Reading Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales

As Chris Baldick pointed out in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, gothic fiction arose (and still thrives) as a reaction to “the tyranny of the past” — historically, the tyranny of the Catholic Church; but in more modern times, the tyranny of repressive societal mores or dysfunctional family histories. So if I wanted to be a cranky person, I could argue that the stories collected in Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century are not strictly gothic, because they evoke nostalgia for the past as a reaction to the tyranny of the present: to be specific, the tyranny of the newly emerging Communist state.

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But they feel gothic. If you didn’t know anything about the socio-political milieu in which these stories were written (especially the earlier ones), you would unhesitatingly class them as such. And now that the Soviet Union is downstream of us in history, maybe these stories can indeed be considered true examples of the genre.

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Marjorie Bowen’s The Bishop of Hell

This is the second of two reviews of Wordsworth collections by women horror writers I’d never read before. The first review, of D.K. Broster, is here.

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Marjorie Bowen is a guilty pleasure.

Walled-in women, “ruined” women, poisoning, strangulation, stabbing, crimes of passion and revenge, even a strange fish monster. The tales in The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories are sensational, pulpy, almost lurid, and occasionally melodramatic. They are very much in the spirit of late 18th and early 19th century gothic fiction. I’d call them over-the-top, but having read actual early gothic literature, I’d have to say that Bowen’s stories are restrained, compared to the real thing.

And I rather like them.

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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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Reading The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales


The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick, Editor.
Oxford University Press, originally published 1992; Second edition 2009.

This has been on my “to-read” list for several months, since about the time that I wrote my post on American Gothic Tales, an anthology I’m quite fond of. One of the commenters on the post, while generally praising the collection, took issue with editor Joyce Carol Oates’ definition (or non-definition) of gothic fiction.

I think Oates here is conflating the gothic, horror, black comedy, and social commentary genres. In the end, the stories in the anthology are good, but I think that a collection such as The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales or Oxford’s Late Victorian Gothic Tales represented a truer sampling of what is conventionally meant by “gothic” (although without the focus on American authorship.)

— Theophrastus, from his comment on my earlier post

So, of course, I found The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. By coincidence, Anil Balan over at Ghost Cities recently wrote a post discussing gothic fiction and its history, so I won’t rehash what he’s already said quite eloquently. I’ll just quote editor Chris Baldick’s pithy one-liner:

Gothic fiction is characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay.

Nice, if oversimplified. According to Baldick, the theme of gothic fiction is the tyranny of the past; the decaying mansion or other claustrophobic physical space that serves as the setting for the story symbolizes the inability of the protagonist to escape that past. Historically, the “tyranny of the past” was the tyranny of the Catholic Church (gothic has its origins in Protestant countries, particularly with “the British and Anglo-Irish middle class”). As this tyranny faded into history (as far as readers were concerned), it was replaced with more relevant forms: family skeletons, repressive social mores, patriarchal society.

And that is the definition that Chris Baldick used to select the stories in this collection.

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A Summer Gothic

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The view out my front window right now. See that marine layer way off in the distance?
Usually it sits right on top of us, this time of year.
Photo: Nina Zumel

It’s summer!!! For most of you (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), this is hardly news. But when you live in San Francisco (and especially in my specific neighborhood), this is a very big deal. The fog usually saunters up my street on Memorial Day (for all intents and purposes, the U.S. beginning of summer), and squats over my house like a hen on an egg until the end of Fogust — I mean, August. And then, if we are lucky, the three month twilight lifts.

This year has been quite the exception. All those cute tank tops and summer skirts that I tossed when I moved back to San Francisco from Pittsburgh and never missed? I miss them now. I finally remember again what summer mornings and summer sunsets look like. It’s an epiphany.

So, to celebrate, here’s a little gothic tale with a decidedly non-“goth” atmosphere: Sheridan Le Fanu’s “A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family”, from 1839. I first read it in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (which I plan to post about, soon. Well, soon-ish); some people think it is one of the inspirations for Jane Eyre. It does indeed feature an ancient family castle, but there is nothing gloomy about this castle at all — from the outside.

Enjoy.

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Free Reading!

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There’s some kind of irony in the fact that I bought my e-reader device (an iPad) mostly to read free books, but there it is. I mentioned in a previous post, that the e-reader has expanded the range of authors that I’ve read; this is partially because I can find things that I might not stumble upon in a library, or a bookstore. It’s also because there is a feeling of low commitment with an etext, particularly a free one. No time limit as with a library book; no issues about taking up precious shelf space. Once I have it, I can read it, or not. This leads me to pick up etexts that I might not pick up physically — often to my benefit.

But where to go for all this classic, public-domain (and most importantly: free!) reading? I’m sure you all have your favorite sites; these are mine. Not all of these site provide ebooks, as such; some of them provide pdfs, and others only html. All of them are interesting. The list, it goes without saying, is slanted towards my own tastes.

Here we go:

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Puritanism and American Gothic

The New England Puritans were an intolerant people whose theology could not have failed to breed paranoia, if not madness, in the sensitive among them. Consider, for instance, the curious Covenant of Grace, which taught that only those men and women upon whom God sheds His grace are saved… those excluded from God’s grace…are not only not saved, but damned.

— Joyce Carol Oates, Introduction to American Gothic Tales

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Photo: John Mount

Following on our notion from the last post that gothic horror is the literature of “our awful helplessness” in the face of universal realities, it should come as no surprise that early American Gothic literature shows the strong influence of the Puritan mindset.

The first selection in Oates’ anthology is an excerpt from the 1798 novel Wieland, or The Transformation, by Charles Brockden Brown. Theodore Wieland is a man of obsessional piety: “God is the object of my supreme passion,” he states. In the chapter that Ms. Oates excerpts, he is testifying on his own behalf, while on trial for a terrible crime.

My days have been spent in searching for the revelation of that will; but my days have been mournful, because my search failed…. I turned on every side where glimmerings of light could be discovered. I have not been wholly uninformed; but my knowledge has always stopped short of certainty. Dissatisfaction has insinuated itself into all my thoughts.

Dissatisfaction, because he has not achieved the epiphany, the ultimate knowledge of God that he has been working all his life to gain. All the same, he is apparently prone to fits of mystical ecstacy.

At first every vein beat with raptures known only to the man whose parental and conjugal love is without limits, and the cup of whose desires, immense as it is, overflows with gratification. I know not why emotions that were perpetual visitants should now have recurred with unusual energy….The author of my being was likewise the dispenser of every gift with which that being was embellished. The service to which a benefactor like this was entitled, could not be circumscribed.

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Reading American Gothic Tales

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American Gothic Tales.
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. 1996.

I pulled this off the shelf a few posts ago, thinking to use a quote from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Once it was in my hands, of course, I couldn’t resist dipping back into it.

I generally take “Gothic fiction” to be code for either horror or romance fiction. In particular, older (pre-twentieth century) horror, or costume romance. H.P. Lovecraft, in his critical appraisal of weird literature, Supernatural Horror in Fiction, put the origin of Gothic at The Castle of Otranto, published 1764. It established the key elements of both Gothic romance and Gothic horror: a mouldering, isolated Gothic castle; its mysterious Lord; a young innocent heroine; weird happenings, possibly supernatural, in the halls of the castle.

The genre branched out, eventually, but there is a certain madness, a “stormy castle” feeling that one associates with works that are considered Gothic: Poe’s horror, for example, or Frankenstein.

That said, I’m not sure how Ms. Oates defines Gothic. The supernatural is well represented, though castles are nowhere to be seen (thank goodness). But her definition doesn’t require the supernatural; “A Rose for Emily” isn’t supernatural, neither is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” Her list of must-haves does not include death: no one dies in Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids,” or in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”

Madness? Plenty of that. But not in Sherwood Anderson’s harshly beautiful “Death in the Woods,” nor again in “The Tartarus of Maids.” Although you could argue that both of these stories tell of madness in the large, the insanity of The Way Things Are.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the modern definition of Gothic horror: the terror of the world, our awful helplessness in the face of its (possibly “supernatural”) realities. I think Lovecraft would approve.

At any rate, it’s a fun collection, organized more or less chronologically from about 1798 to about 1996, the better to see the progression of this style of tale, at least as Ms. Oates sees it. It’s mostly classic American authors of weird fiction: Poe, Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti. Henry James and Edith Wharton, of course (“Afterward” is one of my favorite Wharton stories). And the stories include many that you would expect: “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Black Cat,” several that I’ve mentioned above.

There are also some authors that you might not expect. Sherwood Anderson, I’ve mentioned. We also get stories from Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, John Cheever. John L’Heureux’s “The Anatomy of Desire” — have you read it? Unforgettable.

Obviously, I love this anthology, but if you are thinking about picking it up, I would go to the Amazon link above and look through the table of contents, because anyone even remotely interested in this genre will have at least of few of the stories already. You want to make sure that what you don’t have, you are actually interested in reading.

I’ve been dipping in the early part of the collection, so far. I even have another post planned, about the early, Puritan-influenced tales represented in this collection. But this is probably enough for right now.