The Dance of the Dead

I’m closing out this year’s Winter Tales season with a dark and delightful German gothic tale, as filtered through the pen of British author Dick Donovan. “The Dance of the Dead” is apparently based on one of the German folk legends about the mountain spirit Rübezahl, which means either “turnip counter” or “turnip tale.” He was originally a weather spirit who sent mountain storms, but evolved into a guardian of the poor who lived on his mountain. Like many a good fairy, he can appear to a person as an old man or old woman in need, to test if that person has a kind heart or not. If so, the person is rewarded. This is closer to his role in this story:

Dancing skeletons, Dance of Death

A young artist falls in love with Brunhelda, the lovely daughter of the hateful mayor of Neisse. The mayor has big marriage ambitions for Brunhelda; she’s too good for a penniless painter. But Robert’s “foster father,” the strange old Willibald, is a bagpiper of such amazing abilities that he can make anyone dance—even the dead. Can he help the young lovers out?

Yes, this is a ghost story. Since one could make the (admittedly tenuous) argument that the main action takes place around January, I judge it a fitting tale to finish this season’s Winter Tales series, and kick off the new year.

You can read “The Dance of the Dead” here.

Dick Donovan was the pen name of J. E. Preston Muddock, a British journalist and author who wrote in a number of genres, including non-fiction. He was particularly well known for mystery and detective fiction; most of his stories featured a Glasgow detective named Dick Donovan, who was so popular that Muddock began publishing under that name. He produced two collections of macabre fiction: Stories Weird and Wonderful (1889), and Tales of Terror (1899), from which “The Dance of Death” is taken.

[UPDATE June 29, 2021 — Purely by chance, I’ve discovered the original of this story: it’s “Der Todtentanz” (The Dance of Death) by Johann August Apel, from Gespensterbuch Vol 3 (c. 1812).]

I had originally gone to Tales of Terror for another story that is genuinely a ghost story set at Christmas, but I like this story better. Not just because its folkloric nature appeals to me, but also because the contrast between Robert’s kindhearted (but naive) model of human nature when compared to Willibald’s cynical (but realistic) perspective resonates with me right now.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this round of Winter Tales. Best wishes to all of us for a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2021!


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

Featured Image: Dance of Death, Henri Charles Guérard (c. 1888). Source: Wikimedia

Dance of Death from Folio CCLXIIII of Liber chronicarum, aka Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1493). Source: Wikimedia

Fladda Light

As we head into the twelve days of Christmas, here’s another winter tale to usher in the New Year. “Fladda Light” actually takes place in late November, but it’s a stormy and wintry and spooky tale that feels appropriate to the season.

Hudson Burke is the new keeper of Fladda Light, a lighthouse with a dark reputation.

Neapolitan lighthouse 1842 jpg Large

‘It was not a good place for men to be in,’ the informant would say; and then he would lean over to his hearer in an infectious ecstasy of fear. ‘There were things that came out of the sea that it was not good for men to be with.’

Will Burke survive with body and mind intact?

“Fladda Light” appeared in Cornhill Magazine in 1924. I came across it a few years ago, and loved the story, but it did not go into the US public domain until 2020, and so I had to hold on to it. I hope you agree with me that it was worth it.

You can read “Fladda Light” here.

The story’s author, Hilton Brown, was a Scottish poet, biographer, and novelist who wrote extensively about both Scotland and South India, where he served in the Indian Civil Service during the British Colonial period. Though he apparently didn’t write often in Scots, there is a touch of dialect in this story, which adds nicely to the atmosphere.

Brown wrote at least one other ghost story that I know of: “The Fourth Man,” an excellent, darkly humorous tale set in South India and published in 1930. You can find it in The Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories, which is a collection of tales in the “Classic English Ghost Story” tradition, some penned by Indian authors and others by British authors, but set in India. Both stories are great, but “Fladda Light” (in addition to being US public domain) is a better tale for this time of year.

And speaking of the season: have a Happy New Year, and enjoy this winter tale!


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

Images

Neapolitan Lighthouse, Ivan Aivazovsky (1842). Source: WikiArt

Longship Lighthouse, Lands End, J.M.W. Turner (c. 1834-1835). Source: WikiArt

Oberon Road

Happy Christmas Eve! It’s become a custom for me to share lighter winter tales on Christmas Eve, to match the festive spirit. Today, I’m sharing a story by A. M. Burrage.

Burrage’s best known Christmas tale is, of course, “Smee,” which is as dark a winter tale as you could want. Last year I shared Burrage’s “The Fourth Wall,” which is not quite as dark, but still has a grim undertone.

Opera rainy day 1909 jpg Blog

But today’s tale, “Oberon Road,” is more like a fairy tale, or a gentler version of A Christmas Carol. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Michael Cubitt is a bit of miser, a man neither good nor bad.

He had no friends and no enemies, because so far as could be discovered, he had never done anybody a bad or a good turn. … He had no apparent vices and no apparent virtues. Nobody but himself knew exactly what he got out of life.

But then one rainy evening just before Christmas, Cubitt meets an odd little man who (literally) sets Mr. Cubitt on a new path.

You can read “Oberon Road” here.

Whether it’s sunny or rainy or snowy where you are, I hope you enjoy this sweet little tale. Here’s 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: Columbus Avenue, Rainy Day, Childe Hassan (1885). Source: WikiArt

Opera, Rainy Day, Pierre Dubreuil (1909). Source: WikiArt

The Ghosts at Grantley

As Christmas week rolls around I’m switching to a couple of gentler, humorous ghost stories. This may or may not be in keeping with the traditional customs of winter tales, but it’s been my custom. This is my regular story for the week, and I’ll present another one on Christmas Eve.

Sir john sherard jpg Large

This week’s tale is “The Ghosts of Grantley,” by Leonard Kip. Grantley Grange boasts not one, but two remarkably similar ghosts: one for the upstairs and one for the downstairs. They show up regularly every Christmas, and they don’t seem to know that they’re dead! Can our hero convince them of this unpleasant reality so that they can move on?

You can read “The Ghosts at Grantley” here.

Given the setting of the tale, I was surprised to discover that the author, Leonard Kip, is an American. He seems to be chiefly remembered today for his memoirs of his experiences in the California Gold Rush. This is a bit ironic, since he disliked California and returned to his native New York, settling in Albany for a career in law. He did, however, continue to write, and “The Ghosts at Grantley” was originally written for one of the Christmas numbers of The Argus, an Albany, NY periodical. I couldn’t figure out the exact first publication date of the story, but four of Kip’s Argus Christmas contributions, along with two other stories, were collected into the volume Hannibal’s Man and Other Tales in 1878.

As I mentioned, this story is played for humor, but it is a real ghost story, with a fairly grim story behind the haunting. I hope you enjoy reading it as you get ready for Christmas week.


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

Images

Portrait of Sir John Sherard, John Riley (c. 1675) Source: WikiArt

Featured image: Locksley Hall, illustration by William Goodrich Beal for Tennyson Gems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (c. 1889). Source: Old Book Illustrations

The Earth Draws

This week’s winter tale is a dark folkloric story from Norwegian writer Jonas Lie (1833-1908). “The Earth Draws” comes from Lie’s 1891 collection Trold, which draws heavily on the folk beliefs of the fishermen and other residents of Northern Norway (he published a second collection with the same name the following year). Several of Lie’s short stories, mostly from Trold, were translated to English by Robert Nisbet Bain and published as Weird Tales from Northern Seas (1893)—and that of course is where this translation comes from.

Weird tales plate 005

A young shopkeeper’s assistant accidentally stumbles upon the shipping docks (and supplies) of “the underground folk,” invisible beings who live within the mountainside. No, it’s not what you think–he’s an honest young man, and doesn’t steal the goods. But meeting the underground folk has consequences, as he discovers come Christmastime….

You can read “The Earth Draws” here.

The translation only refers to these invisible beings as “the underground folk,” but I’m guessing that they are the huldrefolk (literally, “hidden-folk”), aka tusser, or underjordiske (underground), supernatural beings who live within mountains or under the ground, and who can make themselves visible at will. Female tusser are sometimes said to be beautiful, and sometimes to be hairy, and both traits come into play in this story.

If you like this winter tale (and I think you will), then I also highly recommend all of Tales from Northern Seas. It’s freely available at Project Gutenberg. Enjoy!


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

Images

“The Earth Draws” Illustration by Laurence Houseman for Weird Tales from Northern Seas (1893).

Featured image: Detail from Grunnarbeide (Groundwork), Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1907). Source: Wikimedia

The Blue Room

This week’s Winter Tale is “The Blue Room“, the last known published fiction by the writer known as Lettice Galbraith. It appeared uncredited in Macmillan’s Magazine October 1897, and if it was indeed Ms. Galbraith’s last published short story (for she may also have been writing under other names), then it was a great way to wind up her writing career.

Misty outline 768

Something is wrong with the Blue Room at Mertoun House. No one will say quite what, and several people have safely spent the night there. And yet the Mertouns keep the room unoccupied. Until one ill-fated Christmas evening….

You can read “The Blue Room” here.

I like this story for several reasons. First, it’s an interesting and well-written variation on the haunted room and occult investigation genres. Second, the “principal investigator” is a strong female character! Edith Erristoun attends Cambridge University, something still unusual for women at the time (in fact Cambridge didn’t actually grant degrees to women until 1948). She’s curious and brave, and her relationship with her fellow occult investigator is purely one of common intellectual interests, not romance. I can’t exactly say she doesn’t need rescuing, but her rescuer is also a woman: the narrator, Mrs. Marris, the housekeeper at Mertoun House.

And of course, like all of Lettice Galbraith’s stories, it’s a great read. I’ve noted before that Ms. Galbraith seems to touch more directly on sex-related topics than one might expect for her era; that’s kind of true for this story too, in a subtle way. So subtle that it took me two reads to notice.

But even it you don’t catch the allusion, it doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the tale. So grab a warm drink, curl up under your blanket, and enjoy!


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

I featured Lettice Galbraith in my Women of Folklore and the Fantastic series in September. You can read that post (with a link to her collection New Ghost Stories) here.

Images

Featured Image: A bed, Mikhail Vrubel (c. 1904). Source: WikiArt

Misty Outline of a Human Figure, Odilon Redon (1896). Illustration intended for La maison hantée by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Not included in final publication. Source: Old Book Illustrations

Winter Tales 2020! House of Strange Stories

It’s that time of year again! In the tradition of the season, I’ll be sharing spooky winter-themed tales from now until Epiphany, ghost stories for you to read with a hot drink and a warm blanket. My favorite Christmastime ritual!

Old family mansion 768

This year I’ll begin with “House of Strange Stories,” by Andrew Lang, from the collection In the Wrong Paradise, and Other Stories (1886). Yes, that Andrew Lang, famous for his series of colored fairy tales books. But he was also interested in anthropology, history, and psychical research, even serving as the president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1911. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he sometimes wrote ghost stories, too.

“House of Strange Stories” is a perfect tale to start winter tales season, as it epitomizes the yuletide tradition of ghost story telling around the fire:

…all of us, men and women, were sitting at afternoon tea in the firelit study, drowsily watching the flicker of the flame on the black panelling…

Naturally, in such an environment, they eventually begin to swap eerie, “true” experiences. Of special interest is the anecdote from the Bachelor of Arts, which is strikingly similar to–and possibly an inspiration for?–a famous 1906 story by E.F. Benson.

You can read “House of Strange Stories” here.

Enjoy, and I look forward to sharing more tales with you for the rest of the season.


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

Images

Engraving by James D. Cooper, for Old Christmas, by Washington Irving (1886). Source: Old Book Illustrations

Featured Image: Telling Christmas stories by the fire, circa 1903. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection

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.

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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