Byron, the Shelleys, Polidori & the Genesis of Gothic Horror…

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Villa Diodati, Switzerland, During a Storm.

On This Day in 1816: John Polidori Finds a Book

Fabio Camilletti

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Fabio Camilletti* on Fantasmagoriana, celebrating exactly 200 years since the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori held their now infamous ghost story competition during a rainy summer by Lake Geneva.

On the 12th of June 1816, John Polidori ‘rode to town’, and ‘subscribed to a circulating library’; five days later, on June the 17th, he records in his journal that ‘the ghost-stories are begun by all but me’. Who knows when they started reading: on the evening of the 12th, Polidori slept in a hotel, and so he did on the 13th, when he ‘walked home in thunder and lightning’, lost his way, and the police drove him back to the inn; it may have been on the 14th (‘Shelley and I had a conversation about principles, – whether man was to be thought merely an instrument’: a nice appendix to a ghost story-telling night), or on the following days – the Shelleys, at any rate, were always around. The question, however, is in the end irrelevant – the ‘night at Villa Diodati’, as we imagine it, may well not have taken place at all. But the book was there, this is for sure: and, most plausibly, it came from the ‘circulating library in town’, to which Polidori had subscribed on the 12th. In the previous days, he had been reading Tasso and Lucian: from that day on, ghosts, fate, and the principles of life became an increasing concern for the company, until the moment when – as per the entry of 18, at ‘Twelve o’clock’– they ‘really began to talk ghostly’.

Fantasmagoriana_title_pageFantasmagoriana had been published in Paris by the Alsatian bookseller Frédéric Schoell (or, more correctly, Friedrich Schöll), a philologist and historian who had entered the editorial business during the Revolution – first in Basel, and later in the French capital – and would later attend the Congress of Vienna as a member of the king of Prussia’s entourage. Schoell’s bookshop was located in the Rue des Fossés-Montmartre (nowadays a part of the Rue d’Aboukir, in the second arrondissment), namely a few metres away from the medieval ruins of the convent and church of the Capucines, which had been ravaged during the Terror and would later be dismantled in the course of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. In 1798, part of the convent had been hired by the Belgian manager Étienne-Gaspard Robert, better known under the name of Robertson, who had exploited the properties of that quintessentially gothic setting for his show: a mixture of lights, images, and sounds which he sold under the name of Fantasmagorie. In the heart of old Paris, not far away from Place de la Révolution where the king and Robespierre had been guillotined, the book and the show echoed, therefore, each other, both promising an experience of terror behind which, in a sense, sounded as the afterimage of another, and more historical, Terror.

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Robertson’s Phantasmagoria.

Phantasmagoria was not Robertson’s invention. In the 1770s, an ex-Hussar and freemason named Georg Schröpfer had held necromancy séances in his coffee-house in Leipzig, and his ability in summoning ghosts via a hidden magic lantern had awarded him the nickname of Genspenstermacher (‘Ghost-maker’): Schröpfer’s experiments played with the ambiguity between ‘real’ supernatural and artifice, and so did the shows performed in Paris, since 1792, by an otherwise unknown Philipstahl or Philidor, being the first ones to be advertised under the name fantasmagorie, and which exploited the audiences’ interest in occult subject by selling themselves as a way of debunking credulity towards superstition. The same ambiguity was preserved – and indeed brought to the extreme – by Robertson’s shows, a veritable multi-sensorial experience that aimed at catching the beholders’ imagination completely: audiences were welcomed in the dark vaults of the convent of the Capucines, where meticulous care was paid to generating a ‘Gothic’ atmosphere; among skulls and spectral sounds, lamplights and smoke, Robertson held a speech in which he mixed necromancy and occult sciences, electricity and Galvanism; then full dark ensued, while the lantern began projecting its horrors, including skeletons, ghosts, the ancient gods, but also the shadow of Voltaire or the guillotined head of Danton. Ancient superstition mixed with contemporary history: at some point, the show was forcibly closed by the police when rumour was spread that Robertson could bring King Louis XVI back to life.

Naming the book Fantasmagoriana meant, therefore, to assimilate the experience of reading to Robertson’s popular phantasmagoria shows, and to offer the reader a comparable hullabaloo of horrors within the three hundred and more pages that each of the two tomes was made of. On the one hand, the equation between literature and magic lantern performances invited readers to approach texts through the visual paradigm constructed by phantasmagoria shows. Let us see a passage from Friedrich August Schulze’s ‘L’Heure fatale’ (original ‘Die Verwandtschaft mit der Geisterwelt’), describing the apparition of a girl’s uncanny Doppelgänger:

Je m’approchai de l’armoire. Mais juge de ma frayeur mortelle, lorsque me préparant à l’ouvrir, les deux battans se déploient sans faire le moindre bruit; la lumière que je tenois à la main s’éteint; et comme si je me trouvois devant un miroir, mon image fidelle sort de l’armoire: l’éclat qu’elle répand éclaire une grande partie de l’appartement. Alors j’entends ces paroles: ‘Pourquoi trembler en voyant ton être propre s’avancer vers toi, pour te donner la connoissance de ta mort prochaine, et pour te révéler la destinée de ta maison?’

[I went towards the closet. But just imagine my mortal fear when, as I was about to open it, the two doors opened wide without a single sound; the lantern I was holding in my hand switched off, and, as if I was standing in front of a mirror, my faithful image came out of the closet; the shining she emanated enlightened a great part of the room. And then I heard these words: ‘Why are you trembling in beholding your very being, who is approaching you in order to bring you the knowledge of your coming death, and to reveal you the fate of your lineage?’]

The whole scene can be visualised and interpreted by making reference to phantasmagoria devices and visual codes: the alternation of dark and light, the closed doors opening, the image coming towards (and not walking, an effect that the magic lantern would not allow); and, finally, the words not being uttered by the apparition, but rather heard by the narrator (exactly in the same way as Robertson’s public did hear speeches coming from the backstage).

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British Illustration for “L’Heure Fatale”.

On the other hand, the association between visual and textual phantasmagorias also worked the other way round: indeed, the term itself fantasmagorie, plausibly devised by Philipstahl/Philidor, already possessed a strong link with textuality. Literally a coinage after the Greek terms phantasma (‘ghost’, but also ‘image’) and agoreuein (‘to speak’), fantasmagorie can be equally understood as a ‘dialogue with ghosts’ or a ‘summoning of ghosts’, but also (more audaciously, perhaps), as a ‘ghostly talk’. ‘Twelve o’clock, really began to talk ghostly’, would write Polidori in his journal, thereby cryptically making reference to the very title of the book that had given rise to it all.

Like Robertson’s phantasmagoria shows, Fantasmagoriana played with the ambiguity between supernatural and mental ghosts, illusion and reality, theatricality and disenchantment. The subtitle, in particular, was a little masterpiece of ambiguity, by announcing a ‘recueil d’histoires d’apparitions, de spectres, de revenans, fantômes, etc.’ (‘collection of stories of apparitions, spectres, revenants, ghosts, etc.’); indeed nowhere – with the exception of a winking epigraph from Horace, in which the book was said to ‘fill the heart with deceitful terrors’ (falsis terroribus implet) – did the paratext signal that it was actually a literary book. The editor declared himself to be just ‘un Amateur’, and the text to have been translated from the German – which, in France as much as in England, was a label indicating whatever could be uncannily foreign, and overall a synonym for Gothic. No indication was given about the authors of single tales, nor about their original sources.

The ‘Amateur’ was Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès, a geographer from Marseille who, at that time, was already forty-five years old. He spoke nine languages, and had an excellent knowledge of Germany and its culture (in 1804 Napoleon and Talleyrand had sent him to mobilise the French émigrés in that country); Fantasmagoriana was a sort of divertissement from his real activity, that is to say geography and travel writing, but surely it was a well-planned book, aimed at presenting a fashionable and up-to-date literary genre to the French public. Five tales out of ten had been published just one year before, within the first two volumes of the anthology Gespensterbuch (literally, ‘Book of Ghosts’) printed in Leipzig by the publisher Göschen; one of them, ‘La Chambre noire’ [(or. ‘Die schwarze Kammer. Anekdote’), had been conceived as a sequel to Heinrich Clauren’s ‘La Chambre grise’ (or. ‘Die graue Stube (Eine buchstäblisch wahre Geschichte’), which had appeared in 1810 in the Berliner newspaper Der Freimüthige, and was equally included in Eyriès’s anthology. The editors of Gespensterbuch, and the authors of the majority of tales selected by Eyriès, were two writers coming from Saxony, Johann August Apel and Friedrich August Schulze, the latter under the pseudonym of F. Laun. Fantasmagoriana also included a tale by Apel, originally appeared in the 1810 volume Cicaden, and by a long piece extrapolated from Johann Karl August Musäus’s Volksmärchen der Deutschen, an anthology of German fairytales published between 1782 and 1786. A varied, albeit consistent corpus (all authors came from Eastern Germany, besides the cradle of German Romantcism) crossed thus the Rhine, also crossing, immediately afterwards, the Channel: if the Diodati company would read the French text, as early as in 1813 the thirty-two year old Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson, the wife of the antiquarian and collector Edward Vernon Utterson, translated a huge part of Eyriès’s anthology, entitling it Tales of the Dead and publishing it with the Londoner bookseller White, Cochrane and Co.

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Sarah Utterson too decided to remain anonymous: her translation, she would write in her brief ‘Advertisement’, had been ‘the amusement of an idle hour’. Utterson suppressed three tales, adding one on her own – entitled ‘The Storm’, and presented as ‘founded on an incident similar in its features, which was some years since communicated to me […] as having actually occurred in this country’; she significantly abridged Musäus’s ‘L’Amour muet’ (or. ‘Stumme Liebe’), translating it as ‘The Spectre-Barber’, and added to each tale epigraphs taken from the British literary tradition, especially from Shakespeare. The targeted use of quotations had become a customary practice in Gothic fiction since M.G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and indeed all Utterson’s choices seem to aim at captivating the British reader by connecting with that national tradition: although, she writes, ‘the multitude of contemptible imitations’ of Ann Radcliffe’s novels has ultimately nauseated readers, whose ‘want […] at length checked the inundation’ of this flood of books, perhaps stories such as these ‘may still afford gratification in the perusal’. By so doing, Utterson’s anthology marks the entrance of Fantasmagoriana into the more mature literary market of Georgian England, but at the same time it corresponds to the domestication of the French anthology into the more normative categories developed by that market in terms of genre: indeed, Tales of the Dead is a fully Gothic book, as the title makes explicit in avoiding every reference to phantasmagoria, and hence to the sphere of artifice and deception. While Utterson’s cuts transform ‘L’Amour muet’ into a veritable ghost story, by isolating within a much more complex tale the only supernatural element, she also suppresses precisely those stories – Schulze’s ‘Le revenant’ (or. ‘Der Geist der Gestorbenen’), ‘La Chambre grise’, and ‘La Chambre noire’ – in which the supernatural was explained with natural causes, thereby eroding the constitutive ambiguity between reality and deception that had formed the backbone of Eyriès’s anthology.

In France, Fantasmagoriana had instead been produced and received in a very different context, as testified by the publication, within the space of ten years, of at least three works that try to ride the crest of its popularity by echoing its title: J.P.R. Cuisin’s Spectriana, published anonymously in 1817; Gabrielle de Paban’s Démoniana, of 1820; and Charles Nodier’s Infernaliana, appeared in 1822. Tellingly, all these works explicitly refuse to be labelled as fictional books, and are rather collections of stories relating supernatural or uncanny events, mostly looted from such eighteenth-century repertories as the treatises on occult phenomena by Augustin Calmet or Nicolas Lenglet du Fresnoy, but also from Gothic or fantastic fiction (from M.G. Lewis to Jan Potocki). In particular, publishing his book, Cuisin is concerned about specifying how his work differs from the

foule de rapsodies connues sous le nom de manuel des sorciers, fantasmagoriana, etc., qui ne méritent pas plus de créance que d’estime. On nous pardonnera sans doute d’avoir pris un titre aussi futile que celui de spectriana; c’est un tribut que nous avons payé à la manie de l’époque où nous vivions.

[crowd of rhapsodies known under the names of The Wizard Handbook, Fantasmagoriana, etc., which do not deserve more credit than they deserve appreciation. It shall doubtlessly be pardoned to us if we have chosen such a frivolous title as Spectriana: it is the tribute we paid to the mania of the age we are living in]

This consideration is very interesting, as the ‘mania’ of the age Cuisin is referring to is not exactly what one might expect. Indeed, unlike Utterson, Cuisin is not complaining about the flood of Gothic and supernatural fiction, but rather about the vogue of scientific entertainment that had been proliferating in revolutionary France, and which had resulted in the massive publication of amateur works aimed at disseminating scientific and pseudoscientific knowledge to the broader public. Most of these works discussed issues that were very popular at the time – including electricity, ventriloquism, automata, animal magnetism/mesmerism, and occultism – and proposed entertaining ways to make experiments with science. Such is the case of the Manuel des sorciers Cuisin mentions, which is in fact a compilation of mathematical and arithmetic curiosities, enriched with a great number of magic tricks and parlour games involving numbers; in the subtitle, the anonymous author specifies how the book belongs to the genre inaugurated by Henri Decremps’s claimed La Magie blanche dévoilée (1783 and 1784), namely one of the most famous eighteenth-century handbooks of stage magic. In other words, Fantasmagoriana may be assimilated, on the one hand, to the many works dealing with supernatural beliefs that proliferate in post-revolutionary. On the other, it may be equated with books, such as Le Manuel des sorciers, dedicated to conjuring and illusionism, and to mixing popular science with entertainment.

From this angle, rather than a repertoire of images and themes nourishing – to a more or less extent – the literary outcomes of Diodati, it is interesting to read Fantasmagoriana as a veritable imagination-triggering engine, which, by moving on the edge between reason and credulity, illusion and reality, science and the supernatural, invites to explore a little bit further the limits of possibility, and turn a story-telling parlour game in a rainy summer into new patterns of invention.<

Source: http://www.bars.ac.uk/blog/?p=1214

Read Tales from the Dead (1813 translation by Utterson):

http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/EtAlia/tdpref.html

Further Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_the_Dead

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasmagoriana

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gespensterbuch


*Fabio Camilletti is Associate Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick. In 2015 he completed a new edition of Fantasmagoriana, and since then he is working on a project on anthologies of the supernatural in Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe.

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The Romance of Vampires, an Essay by Mike Ashley

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 From the Introduction to Vampires, Classic Tales, ed., Mike Ashley, Dover Press, 2010

(TOC provided following the essay)

This book contains a selection of vampire stories both old and new. Generally I’ve reprinted lesser-known stories with an intent to show both the origins of the vampire in fiction and some of the diversity that has emerged over the years.

Vampire fiction has been with us for at least two hundred years and our fascination with it remains undiminished. If anything, it is at the height of its popularity. It is not difficult to see why, with the vampire so often portrayed as a tragic hero or, in the case of women, a voluptuous temptress or femme fatale.

The success of the topic in books in recent years can be traced to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) and its sequels, and the theme was further popularized with the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Stephenie Meyers’s series that began with Twilight (2005). Between them, Rice and Meyers’s books have sold over 200 million copies, which probably makes vampires the most widely read of all genre fiction.

And it owes all its success to Lord Byron.

Well, not quite—but he has a lot to answer for.

It barely needs repeating, but one of the most influential literary gatherings happened at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in June 1816. Present were Byron and his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, the young Mary Godwin and her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont. During a storm they read from a collection of Gothic horror stories, Tales from the Dead, and Byron challenged each of them to write a ghost story. The most famous work to emerge from this was Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Byron and Percy Shelley soon gave up their efforts, but Byron’s unfinished “fragment” was used by Polidori as the basis for his own story, “The Vampyre,” which was published in the New Monthly Magazine in April 1819. The publisher of the magazine, Henry Colburn, attributed the story to Byron, which vexed the poet, who refuted it in a letter published in The Times of London on June 5, 1819. “I am not the author and never heard of the work in question until now,” he wrote, adding, “I have, besides, a personal dislike to ‘vampires’ and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to divulge their secrets.”

By then Polidori had already proclaimed his authorship but for years the suspicion remained that it was by Byron. This was compounded by the fact that the name Polidori chose for the vampire, Lord Ruthven, had already been used by Lady Caroline Lamb in her novel Glenarvon (1816) and Ruthven was clearly based on Byron. Polidori likewise modeled his Ruthven on Byron, and it is from this story that the romantic yet tragic image of the vampire has grown.

Polidori’s story is frequently reprinted in anthologies, so I have not included it here, but Byron’s original is less readily available, so I have included that in an appendix because of its historical significance. Although Byron did not get as far as resurrecting his vampire, he was nevertheless seeking to write what is now regarded as the first modern fusion of the vampire myth and gothic tale in English fiction. And by completing the story, Polidori gave rise to the whole iconic vampire imagery of doomed nobility.

*

The idea of vampires, or at least demonic figures who devour flesh and blood, has been around for thousands of years. They appear in the legends and fables of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome, where they are invariably female and called lamia. The Greek writer Phlegon, who lived at the time of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century, collected together a miscellany of stories and accounts of strange and inexplicable events known as On Marvels, and among them was the story of “The Bride of Corinth” about a young Athenian man who discovers his wife-to-be has risen from the dead. This story was the basis of the poem, “The Bride of Corinth” by Johann von Goethe, which appeared in 1797 at the height of the boom in Gothic literature.

But truth to tell, the idea of vampires was already so well entrenched in everyday parlance that it was possible to lampoon the idea as early as 1785. On October 18 that year the Universal Register (the forerunner of the London Times) ran an anonymous short story called “Opulence,” wherein the first person narrator assists an alchemist in creating the philosopher’s stone. The alchemist is killed, but the narrator takes the stone and with it becomes wealthy. However, his fortune attracts the interest of others who descend upon his estate and rob him of everything. He calls these thieves “vampires,” because they bled him dry of everything, a metaphor still used today. A footnote to the story explains:

In Poland and some other countries, a notion is entertained that some persons after they are dead and buried, have the power of sucking others till they die and to them they give the name vampire.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word “vampire” had first appeared in print in England in 1734, so it was firmly in circulation by the time Polidori’s story was published.

Soon after Polidori’s story was published, another appeared in English, “Wake Not the Dead,” in the anthology Popular Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations, published in 1823. It appeared anonymously but for years was attributed to Johann Ludwig Tieck, despite there not being any original German text amongst Tieck’s accredited work. In fact, it is now firmly established that the story was by Ernst Raupach and it appears here correctly attributed, and correctly titled as “Let the Dead Rest” for the first time. This was the first story to develop what has become the traditional vampire imagery of a beautiful, seductive creature that shuns daylight, weakens its victims, and can only be despatched with a dagger through the heart.

Also of historical importance is “The Mysterious Stranger.” Though first published in English in 1854, it had appeared in Germany at least ten years earlier and, as such, was the first vampire story to be set in the Carpathian mountains, the location of Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, which was published in May 1897. Although there is no evidence that Bram Stoker had read the story, there are sufficient similarities between it and Dracula for the antiquarian and ghost-story writer M. R. James to suggest that it must have served as the basis for the novel. For years the authorship of this story was treated as anonymous, but recent research has revealed that it was by the little-known German writer Karl von Wachsmann.

One other early story completes the fabric of the legend: “The Pale Lady” by Alexandre Dumas which, though written in 1848, was not translated into English until 1910, and has rarely been reprinted since. Like “The Mysterious Stranger,” it is also set in the Carpathian mountains.

These early examples suffice to show how the vampire legend established itself in fiction, mostly in Germany and France, but drawing upon beliefs from central and eastern Europe. I have avoided the more familiar stories of this period such as Théophile Gautier’s “Le Morte Amoreuse” (1839) and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1871) in order to concentrate on stories that exemplify some major themes in vampire fiction. In “The Fate of Madame Cabanel” (1872), for instance, by Eliza Lynn Linton, we see how the belief in and fear of vampires has become so entrenched in remote communities that prejudices can soon erupt with tragic consequences. In “A Kiss of Judas” (1893), Julian Osgood Field considers a totally different origin of the vampire, linking the dead-alive to the children of Christ’s betrayer, Judas. Donovan’s little-known “The Woman With the ‘Oily Eyes’” (1899) explores the idea of the femme fatale while Gilchrist’s “The Crimson Weaver” (1895) weaves the vampire temptress into the imagery of the fantastic. Finally, “With the Vampires” (1903), which has never previously been reprinted, looks at the peril of those who enter the realm of the vampire bats.

There are three stories of more recent vintage. In “Blood Gothic,” Nancy Holder shows the corrupting influence of the romantic vampire image. In “Blood Chess,” Tanith Lee returns to the traditional vampire story but from a wholly new perspective. In “Emptiness,” Brian Stableford considers the idea of vampire babies.

You will see from the dates that, aside from the more recent stories, only two of the older stories appeared after Dracula, and so none of the earlier stories could have been influenced by it. It’s entirely likely that Donovan’s “The Woman With the ‘Oily Eyes’” had an earlier magazine publication, so it, too, could have been written prior to Dracula’s appearance in May 1897. And there is no doubt that “With the Vampires” bears no relationship to Dracula at all. As a consequence all these stories draw their inspiration from older traditions and prevailing legends, and therefore develop their own treatment.

Between them, these stories demonstrate the versatility of the vampire story as well as the continuing strength of the legend.

Mike Ashley

August 2010


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Vampires, Classic Tales

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction by Mike Ashley
  2. Blood Gothic by Nancy Holder
  3. Let the Dead Rest by Ernst Raupach
  4. The Mysterious Stranger Karl von Wachsmann
  5. The Pale Lady by Alexandre Dumas
  6. Blood Chess by Tanith Lee
  7. The Fate of Madame Cabanel by Eliza Lynn Linton
  8. A Kiss of Judas by Julian Osgood Field
  9. The Crimson Weaver by R. Murray Gilchrist
  10. The Woman With the “Oily Eyes” by Dick Donovan
  11. Emptiness by Brian Stableford
  12. With the Vampires Sidney by Bertram
  13. Appendix: A Fragment by Lord Byron

 

“Ex Tenebris” — an Eerie Gothic Tale by Russell Kirk

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 Ex Tenebris*

Russell Kirk, 1957**

[*The Latin phrase “Ex Tenebris” is most simply and commonly translated to mean “from (the) Darkness” in English. It can also be rendered in other ways, e.g., “out of darkness”, “of the dark”, and more abstract phrases, such as “from obscurity”. (See http://mymemory.translated.net/en/Latin/English/ex-tenebris-lux)%5D
Art by Anton Semenov.

“Then shall it be too late to knock when the door shall be shut; and too late to cry for mercy when it is the time of justice. O terrible voice of the most just judgment which shall be pronounced upon them, when shall it be said unto them, Go ye cursed into the fire everlasting, which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” (A Commination, or Denouncing of God’s Anger and judgments against Sinners)

Only one roof at Low Wentford is sound today. On either side of the lane, a row of stone cottages stands empty. Twenty years ago there were three times as many; but now the rest are rubble. A gutted shell of Victorian masonry is the ruin of the schoolhouse. Close by the brook, the church of All Saints stares drearily into its desolate graveyard; a good fifteenth century building, All Saints, but the glass smashed in its windows and the slates slipping one after another from the roof. It has been deconsecrated all this century. Beside it, the vicarage—after the soldiers quartered there had finished with it—was demolished for the sake of what its woodwork and fittings would bring.

In the last sound cottage lives Mrs. Oliver, an ancient little woman with a nose that very nearly meets her chin. She wears a countrywoman’s cloak of the old pattern, and weeds her garden, and sometimes walks as far as the high-arched bridge which, built long before the cottages, has survived them. Mrs. Oliver has no neighbors nearer than the Oghams of Wentford House, a mile down a bedraggled avenue of limes and beeches twisting through the neglected park to the stables of that Queen Anne mansion.

Nearly three years ago, Sir Gerald Ogham sold the cottage to Mrs. Oliver, who had come back from Madras to the village where she was born. In all the parish, no one remained who remembered Mrs. Oliver. She had gone out to India with her husband, the Major; no one knew how long ago that had been—not even Mrs. Oliver, perhaps—with any precision, for she had known Sir Gerald’s father, but had grown vague about decades and such trifles. Sir Gerald himself, though he was past sixty, could recollect of her only that her name had been an old one in the village.

Village? Like the money of the Oghams, it had faded quite away: the Ogham fortunes and Low Wentford now were close to extinction. The wealth of the Oghams was gone to the wars and the Exchequer; the last of the villagers had been drained away to the mills at Gorst, when tractors had supplanted horses upon the farms which Sir Gerald had sold to a potato syndicate. Behind the shutters of the sixty rooms of Wentford House, a solitary daily woman did what she could to supply the place of twenty servants. Lady Ogham and the gardener and the gardener’s boy grew flowers and vegetables in the walled garden, to be sold in Gorst; Sir Gerald, with a feckless bailiff and a half-dozen laborers, struggled to wrest a few hundred pounds’ income from the home farm and the few fields he had left besides. The family name still meaning something roundabout, Sir Gerald sat in the county council, where he sided with a forlorn minority overborne by the councillors from sprawling Gorst.

Sir Gerald had tried to sell the other habitable cottages in Low Wentford; but the planning officer, backed by the sanitary officer, had put obstacles in the way. And it was only because they had been unable at the time to provide a council-flat for old Mrs. Oliver that they had permitted her to repair the cottage near the church. The windows were too small, the sanitary officer and the planning officer had said; but Mrs. Oliver had murmured that in Madras she had seen enough of the sun to last her all her days. The ceilings were lower than regulations specified; but Mrs. Oliver had replied that the coal ration would go the further for that. It must be damp, the sanitary officer felt sure; but he was unable to prove it. There were no communal amenities, said the planning officer; but Mrs. Oliver, deaf as well as dim of sight, told him she disliked Communists. The authorities yielding, Mrs. Oliver had moved in with her Indian keepsakes and her few sticks of furniture, proceeding to train rosebushes against the old walls and to spade her own little garden; for, despite her great age, she was not feeble of body or of will.

Mr. S. G. W. Barner, Planning Officer, had a will of his own, nevertheless, and he had made up his mind that not one stone was to be left upon another at Low Wentford. With satisfaction he had seen the last of the farm-laborers of that hamlet transferred to the new council houses at Gorst, where there was no lack of communal facilities, including six cinemas. Thus were they integrated with the progressive aspirations of planned industrial society, he told the county council. Privately, he was convinced that the agricultural laborer ought to be liquidated altogether. And why not? Advanced planning, within a few years, surely would liberate progressive societies from dependence upon old-fashioned farming. He disliked the whole notion of agriculture, with its rude earthiness, its reactionary views of life and labor, its subservience to tradition. The agricultural classes would be absorbed into the centers of population, or otherwise disposed of, the land thus placed at public command would be converted into garden cities, or state holiday-camps, or proving grounds for industrial and military experiment.

With a positive passion of social indignation then, S. G. W. Barner—a thick-chested, hairy man, forever carrying a dispatch case, stooping and heavy of tread, rather like a large, earnest ape (as Sir Gerald had observed to Lady Ogham, after an unpleasant encounter at a county-council meeting)—objected against Mrs. Oliver’s tenancy of the little red-tiled cottage. His consolation had been that she had not long to live, being wrinkled and gnarled amazingly. To his chagrin, however, she seemed to thrive in the loneliness of Low Wentford, her cheeks growing rosier, her step more sure. She must be got out of that cottage by compulsory purchase, if nothing else would serve. On Mr. Barner’s maps of the Rural District of Low Wentford as it would be in the future, there remained no vexatious dots to represent cottages by the old bridge; nor was there any little cross to represent the derelict church. (No church had yet been erected in the newest housing scheme at Gorst: Cultural Amenities must yield pride of place to material requirements, Barner had declared.)

Yes, that wreck of a church must come down, with what remained of Low Wentford. Ruins are reminiscent of the past; and the Past is a dead hand impeding progressive planning. Besides, Low Wentford had been a hamlet immediately dependent upon Wentford House and its baronets, and therefore ought to be effaced as an obsolete fragment of a repudiated social order. It was disconcerting that even a doddering old creature like the obdurate Mrs. Oliver should prefer living in this unhealthy rurality; and now a council-flat could be made available to her. She would be served a compulsory purchase order before long, if the Planning Officer had his way—which he was accustomed to have—and would be moved to Gorst where she belonged. The surviving cottages might be condemned to demolition as a public nuisance, Sir Gerald’s obscurantism notwithstanding. What should be done with the cleared site of Low Wentford? Why, it might be utilized as a dump for earth excavated in the Gorst housing schemes. That obsolete bridge, incidentally, ought to be replaced by a level concrete one.

“Let a decent old woman keep her roses,” Sir Gerald had said to the Planning Officer when last they met in Gorst. “Why do you whirl her off to your jerry-built desolation of concrete roadways that you’ve designed, so far as I can see, to make it difficult for people to get about on foot? Why do you have to make her live under the glare of mercury vapor lamps and listen to other people’s wireless sets when she wants quiet? Sometimes I think a devil’s got inside you, Barner.”

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Smoke Glass Stained Bright Colors, A Journal Poem by Mick A. Quinn

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Smoke Glass Stained Bright Colors

Mick A. Quinn, 2017


I wanna touch the earth. I wanna take it in my hands. I wanna grow something wild and unruly. I wanna sleep on the hard ground, in the comfort of your arms, on a pillow of blue bonnets, under a blanket made of stars…It’s thundering. I’m a tad psychotic. The A/C is off. I hate this coffee. Nothing tastes good. My bird finger is blue. I think I lost five pounds. Having a hairy chest makes a cool day feel like Hell’s armpit. I started cataloging the books in my library. I have a lot of books. I miss my daughter. I miss my grandson. The house is haunted by a nasty ghost. I put licorice on my thumb. I need more friends closer to my age. I prayed for the world today. The haze from the wildfires has been slowly dissipating. When I think about Virginia Woolf I get depressed. I think too much about anodynes, and salves, and balms in Gilead. And Anne Sexton haunts me with her shock of black hair. I wanna sleep on the hard ground, in the comfort of your arms, on a pillow of blue bonnets, under a blanket made of stars, oh, it sounds good to me. Bipolar people can’t be alone. Yellow like fresh butter. It’s the only color I want, like the offstripe of a bumblebee, a little old lady’s tea room, or a Daisy button. The color of red wine is good, too. Burgundy or maroon, deeper than a bruise, but lighter than dead blood. I can’t relate to other humans. Bipolar people have to be alone. I got my love, and I took it down. Climbed a mountain and I turned around. And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills, then the landslide brought me down. Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love? Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Mmm, mmm, mmm. My new sheets are dove grey, like absolution; or city puddle water—they are a thousand thread count; they kept touching me at Dawn and wouldn’t let me get out of bed. The dawn sun was a fuzzy peach. Sail into tomorrow, living day to day, that’s all I can afford to do, and all I’ll ever pay…is a song to sing to thank you, for making me alive, and a prayer to bring you comfort, Lord, help us to survive. I feel closed in. What I don’t want I have. What I want I can’t find. I think I’ve been abducted by aliens. I miss my old wood-burning fireplace. I want to fuck that big hairy hunter in that Pam Houston story, right there astride his pleasure on that bear rug, burnt red in the firelight where we’d never run out of wood. I want a pair of Stevie Nicks’ velvet high-heeled boots. And her black, ribboned tambourine. Well, I’ve been afraid of changing, cause I built my life around you. But time makes you bolder, children get older. And I’m getting older too. I want electric. Like Walt Whitman electric. Wise and far-reaching, pale pink, eggshell, moody blues. I want a kiss from time. A long kiss, tongue included. Drink me and know me, I’ll say to time. And time will chuckle and float away like a gold cloud, blurred and dusty. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides, now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all. I want love to take on flesh, like the Christ claims He did; put on flesh, and come and find me, deep in the evergreens; tethered to a mountain; nothing but stones to eat and river water to drink. Come and find me and let me eat of thy flesh, and drink of thy blood, love. Don’t be dark. Don’t be edgèd. Don’t be silent. Don’t swaddle me in expectation. But enter me, the same. When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know. No walls. Put me in a room with four sides of stacked books…they may not be as sturdy, but they are easier to stare down, blankly, and, if they come tumbling down and crush my five-foot-7-inch frame—well, at least I’ll die being smothered by something I love. Little boys are always trying to be grown men. I believe it was Cormac McCarthy who said that, three—no, four—times. Be good, little cowboy. God may not be listening anymore. All your teachers have blown away, like dust in the wind. The evening light still dies with the sun. But, Oz never did give nothing to the Tinman, that he didn’t, didn’t already have. And cause never was the reason for the evening. Or the tropic of Sir Galahad. So, please…It’s raining now, cold drops on my back and my bare butt, my pale feet; it’s wetting the hair on my arms and my chest—sweet, Rocky Mountain rain… Who needs salvation…when you can kiss the tip of every mountain? So, please…believe in me, when I…say I’m spinning round, round, round, round, smoke glass stained bright colors ooo image going down, down, down, down, soapsud green like bubbles oooo…

(C)2017 by Mick A. Quinn. All Rights Reserved.

[Acknowledgements: “Cowboy Take Me Away” by the Dixie Chicks; “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac; “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks; “Sail Into Tomorrow” by Olivia Newton-John; “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, “Tinman” by America.]

 

Urn and Willow, A Ghost Story in Parts by Scott Thomas — Part 1: Mr. Woodbridge’s Visit…

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Urn and Willow

A Novel by Scott Thomas, 2012

Mr. Woodbridge’s Visit

Massachusetts, 1836



All across Amesborough families huddled in dim parlors, owl-eyed by fires as autumn winds rushed and rasped and made windows tremble in their frames. The hour was late, and while most of the inhabitants should have been tucked under covers dreaming, this was not the case. Fathers, mothers, children, and hirelings waited, fidgeting, saying little or talking inexhaustibly for the sake of distraction. Such was the situation in the humble Browne house, in the eastern part of town where the trees were all but bare and the chill hand of the season held sway.

Abner Browne, lean, white-capped and weathered, was the oldest person in the house. He occupied the comfiest chair and sat with a blanket over his legs, his feet near the logs. His two grandchildren, a boy of ten and a girl of twelve, were close on low stools.

“Whereupon I said to Barrows, ‘It can’t be much farther beyond that hill –” the old man was telling a story that all the other Brownes in the room were familiar with, a tale which under other circumstances would have been welcomed like a comfortably worn piece of clothing. But tonight his words were little more than a drone in preoccupied minds.

Abner’s son, Tristam, who had proven successful as a joiner and owned the building the family occupied, was at the window with one of the curtains pulled slightly from the panes so that he could peer out. His body was pressed to the wall, off to the side, as if he expected a rhinoceros to come bursting through at any moment.

His wife Ann, who sat close to the blaze across from her father-in-law, watched Tristam intently, her face tight. Neglected knitting sat in her lap, the wrinkles in her bunched apron like black spoons. She observed her husband as he squinted and craned and as he let the curtain drop back in place before returning quietly to his own chair. He lighted, seeming to give ear to his father’s tale, but was up and back at the window after a moment.

Abner Browne broke off from his telling and scowled. “You’ll have a path worn in the floor afore the night is through, Tristam.”

“Would you have me sit and do nothing?” Tristam countered, not so respectful of his father as was usually the case.

“What more is there to do, son? If he comes, he comes.”

Olive, the girl, face awash in firelight, looked up, her voice a tremble. “Do you think he shall come here, Grandfather?”

The old man gave her a small, almost sad smile. “I can no more say if it should or should not rain, though my bones tell me that at times.”

“Do your bones tell anything of Mr. Woodbridge?”

Abner chuckled. “Nothing, alas.”

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IT 2017 (aka. Everyone’s a Critic)

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All hail the turtle…?

Sadly, not since 1986. But IT 2017 is still a very good film.

(In my opinion, there are no real spoilers here; that being said, please read at your own risk.)

I give IT, the new film version of Stephen King’s book, a solid B+. Had I been able to see both chapters in the “duology” at once, I might have been able to hump that score up a notch. I’ll admit to wanting to let that B+ inch its way toward A- on the merit of the acting from a few of the kid actors in it, and the digital monster effects on not just the clown but the other things that went bump in the Derry night. I do not like the new Well house concept. And I dislike some changes at the storm drain and in the homophobic hate crime at the canal in Ch 2 in the book, the concept of which was changed: and the terror of which was diluted in the new film.

Skarsgaard beats Curry at the storm drain and in many other places. Curry was just too Uncle Charlie the Molester for me in a literal interpretation of King’s Pennywise as a “Hi Georgie!”-weird-uncle-takes-you-to-Coney-Island-for-hot-dogs-then-fondles-you-on-the-ferris-wheel-while-listening-to-the-Dodgers-on-a-handheld-transistor-radio brogue that I absolutely loathe. Curry won though in places for his mockery of the kids and his zaniness that bordered on insanity. Think the ending of the 80s film Clue.

The 90s TV series like many series made in the 80s and 90s of King’s books, suffers from horrible corniness. The 90s series’ dialogue was truer to the book than that of the new film, which I like, but I’m not sure that matters much in the end (Kee-rect?). Some of the kid actors stole the show like Eddie and the “fuck this, fuck you, fuck that!” kid with the bottle-thick glasses. The absence of adult characters was a bit Hannah Montana…but the scares were real scares.

The performance at the storm drain by Skarsgaard will be hard to match by any scene in any horror movie anytime ever. Absolutely chilling.

I may go see the new film again just for that scene. Or maybe I’ll wait until after I finish my reread of the novel in which King uses many Lovecraftian tropes (that do not appear in either film) which elevate the book to a cosmic-horror piece of art neither film has been able to match to date.

And that’s a shame.

My advice: Do King a solid and read his novel for the masterpiece of horror that it is. Reading is good for your brain, Georgie.

All hail the turtle…

The Frolic, a Unsettling Tale of Horror by Thomas Ligotti

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Cover of the Penguin edition of Ligotti’s collections Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.

 

The Frolic

Thomas Ligotti, 1989

In a beautiful home in a beautiful part of town—the town of Nolgate, site of the state prison—Dr. Munck examined the evening newspaper while his young wife lounged on a sofa nearby, lazily flipping through the colorful parade of a fashion magazine. Their daughter Norleen was upstairs asleep, or perhaps she was illicitly enjoying an after-hours session with the new television she’d received on her birthday the week before. If so, her violation went undetected by her parents in the living room, where all was quiet. The neighborhood outside the house was quiet, too, as it was day and night. All of Nolgate was quiet, for it was not a place with much of a night life, save perhaps at the bar where the prison’s correctional officers congregated. Such persistent quiet made the doctor’s wife fidgety with her existence in a locale that seemed light-years from the nearest metropolis. But thus far Leslie did not complain of the lethargy of their lives. She knew her husband was quite dedicated to his new professional duties in this new place. Perhaps tonight, though, he would exhibit more of those symptoms of disenchantment with his work that she had been meticulously observing in him of late.

“How did it go today, David?” she asked, her radiant eyes peeking over the magazine cover, where another pair of eyes radiated a glossy gaze. “You were pretty quiet at dinner.”

“It went about the same,” said Dr. Munck without lowering the small-town newspaper to look at his wife.

“Does that mean you don’t want to talk about it?”

He folded the newspaper backwards and his upper body appeared. “That’s how it sounded, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it certainly did. Are you okay?” Leslie asked, laying aside the magazine on the coffee table and offering her complete attention.

“Severely doubting, that’s how I am.” He said this with a kind of far-off reflectiveness.

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