Der Golem

Rabbi Yehuda Loew, known to the pious as the “Maharal” came to Prague from Nikolsburg, Posen, in the year 5332 of the Creation (1572 A.D.) in order to become rabbi of the community there. The whole world resounded with his fame because he was deeply learned in all branches of knowledge and knew many languages. Is it any wonder then that he was revered by the wise men among the Gentiles? Even King Rudolf of Bohemia esteemed him highly.

The Golem of Prague, posted by Dr. Leila Leah Bronner on her Bible and Jewish Studies website (source not given).

In 1913 German actor and filmmaker Paul Wegener was in Prague filming a Faustian tale called The Student of Prague, which he both starred in and produced. While he was there, he learned the legend of the Golem of Prague, a great clay being that was created and brought to life by the Rabbi Loew to protect Prague’s Jewish community. The legend caught his imagination.

The Golem: How He Came into The World (1920) was Wegener’s third Golem movie; unfortunately, the two earlier movies have been lost. The first two times, Wegener placed the Golem in a contemporary time period; with his third attempt, he tried something closer to a straight retelling of the legend as he had heard it.

Golem skyline

Wegener was not Jewish [1]; and while Der Golem is a beautiful movie, it’s not terribly authentic. Given the atmosphere in Germany at the time, some see Der Golem as an expression of anti-Semitism. It certainly takes a lot of liberties with the source material, but I didn’t think it was a hostile or derogatory portrayal of the Jewish people as a whole.

There are many versions of the legend of the Golem of Prague; the one on Dr. Bronner’s website, which I quoted above, is my favorite. The general idea is that Rabbi Loew created the Golem to guard the Ghetto of Prague against enemies of the Jewish people. In Bronner’s version, those enemies would plant the bodies of dead children in the home of a Jew, then level a “blood accusation”: the charge that Jews used the blood of Christian children in Jewish ritual (in this case, to make Passover matzos). Loew brought the Golem to life from a clay figure with cabalistic ritual; in some versions, he does this by writing the word emet (truth) on the Golem’s forehead, in other versions, by writing God’s secret name on a piece of parchment and putting it into the Golem’s mouth. Continue reading

Reading Lower Myths

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And R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril is off and running! A few days ago I finished the first book that I committed to, Eliza Victoria’s Lower Myths.

I heard about this Filipina author a while back, from Nancy Cudis at The Memoriter. Nancy’s review was actually about a different collection of short stories, A Bottle of Storm Clouds, which Nancy liked a lot. At the time, that collection seemed to only be available in the Philippines (it’s available as an ebook now), but I found Lower Myths as an ebook on Amazon, so I thought I’d check it out. The two novellas in Lower Myths promised to weave Filipino folkloric motifs into stories of contemporary life. Yes!

Oddly, though, I was never able to start the book. Partly because other books and stories came along and called to me; partly because every time I started, I’d decide that I was too tired to read. I know Readers (with a capital R) aren’t supposed to admit that, but it happens, at least to me. So I’d put down the e-reader and go watch a rerun of Columbo or Star Trek instead.

With this year’s R.I.P., I decided — it’s time.


Now, this isn’t entirely a book blog, and I don’t style myself a book reviewer. Like The Believer, I only discuss books and stories that I like. No, more than like; stories that have something so cool about them — plot idea, characters, language — that I feel compelled to share that coolness with the world. Honestly, if I hadn’t committed to this book for R.I.P., I wouldn’t be writing about it.

So I’m just going to concentrate on one episode in the second novella, “The Very Last Case of Messrs. Aristotel and Arkimedes Magtanggol, Attorneys-at-Law,” a scene that I did like a lot, and think is worth sharing. The protagonists of this scene are Jason and Kenneth, two young boys with an American father and a Filipina mother. The family splits its time between Makati, Manila, for most of the year, and South Carolina for the summer. This year, however, they’ve gone back to the rural village in Cagayan where the boys’ mother grew up.

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It’s the Season of Peril Again!

NewImageImage: Jennifer Gordon and Roman Sirotin, for RIP

Thanks to Acid Free Pulp for reminding me: it’s time for that annual Fall reading challenge R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, which runs from the beginning of September until Halloween. I did this last year, and it was fun not only to share the stories I read with a new (to me) audience, but also to read about the books and stories that they liked, as well. I found a lot of new book blogs that way.

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As with last year, I’m going to do this in a small way; I already know this will be a busy fall. I’m committing to two books that I’ve been meaning to read for forever, and this is the perfect time:

  • Lower Myths by Eliza Victoria. Nancy Cudis at the memoriter mentioned this one a long long time ago, and it’s time for me to take it off my “To Read” list.
  • The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

Again like last year, I’ll participate in Peril of the Short Story on the side. Looking over my entries from last year, I notice that the collections and anthologies that I said I would be sampling from weren’t the ones I ended up reading, but here’s my planned list, anyway:

  • The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories.Yes, I used this one last year, but it’s huge, and I still haven’t finished it. Though I’ve loved everything I’ve read in it, so far.
  • The Best Horror of the Year, 4. Ellen Datlow. ‘Nuff said.
  • Great British Horror, Vol 1

And a bonus! While doing research for my last post, I came upon Paul Wegener’s Weimar-era silent film The Golem. I was already planning to watch it and blog about it; it will fit nicely into Peril on the Screen.

And on we go!

Reading Not Exactly Ghosts

Not Exactly Ghosts/Fires Burn Blue is a terrific collection of ghost stories by Sir Andrew Caldecott, written in the 1940s. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print from the original UK publisher, Wordsworth, but it’s still in the catalog at Wordsworth’s U.S. distributor, Wordsworth Classics, and it’s still on Amazon (in the U.S., anyway).

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If you like the ghost stories of M.R. James, you will probably like Caldecott. If you almost like the stories of M.R. James, or want-to-like-them-but-don’t-quite-find-them-satisfying, or took a while to warm up to them (hi, Risa!), you might give Caldecott a try, anyway.

Caldecott was a career diplomat — he was Governor of Hong Kong, and then Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He only started publishing after he retired, but he obviously loved to read ghost stories, and given the time period that some of the stories were set in, perhaps even started writing them while he was still in the Civil Service.

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A Jury of Her Peers

October’s theme at the Short Story Initiative: Crime and Suspense. My first story of the month: Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of her Peers” (1917).

Lasea rd barn 1327883052KJU Photo: James Hawkins

A passing neighbor finds Minnie Wright sitting alone at the kitchen of her farmhouse on a cold March morning. Mrs. Wright tells her neighbor, Mr. Hale, that her husband is upstairs in the bedroom — dead. He had been strangled in his sleep by a rope around his neck. Mrs. Wright claims not to know how it happened.

Naturally, Mr. Hale calls the authorities, and Mrs. Wright is brought into town, to stay at the home of Sheriff Peters. The next morning, the district attorney asks Mr. Hale to come back to the farmhouse to testify to what happened. Sheriff Peters has brought his wife to gather some clothes and sundries for Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Peters asks the neighbor’s wife, Mrs. Hale, to come along and keep her company.

Visiting the Wright farm proves difficult for Mrs. Hale, because she had hardly ever visited before. The Wright farm is remote, lonely, shadowed. And Mr. Wright, though “a good man”: morally upright and apparently a model citizen, was also cold and remote. “Like a raw wind that gets to the bone,” Mrs. Hale describes him. How lonely it must have been, Mrs. Hale thinks, for the former Minnie Foster, a winsome, pretty town girl who liked to sing and wear pretty clothes. If only Mrs. Hale had thought to come visit, offer comfort and companionship to Minnie….

The men are intent on their important investigation; they are dismissive and patronizing to the women and their concerns. One of the things Mrs. Wright asked the sheriff’s wife to check on was whether or not Mrs. Wright’s preserves survived the evening cold snap. Who would be worried about preserves, while being held for murder? But women, the men decide, are always worrying about trifles. Obviously the men never read Conan Doyle, because it’s the little things that make a case. The women, on the other hand, prove to be excellent detectives. They piece together what must have happened, and they take it upon themselves to be Minnie’s judges and jury.

It’s sobering to think of a time when a woman’s quality of life depended entirely on the whims of her husband. Abuse was no excuse; to prove Mr. Wright’s cruelty towards his wife would be to guarantee her murder conviction. “A Jury of Her Peers” is based on the Hossack murder case of 1900. John Hossack, an Iowa farmer was found murdered in his bed; he’d had his brains beaten out by an axe. His wife, Margaret Hossack, had been sleeping in the same bed. She claimed to have heard nothing. Five of her nine children (also sleeping in the same house) stood by her story.

Susan Glaspell covered the case, and Margaret Hossack’s murder trial, as a 24-year-old reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. You can read her coverage here. The case clearly stuck with her; she later wrote a play called Trifles based on the case, and “A Jury of Her Peers” is based on that play.

You can find “A Jury of Her Peers” here. And do also enjoy this excellent 1961 television adaptation of the story, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Recommended.


This review is part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project, and the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event.

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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Filipino Folklore in a ‘Weird Fiction’ Piece

Of the twenty five kills that took place in the port city of Siargao, eleven were young men between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, ten were young girls between the ages of twelve and sixteen, and four were young women between seventeen and twenty years of age. All victims shared one common denominator: they were virgins.

That’s from Rachita Loenen-Ruiz’s short story “Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litkok-litok and their Prey,” online at the Weird Fiction Review blog site. It’s a very short story within a story that takes its inspiration from Filipino monster folklore.

I’m not sure, but I believe she made the Liwat’ang Yawa up, though it is similar enough to actual filipino folklore to sound plausible (at least to me). I’d never heard of the Litok-litok, either, but its description fits that of a familiar Filipino mythical creature.

The story’s Liwat’ang Yawa (“yawa” means “demon”, I think) is a human looking monster that feeds on virgins. He is accompanied by a bird called the Litok-litok, which is a classic viscera-sucking style monster that eats unborn babies from out of their mothers’ wombs.

In the Philippines, viscera-suckers are called aswang or manananggal; they are usually in the shape of a woman. A similar monster called a penanggalan exists in Malaysian folklore. In some parts of the Philippines, there is a demon-bird called the tiktik. It’s said to be the companion of the aswang: it guides the demon to its prey. It you hear the tiktik’s call overhead (I assume the sound is, well, “tik-tik”), then the aswang is nearby. Sometimes, the term “tiktik” is used as a synonym for aswang. I have a post about the aswang here, if you are interested.

NewImageThe Plaintive Cuckoo, or Sewah Mati Anak (“mati anak” means “lost a child” in Malaysian).
Walter Skeat, in Malay Magic (1900) said that the mati-anak was supposed to be the child of the penanggalan and the langsuir, a kind of owl demon.
Photo:Wikipedia

Anyway. Loenen-Ruiz’s story is more of a mood piece than a narrative. Given the subject matter, there is inevitably some gore, and I don’t usually go for that. Still, I was especially struck (in a favorable way) with a metaphor that the author uses the hunt scene, of the human heart as fruit. And I’m always interested in seeing Filipino folklore woven into literature.

This is the only story by Loenen-Ruiz that I’ve read, but now I’m curious to find more. In another article she wrote for the Weird Fiction Review blog she mentions her Ifugao background, and her memories of the storytelling traditions that she remembers from her childhood. I’d like to see how (and if) she incorporates her folkloric memories into her fiction. Not just the monsters and demons, either, but the myths and legends as well, like Bugan and Wigan (the Ifugao “Adam and Eve”).

Check it out.


This post is part of my Peril of the Short Story, for the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P) VII reading event. It is also part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project.

Town of Cats

Has this ever happened to you? There is a street that you have passed down thousands of times, almost every day, every week at least. Perhaps you are always on this street at about the same time of day — afternoon, say. Then one day, you walk or drive down the street at a different time. Dusk perhaps, or just after dawn. Midnight, maybe.

SunsetDec7 2010 Photo: Nina Zumel

But wait, you think, where am I? I am in the right place? Was this block always so long? So wide? The tiny little box-like houses that line the street look so ordinary and content when you pass them at noon. Now, in a different light, they look secretive; or they glow in a way you’ve never seen them glow before.

The familiar landmarks look just slightly off. The pink light just before dusk makes everything look different. Is that the church where I’m supposed to turn? I’ve actually missed turns that I should be able to make in my sleep. The change in light threw me off that much.

The narrator of Hagiwara Sakutaro’s “The Town of Cats” (1935) would know what I’m talking about. (And I bet you thought I was going to write about Haruki Murakami’s “Town of Cats”, didn’t you? Nope, that’s a completely different story — but a good one.) Sakutaro’s narrator is a poet, a recovering drug addict, a jaded world traveler. For him, travel has become weary; every city is the same city, with the same bland, frustrated inhabitants.

Eventually, he finds another way to fill his wanderlust — it turns out our world traveler has no sense of direction. He can get lost even in his own neighborhood. Once, he circled the hedge around his own house ten times (this is in Tokyo), and couldn’t find his own gate. His family decided that he’d been bewitched by a fox.

But his lack has one beautiful advantage: the sense of dislocation that comes from approaching a familiar place at a different time can also be gotten by approaching that place from a different direction. And so our narrator regains his sense of travel-wonder by deliberately getting lost in Tokyo. In that moment when he stumbles across a “new” neighborhood — often from a different line of approach than usual, and without expecting to see it — in that moment, the neighborhood is beautiful, exotic, with all the mystery of a foreign land.

And it’s so much cheaper than plane tickets, too.

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Reading The Dark

As promised, the conclusion of my Peril the Third for the Readers Imbibing Peril reading event: The Dark: New Ghost Stories. The collection won Best Anthology of The Year from the International Horror Guild in 2003.

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I liked this collection, but there is a caveat. The editor, Ellen Datlow, writes in her introduction that she wanted an anthology exclusively of scary ghost stories: “nothing heartwarming.” I don’t think she achieved that, and if you look at the reviews at the Amazon link above, you’ll see that most readers thought the same thing. So if you are looking for straightforward spooky horror stories, this is not the collection for you.

On the other hand, if you are open to ghost-related stories that are unsettling, and not always because of their supernatural elements, then you might like this as much as I did. I previously posted about the last story in the collection, “Dancing Men,” which is a good example of this. Several other stories in the collection are likewise also about non-supernatural themes — letting go of loved ones, the inability to trust, father figures and life lessons — with supernatural elements serving as metaphors for the main theme.

Of the sixteen stories, there are three, maybe four, that I would count as horror stories: the stories from Ramsey Campbell, Terry Dowling, Daniel Abraham, and maybe Lucius Shepard. There are are a couple of old-fashioned hauntings, and a few newfangled hauntings. Most of the others don’t fit as well into the standard idea of a ghost story, and you will probably like some of them and dislike others.

I didn’t care for “One Thing About the Night” — the overly expository writing style, I think. “Velocity” was interesting, but not in a way that engaged me. I wanted to like “Feeling Remains,” but in the end I wasn’t satisfied. I’m on the fence about “The Hortlak,” and “Brownie, and Me.” The other stories were all pretty good, each in their separate ways.

Verdict: Recommended, if you are open to ghost stories where ghosts aren’t always the central point, and that experiment with more “literary” writing styles. But if you want stories to keep you up at night, sweating while the floor creaks, pass it by.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

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Dancing Men

I finally finished The Dark: New Ghost Stories, which is the book that I read for Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril The Third. I’ll write that review soon, but I want to do a separate post about the last story in the collection, Glen Hirshberg’s “Dancing Men.” Not only is it a terrific story — it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2004 — but it also fits The Short Story Initiative‘s September theme: “Getting to know each other.”

Actually, I think Nancy just meant that we the participants should get to know each other, but since it fits, hey…

NewImageMarionette in Prague
Image: Wikipedia

In “Dancing Men”, Seth Gadeuski, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, is leading a group of American teenagers on a tour of Europe called The Legacy of the Holocaust. In Prague, he faints when he sees a Romani street vendor selling marionettes. In his foggy state, he says out loud: “I didn’t kill my grandfather.”

This experience leads him to recall the summer when he was nine years old, the summer that he learned the truth about his grandfather and his history.

Seth hadn’t been close to his grandfather; in fact he hadn’t been close to his own father, either, whom he refers to once as “Zombie-Dad,” because he is so distant. All three of the men in the family — grandfather, father, and Seth — are remote, distant people, who don’t seem to express, or maybe even feel, emotions towards others.

The summer he was nine, Seth’s father brings him to stay with his grandfather, in the desert outside of Albuquerque. His grandfather’s caretaker, a Navaho woman named Lucy, conducts an Enemy Way with Seth. The Enemy Way is a Navaho ceremony for warriors returning from battle. The ceremony is meant to exorcise the chindi, or evil ghosts, that plague a person. Chindi often arise from violence (they are the evil part of a person’s spirit, which cannot move on, as the good part can). I imagine that this is why there is a Way for those who return from war, lest they be haunted by the chindi of those they killed, or those who were killed around them.

That’s really all I know about the Enemy Way. I can’t speak to how accurate Hirshberg’s depiction is, but at any rate, I get the impression that Lucy only conducts it to humor Seth’s grandfather. It’s a precursor to the grandfather telling Seth his story.

I can’t say much more without giving away the plot, except this: Seth’s grandfather is a survivor of the Chelmno concentration camp in Poland. Over 150,000 people were killed in that camp: Jews, Romani, Czechs, and Soviet prisoners of war. There were only a handful of survivors; perhaps as few as two or three.

And this makes “Dancing Men” not only a ghost story, but a genuine horror story (the two are different). The horror, though, is not in this fictional narrative, but from history, in Seth’s grandfather’s recounting of his experience in the camp, including having to bury other murdered prisoners in mass graves. This is Seth’s grandfather’s personal Enemy Way, the ritual of recounting his story, first to his son, and now to his grandson.

“Why does Grandpa call me ‘Ruach’? I snapped. …

“Do you know what ‘ruach’ means?” he said.

I shook my head.

“It’s a Hebrew word. It means ghost.”

Hearing that was like being slammed to the ground. I couldn’t get my lungs to work.

My father went on. “Sometimes, that’s what it means. It depends what you use it with, you see? Sometimes, it means spirit, as in the spirit of God. Spirit of life. What God gave to his creations.” He stubbed his cigarette in the sand, and the orange light winked out like an eye blinking shut. “And sometimes, it just means wind.”

By my sides, I could feel my hands clutch sand as breath returned to my body. The sand felt cool, soft. “You don’t know Hebrew either,” I said.

“I made a point of knowing that.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what he called me, too,” my father said…

The ghosts in this story are real; the supernatural aspects, only lightly touched upon. I really felt the way the the nine-year-old Seth struggled to understand his cold family, and the regret adult Seth feels at having grown into the same remote human being as his father. “Dancing Men” is a rueful meditation on the way the Holocaust has left its traces across multiple generations. It’s also a meditation on how the way we love, or don’t love, our children ripples on.

Recommended.

The story is also in Hirshberg’s collection The Two Sams: Ghost Stories, which I am going to have to find. Another worth looking for: Hirshberg’s first novel, The Snowman’s Children.


This review is part of Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril of the Short Story, and part of the The Short Story Initiative monthly event for September. A double-dip!