Thursday, August 11, 2016

Aleš Haman & Irena Zítková, Ghost Stories (1987)

Aleš Haman & Irena Zítková, eds., Ghost Stories, New York: Exeter Books, 1987

Illustrated by Jan Dungel

Overall Rating:     7/10

Ghost Stories at the ISFdb
Ghost Stories at Goodreads

For this week's Friday Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Among the numerous twentieth century anthologies of nineteenth century anthologies, the lazily titled Ghost Stories mixes some overly-anthologized stories with a couple of lesser known works. As the stories themselves go, they are all worth reading, but the anthology itself is, despite its physical attractiveness, at times confusing due to its packaging.

The anthology lumps a bunch of supernatural and psychological tales together and claim they are about ghosts. Though the idea of ghosts can be broadened to include more than just the spirits of the dead, the collection is really about apparitions, including hallucinations and projections along with specters. Since of the nine stories included only four actually feature ghosts, the anthology should have been just as lazily titled Apparition Stories.

The other confusing packaging element is the art. Each story is complemented by one or two full-page colour illustrations and a handful of small black and white works. Artist Jan Dungel did read each story since the illustrations sometimes borrow from minor details, though his interpretations are sometimes outside the scope of the tale, particularly with the Maupassant story, where a hallucination is drawn with the head of a leopard-like humanoid that is an invention of the artist himself.

Regardless, though the anthology does not add to the numerous books of its kind, it was good to revisit each of these stories and I do generally like to see such works illustrated. The inclusion of the all-too-common (though excellent) Dickens and Poe stories, is balanced well with the introduction to a strong piece by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and an amusing one by Doyle, both of which I first read here.

The translator for Chekhov's piece is is not credited, and I can assume it is from an early translation (Constance Garnett?) in the public domain in order to publish something inexpensively. The French and German stories are translated by Stephen Finn.

Véra by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam     7/10
First published in La Semaine parisienne, 7 May 1874

This little known story was perhaps first anthologized as a supernatural tale in the 1950s. In fact, the story has been collected so rarely in English that it has barely seen print in that language, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's work in general is mostly forgotten. "Véra" is a complex little supernatural tale involving a man who loses, all too suddenly, his new bride, and isolates himself on his estate with his most trusted servant, while pretending that his love is still by his side. His devotion to this belief essentially brings her back, and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam adds a little concrete finish to prove to his audience that the woman did indeed materialize, and not just in her lover's aggrieved mind.

The complexity of the story lies not in its little twist, but in the hints of eastern mysticism that is blended subtly into the text, linking its supernatural element to something concrete and recognizable. Ghosts do not exist in the rational western world, the author seems to be stating, but can be evoked via a foreign mystic influence.

Don Giovanni by E.T.A. Hoffmann     6/10
First published as "Don Juan" on 31 March 1813

While at his hotel in a small German town, a man learns that his room is connected via a passage to a private box in the theatre next door, which is currently performing one of his preferred operas: Mozart's Don Giovanni. A serious admirer of the opera, the protagonist purchases a ticket and seats himself in the box, quickly overcome by the incredible production. He becomes, however, annoyed by the presence of someone in the box, only to be surprised to discover it is the soprano playing the part of Donna Anna.

Hoffmann's "Don Giovanni" is an interpretation of portions of the opera rather than a conventional short story. Or more accurately, through the medium of fiction Hoffman is exploring certain aspects of Mozart's opera. What Hoffman is doing is quite unique at the time, since in 1813 the short story was still far from becoming the art form Hawthorne, Poe, Chekhov and others helped to develop over the years ahead. Rather than write a straightforward essay or commentary, Hoffman published this ghost tale anonymously; a story with a plot so slight and an ending so conventional that what remains with the reader is the stream of ideas he leaves on one of the most popular operas of its day and ours.

Though the ghostliness of the story is secondary and  utilized only to help Hoffmann bring his ideas to the public, it is technically a ghost story. The ghost idea is that the actress is slowly dying during the performance,hence her spirit wanders and finds itself in the narrator's box, and this element helps to heighten the emotional aspect of the opera, adding melodrama that only helps Hoffmann's arguments get across to his readers.

Him? by Guy de Maupassant     6/10
First published as "Lui?" in Gil Blas, 3 July 1883

In a letter to a friend, a devout bachelor and womanizer reveals that he is soon to be married, and to a woman he has no feelings for and barely even knows. He wishes to get married not for love or fortune but for the sole purpose of no longer being physically alone. A very simple story with an interesting construction, Maupassant offers an ambiguous tale of an apparition that is most likely a figment of the narrator's imagination, but a figment that leaves him forever altered and forever in a state of fear.

Structurally the story begins with a humourous tone and builds mystery upon mystery. At first our avowed bachelor discusses the act of taking a bride while allowing the reader to wonder why. Following this is a character sketch which itself leads into the mystery of the narrator's hallucination. The convention to illustrate character at the opening of a story was commonplace at the time, utilized as well by Poe in the following story, whereas the humourous opening to a tale of dread is quite unique and inventive.

The story has also translated as "The Terror," which is a more appropriate title. The story is not about the hallucination itself but the tragedy involves its aftereffects. In French the story was publishes as "Lui?" and this is simply a straightforward translation of the word.

The illustrations in this anthology reveal the apparition to be a cat-man, a human figure with tiger face and paws, dressed in a suit. It is unclear why Dungel chose to illustrate it as such, though I do understand that the story offers less to an artist since details are few.

William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe     8/10
First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, October 1839

As he awaits death, the debauched narrator "William Wilson" tells of of the sordid tale that brought him to this awful fate. Like the protagonist in "Him?" Wilson hallucinates a figure that is a manifestation of his conscience, or perhaps the kinder side of a split self which is attempting to balance out his character.

Poe's excellent doppelgänger story can be interpreted in varying ways, that Wilson's double is a manifestation of the narrator's troubled mind, or that the double is the narrator's conscience that is balancing out Wilson's own amoral self. As with Maupassant's piece, the apparition in "William Wilson" is a projection of the narrator's, seen only by him. Rather than a ghost story, it is one of many psychological horror pieces included in the anthology.

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov     9/10
First published as "Чёрный монах" in 1894

Scholar Andrey Kovrin visits his former guardian Yegor and Yegor's daughter Tanya at their rural estate in order to rest after a bout of nervousness. Kovrin soon falls into a state of elation, falling for Tanya while becoming increasingly devoted to his academic pursuits. Moreover, he begins to see the image of a black monk who convinces Kovrin that he is chosen by God to do great things. Once married to Tanya, however, she learns of his hallucinations and she and her father set out to cure Kovrin of his madness.

"The Black Monk" is a high caliber story from one of the great modern short story writers. Impeccably written with such great deal that everything, from character to the wondrous garden setting, comes alive and remains embedded in the reader's mind's eye. The ambiguity in this tale is that Kovrin is happy only when he is in a state of heightened elation, a state that comes along with madness. While normal he is unproductive and in a continuous state of lethargy, yet while the reader might understand that madness for Kovrin is his ideal state, Chekhov gives us an ending that provides fruit for thought.

Selecting a Ghost by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle     7/10
First published in London Society, December 1883

Having retired with a small fortune, a former shop-owner purchases an old house, a once castle that is equipped with everything one would desire in a home, from medieval ramparts to its very own mote, and is lacking only in the presence of a ghost. Undaunted, our hero sets out to find his very own spirit.

Published before the Sherlock Holmes explosion, Doyle provides some genuinely humourous moments in his ghost tale, particularly with the wonderful sentence construction and ironic character delineation. Of a purely comic construction, this haunted house story (or haunted house wannabe story), does not struggle with the notion of reason versus the supernatural, but takes it for granted that the supernatural is readily available, even though it seemingly doesn't exist (but for the mention of a potential haunt at the neighbour's residence). A truly delightful discovery.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens     8/10
First published in Mugby Junction, 1866

One of the better known supernatural tales of its day, and one of the most anthologized in ghostly collections, Dickens writes about a wandering narrator who meets a signalman with an unusual tale. This signalman appears to see a vision that warns of impending doom, and our narrator is somehow taken by the man and his story.

In a lengthier analysis (which I am working on), the apparition in "The Signalman" is not a ghost but a prophetic manifestation triggered partly by a mesmeric relationship between these men. As revealed at the end of the story, the prophesy is not quite what the signalmen believed it to be, and a close reading can lead one to speculate that the narrator is more than just your conventional rational outsider, particularly since Dickens was a believer in mesmerism. A great little film version by television director Lawrence Gordon Clark, with great performances by Denholm Elliott and stage actor Bernard Lloyd, alludes to this by a couple of brief additional shots of the narrator being in a sense summoned to the signalman's work station.

Dr. Cinderella's Plants by Gustav Meyrink     7/10
First published as "Die Pflanzen des Doktor Cinderella" in 1905

A man on a hallucinatory journey comes across a genuinely creepy house of plants made from parts of human anatomy. The story is dream-like and hence difficult to assess, while the so-called plants are more horrifying than most contemporary authors can evoke in an age that has exceedingly less censorship.

The Haunted House by Edward Bulwer-Lytton     7/10
First published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, August 1859

A rational man and his servant are set on spending a night in a house reported to be haunted, and to investigate the haunting. This is the shorter version of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's seminal haunted house story, which excises much of the pedantic and highly interesting though perhaps overly long narrative on reason and the supernatural. This version, the one included primarily in collections aimed at younger readers, focuses on the actual events and action of the story. It holds up very well despite the use of what are now the most common tropes of haunted house stories, from the pattering of feet to ghostly figures, locked rooms, blazing fireplaces and people dying in fright with eyes wide open.


Todd Mason said...

Have you had this book for some years, or was it a fairly recent discovery? One wonders if it was a Slavic anthology first, in one or another language, and simply republished here to take advantage of the illustrations...

Casual Debris said...

Hi Todd,

I've had the book for about two or three years, found for cheap at a fundraiser book fair. The book is copyright 1986 by Artia (Prague) and this version printed by Exeter Books (New York) in 1987, and "Printed in Czechoslovakia." I was wrong about the translator: both the French and both the German stories were translated by Stephen Finn (so likely for this NY edition), though there is no credit for the Russian tale. Therefore your theory is plausible.

Casual Debris said...

And I've uploaded pics of some of the illustrations. I rushed this article and will likely add text and more photos shortly.

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