Tales of the Dead

In 1812, the French geographer Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès anonymously published a collection called Fantasmagoriana, his translations of eight German supernatural tales. Some four years later, Fantasmagoriana found its way into the hands of a group of young people on holiday in a Swiss villa during an unusually cold, wet, summer. With little else to do, they read Fantasmagoriana to pass the time. Among that group were Mary Shelly and John Polidori, who in the course of that summer wrote, respectively, Frankenstein and the The Vampyre, two influential works that shaped the genres of Gothic literature, horror, and in the case of Frankenstein, science fiction as well.

Castle overlooking a river
Castle Overlooking a River, Maxime Lalanne. Source: WikiArt

In 1813, an Englishwoman named Sara Elizabeth Utterson translated five of the tales from Fantasmagoriana into English; she published these five tales, along with an additional story of her own, as Tales of the Dead. And on a cold, gloomy, foggy San Francisco August afternoon (“the coldest winter…”, as Mark Twain wrote), having discovered this little treasure, I curled up under a blanket and started to read.

Tales of the Dead is not just interesting for its influence on Frankenstein and The Vampyre; it’s enjoyable reading on its own, for fans of gothic tales and old-fashioned ghost stories. Fairy tale and folktale lovers will probably enjoy some of the stories here, too.

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The Seeds of Nero Wolfe

Before ghost stories and the uncanny, crime fiction was my genre of choice. I’ve gone back to reading a lot of mystery lately, especially Golden Age mystery, and
recently I came across an early Rex Stout story — pre Nero Wolfe. The Last Drive (1916) is an enjoyable enough story of its kind, but got more interesting when I realized that this golf-themed mystery is an early version of the central conceit in the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934). Aha!

GolfersMagazine1916cover
The first installment of The Last Drive appeared in the July 1916 issue of Golfers Magazine. Source: Hathi Trust

The Last Drive was originally published as a five-part serial in Golfers Magazine, and had been long forgotten, even by Rex Stout scholars. The story was rediscovered in 2011 by Cattelya Concepcion, then a student at George Mason University School of Law. She and her professor, Ross Davies, published their discovery in the 2012 Green Bag Almanac and Reader, an annual almanac that highlights the previous year’s exemplary legal writing.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Theo Douglas

Today’s authoress of the fantastic is Henrietta Dorothy Everett (1851-1923), who wrote under the name Theo Douglas. Though mostly forgotten today, she wrote some 22 novels, at least half of which were fantastical or supernatural. There isn’t a lot known about her life, but from the descriptions in both the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Wikipedia, her novels look worth digging up, if you are into quirky pulpish stuff [1].

The Death Mask book cover
Book cover for the first edition of The Death Mask (1920). Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Today, however, I’ll talk about Everett’s ghost stories, mostly collected in The Death Mask and Other Ghosts (1920), published under her real name. The Death Mask drew notice from both M. R. James (“of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories”[2]) and H. P. Lovecraft (“though adhering to very old and conventional models, [she] occasionally reaches singular heights of spiritual terror”[3]).

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Mary Wilkins Freeman

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) was an American writer probably best known today for her supernatural short stories, which combine “domestic realism and supernaturalism” (as Wikipedia says), generally in a New England setting.

Mary E Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930). Source: Wikimedia
Her stories have a feminist sensibility, and tend to feature self-reliant, often unmarried women as their protagonists. M. R. James spoke favorably of Freeman’s collection Wind in the Rosebush in a letter to Nico Davies, saying “I like it.”

I shared Freeman’s excellent vampire story “Luella Miller” in my previous post, and I thought I’d share another one today. The narrator of “The School-Teacher’s Story” is a retired schoolmarm, financially comfortable, strong-minded, and perhaps not terribly maternal or domestic (it seems Freeman wasn’t terribly domestic, herself). She’s exactly the type of person that ghost stories shouldn’t happen to (so many ghost story protagonists are). And yet, there was that one student….

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: May Sinclair

Today’s featured author is Mary Amelia St. Clair (1863-1946), who wrote under the name May Sinclair. She was a novelist, poet, and literary critic; also a feminist who was actively involved in the suffrage movement. She wrote and critiqued works in the modernist tradition, and is credited with having coined the term “stream of consciousness” in a literary context.

363px May Sinclair 001
May Sinclair (1863-1946), circa 1912. Source: Wikimedia

She was also greatly interested in philosophy and psychoanalysis, interests that permeate the writings that I’m highlighting today. She wrote extensively on the Brontë sisters, and it seems to have been her Brontë scholarship that led to her interest in the supernatural. Several of her ghost stories and metaphysical tales were published together in 1923 as Uncanny Stories.

I first came across Sinclair’s writing in the excellent Boris Karloff/Edmund Speare anthology And the Darkness Falls. Her story “Where the Fire is Not Quenched” is a dark and dread-inducing description of Hell, with an almost Twilight-Zone vibe. It’s also a great example of Sartre’s maxim “Hell is other people” — written at least twenty years before Sartre wrote No Exit in 1943.

Uncanny Stories went into public domain in the U.S. just before I discovered Sinclair, and I’ve had the collection on my “to read” list ever since. This series gave me the perfect motivation to finally pull it off the list, and I’m glad I did.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Juana Manuela Gorriti

Today’s featured writer is Juana Manuela Gorriti (1818-1892), possibly the first published writer of fantasy in Latin America [1].

Juana Manuela Gorriti
Juana Manuela Gorriti (1818-1892).
Source: Wikimedia

During her lifetime, she was also the most widely read woman writer in Latin America [2]. I don’t honestly know how well known she is today, but she definitely deserves attention for (among other things) her contributions to gothic literature. In this post, I’ll talk about some of Gorriti’s gothic pieces, and share a translation of a short ghost story from her later writing.

Juana Manuela Gorriti came from a politically active family in Argentina. Her father, José Ignacio de Gorriti, was a hero of the Argentine war of independence from Spain, and a supporter of the Unitarian faction of Argentine politics [3]. When the opposing Federalist faction overthrew the Unitarian government of Argentina, the Gorriti famiily escaped to Bolivia.

In Bolivia, Juana Manuela met and married Manuel Isidro Belzu, who eventually became President of Bolivia. The marriage was not happy, and Gorriti separated from Belzu and moved to Peru, where she began her literary life.  She started a school, edited journals, and published not only in Peru, but in Chile and Argentina as well. While in Lima, she began to host tertulias, or salons, which were attended by prominent cultural and literary figures of the day, both men and women–especially women, for Gorriti was a feminist and encouraged women to join in the intellectual and political life of their countries.

In 1878 she returned to Argentina, establishing herself in the literary and cultural circles of her native country, while maintaining connections with the (many) notable women writers of the period from all over South America. She died in Buenos Aires in 1892.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: George Sand

Today’s post features Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who wrote under the pen name George Sand (1804-1876).

George Sand (1804-1876)
George Sand as painted by François Théodore Rochard, circa 1835. Source: Wikimedia

Sand was one of the most popular writers in the Europe of her time, and highly regarded by contemporary writers and cultural figures, many of whom were her close friends or lovers. Incredibly prolific and politically active, her writings advocated for the poor and working-class, and criticized the social norms that subordinated women to their husbands. She also lived a colorful and controversial life, openly wearing male attire and smoking in public at a time when women did neither of those things. After separating from her husband (at a time when divorce was illegal in France), she took a number of lovers, including Frederic Chopin.

There are people more qualified than I am to write about her overall standing and influence on literature, so I’ll just write about the fantastical and folkloric work that I’m highlighting today: Sand’s 1859 novella Les Dames vertes, translated into English as The Naiad: A Ghost Story; and her 1858 collection Légendes rustiques (Rustic Legends).

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Bessie Kyffin-Taylor

Today’s post highlights Bessie Kyffin-Taylor, and her collection From Out of the Silence (1920). This seems to be one of only two works by Kyffin-Taylor, the other being Rosemary (A duologue) (1918) — held only by the British Library, at least according to WorldCat. Rosemary isn’t online anywhere that I’ve found.

From Out of the Silence
Image from the Mystery and Imagination blog

Nor is there much information about the author herself, though I did find a bit about her husband [1], and about her name:

From Out of the Silence is an enjoyable collection. I liked Kyffin-Taylor’s authorial voice; her protagonists are well-drawn, fleshed out, and occasionally quirky. There are some lovely discriptions of locale and scenery here, especially regarding Wales. The shadow of World War I hangs over a few of the stories, giving an extra touch of tension. Several of the tales have fairly novel touches to their plotting, though they can be somewhat sentimental in places. Supposedly these stories have been compared to the work of E.F. Benson; I thought of A.M. Burrage (maybe that was the WWI aspect, but Burrage could also get a bit sentimental, too), and “Two Little Red Shoes” made me think, just a bit, of Mary Wilkins Freeman.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Fernán Caballero

March is Women’s History Month, and this month I plan to post about women writers of folklore and the fantastic. Since I like to actually share stories by these authors whenever possible, I will be presenting mostly older writers who have work in the public domain. I will also try to highlight women writers who are perhaps less well known, at least to English language audiences. My goal is to cover some interesting women writers that you may not have read before. Hopefully, you’ll find new avenues of reading to explore!

Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber, aka Fernán Caballero (1796 - 1877)
Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber, aka Fernán Caballero (1796 – 1877). Source: Wikipedia

Today, I’m highlighting Fernán Caballero, the pen name of the Spanish novelist and folklorist Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber. Böhl de Faber was born in Switzerland in 1796 to a Swiss father and an Andalusian mother. Her father moved the family to Andalusia when she was about 17. Although I am highlighting her today for her collection of literary fairy tales, as a writer she is best known for her 1849 novel La gaviota (The Seagull). La gaviota is both an early example of the Spanish costumbrismo literary movement and a precursor to the Spanish realist novel. The novel was instantly successful at the time of its publication, and was translated into most European languages.

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Watching Horror Hotel

I had nothing to do last night and wasn’t in the mood to read, so I killed a little time watching a movie I discovered on archive.org: Horror Hotel, aka The City of the Dead (1960).

Poster for City of the Dead (Horror Hotel), 1960
Source: IMDb

This could be considered the first film from what would become Amicus Productions, the “not Hammer” British horror house, famous for their series of quite fun horror anthology films in the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not a bad first offering, at all.

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