TV Take: Strange New Worlds

What do Mario Bava and Star Trek have in common? Hopefully, Strange New Worlds. Let me explain…

Watching television

I don’t consider myself a particularly die-hard Trek fan: the only Star Trek series that I’ve seen in their entirety (and the only ones I rewatch) are The Original Series and The Animated Series. I’ve seen parts of all the Trek series from the nineties/early 2000s, and enjoyed them well enough, but I can’t say I was ever a super enthusiast.

The first Trek series comes from the era of The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and other similar anthology series. It definitely shares some of the weird tale sensibilities of those shows, as well as Rod Serling’s insight that speculative fiction is an effective and relatively subtle vehicle for addressing current events and controversial ethical issues. And as speculative fiction goes, I prefer the uncanny to science fiction. To the extent that later Trek shows lost that eerie, weird tale vibe, I correspondingly lost interest.

So I’ve not been following so-called “Nu-Trek,” nor had any desire to. But my husband watches Star Trek (pre Nu-Trek) more enthusiastically than I, and he’s been following the fan discussions about the new shows. The word on YouTube seems to be that Strange New Worlds has got that Original Series vibe. My husband got curious enough to sign up for a trial period of Paramount+, and so far, we’ve watched the first three episodes. I’m liking it.

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The Uncanny in Translation: Iginio Ugo Tarchetti

As if I didn’t have enough to do, a new series: The Uncanny in Translation! Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in non-Anglophone weird fiction. In this series, I plan to share interesting works in translation that I come across, which are possibly less well-known to English language readers.

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Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869)
Source: Wikimedia

First up: Fantastic Tales (Racconti Fantastici),  by nineteeth century Italian author Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869), translated by Lawrence Venuti. According to the book cover, Tarchetti was “the first Italian writer to experiment with the gothic style,” and is “often compared to Edgar Allan Poe.” He was part of the Scapigliatura movement in Italian literature, a sort of anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment movement influenced by German Romanticism, French bohemians, Baudelaire — and Poe.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Kristine Ong Muslim

Today’s featured writer Kristine Ong Muslim is a native and resident of Maguindanao province, southern Philippines. Her uncanny fiction, poetry and translations of other Filipino writers have been widely anthologized, and her most recent book is the collection of apocalyptic short fiction, The Drone Outside (2017).

Kristine Muslim
Kristine Ong Muslim. Source

My introduction to Ong Muslim was her short story “The Pit,” in the uncanny fiction anthology Uncertainties, Vol 4 (editor Timothy J. Jarvis), from Swan River Press. It’s short, unsettling, and ambiguous. There is much for the reader to reconstruct between the lines–as is generally true of the type of fiction that shows up in the Uncertainties anthologies. It’s the kind of story that will work for some readers, and not for others. I was intrigued; I wanted to find more.

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Ong Muslim writes on a variety of dark themes, with a mixture of horror, science fiction, weirdness, and allegory. Not all of her tales are necessarily “weird,” but there’s always at least a trace of the uncanny in her prose. In the last few years especially, much of her fiction has had a decidedly apocalyptic theme running through it, and a deep pessimism about human nature. I won’t lie; a lot of her stories are hard to read, at this time, in the present pandemic situation. But they’re beautiful.

Much of her work is available online, and here are some stories that I especially liked. This is more links than I usually share, but many of these, even the “longer” ones, are quite short. The longer pieces are in roughly chronological order.

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Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Emilia Pardo Bazán

Women’s History Month is over, but my series continues! Today I am featuring one of the major figures of Spanish literature: feminist, novelist, journalist, critic, and profilic short story writer Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921), the Countess of Pardo Bazán. Like George Sand, she is not primarily thought of as a writer of the fantastic [1], but is a prominent mainstream literary figure, known for her efforts to incorporate naturalism into Spanish literature.

La Esfera-Condesa de Pardo Bazán Gamonal
La condesa de Pardo Bazán (1851-1921) Illustration by Isidro Fernández Fuertes (1921). Source: Wikimedia

According to her page at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, she “is considered the best Spanish woman novelist of the 19th Century and one of the most distinguished writers in [the history of Spanish literature].” In 1916, she became the first woman to receive a chair at a Spanish university: Chair of Contemporary Literature and Romance Languages at the Universidad Central in Madrid.

I hadn’t read her since my undergrad days (I have a minor in Spanish Language Literature, though I remember almost nothing about it now), and she didn’t catch my attention at the time, focused as I was on the Argentine magical realists. I came across her again recently, while flipping through some of my old textbooks and bilingual anthologies, and this time around, her stories struck me, hard. Her writing feels remarkably contemporary in its psychological acuity and feminist outlook; like Quiroga, she sketches perceptive portraits of some of the darker and/or frailer aspects of human nature. While the stories I initially read don’t quite fit into the types of fiction I discuss on this blog, I really wanted to include her in this series, if possible.

Fortunately, a little digging surfaced several pieces that arguably qualify as fantastic or weird. I think I’ll have translation projects for some time to come! For this post, I’ll start with two that are short, but particularly powerful.

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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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The Magic Shop

One last winter tales post before Christmas Day! The tradition calls for ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and I’ve given you a few, but I can’t resist posting something a little more upbeat just before the big day. And don’t worry, there will be more spooky stories after Christmas Day, all the way up until Epiphany.

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Today’s tale is “The Magic Shop” by the great science fiction writer H.G. Wells (1866-1946). It’s a story that manages to be simultaneously sweet and unsettling, and so it feels like the perfect blend of Christmas cheer and winter tale spookiness.

The narrator and his son happen upon a wonderful magic shop — one that the narrator hadn’t remembered as being quite in that place.

“Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat. . . And you know, sir, if you’ll excuse my saying it, there isn’t a wholesale shop, not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don’t know if you noticed our inscription–the Genuine Magic shop.” He drew a business-card from his cheek and handed it to me. “Genuine,” he said, with his finger on the word, and added, “There is absolutely no deception, sir.”

Genuine Magic? Of course not. Is it? A lovely little tale, with just a hint of darkness at the end.

You can read The Magic Shop here.

And for a bonus (since it’s two evenings until Christmas morning), I’ll repeat another little fable that I shared the year I first started sharing winter tales: “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by Frank L. Baum (1856-1919), author of The Wizard of Oz.

Santa Claus lives in the Laughing Valley, where stands the big, rambling castle in which his toys are manufactured. His workmen, selected from the ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, live with him, and every one is as busy as can be from one year’s end to another.

It is called the Laughing Valley because everything there is happy and gay. The brook chuckles to itself as it leaps rollicking between its green banks; the wind whistles merrily in the trees; the sunbeams dance lightly over the soft grass, and the violets and wild flowers look smilingly up from their green nests. To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content. And throughout the Laughing Valley of Santa Claus contentment reigns supreme.

But near the Laughing Valley lie the Caves of the Daemons, and the Daemons are jealous of Christmas cheer. So they plot to kidnap Santa before he can deliver his toys on Christmas Eve.

You can read A Kidnapped Santa Claus here.

Enjoy.

A Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it, and a beautiful day to all of you who don’t. I’ll be back with more winter tales to end the year, soon.


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

Image: Advertising poster for magician Zan Zig, 1899. Source: Wikipedia

Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

The good news: it was a beautiful weekend to celebrate Non Stop Bhangra‘s ten year anniversary. The bad news: I danced so hard I think I broke my toe. This at least gave me an excuse to sit around all Sunday, finishing up Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and other stories.

Foot
Owwwww.

I couldn’t help comparing him (well, this collection) to my recent bout of Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes (or what I’ve read of him, this time around) has a distinct set of preoccupations that permeate all his work. The primary one is the intrusion of the past into the present, or the revisiting of the past in the present. This often expresses itself in his work as reincarnation, ghosts, doubles, history repeating itself. Memory and history are recurrent themes as well, closely related to the first, and also rife with ghost story possibilities. Oh, and there’s sex and erotic longing. The second usually leads to the first, of course — but not always.

If Cortázar has an obsession, then it’s transmigration. Not just in the sense of reincarnation, but more generally in the sense of the transference of essence, of souls. It might be across species (“Axolotl”), across centuries (“The Night, Face Up”, “The Idol of the Cyclades”),  or between people (“The Distances”, “Secret Weapons”, “A Yellow Flower”). One also senses in many of these stories the fear of losing control (“House Taken Over”; the just-released “Headache“, translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco). There’s a fair bit of longing in his stories, too – the unrequited kind. Perhaps it’s for the best friend’s wife, or even a blood relative (a commenter on The Weird Fiction Review‘s profile of Cortázar mentions the author’s “complicated feelings towards his own sister” — this is the first and only thing I’ve heard about it, but it is true that “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary” both have a weird vibe).

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Aura and Constancia: Ghost Stories from Carlos Fuentes

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I’m on a Carlos Fuentes kick right now. A Latin American kick, really, but Fuentes seemed like a good place to start, if for no other reason than I’ve been meaning to read The Crystal Frontier for a while, and because I recently read an excerpt from Terra Nostra that blew me away (and another one that, unfortunately, really didn’t). Of course, being me, I didn’t actually start with The Crystal Frontier, but with the 1962 short novel Aura, relatively unknown to English-language readers, but arguably Fuentes’ most popular work among the Spanish-language reading public, and one that a Mexican blogger once wrote me was his favorite of Fuentes’ “horror stories.” Oh, and look: there on my bookshelf, patient and forgotten, is the collection Constancia, and other stories for virgins (1989) — I don’t go down my to-be-read pile in the order of purchase, and, well, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Or off my bedside table, as the case may be.

So, Aura first, Constancia next. This was a fortuitous ordering, because the novella Constancia (the first novella from the collection) is in many ways Aura revisited….

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Chac Mool

I’ve been awash in translations of Spanish-language literature lately (more on that in a future article); it’s been fascinating reading. One of the things I’ve learned in my reading is that Carlos Fuentes wrote quite a few short stories. In fact, his first book was a collection of fantastic fiction called Los Dias Enmascarados (The Masked Days), which, to my knowledge, was never translated into English. Given the general preference of the reading public for novels over short stories, I’m not surprised, and such early writing would probably be considered only a minor work of his — not the optimal candidate for the effort of translation. But hope springs eternal, and so I had to look around….

Sure enough, a little digging uncovered an English rendering of the short story “Chac Mool“, translated by Jonah Katz, currently a professor of phonetics and linguistics at West Virginia University. “Chac Mool” was first published in Los Dias Enmascarados in 1954, then again in the 1973 collection Chac Mool y otros cuentos (Chac Mool and other stories — also never translated).

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A chacmool is a particular form of Mesoamerican sculpture: a figure of a man reclining on his back, upper body supported by his elbows and knees bent. His hands are on his abdomen, holding a dish or a bowl for accepting ritual offerings. His head is facing to the side. Chacmools have been found throughout central Mexico and the Yucatan, down into Central America. Chacmools are often associated with the Aztec rain god Tlaloc or with the similar Mayan rain god Chac (or Chaac). Both these rain gods are associated with human sacrifice (the bowl the chacmool holds is often a cuauhxicalli: a bowl to receive human hearts).

In Fuentes’ story, the protagonist, Filbert (Filiberto in the original), buys a chacmool (or as the story puts it, a replica of the Chac Mool, used as a proper noun) from some little junk shop, and brings it home. After the Chac Mool arrives, the water pipes mysteriously burst and the roof springs leaks in the rain. Filiberto discovers that in all this moisture, the stone idol seems to be turning into flesh — a rain god coming to life. Slowly, the Chac Mool turns Filiberto into his slave….

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