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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Friday Video: Return to Glennascaul

“A story that is told in Dublin”

Return to Glennascaul is a lovely short 1953 film written and directed by Hilton Edwards, one of the major figures of Irish theater. Orson Welles appears as himself, narrating this nice variation on the Woman in White urban legend.

On his way to Dublin during a break from filming Othello, Welles picks up a stranded motorist, who in turn tells him this spooky little story. I like the harp that accompanies the main section of the film. It sets the mood nicely.

Here’s Peter Bogdanovich introducing the film (length 4:08):

And here’s the film itself (length 22:21):


Nightmares and Hawaiian Stones


In my last post I shared the legend of Pele’s curse: the belief that taking lava rocks or sand from volcanos in Hawaii (especially Kilauea) brings bad luck because of the goddess Pele’s anger. As I mentioned, this legend is a tourist legend, and not a part of traditional Hawaiian folklore or mythology. As far as I can tell, it’s not particularly believed by non-indigenous residents of Hawaii, either.

But I did find a fairly similar item in a collection of local-but-non-indigenous folk stories. This anecdote is interesting to me, for a few reasons. First, the story.

My mother told me. One day when a man was walking he kick a stone. The stone roll away [from] where it was. That night when the man was sleeping the stone came to him and started to smash him. The wife thought why he was struggling on so she asked him what he did today but the man said nothing. The second night it happen the same way but when the wife asked him the same question he said nothing. The third night the wife couldn’t stand it so she prayed. Then the man knew what he did so he went back to where he kick the stone and put it where it was. This stone was a stone which belong to the old Hawaiian.

Gwladys F. Hughes collected this story from a 14 year old, Kauai-born, ethnically Japanese girl in Waialua, Oahu, in the winter of 1946-1947. The girl was an eighth grader at Waialua High and Intermediate School.

This story caught my attention because it’s somewhat similar to the “take a rock, suffer bad luck” tourist legend that I had been researching: sort of the “locals’ version” of that belief. But then I realized it’s also similar to another piece of folklore that I explored before starting on the Pele legends: the Filipino stories of the batibat, and the phenomenon of bangugot.

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The Curse of Pele: A Tourist Legend

A followup to my #FolkloreThursday article on the Saga of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanos and fire, and her sister Hiiaka.


Some time in the early or mid 1980s, a package arrived at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, containing lava sand taken from Black Sands Beach in 1969. The woman who took the sand evidently loved the Hawaiian islands a lot, as she and her husband returned frequently, despite the gradually escalating mishaps that struck them every time:

1st time-Cut my foot
2nd time-Scraped my arm at airport
3rd time-Lost my hearing and broke eardrum on crater in Maui
4th time-Sprained two toes on cement steps
5th time-Cut my finger
6th time-Husband had heart attack and I fell twice-1st time broke my left elbow; 2nd fall broke my kneecap in two places and crushed it.

Finally, in 1982, our two unlucky tourists saw a display at Volcano House, the historical hotel on the edge of Kilauea volcano, traditionally said to be Pele’s dwelling place. This display showcased letters from other tourists who had suffered the Curse of Pele: bad luck that struck them after they had taken lava rocks from Pele’s volcano. All these victims returned what they had taken, in hopes of lifting the curse. And so this couple did, too. I hope their future trips to the islands went better.

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The Spectre Girl

Death it is i who makes you serious let us embrace each other plate 20 1896 jpg HalfHD

Tim Prasil recently passed me a story called “The Spectre Girl” from the May 18, 1833 edition of The Dublin Weekly Journal; it had come to him because it was allegedly an occult detective story. It’s not, at all — but it is an interesting variation on the White Lady folktale.

The White Lady is a mysterious woman in white often spotted near roadways. She tends to be the ghost of a woman who died a tragic death, sometimes murder, sometimes suicide. Many white ladies (like this one) are also variations of the Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend; though phantom hitchhikers in general aren’t always in white, or even always female. La Llorona, who drowned her children, then killed herself in remorse, is another white lady variation.

This particular white lady is unusual, in that she is a frequent (though not liked) customer of the regular stagecoach service:

“Here’s a young lady,” said the conductor, “who will not take up much room;” and a small figure in white appeared upon the steps. “She will not trouble you much, for she is deaf and dumb. I know her, and have already taken her to Lyons. The devil be with her!” said he, in an under tone; “she has always brought me bad luck…”

Though they behave as if she is an ordinary (that is, living) person, the locals have nicknamed this mysterious girl the “little dead woman,” and there are definite hints that she is indeed dead: her skeletal appearance, the unaccountable chill in the stagecoach after she enters. What’s she up to? Where is she going? The author never spells it out definitively, but the outcome is telegraphed quite strongly. Anyone who reads ghost stories can guess what’s going to happen.

But that’s the nature of a classic urban legend or campfire horror story, isn’t it? The tale is a translation of La Fille Spectre, originally published anonymously in the 1833 French collection Le Salmigondis: Contes De Toutes Les Couleurs, or Hodgepodge: Tales of All Colors. The term contes is often used to refer to fairy tales (contes de fées) or other folktales that were traditionally transmitted orally, but published in a more polished literary form.

A little digging around revealed the tale’s author: Agathe-Pauline Caylac de Ceylan, comtesse de Bradi (1782-1847), who was known for her historical novels, set in Corsica. She was an admirer of Walter Scott — hence her regional historical novels — so it’s not surprising that she would write a few folktale-influenced stories, too.

You can read “The Spectre Girl” at Google Books.

The image above is La Mort: C’est moi qui te rends sérieuse; enlaçons-nous (Death: It is I who makes you serious; let us embrace) by Odilon Redon, 1896. Sourced from WikiPaintings.