The Moral Opiate

More winter tales as we head into 2020! I came across “The Moral Opiate” a few years ago, in a collection of supernatural tales from Cornhill Magazine, and it struck me then as an unusual “ghost” story. The story is set in January, and seemed like a great winter tale. Unfortunately, as it was published in 1923, it wasn’t in the public domain when I found it. This finally changed in 2019. The story fits this year’s theme of a “different sort of haunting” quite well, and I’m delighted to share it with you.

La temptation

Birchington Priory isn’t haunted, per se; in fact, the Blue Bedroom of Sir Darcy’s annexe is a cheerful, pleasant room–the very opposite of spooky. But it’s a sinister place nonetheless, and the downfall of several guests at Birchington Priory. The room’s potential next victim: Eric Weir, amateur Egyptologist.

To feel yourself above mankind with their foolish conventions, designed to keep the bolder spirits to their own dead level—to feel that you are infinitely wiser than these sheep who voluntarily follow a moral code that leads through toil and trouble to the grave, and that can, at no time on the journey, offer any real recompense—these are feelings that intoxicate a man and sweep him off his feet.

“The Moral Opiate” is a fable disguised as a ghost story, an allegory about how easily a person can let go of their principles and slide into amorality and unethical behavior if they aren’t careful. In the story the bad influence is supernatural and dramatic; in real life, it can be slow and insidious, and hence, so much more dangerous…

You can read The Moral Opiate here.

I haven’t been able to find out anything about the author, William Bradley. The name is a fairly common one, and though there are several William Bradleys in Wikipedia, none of them seem likely. There are also several Will or William Bradleys in the FictionMags Index, but the folks there have decided that the author of “The Moral Opiate” is distinct from the others, and glancing at the titles of the pieces written by the other W. Bradleys, they’re probably correct. So this seems to be the only story published by this author, at least under this name.


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

Images

Featured Image: Source: pxhere

La Temptation, Copyright by Wm. Lee. Lith. F. Heppenheimer & Co (1869) Source: Library of Congress via Picryl

Sir Hugo’s Prayer

Over the years, I’ve fallen into a habit of sharing a lighter winter tale right before Christmas, usually as my Christmas Eve story. I suppose I find that it matches the more festive mood that preceeds the gift-giving and the celebrations. This story is a bit early, but I won’t get a chance to post right on Christmas Eve, so here’s my Christmas gift to you: “Sir Hugo’s Prayer” (1897), by G.B. Burgin.

Hamlet sees the ghost of his father 1843 1 jpg Large

Purgatory for the late Sir Hugo Follett and his wife Lady Follett entails haunting their family estate, which they’ve done for centuries. Apparently they were quite the rowdy ones, in their time. But times have changed, and life, er, death, just isn’t what it used to be. As they walk the battlements of Dulverton Castle on Christmas Eve, they run into their late-nineteenth century descendant, the young Clare Follett, in a bit of a pickle.

“There’s something up, my dear,” Sir Hugo remarked to Lady Follett. “It looks to me as if these fellows are in love with the girl, and that there’s going to be a row over it. I mean—ahem—that they will settle their differences with the sword.”

Well, maybe not. But Clare could use a little help. Can Sir Hugo and Lady Follett lend a ghostly hand? They’re certainly going to try.

You can read Sir Hugo’s Prayer here.

George Brown Burgin (1856-1944) was a novelist, editor, and journalist. He sub-edited the humorous monthly magazine The Idler (founded and originally edited by Jerome K Jerome and Robert Barr) from 1895 to 1899. He also wrote some 90 novels — 90 “forgettable novels” according to Stenley Wertheim, author of A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Ouch. The poor man doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. He seems best known today for a single quote:

I suppose it is much more comfortable to be mad and not know than to be sane and have one’s doubts.

Well, it shows he had a sense of humor. And “Sir Hugo’s Prayer” shows off his humor, too. It’s a fun, comedic ghost story, perfect for reading in front of the Yule Log on Christmas Eve, or while relaxing after a big Christmas dinner. Enjoy!!

Wishing a Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a joyous day to all who don’t.


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

Images

Featured Image: Image from A Clerical Courtship [a novel]. (1893) Source: British Library on Flickr

Hamlet Sees the Ghost of his Father, Eugene Delacroix (1843) Source: WikiArt

The Fourth Wall

After last post’s Lovecraft tale, I’ve decided on a kind of “theme” for this year’s series of Winter Tales: Something a little different.

I’m going to try to share stories where the haunting is some way atypical. Not just the usual suspiciously cheap rentals full of restless spirits, and dusty haunted manors rife with dark family secrets. Well, maybe there will be a few of those, but with a twist.

This time, I have an early story (1915) from A. M. Burrage. who was an extremely profilic writer of short stories in many genres, including romance. He’s best known today for his supernatural tales, including the spooky Christmas ghost story, “Smee,” written under the pen name Ex-Private X.

The story I’m sharing today, “The Fourth Wall,” is quite a bit different from “Smee,” but I think it’s fun, and the haunting is different and clever.

Drama 312318 640

Five people take a cottage in the country for a couple of months starting in December. No, it wasn’t absurdly cheap; it fact it’s perfectly delightful. Almost too delightful.

‘It’s a ripping old place,’ he said; ‘but do you know it seems to me rather self-conscious of being a cottage.’

‘What do you mean?’ Mrs Forran laughed.

‘I mean that everything about it—the furniture and all that—is so very “cottagey”. It seems to keep on shouting at you: “I am a cottage. Everything in me is just right for a cottage.” I don’t express myself very well.’

Helen laughed.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘You mean this room is, somehow, just a little stagey.’

“A perfect stage cottage,” is what they call it, but if that’s the only complaint they have, it’s not a bad thing. Is it?

You can read The Fourth Wall here.

Enjoy.


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

Images

Featured image: Set Design for staging Diary of Satan (by L. Andreev), Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1922). Source: WikiArt

Comedy/Tragedy Masks Source: Pixabay

Winter Tales Time! The Festival

Winter Tales time already! I’ve had a tradition on the blog for several years now: from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around.

327px The Shadow over Innsmouth by Mushstone

It snuck up on me this year, and I’m starting a little late and a bit unprepared, but there’s a silver lining. While rummaging amongst the files and lists on my computer for a good story to open with, I found a cache of tales that I’d forgotten about. So I can start this year’s round off strong, with a story a bit different from what I usually present: The Festival, a tale of Yuletide horror from H. P. Lovecraft.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden…

The narrator journeys to spooky New England, in accordance with family tradition, to participate in a once-every-century winter festival. What he experiences is ancient, eldritch, and adjective-laden.

I poke fun at Lovecraft’s style, but this story has moments of evocative atmosphere and genuine creepiness. I don’t think I’ll look at Midnight Mass in quite the same way this year.

So find a hot beverage and a warm blanket, and kick off this year’s Winter Tale season with a Cthulu Christmas story.

You can download “The Festival” here.

Enjoy!


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

Images

Featured image: The Nameless City, leothefox (2013). Source: Wikimedia

The Shadow over Innsmouth, TY Kim (Mushstone), (2012). Source: Wikimedia

The Swaying Vision

Happy Boxing Day! My folklore-themed winter tales series continues until Epiphany, so I have at least one more story to share with you this round.

Admittedly, this one is a bit of a stretch, both in terms of its winteriness and its folklore connections, but I like it. It’s an occult detection/haunted house tale that touches on a certain infamous real-life incident. The sort of incident that is so notorious that it often finds itself moving into the realm of legend. I won’t spoil it for you.

Poor Mr. Chadwick buys a house as an investment upon his retirement. He’s a careful buyer who researches before purchasing: whether it’s a respectable, healthy neighborhood; whether the house is watertight, with good drainage and in good repair. But no matter how careful you are, you always forget something.

‘It was really nobody’s affair,’ the next-door neighbour protested. ‘How could anybody warn you? Of course you might,’ he added, as the aggrieved Chadwick breathed threats relating to the ex-landlord of his new demesne and the house agent. ‘Still, I must remind you it’s a penal offence to kill people, even if they have landed you with one of the most notorious haunted houses in England.’

But you guessed that already, because you read my blog.

600px Pentagram Levi

After a bit of investigation of his own, Chadwick turns to his old schoolfriend Lester Stukeley. Stukeley’s day job is Civil Servant, but on the side he’s a psychic investigator who seems to follow the Carnacki school of investigation (William Hope Hodgeson’s Carnacki stories were originally published over the period 1910-1912; Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s “The Swaying Vision” appeared in 1915, in the The Weekly Tale-Teller). What could possibly haunt this ordinary, and quite newly-built house? Chadwick and Stukeley mean to find out.

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The Ghost of the Cross-Roads

I have time for one more folklore-themed winter tale before Christmas Eve! But I plan to keep sharing until Epiphany, so never fear….

Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story. Throw on the logs! Draw the curtains! Move your chairs nearer the fire and hearken!

“The Ghost of the Cross-Roads,” by one Frederick Manley, is an especially Christmasy tale. It was published in the South London Press for December 23, 1893. I found it in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume 3. If you aren’t familiar with the series, I recommend it.

It’s a cold, blustery Christmas night, and jolly festivities are going on at the humble Sweeny household. Suddenly, a wealthy upper-class stranger stumbles, half frozen, to the house. He has a strange tale to tell about a mysterious dark man, and a card game at the crossroads.

“It’s all very strange, to be sure,” said the gentleman. Then he added, with a little forced laugh that would hardly come from a person whose nerves were in good condition, “I will tell you all that happened.”

At these words, which promised the glorious entertainment always to be had from a ghost story, more especially when you sit in the midst of friends before a roaring, crackling fire, with a sparkling punch in your hand, listening to the storm that rattles the windows and doors….

…No wonder the cottagers huddled round the fire! So Andy’s guests being Irishmen, and having adamantine faith in the existence of all manner of “uncanny” things, awaited the stranger’s story with breathless interest.

The story’s title refers to a ghost, but really, who do you meet at the crossroads? The events of this story aren’t a surprise, but I liked the way the devil got around to proposing the deal. It was a bit different. The notion of the crossroads as a place where mortals meet devils to make dark bargains is widespread in Western folklore. Selling your soul at the crossroads for amazing musical prowess is a rumor that’s told about many great musicians, like Blues guitarist Robert Johnson — and Paganini. Though Paganini’s deal might not have been at the crossroads, and it might have been his mother who struck the bargain. Anyway….

You can read “The Ghost of the Cross-Roads” here.

The story is a little long-winded getting to the point. Manley spends a lot of time describing the Sweenys’ party, especially all the food. It made me hungry, reading it. Once the gentleman starts his tale, though, the narrative moves at a good pace. The interjections by the listening partygoers are fun, too.

Find a warm fire and a sparkling punch, and savor the tale for Christmas Eve.

Enjoy! And a Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a lovely day to all who don’t.


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

Nice article about “The Devil’s Violinist,” Nicolo Paganini. Includes one brief version of the Robert Johnson story.

A post I wrote a while ago about the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I don’t think the tale in the song explicitly happens at a crossroads, but it’s a fun song anyway. The post includes a different brief version of the Robert Johnson story.

Images

Featured image: Winter Landscape, Caspar David Friedrich (1811). Source: Wikimedia.

Playing Cards: Original by Alexas_Fotos, modified by Nina Zumel. Source: Pixabay

The Other Side: A Breton Legend

Next up on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a werewolf story from Decadent writer Eric, Count Stenbock.

This is an odd and interesting one. It’s not particularly Christmasy, though it does start with a scene of several old women warming themselves around a fire telling what sound like winter tales:

Oh, yes, then when they get to the top of the hill, there is an altar with six candles quite black and a sort of something in between, that nobody sees quite clearly, and the old black ram with the man’s face and long horns begins to say Mass in a sort of gibberish nobody understands, and two black strange things like monkeys glide about with the book and the cruets–and there’s music too, such music….

And that’s a good enough connection for me. The other reason I picked this one is that it reminded me a bit of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, in that it’s the story of a young boy who is seduced away from his home by a beautiful, sinister female supernatural being. In both tales, the young boy is saved in part because of a young girl who loves him. So the story’s fairy-tale aspect—plus the werewolves—seemed appropriate for this year’s theme.

Werewolves leaning against the wall of a cemetery

In The Other Side, a gentle and misfit young boy named Gabriel falls prey to a mysterious woman from “the other side” of the brook near his village. There, on the other side, live “the were-wolves and the wolf-men and the men-wolves, and those very wicked men who for nine days in every year are turned into wolves.” On this side of the brook is Gabriel’s dear friend Carmeille, who tries to keep Gabriel away from the evil influence that entices him. Who will win?

Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock (1860-1895) published relatively little in his lifetime (three volumes of poetry and one volume of short stories; two more collections of short stories were published in 1999 and 2002), but he was definitely known amongst the prominent creative figures of his time. He was a friend or acquaintance of the painter Simeon Solomon, the poet Arthur Symons, W. B. Yeats, and Aubrey Beardsley. He had a play rejected by The Yellow Book. And, at least according Ernest Rhys (the founding editor of Everyman’s Library), he was too emo even for Oscar Wilde.

While living, he was apparently better known for his persona than his creative output, and I have to say his life sounds like a stereotype of the Decadent movement: Dorian Gray come to life. He was a convert to Roman Catholicism, he dabbled in occultism and Buddhism and Paganism, he had exotic pets and wore flamboyant clothing. Supposedly, towards the end of Stenbock’s brief life, he traveled with a wooden doll that he dubbed “le petit comte,” and whom he believed to be his son. He died at the age of 35, of cirrhosis of the liver.

I get the impression that Stenbock’s poetry was pretty terrible, and it’s his short stories that have carried on his posthumous literary reputation. The two short stories that I’ve read by him are lush and heavily steeped in folklore and nature imagery. The other story, The True Story of a Vampire is a companion piece to The Other Side. It also features a young boy named Gabriel, who is unaccountably drawn to a mysterious stranger named Count Vardalek. Vardalek is a Slavic term (or a variation of one of the terms) for vampires/werewolves; that is, a creature that partakes of the aspects of both. It’s worth noting how the Count gains so much emotional influence over both Gabriel and his father, yet Gabriel’s sister Carmela and his governess remain relatively unaffected.

The theme of seducing the innocent obviously resonated with Stenbock. One wonders who Gabriel and Carmeille/Carmela represented in his life.

You can read The Other Side here.

It’s not a traditional Christmas ghost story, but it’s a dark and eerie little tale.

Enjoy.


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

I also recommend David Tibet’s essay on Stenbock and his writing, at the Public Domain Review.

Images

Featured image: Illustration from The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865). Artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia

Werewolves leaning against the wall of a cemetery. Maurice Sand (1858) Illustration from Légendes rustiques by George Sand (1858). Source: Wikimedia

Anne Lisbeth

Next on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a fairy tale that is also a great ghost story.

I have to confess, when I was a child I was never super fond of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. So many of his tales that I knew—The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier,— are, well, pretty depressing. Even The Emperor’s New Clothes isn’t exactly cheerful (though I always did like The Ugly Duckling). I liked happy endings.

I revisited several of his stories recently, via M.R. James’s charming translations, Forty-Two Stories (1930). As an adult, I appreciate the melancholy beauty of his writing much more. And I appreciate Andersen’s wit, too. Though I still prefer happy endings.

Many of the stories borrow freely from Andersen’s native Danish folklore, including the story that I’m sharing today: Anne Lisbeth.

Anne Lisbeth on the beach

A proud woman abandons her own child, leaving him with another family, to become the nursemaid to the son of a Count. Mother’s and son’s lives take different directions: she becomes affluent and respectable; he goes out to sea. Their fates eventually collide again — in quite a spooky way.

As M.R. James says of Anne Lisbeth (and several other tales): “popular beliefs or anecdotes are… conspicuously drawn upon”; specifically the legend of the strandvarsel, which Jean Hersholt rendered as “sea ghost” in his definitive translation (circa 1949):

As she continued on her way she remembered many stories she had heard as a child about the old superstitious belief in the “sea ghost” – the ghost of a drowned body that lay still unburied, washed by the tides on the wild seashore. The lifeless body itself could harm no one, but the “sea ghost” would follow a solitary wanderer, clinging fast to him and demanding to be carried to the churchyard and buried in consecrated ground.

James rendered strandvarsel as “shore-crier”— a transliteration, I suspect.

Andersen had a pronounced religious and moral center that shows strongly in his work; as I’ve said before, these aren’t just fairy tales, but parables. And Anne Lisbeth, with its nightmares and apparitions and unhallowed dead, with the moody calls of the ravens that echo throughout the second half of the tale, is very much a ghost story as well.

You can read Anne Lisbeth here. (Link to The Hans Christian Andersen Centre; translation by Jean Hersholt.)

It doesn’t happen in winter, and it’s got nothing to do with Christmas, but I think it’s still a great winter tale. And it seems appropriate for the Christmas season, too.

Enjoy.


Reference

Preface by M.R. James to Hans Andersen: Forty-two Stories, Hans Christian Andersen, M.R. James, translator. First published 1930. Faber and Faber Edition, 1971.


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

Other posts I’ve written about Hans Christian Andersen here and here.

Two more short anecdotes about the strandvarsel can be found here, from Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2 (1851).

Images

Featured Image: Anne Lisbeth’s Boy, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive

Ann Lisbeth Found on the Sea Shore, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive

Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning

Next up in Winter Tales: Folklore Edition is a story by one of my favorite 19th century ghost story authors: Irish writer Charlotte Riddell. Mrs. Riddell wrote a great haunted house story, and I featured one of them as a previous winter tale. This time, I give you “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” (1873), about a dashing Irish doctor whose family has their very own banshee.

…and then with a start and a shiver, and a blanched face, he turned sharply round, whilst a low, sobbing, wailing cry echoed mournfully though the room. No form of words could give an idea of the sound. The plaintiveness of the Eolian harp — that plaintiveness which so soon affects and lowers the highest spirits — would have seemed wildly gay in comparison to the sadness of the cry which seemed floating in the air. As the summer wind comes and goes amongst the trees, so that mournful wail came and went — came and went.

Banshee

The banshee is a female spirit from Irish mythology, generally attached to a specific family. She heralds the death of a family member by wailing and moaning just before the death occurs. She’s usually portrayed as an old woman (as she is in this story), although sometimes she can be young and beautiful. There’s a nice passage in the story where Mrs. Riddell details several banshee anecdotes in succession; she also slips in some pointed commentary about British upper-class society, which I imagine was heartfelt, as she spent most of her life in poverty, despite having been for a time a popular and well-regarded author.

In “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning,” the titular protagonist lives in London, having been estranged from his family in Ireland for twelve years. He begins to hear a mysterious wailing that no one but himself and his dog can hear. He knows it’s the family banshee. But is she wailing for him, or someone else in the family? Things come to a head on Christmas Eve.

Rather than “once upon a time,” the story takes place “before cholroform was thought of.” Wikipedia tells me that the obstetrician James Y. Simpson first demonstrated the use of chloroform on humans to induce sleep in 1847. So that would place this story in the first half of the nineteenth century, or perhaps even in the late eighteenth century. This fact about chloroform serves mostly to help describe O’Donnell’s strength of nerve, since as a surgeon he would have to operate on conscious patients. Rather clever, I thought.

You can read “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” here.

Enjoy.


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

Illustration: Illustration of a banshee, from Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825). Source: Wikipedia

Glámr

Welcome to Winter Tales: The Folklore Edition!

I’m starting off with Sabine Baring-Gould’s version of a story from the Grettis saga (or as Baring-Gould refers to it, the Gretla), a thirteenth century Icelandic saga about the outlaw hero Grettir Ásmundarson. It details Grettir’s fight with the draugr (a vengeful revenant of Norse mythology), Glámr. The bulk of story occurs during the winter months, and the key events on the eve and day of Christmas, making this a perfect way to kick off this winter tales season.

Grettir

The story first appeared, in a slightly different form, in Baring-Gould’s Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (1863), under the title “The Valley of Shadows,” then again in his Book of Ghosts (1904) under its present title. In his earlier work, Baring-Gould prefaced the story with this quaint footnote:

Gretla, chaps. 82–85. I give this story as a specimen of a very remarkable form of Icelandic superstition. It is so horrible, that I forewarn all those who have weak nerves, to skip it.

The reading public’s nerves have hardened a bit in the intervening century and a half, but it’s still a great story.

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