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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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.

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.