Buildings and Dreams

Bancroft Hotel

I was flipping through my notebooks not too long ago, in search of material for a blog post, when I stumbled upon a couple of old fiction pieces that I had been wrestling with, then put aside. They were partially influenced by a motif one finds frequently in ghost stories written when “scientific” explanations of apparitions were de rigueur: ghosts as the “psychic recordings” of violent events or emotions. The idea, I believe, still circulates in ghost-hunting circles. Listen to the discussion/definition at about 2:55 or so of this YouTube video about the “10 Types of Ghosts”:

To me a ghost is an apparition… sort of a replay of an event that happened a long time ago because of an imprint or place memory…

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On Reading Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.

Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.

Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.

I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.

There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.

All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”

[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.

That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.


Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):

  • The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
  • The Hungry Stones: Of course.
  • The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
  • The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.

Enjoy.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.

Two More Literary Excavations

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I found and posted a couple more of my old short stories to Ephemera. I think this is it. Now I have to write more new ones….

I wrote Sally: A Fantasy a few years back to tell out loud at this kind of variety show thing a few friends of mine and I put on. We had a little social writing group together. One of my friends is an actress/dancer who wanted a venue for her one-woman monologues; another is an experimental documentary filmmaker who wanted a venue to try out her foray into live multimedia storytelling. Me? I was just there, and needed something to perform. And you know I like ghost stories.

Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.

She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.

The piece was well received, as I recall; several folks in the audience said that it had them on edge of their seat. Reading it back now, I still like it well enough, but I find it somehow unsatisfying from a craft point of view. In particular, the present-tense that I used doesn’t sit too well with me, though it felt natural in the oral storytelling. But it seemed worth putting up, and so I did.

Horsefly is something I worked on and then abandoned. The first draft of it is substantially what I posted to Ephemera; but I tried to fill it out, make it longer, extend it into the past and future of that single day. It didn’t go anywhere, and reading it back now, I like the short piece that I started with. I think it’s all it needs to be. The hypercritical part of my mind thinks that the characters are a bit one-dimensional; but maybe that’s inevitable in a piece this short? As with fairy tales, maybe brevity forces you to deal in archetypes rather than fully-realized, contradictory beings. Or maybe that’s all baloney and I’m just being hypercritical. Anyway, I like the ending, and so up on Ephemera it goes.

The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.

Clang clang.

I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.

Clang clang.

Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy.


Image: The Reader, Frederico Zandomeneghi. Sourced from WikiArt.

Before there was Multo…

… there was Ephemera, a blog I originally had to share little pieces I wrote with my friends. I stopped using it after I started Multo, but I never deleted it.

I’ve been unearthing a few other pieces I wrote back in those days, pieces I wrote for writing classes and whatnot. Most of them are cringeworthy, but a few I can read and think, “Huh. Not too bad.”

Of all the old pieces I found, the one I like best is “Temptation,” which has a bit of a fantastic theme, and so fits with this blog. I’ve put it up on Ephemera, along with a couple of others, just because.

“Eating alone again, I see.” His tongue tickles my left ear as he whispers this, sliding past my shoulder to slip into the place across from me in the diner booth. “This is getting to be a habit.”

“She was tired. And I don’t like conversation over breakfast, anyway,” I reply, hoping that for once he’ll get the hint. He just tilts his diamond-shaped head to one side and smirks, his tongue continuing to flick in and out. The waitress comes by to take his order: rabbit, live, and a bowl of water. I look down at my plate and concentrate on my bacon and eggs over hard, hoping he’ll just find a newspaper and not torture me. But no.

When I wrote it, the group I read it to didn’t get it, but I’m hoping that people more attuned to the sort of things I like to read might be in a better position to see what I was trying to do.

Read the rest here.

Hope you enjoy.

Schadenfreude is my Best Freude

Well, not really.

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It’s a cold wet day, and my back was starting to stiffen up from sitting at my computer too long. I took a little break with a mug of hot chocolate and my copy of Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven (one of the subjects of my previous post). The story I read was Jack Ritchie’s “For all the Rude People”, originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1961. A man is told he has four months to live. That same afternoon, he witnesses a gratuitous act of rudeness by a carnival barker to a father in front of his two young daughters. On the spur of the moment, he buys a gun (no 24 hour waiting period back then) and murders the barker. He leaves a note explaining why, fully expecting to get caught and arrested.

He doesn’t.

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Tales of the Weird, Old and Not-so-Old

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I sprained my ankle badly on New Year’s Eve (lesson learned: no more dancing in four-inch heels), so I had to take a nearly month-long break from dance rehearsals and performances. It’s been driving me a little crazy, but on the plus side, I’ve had a lot of extra time in the evenings for reading (and for B-grade TV science fiction). The result is a couple of interesting and very different anthologies to share today.

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The Macabre Megapack, Duane Parsons, editor.

This is a collection of weird tales from the early-to-middle nineteenth century, published by Wildside Press. (It was also released as a paperback under the title The Night Season: Lost Tales from the Golden Age of Macabre). The theme of the anthology is “great weird short stories by otherwise mediocre authors” — a counterpoint to the idea that not everything produced by a great author is necessarily great (or even good) literature. The stories were culled from British and American literary journals and annuals of the period; I’ve googled a few of the authors. In their time, some of them were quite well known, even lauded; many were colleagues (or enemies) of Edgar Allen Poe. Now they’ve mostly fallen into obscurity, and possibly for good reason.

You have to like nineteenth century weird fiction to enjoy this book, and even then, not everything will be to your taste. The stories tend to be far more leisurely than modern fiction: the language is more embellished, and every so often an author will wander off in the middle of the story to lecture the reader on their personal philosophy about spiritualism, the occult, or some other pet topic. There’s also a lot of what I once heard a writing teacher refer to as “throat-clearing”: a few opening paragraphs of mostly irrelevant warm-up before plunging into the narrative. But hey, for ninety-nine cents, even if you find only one story that you adore, it’s a good deal. I found it well worth having.

Some stand-outs for me: “Carl Bluven and the Strange Mariner,” by Henry David Inglis (1833) was a folkloric, fairy-tale-like, deal-with-the-devil story. “The Three Souls,” by Alexander Chatrian and Emile Erckmann (1859) reminded me a little of Poe (“Cask of Amontillado” Poe, not “Fall of the House of Usher” Poe — to me, there’s a difference). “Lieutenant Castenac,” also by Erckmann and Chatrian (1866) would be right at home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (more on Ellery Queen later in the post). There’s also a strange, non-Japanese short story by Lafcadio Hearn: “The Black Cupid” (1880), set in Mexico. I don’t consider Hearn either mediocre or obscure, but I guess Mr. Parsons disagreed.

According to the Introduction, Parsons collected five boxes of candidate material for this anthology. I would definitely buy a Volume Two. Wildside did release a follow up volume (called — surprise — The Second Macabre Megapack), but that volume is based mostly on pieces collected by the late Mark Owings from The Southern Literary Messenger, which is mostly famous because Poe was once its editor. Still, at ninety-nine cents… .

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The Silent Woman

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“The Silent Woman” by Leopold Kompert: I found this story in, of all places, the anthology The Best Ghost Stories (1919) on Project Gutenberg. It isn’t a ghost story at all, nor even the least bit supernatural. The editors (Arthur B. Reeve and Joseph Lewis French) apparently felt that the story was a fine example of “Jewish mysticism” — which it may or may not be, but I still don’t see why it qualifies for this volume.

All the same, it’s an interesting story, one I thought worth sharing. It takes place after a wedding in the Jewish section of what appears to be a village or small town outside of Prague. The bride vanishes in the middle of the festivities. Some of the guest fear that she’s been spirited away by a ghost; a few have other suspicions.

Ruben Klattaner stood in the hall entry below, and let the people hurry past him without exchanging a word with any. Bitter disappointment and fear had almost crazed him. One of the last to stay in the room above with Selde was, strange to say, Leb Narr, of Prague. After all had departed, he approached the miserable mother, and, in a tone least becoming his general manner, inquired:

“Tell me, now, Mrs. Selde, did she not wish to have ‘him’?”

“Whom? whom?” cried Selde, with renewed alarm, when she found herself alone with the fool.

“I mean,” said Leb, in a most sympathetic manner, approaching still nearer to Selde, “that maybe you had to make your daughter marry him.”

“Make? And have we, then, made her?” moaned Selde, staring at the fool with a look of uncertainty.

“Then nobody needs to search for her,” replied the fool, with a sympathetic laugh, at the same time retreating. “It’s better to leave her where she is.”

Without saying thanks or good-night, he was gone.

Leb Narr of Prague was close, but not quite correct.

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The Marble Child

One last winter tale before Christmas… .

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) is best known as a children’s author. The Railway Children is perhaps her most famous children’s novel; my favorite is Five Children and It, the first of the Psammead trilogy. She also wrote novels and short stories for adults, and a few horror stories, too, the most famous being “Man-size in Marble.”

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Gore Vidal calls her “the best of the children’s fabulists” after Lewis Carroll, and though she’s now relatively little known in the United States, you can see her influence in the writing of many modern writers of children’s and young adult fiction. Reading her children’s fiction has always reminded me of Neil Gaiman (I know I should say it the other way around, but I found Gaiman first). As Vidal says, part of her charm is that she doesn’t talk down to children (in fact, he claims that she doesn’t write for them, merely about them), nor does she belittle a child’s imaginative world.

This did not surprise him as much as it would surprise you: the world where children live is so full of amazing and incredible-looking things that turn out to be quite real. And if Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, why should not a marble child turn into a real one? It was all quite plain to Ernest, but he did not tell any one: because he had a feeling that it might not be easy to make it plain to them.

The Marble Child was first published in the November 1910 issue of The Atlantic Monthly; it was also published in the 1910 Christmas number of The Graphic magazine. It’s not a very well known story; it was collected in the 1918 anthology Atlantic Narratives, but after that — nothing that I could find. The story definitely fits into her stream of children’s literature; I like it better than “Man-size in Marble,” or most of her adult horror, for that matter. The beginning is a bit slow; still, I thought the child Ernest’s fascination with the marble child got a bit unsettling, though perhaps the effect was unintentional.

Enjoy. And Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it; Happy Holidays to all of you who don’t.


  • You can read my previous commentary on Nesbit as a children’s author (and my commentary on other children’s literature, as well) here.
  • Gore Vidal’s 1964 essay on Nesbit for the New York Review of Books is here.
  • The image above is a detail from a photograph of the baptismal font in Vor Frelser Kirke (Church of Our Saviour), Copenhagen, Denmark. The photo was taken by Ib Rasmussen, and was sourced from Wikimedia.

Tom o’the Roads

Today’s winter tale isn’t quite a traditional ghost story, nor is it Christmas themed, but it’s a story I’ve always liked; one that feels made to be read out loud. So why not read it to your loved ones in front of the Yule Log?

Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany: Irish fantasist and weird fiction author, and just a beautiful writer. Despite the subject matter, I think this one is particularly beautiful: The Highwaymen (1908).

For Tom tonight had nought but the wind to ride; they had taken his true black horse on the day when they took from him the green fields and the sky, men’s voices and the laughter of women, and had left him alone with chains about his neck to swing in the wind for ever. And the wind blew and blew.

TomOtheRoads

It’s a story of friendship, and (in its own way) of goodwill, and redemption, and peace. That’s Christmasy, no?

Enjoy.


  • “The Highwaymen” was published originally in The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, 1908. The illustration above is by the great Sidney Sime, for the collection.
  • You can find a scan of The Sword of Welleran (with all Sime’s illustrations) at the Internet Archive. If you want a readable ebook version, however, you should pick it up at Project Gutenberg. Unfortunately, the Gutenberg version doesn’t have the illustrations.
  • The story reminds me — just a little — of Georg Heym’s “The Dissection”, which is also quite beautiful (and a bit more gruesome). I’ve blogged about it before, and you can read it here.

The Old Nurse’s Winter Tale

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a novelist and short story writer who wrote (among other things), gothic fiction and novels about the working class. She was the daughter of a Scottish Unitarian minister, and later married a Unitarian minister, as well.

Her mother died when she was a year old; apparently, her father didn’t have the wherewithal to care for his children on his own, and she essentially grew up in the households of her aunt and her grandparents. Upon her marriage, she helped her husband in his ministry to the working-class families of Manchester, and their social circle included not only social progressives but many writers, including Charles Dickens (who published her extensively in his magazine Household Words), Charlotte Bronte, and John Ruskin.

I’ve not read much of her work, but a lot of what I have read touches on issues close to her life and of the ministry she shared with her husband: the position of “poor relations” in affluent households, orphans, religious and social tolerance, and the travails of falling in love across social or class strata.

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Last year, I shared one of her non-ghost-stories, a little Christmas fable. This year I’m sharing a ghost story from her 1860 collection Curious, if True. It’s a winter tale called The Old Nurse’s Story. Poor little Rosamond, the daughter of a “poor relation” in the family Furnivall and her husband, a shopkeeper’s son, is orphaned at the age of four or five. She and her young nurse are sent to live at Furnivall Manor, with Lord Furnivall’s elderly aunt. The story is told in first person, by the nurse.

As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if someone was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white.

Haunted organs and old secrets…. Enjoy.


You can find last year’s Gaskell story, “Christmas Storms and Sunshine,” on my Winter Tales page.

The painting above is Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind (1892) by John Everett Millais. Sourced from WikiPaintings.