classified as supernatural horror, but the horror element isn’t from the supernatural, but from the prosaic: a child predator, or from some latent sociopathic tendencies in one of the characters. The supernatural instead often serves a positive function in the story. For instance, in one story, the ghosts of previous abduction victims find a way to help the current kidnapped child.

My two favorite stories aren’t horror; one isn’t even fantastic. “Better than Home” is a sweet story of an autistic boy’s relationship with his father, the coach of a losing baseball team. “Pop Art” is about a “tough kid” and his friendship with the class bully-bait, a boy named Arthur with a hereditary condition: he was born inflatable. It’s also a story about death, and loss, and letting go. I read it on a plane, and I’m sure the flight attendant wondered why I was crying. Hill writes boys’ relationships — with parents, with siblings, but especially with other boys — really well.

When your best friend is ugly — I mean bad ugly, deformed — you don’t kid them about shattering mirrors. In a friendship, especially in a friendship between two young boys, you are allowed to inflict a certain amount of pain. This is even expected. But you must cause no serious injury; you must never, under any circumstances, leave wounds that will result in permanent scars.

— From “Pop Art”

“Dead-Wood” reminded me of Jack Cady, though it was too short to be a satisfying story. More of a sketch, really. “My Father’s Mask” felt a bit like Thomas Ligotti, at least I think it did. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ligotti (he’s not my favorite author). “Best New Horror” was the weakest story, in my opinion. It went exactly where you knew it would, although Christopher Golden, in the collection’s Introduction, argues that this is as it should be, for that piece.

Overall, a beautiful collection of tales, especially if you like a dose of the fantastic. Recommended.

Truth like Fiction

Just a quick post today. I finished the Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and I still want to write something about the witch-trials that Scott describes, when I have more time. Today, I’ll just share a story with you from Letter 10.

This letter is about allegedly true ghost stories that are demonstrably non-ghost stories. I like this story because it takes an ordinary and “plausible” ghost story (plausible, if one admits the existence of ghosts, I mean), and gives it an utterly contrived sounding explanation.

“The Spectre Skeleton” by George Cruikshank. Illustration for The Letters


This is directly from Letter 10, slightly re-formatted.

A club of persons connected with science and literature was formed at [Plymouth]. During the summer months the society met in a cave by the seashore; during those of autumn and winter they convened within the premises of a tavern, but, for the sake of privacy, had their meeting in a summer-house situated in the garden, at a distance from the main building. Some of the members to whom the position of their own dwellings rendered this convenient, had a pass-key to the garden-door, by which they could enter the garden and reach the summer-house without the publicity or trouble of passing through the open tavern.

It was the rule of this club that its members presided alternately. On one occasion, in the winter, the president of the evening chanced to be very ill; indeed, was reported to be on his death-bed. The club met as usual, and, from a sentiment of respect, left vacant the chair which ought to have been occupied by him if in his usual health; for the same reason, the conversation turned upon the absent gentleman’s talents, and the loss expected to the society by his death.

While they were upon this melancholy theme, the door suddenly opened, and the appearance of the president entered the room. He wore a white wrapper, a nightcap round his brow, the appearance of which was that of death itself. He stalked into the room with unusual gravity, took the vacant place of ceremony, lifted the empty glass which stood before him, bowed around, and put it to his lips; then replaced it on the table, and stalked out of the room as silent as he had entered it.

The company remained deeply appalled; at length, after many observations on the strangeness of what they had seen, they resolved to dispatch two of their number as ambassadors, to see how it fared with the president, who had thus strangely appeared among them. They went, and returned with the frightful intelligence that the friend after whom they had enquired was that evening deceased.

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The Haunting at Frodis-Water

Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, 16th Century. Wikipedia

Sir Walter Scott tells a shortened version of this story in Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft; it is from The Eyrbyggja Saga (The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers) from Iceland. My retelling here is based on the 1892 English translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson. The story encompasses Chapters 50 – 55 of the saga.

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From Letter 3: River Gods and Revenant Warriors

Franklin, Massachusetts. I just spent two straight days lecturing all day (ten lessons!) on statistics and machine learning. Exhausting. Now I’m curled up in my hotel wishing I had some hot cocoa to go with the snow, and the artificial gas fireplace in my room. Oh well.

As promised (or threatened?):Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Here, Scott traces how early belief systems of the Celts, Germans and Nordic peoples contributed to the demonology of the subsquent Christian-dominated culture in Scotland and other parts of Great Britain. This is much like the inversion theory we’ve talked about before, with respect to aswang (manananggal) or penanggalan.

Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, 13th Century. Image: Wikipedia

Scott lists a number of examples. I’ll mention one: “Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic”. I think the Nixas that Scott mentions is the same as Nikkar, or Nichus, the Scandinavian ocean god. Nikkar is apparently the incarnation of the destructive aspects of Odin (see Harland, below, as well as the “Note by Karl Haupt” beneath this Polish folktale about Nixes). According to John Harland, in Lancashire Folklore (1867), Nikkar metamorphized by the Middle Ages into St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. From Nikkar probably also came “Old Nick”, by way of the water monsters known as Necks. And “Old Nick”, of course, is slang for the devil.

But I really want to talk about something else: two of the Nordic folktales that Scott mentions. Not because they fit in the inversion thesis, but just because they’re cool. I’ll do one today, and one (hopefully) tomorrow.

 …it was a favourite fancy of [the Norsemen] that, in many instances, the change from life to death altered the temper of the human spirit from benignant to malevolent; or perhaps, that when the soul left the body, its departure was occasionally supplied by a wicked demon, who took the opportunity to enter and occupy its late habitation.

This leads us to the story of Asmund and Assueit, two Norse chieftains and brothers-in-arms. The two were so devoted to each other that they took a vow that when one of them died, the survivor would go down into the sepulchre, or burial mound, and be buried alive with his friend. How very Egyptian of them. In fact, the burial mound also  contained (by tradition I assume) the dead man’s arms, swords, and war trophies.

This image was first published in the 1 st (18...
Image via Wikipedia

Assueit died first, killed in battle. Asmund kept his promise. Their soldiers buried them both, along with their war horses. And that was the end of it, for about a century, until a Swedish rover and his men wandered through the region. The locals told him the story of Asmund and Assueit (including the part about the arms and trophies). The rover decided to liberate the buried treasure, and ordered his men to open the sepulchre.

But when they did, they heard the sounds of battle coming from inside: yelling, the clang of swords hitting swords, swords crashing against armor. They lowered one of their men down into the tomb by a rope to investigate. When they pulled the rope back up, rather than their man, they recovered — Asmund, battered and scratched and mangled.

Asmund fell on his knees before the Swedes and recited —  in verse, apparently — his life for the past one hundred years. No sooner did their soldiers close up the tomb when Assuiet rose up, reanimated by some ghoul or demon. A hungry one, it seems, because the first thin Assueit did was devour both the war horses. Then he tried to eat Asmund. Asmund picked up a sword to defend himself, and the struggle lasted the entire century — I guess until just after the Swedes opened the tomb. Finally Asmund subdued the demon and drove a stake through the body, destroying him.

After finishing his story, Asmund fell down dead at their feet. The Swedes recovered Assueit’s body, burned it, and scattered the ashes. Then they reburied Asmund in the tomb.

I assume they took all the arms and trophies before they left.