The Ballads of John

I heard a voice of warning, 
A message from on high, 
"Go put your house in order 
For thou shalt surely die. 

Tell all your friends a long farewell 
And get your business right—
The little black train is rolling in 
To call for you tonight."  

Given my interest in folklore, and my fondness for weird tales, I’m amazed that it took me this long to stumble upon Balladeer John (or Silver John, as he is sometimes known). John is the creation of Manly Wade Wellman, a science fiction and fantasy writer who was active throughout the 30s and 40s and beyond. He was a regular and popular contributor to the early Weird Tales magazine, especially after the passing of Weird Tales’ star authors, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

John is an itinerant musician (and Korean War veteran) who travels the Appalachian highlands of North Carolina, singing old folk songs on his silver-strung guitar and fighting a variety of supernatural creatures on the way. Wellman created John out of his knowledge of Appalachian and Ozark mountain folklore (and a variety of other folklores and mythologies), as well as his interest in the traditional folk music of the Appalachian region.

IMG 0158Photo: Nina Zumel

The stories are fun and engaging, especially if you enjoy looking for the folkloric references and motifs. I was also amused at how hard all the women characters would throw themselves at John, and how good he was at keeping his distance (except for with one woman, Evadare). Would it be snarky of me to suggest that this image of unattainable sexy manliness was wish-fufillment for his audience of readers at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Probably.

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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.

Reading Ryan Harty

I once read an interview with the editor of a literary journal, in which he was asked about what he liked and disliked in the stories that were submitted to him. One of the things he said was, “Never submit to me a story set in the suburbs.”

Really?

I suppose what he meant was that stories should be set somewhere “interesting”: exotic foreign locales, teeming metropolises (metropoli?), remote villages, hardscrabble farming or ranching country. Outer space. As if the locale is the only thing that can make a story interesting. As if there aren’t millions of people living ordinary, commonplace lives in cities like London, Paris, San Francisco, New York, Manila. Or millions more people living lives of determination, desperation, and yes, some kind of interest in, oh, I don’t know: Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

Suburbs and bedroom communities aren’t the first places I’d look for dramatic interest, I admit; but who’s to say? Not that editor. I remember being slightly offended by that comment, and I haven’t lived in a suburb since I moved out of my parents’ house.

John Cheever wrote stories about suburbanites. Have you ever read The Swimmer? It’s surreal, and vicious, and heartbreaking. A. M. Homes wrote stories set in the suburbs. So did J. D. Salinger (and thanks to Jay at Bibliophilopolis for his recent post about “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut;” that was one of the first stories I thought of when I wanted to write this post, but I couldn’t remember which story it was). I’m sure there are many authors, too, who just aren’t coming to me right now.

Depending on who you are, and how you live, you might not like or relate to suburban characters (I had a instant and visceral dislike for the two women at the center of “Uncle Wiggly”). That’s fine. But not everyone relates to rich idle socialites either, or college professors, and that didn’t stop F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Vladimir Nabokov (Pnin), or Lorrie Moore.

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Which brings me to Ryan Harty. Many of the stories in his collection Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona are set in the suburban outskirts of Phoenix, and that collection won the 2003 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Stories about people growing up, growing apart, facing failure but living on anyway. I love them all, but my favorite is “Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down.” It’s also the most appropriate for this blog, given its genre-like subject matter.

Ben and his wife Dana have moved to the Arizona suburbs from Portland, Oregon for their son Cole’s health. Cole, you see keeps shorting out; he’s a synthetic boy, an android. A “D3,” they’re called in the story. The rumor is that the weather in Arizona helps D3s with problems like Cole’s. Ben is counting on it. Because the standard solution for D3s in Cole’s situation is to replace their core chip. This fixes the problem, but it would also essentially remove Cole’s personality, which was not merely programmed in, but was further developed by the experience of living. Dana wants to replace the chip. Ben wants to keep Cole. As you can imagine, this is driving a wedge into Ben and Dana’s relationship.

Of course, Cole begins to short out again. And Ben is faced with a choice: his marriage, or his son.

If you’re not a sci-fi reader, don’t be turned off by the android angle. This isn’t a science-fiction story in the pulp sense that many people think of: it’s a story about dealing with illness, and with relationships. It’s a story about choices: when to let go, and what to let go of. There are hints that Ben might not be one hundred percent in the right about Cole. He is a man who holds on to the past, maybe a little too much. In the post-petroleum world of the story, he’s still driving a gas-powered Bonneville. And it’s clear that Cole fears what his condition is doing to his parents even more than he fears what it’s doing to him.

The language is spare and matter of fact, yet evocative. Camelback Mountain appears in several of the stories, like a recurring character. In every story, people search. Sometimes, they find.

Recommended. The whole collection.


This review is part of the The Short Story Initiative ongoing reading project.

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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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!

More Challenges: The Short Story Initiative

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I know I said I wasn’t sure if I could manage the Readers Imbibing Peril reading event — but now I’m diving into another one. Even after only one R.I.P. review, I’ve gotten a noticeable bump in my readership here, so hey — why not try for another boost? It’s for something that I would do, anyway.

Nancy Cudis, at simple clockwork, has been running an event called Short Stories on Wednesdays for a while (she took over from someone else). I’ve enjoyed lurking quietly at the event (and at the simple clockwork blog in general), and I’ve learned about many Filipino authors — another interest of Nancy’s — that I hadn’t been aware of before.

Now she’s taking Short Stories on Wednesdays to a new level: The Short Story Initiative. It’s a monthly. Participants read short stories about once a month, and link them to the site. At the end of the month, Nancy will post a summary of all the short stories reviewed. Each month there is a suggested, but not mandatory, theme.

If you’d like to play, too, the details are at the link above. The link to sign up is here, along with some get-to-know you questions, which I’ll answer in a bit.

The themes for September and October are “Getting to know each other” and “Crime/suspense stories” — October, at least, fits nicely with R.I.P. as well, so I might double-dip (hope that’s okay!).

Okay — now for the Q&A session: Continue reading