Reading Glimpses of the Unknown

A collection of Golden Age ghost stories that will be all brand-new to most readers.

I had been planning to post one more winter tale, but I just finished this anthology from the British Library Tales of the Weird series, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write about it instead.

glimpses of the unknown

In Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories, editor Mike Ashley has compiled eighteen previously unrepublished supernatural tales from British periodicals and magazines of the period between the 1890s to the end of the 1920s. Some of the stories are from writers who were well-known during the period but forgotten now; some are from writers who were relatively obscure (and possibly pseudonymous) even at the time. The jewel of the collection is a previously uncollected ghost story by E. F. Benson, written for the London Evening News in 1928. It’s a pleasant surprise, and quite a coup for the editor.

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Anne Lisbeth

Next on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a fairy tale that is also a great ghost story.

I have to confess, when I was a child I was never super fond of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. So many of his tales that I knew—The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier,— are, well, pretty depressing. Even The Emperor’s New Clothes isn’t exactly cheerful (though I always did like The Ugly Duckling). I liked happy endings.

I revisited several of his stories recently, via M.R. James’s charming translations, Forty-Two Stories (1930). As an adult, I appreciate the melancholy beauty of his writing much more. And I appreciate Andersen’s wit, too. Though I still prefer happy endings.

Many of the stories borrow freely from Andersen’s native Danish folklore, including the story that I’m sharing today: Anne Lisbeth.

Anne Lisbeth on the beach

A proud woman abandons her own child, leaving him with another family, to become the nursemaid to the son of a Count. Mother’s and son’s lives take different directions: she becomes affluent and respectable; he goes out to sea. Their fates eventually collide again — in quite a spooky way.

As M.R. James says of Anne Lisbeth (and several other tales): “popular beliefs or anecdotes are… conspicuously drawn upon”; specifically the legend of the strandvarsel, which Jean Hersholt rendered as “sea ghost” in his definitive translation (circa 1949):

As she continued on her way she remembered many stories she had heard as a child about the old superstitious belief in the “sea ghost” – the ghost of a drowned body that lay still unburied, washed by the tides on the wild seashore. The lifeless body itself could harm no one, but the “sea ghost” would follow a solitary wanderer, clinging fast to him and demanding to be carried to the churchyard and buried in consecrated ground.

James rendered strandvarsel as “shore-crier”— a transliteration, I suspect.

Andersen had a pronounced religious and moral center that shows strongly in his work; as I’ve said before, these aren’t just fairy tales, but parables. And Anne Lisbeth, with its nightmares and apparitions and unhallowed dead, with the moody calls of the ravens that echo throughout the second half of the tale, is very much a ghost story as well.

You can read Anne Lisbeth here. (Link to The Hans Christian Andersen Centre; translation by Jean Hersholt.)

It doesn’t happen in winter, and it’s got nothing to do with Christmas, but I think it’s still a great winter tale. And it seems appropriate for the Christmas season, too.

Enjoy.


Reference

Preface by M.R. James to Hans Andersen: Forty-two Stories, Hans Christian Andersen, M.R. James, translator. First published 1930. Faber and Faber Edition, 1971.


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

Other posts I’ve written about Hans Christian Andersen here and here.

Two more short anecdotes about the strandvarsel can be found here, from Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2 (1851).

Images

Featured Image: Anne Lisbeth’s Boy, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive

Ann Lisbeth Found on the Sea Shore, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive

Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning

Next up in Winter Tales: Folklore Edition is a story by one of my favorite 19th century ghost story authors: Irish writer Charlotte Riddell. Mrs. Riddell wrote a great haunted house story, and I featured one of them as a previous winter tale. This time, I give you “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” (1873), about a dashing Irish doctor whose family has their very own banshee.

…and then with a start and a shiver, and a blanched face, he turned sharply round, whilst a low, sobbing, wailing cry echoed mournfully though the room. No form of words could give an idea of the sound. The plaintiveness of the Eolian harp — that plaintiveness which so soon affects and lowers the highest spirits — would have seemed wildly gay in comparison to the sadness of the cry which seemed floating in the air. As the summer wind comes and goes amongst the trees, so that mournful wail came and went — came and went.

Banshee

The banshee is a female spirit from Irish mythology, generally attached to a specific family. She heralds the death of a family member by wailing and moaning just before the death occurs. She’s usually portrayed as an old woman (as she is in this story), although sometimes she can be young and beautiful. There’s a nice passage in the story where Mrs. Riddell details several banshee anecdotes in succession; she also slips in some pointed commentary about British upper-class society, which I imagine was heartfelt, as she spent most of her life in poverty, despite having been for a time a popular and well-regarded author.

In “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning,” the titular protagonist lives in London, having been estranged from his family in Ireland for twelve years. He begins to hear a mysterious wailing that no one but himself and his dog can hear. He knows it’s the family banshee. But is she wailing for him, or someone else in the family? Things come to a head on Christmas Eve.

Rather than “once upon a time,” the story takes place “before cholroform was thought of.” Wikipedia tells me that the obstetrician James Y. Simpson first demonstrated the use of chloroform on humans to induce sleep in 1847. So that would place this story in the first half of the nineteenth century, or perhaps even in the late eighteenth century. This fact about chloroform serves mostly to help describe O’Donnell’s strength of nerve, since as a surgeon he would have to operate on conscious patients. Rather clever, I thought.

You can read “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” here.

Enjoy.


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

Illustration: Illustration of a banshee, from Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825). Source: Wikipedia

Glámr

Welcome to Winter Tales: The Folklore Edition!

I’m starting off with Sabine Baring-Gould’s version of a story from the Grettis saga (or as Baring-Gould refers to it, the Gretla), a thirteenth century Icelandic saga about the outlaw hero Grettir Ásmundarson. It details Grettir’s fight with the draugr (a vengeful revenant of Norse mythology), Glámr. The bulk of story occurs during the winter months, and the key events on the eve and day of Christmas, making this a perfect way to kick off this winter tales season.

Grettir

The story first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Baring-Gould’s Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (1863), under the title “The Valley of Shadows,” then again in his Book of Ghosts (1904) under its present title. In his earlier work, Baring-Gould prefaced the story with this quaint footnote:

Gretla, chaps. 82–85. I give this story as a specimen of a very remarkable form of Icelandic superstition. It is so horrible, that I forewarn all those who have weak nerves, to skip it.

The reading public’s nerves have hardened a bit in the intervening century and a half, but it’s still a great story.

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2018 Winter Tales! The Folklore Edition

It’s almost Winter Tales time! Every year for several years now, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I’ve shared 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.

462px Florence Fuller Inseparables Google Art Project

I try to focus on stories set on or around Christmas, or at least in winter. Sometimes, I’ll feature ghost stories that were originally published as contributions to the Christmas edition of a literary magazine. And often I’ll feature something that feels “winter tale-ish” to me, regardless of when it takes place.

This year, I’ve got a special theme: folklore-related winter tales. I’ll feature stories that (to my mind, at least) have some relationship to folklore, whether that be old legends, old songs, or creatures from the folklore bestiary. We still have a few days before this year’s series officially begins, but I’d like to preview this year’s round with a couple of stories that I’ve shared previously that fit the theme:

The Haunted Dragoon, by Arthur Quiller-Couch (link to story)

A handsome dragoon (cavalry or mounted infantryman), searching for a fugitive smuggler, billets himself and his men at the home of a miserly farmer and his much younger, love-starved wife. The inevitable happens, with dark, dark consequences….

The story itself isn’t folkloric, but there are a few cool little bits of local folklore sprinkled throughout:

Within the archway bubbles a well, the water of which was once used for all baptisms in the parish, for no child sprinkled with it could ever be hanged with hemp.

As I recall, the little bits of folklore were part of why I picked this story. Though the haunting is pretty good, too.

Christmas Eve, by Nikolai Gogol (PDF) (Epub)

A pious blacksmith colludes with the devil to impress the woman he loves.

This is a longer novella, and not a traditional Christmas ghost story, but I love it. The story is rich in details of Ukrainian folkore and folklife, with lots of farcical supernatural hijinks. Not scary at all, but a lot of fun.

In a few days, I’ll start my 2018 winter tale season. I’m really looking forward to sharing a new round of stories with you, and I hope you enjoy them, too. In the meantime – enjoy!


Featured Image: hurry up, we’re dreaming! Dennis’ Photography. Source: Flickr.

Inseperarables, Florence Fuller (circa 1900). Source: Wikimedia.

Annie Cargill

Another ghost story by Scottish poet Violet Jacob, from her 1922 short story collection, Tales of my Own Country.

A young man reluctantly goes to spend a fortnight with his gruff and forbidding godfather. While indulging his love of heraldry amongst the ancient tombstones in an old kirkyard (churchyard) near his godfather’s property, he comes across something he doesn’t expect, and learns something about his godfather, too.

Wc churchyard gate by friedrich jpg Large

Plotwise, this is a fairly standard ghost story, but I found it quite charming. The protagonist, in particular, was really well delineated. I got a definite sense of his personality: easygoing, perhaps a bit feckless, but a genuinely enthusiastic amateur of history and heraldry, and just a nice, kind, guy. I even got a pretty clear idea of his relationship with his father — and his father’s personality — even though his father wasn’t even really in the story. The scene where he first encounters the ghost gave me a mild but pleasant shivery feeling up the back of the neck. It wasn’t a terribly scary story, but I don’t think that was the point.

Several of the secondary characters speak in the Scottish dialect, as is appropriate, since Ms. Jacob is best known as a poet of the vernacular. I had to read a few things twice over, but overall the Scottish wasn’t a stumbling block.

You can read or download “Annie Cargill” here.

This and “The Wade Monument” are the only two ghost stories by Violet Jacob that I know of (as yet), but I’ve put the rest of Tales of my Own Country on my “To Read” list. Perhaps there’s another one there.

Enjoy.


Images

Featured image: Protestant Cemetery, Walter Crane. Source: WikiArt

Churchyard Gate, Caspar David Friedrich (1826-1827). Source: WikiArt

The Wade Monument

I came across this story not too long ago, and really liked it. It’s not wintery enough to share for my annual Winter Tales series, but I thought I’d pass it along anyway.

It’s certainly a story of occult investigation, though I’m not sure the protagonist quite meets the definition of “occult detective,” at least by Tim Prasil’s definition.  The story probably does meet Sage Leslie-McCarthy’s definition of “psychic detective fiction” — going by her definition as quoted by Tim in his essays. I didn’t read all of Leslie-McCarthy’s dissertation. Yet. I will.

Gerum Church, Gotland, Sweden

A young man is on holiday in the town of Mintern Brevil, and notices a mysterious entry on a monument in the local church. He notices that someone else takes an interest in the monument, too. Someone only he can see.

[The Prayer-book] fell against her knees, but, instead of sliding down the slope of her skirt, passed straight through it to the floor, as a stone might fall through transparent water. I could see it lying upon the boards, although the grey folds of her dress and the outline of her limbs were between me and it.

The ghost sends him on a mission. Will he succeed?

The story first appeared in The Cornhill Magazine in 1921. Its author, Violet Jacob, was a Scottish writer best known for her historical novel Flemington, and for her poetry written in the Scottish vernacular. According to her Wikipedia entry, the influential poet and Scottish nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid called her “the most considerable of contemporary vernacular poets”.

Though she also wrote short stories, she wasn’t particularly a ghost story writer — I’ve found two so far, including this one, both of which I like. I plan to investigate her non-genre short fiction, too.

The story at heart is really about family: maternal love, or the lack of it, and about the depth of sacrifice some people will go to for its sake. For that reason I mentally group it with the ghost stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman, and perhaps of Margaret Oliphant. That’s just me, though. I won’t insist on the classification. And of course, I have to mention Dorothy Macardle’s wonderful novel The Uninvited (aka Uneasy Freehold), another (quite different) ghost story of maternal love and the lack of it. Great movie, too.

You can read or download “The Wade Monument” here.

Enjoy,


Images

Featured Image: Wallpaper design, Jules-Edmond-Charles Lachaise, Eugène-Pierre Gourdet (1830-97). Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Imagined medieval interior, Gerum Church, Gotland, Sweden, A.T. Gellerstedt (1867). Photographer Lars Kennerstedt, 2013. Source: Swedish National Heritage Board.

Invasion of the Grey Ones

I recently saw the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. It’s much better than I thought it would be. My husband loves cheesy 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, and that was what I expected Body Snatchers to be. But it’s really not that cheesy at all. It’s fairly suspenseful, and its moody cinematography makes the film feel more noir than sci-fi. The inevitable romantic relationship between the male and female leads felt refreshingly adult, and quite relevant to the story. Drop the “happy ending” frame story (which both the producer and director objected to), and make the alien pods look a bit less like giant Belgian endive, and the film would be even closer to perfect.

Pod vs Endive
Left: A pod. Right: A Belgian Endive. I rest my case. Screenshot: moviescreenshots.blogspot.com. Endive: Wikimedia

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On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

NewImage

Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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Something

“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”

— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt

They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either.  I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.

Bricklayers, Childe Hassam

In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.

The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.

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