Winter Tales Time! The Festival

Winter Tales time already! I’ve had a tradition on the blog for several years now: from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I share some 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.

327px The Shadow over Innsmouth by Mushstone

It snuck up on me this year, and I’m starting a little late and a bit unprepared, but there’s a silver lining. While rummaging amongst the files and lists on my computer for a good story to open with, I found a cache of tales that I’d forgotten about. So I can start this year’s round off strong, with a story a bit different from what I usually present: The Festival, a tale of Yuletide horror from H. P. Lovecraft.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden…

The narrator journeys to spooky New England, in accordance with family tradition, to participate in a once-every-century winter festival. What he experiences is ancient, eldritch, and adjective-laden.

I poke fun at Lovecraft’s style, but this story has moments of evocative atmosphere and genuine creepiness. I don’t think I’ll look at Midnight Mass in quite the same way this year.

So find a hot beverage and a warm blanket, and kick off this year’s Winter Tale season with a Cthulu Christmas story.

You can download “The Festival” here.


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


Featured image: The Nameless City, leothefox (2013). Source: Wikimedia

The Shadow over Innsmouth, TY Kim (Mushstone), (2012). Source: Wikimedia

Musings on The Bone Key

From my readings of his work, and about his life, M. R. James seems to have been a warm and gentle person, well-liked, with a joyous enthusiasm for his research, his writing, and other related interests (folklore and detective stories among them). I admire his ghost stories, his essays about ghost stories, and what I’ve read of his scholarly work, and I think that I would have liked him as a person.

I also get the impression that he was rather conservative in outlook. He didn’t seem particularly warm to the idea of women in academia. I think I would have liked him, but I’m not entirely sure that he would have approved of me.

So I find it interesting that some of James’ most prominent (and scholarly) fans are women: Rosemary Pardoe, certainly, and Jacqueline Simpson for the folkloric aspects of James’ work. And now we can add Sarah Monette.

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Vampires in Rhode Island: The Shunned House

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article on the nineteenth century vampire scares of New England. These scares tended to happen in remote, rural, agricultural regions in or near southern Rhode Island, beginning in the late 1700s and going on as recently as 1892. Much as in Eastern European vampire scares, a recently deceased person would be blamed for the further illnesses of people in the region, and the body would be exhumed to check for evidence of vampirism.

Once a vampire was “discovered,” the New Englander’s way of dealing with it was a bit different from the usual holy water and staking that we are used to from the movies. Instead, the heart would be removed from the exhumed body and burned. Some communities believed that inhaling the smoke from the burning heart was a cure for the still-living victims of the vampire’s life-sucking. Others believed that feeding the ashes from the burning heart to the vampire’s victims would cure them. Often, the “vampire” would also be beheaded.

The real vampire? Tuberculosis. TB is a wasting, draining, disease, characterized by fever and a hacking cough; the victims visibly become paler and more emaciated as the disease progresses. It’s also very contagious. Early outbreaks of TB hit New England in the 1730s and became the leading cause of death in New England by the 1800s. Not surprisingly, vampire scares coincided with TB outbreaks.

The last, and one of the most famous, New England vampire cases was that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mercy’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1883, followed soon after by the Browns’ oldest daughter. Mercy’s brother Edwin got sick in 1890, and left for Colorado Springs, hoping that the change in climate would improve his health. Lena didn’t get sick until 1891, and died in January of 1892, at the age of nineteen. By that time, her brother had returned to Exeter, extremely ill.

The people of Exeter believed that one of the Brown women must be a vampire who was feeding on the rest of the family (and from them, probably, on to the rest of the community). They forced Lena’s father, George Brown, to have the womens’ bodies exhumed. The evidence seems to be that George didn’t believe in the vampire theory (the bacterium that caused TB had already been discovered, in 1882), but he gave in to his neighbors. The bodies were exhumed. The bodies of Lena’s mother and sister were in advanced states of decomposition — they had been dead for almost a decade — but Lena’s body, which had only been buried for two months, still showed evidence of fresh blood in the heart. She must be the vampire!

The neighbors took out Lena’s heart and liver and burned them. They fed the ashes to Lena’s brother Edwin. It didn’t work; he died two months later.

A reporter from the Providence Journal was present at the exhumation. His story caused an outrage in the more urban parts of New England. It was picked up by an anthropologist named George Stetson, who eventually published his research in the American Anthropologist, and the story spread all the way to Europe.

NewImageIllustration from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”
Image: Project Gutenberg

Some people believe that Mercy Lena was the inspiration for the character of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was published in 1897, the year after Stetson’s article). She is definitely referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House,” which he wrote in 1924. It was published posthumously in 1937, in the magazine Weird Tales.

Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace…

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Ramblings and Random Linkages

NewImageThe Mad Tea Party, by John Tenniel
Image: Project Gutenberg

A few nights ago, I came across an essay about the 1985 movie Dreamchild, on Cabinet des Fées. It is the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, she of Alice in Wonderland, as an adult, coming to terms with her relationship with Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson).

According to the essay, the movie posits an awkward, somewhat childlike (and apparently chaste) Dodgson, and a Lolita-like young Alice. I get the impression, from the essay, that the film might portray Dodgson as more of the victim of Alice and her siblings, rather than the other way around. Later in life, Alice realizes this, and regrets it.

In real life, there is all kinds of controversy about Dodgson’s relationship with Alice and with her sister Lorina, as well as that little matter of all those photographs of young girls (some of them nude). It’s still a mystery why the Liddell family fell out with Dodgson in 1863. Was it because of Alice? Or Lorina? Or Mrs. Liddell (also named Lorina)?

I haven’t seen Dreamchild yet, but the review was written by Elwin Cotman, whose writing I admire. That doesn’t mean I’ll like everything he likes, of course, but the movie certainly sounds interesting enough to check out.

And then, the next day, I came across a letter by M. R. James, written to Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies. The Davies brothers (George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas) were the foster sons of J. M. Barrie, and the inspirations for Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. From the comments in the introduction to the letter, and other things I’ve read, it sounds like the relationship between Barrie and the brothers was a bit stifling. Certainly, their father was not fond of Barrie when he was alive, and Barrie seems to have gotten guardianship of the boys after their mother’s death through a bit of forgery and twisting of the truth. And there are rumors of pedophilia about Barrie, as well, although Nico denies this.

Nico met M. R. James at Eton, when Nico was an student, about the time that James became Provost. James had the habit of befriending students of a certain age at the school — “not too young, not too old,” as Jack Adrian puts it. He also had a sort of Alice of his own, Jane McBryde, the daughter of James’s close friend James McBryde. James stayed very close to McBryde’s family after McBryde died; and he wrote the children’s fantasy novel, The Five Jars, for Jane. It’s a lovely book; if you like fantasy, and you haven’t read it, I suggest you give it a try. He also wrote her (and her mother, Gwen) extensive letters, filled with fancies like talking birds and snippets of folk tales. Gwen McBryde published the letters in 1956, as Letters to A Friend. I’d love to find a copy of it.

NewImageIllustration for “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” drawn by James McBryde

Unlike Dodgson and Barrie, there are no unseemly rumors about James and his friendships with young people. Gwen McBryde didn’t have any problem with James’s relationship with Jane (from other things I’ve read — sorry, I can’t remember where — if James had a romantic crush on anyone in the family, it would have been James McBryde). The majority opinion of what I’ve read (among those writings that bother to talk about it) is that James was maybe on the homosexual side of asexual. The general consensus is that it’s really nobody’s business. And that’s true, too.

The letter to Nico from James was in a response to a query from Nico, asking for suggestions for a weird fiction collection that Nico was compiling. At the time that James wrote the letter (January 1928), he had just read H.P. Lovecraft’s critical essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, and the response in the letter is framed by that reading. It’s interesting to see James’s opinion of the weird fiction of the time, and earlier. He didn’t care for Frankenstein, surprisingly (I don’t think, from comments made in other writings, that he liked Turn of the Screw, either). He did like Wilkie Collins’ A Haunted Hotel, and Mary Wilkins’ A Wind in the Rosebush. He was so-so on Ambrose Bierce, said nice things about Lafcadio Hearn and didn’t like Arthur Machen. And of course he put in a pitch for Sheridan Le Fanu.

It’s amusing to see how disdainful he is of pretentious writing (as done by critics), especially since he was an academic in a particularly dry field. I’ve read some of his professional work, in particular Old Testament Legends, his study on stories from Biblical Apocrypha, and his study of the origin of blood libel (the legend that Jews kill and eat Christian babies, and related nonsense). Speaking as someone who reads a fair bit of academic writing, Dr. James’ style is refreshingly plain and down-to-earth — not adjectives I associate with professorial writing styles.

I don’t really have a point here, except that I thought stumbling on Carroll, Barrie, and James back-to-back like that was a coincidence worth writing about. It’s interesting to see how the fondness for young people (and I use that expression without snark) influenced the writing of these three men, and how differently it unfolded in their lives.

The links to books above are mostly to Project Gutenberg (hurray for them!); Supernatural Horror in Literature is from Feedbooks, and James’ blood libel essay is from the Ghosts & Scholars website.

Reading American Gothic Tales

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.