"They say everything that can be written has been written. I saw we are just getting started." This is a quote from my first short collection of scary short stories: Mailboxes - Mansions - Memphistopheles.
Sunday, April 22, 2018
"They say everything that can be written has been written. I saw we are just getting started." This is a quote from my first short collection of scary short stories: Mailboxes - Mansions - Memphistopheles.
A finalist in the International Best Book Awards short story collection category, MAILBOXES - MANSIONS - MEMPHISTOPHELES is the first short story collection by Andrew Barger. In the collection he unleashes a blend of character-driven dark tales, which are sure to be remembered. In "Azra'eil & Fudgie" a little girl visits a team of marines in Afghanistan and they quickly learn she is more than she seems. "The Mailbox War" is a deadly tale of a weekend hobby taken to extremes while "The Brownie of the Alabaster Mansion" sees a Scottish monster of antiquity brought back to life. "Memphistopheles" contains a tale of the devil, Memphis, barbecue and a wannabe poet. "The Serpent and the Sepulcher" is a prose poem that will be cherished by all who experience it. "The Gëbult Mansion" recounts a literary hoax played by Andrew on his unsuspecting social networking friends that involves a female vampire. Last, "Stain" is an unforgettable horror story that is uniquely presented backwards or forwards. Experience these memorable stories tonight!
Saturday, March 17, 2018
There is Truman Capote looking impish and floral as he leans against a trellis of roses somewhere in the Deep South. He is best known for his character-driven novel "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and an embellished non-fiction book, "In Cold Blood." Having liked the former novel, I was excited to read Capote's short stories. The same attention to detail and character generation found in "Breakfast Tiffany's" was evident in the many tales he wrote before its publication.
Southern Accents - Check!
Flawed but Likable Characters - Check!
A Horror Story - Che . . . hey, just one second. What's the big idea, Mr. Capote? How could you? You were supposed to give us Alabama love stories set in the 1940s and 1950s. How dare you? Writing good horror is not easy, but there you go, standing up a scary short story among the tales of love and poverty in the Deep South.
"Miriam" is the name of the fiendishly little horror story Capote unleashed on me like a ghost springing out from behind the curtains. Miriam is a little girl he describes as: "Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino's." I won't say much more other than she goes to stay with Mrs. Miller who has lived alone in an apartment for several years. Yikes.
There are many great stories in Capote's fantastic collection. "Master Misery," "A Diamond Guitar," and "The Thanksgiving Visitor" are written at high levels and worth your time. And "Miriam" is certainly worth your time if you are a horror story lover.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
As one might expect from the stories in this annotated, best vampire story anthology, teeth were used prominently in the nascent development of the vampirism mythos. And due to the human-monster theme, vampire stories developed more quickly and became more robust from both story and character development than other genres during the period in question, such as werewolf and ghost stories; so much so that they triumphed over most novels in this respect. Yet many claim that short stories are a lesser art form than the novel.
Does time bolster art and transform it into something more robust? Certainly as the aging of a Bordeaux brings out complexities of character unknown in newer wines, so too does the novel offer a bouquet of characters that are impossible to foster in the limited pages of a short story. Characters like certain wines take time to develop, and in this aspect deference must be given to the novel in whatever modern form it may take.
Where critics of short fiction often err, however, is assuming that more pages equate to greater literary art. It’s been claimed Earnest Hemmingway said that the phrase “Baby carriage for sale – slightly used” is the best thing he ever wrote.
The literary world is marred with dead trees and terrible, fat novels. Does length equal creativity and originality? Do pages equal greatness? Does size matter in fiction? Edgar Allan Poe, the same author who formed the foundation of the modern short story, claimed just the opposite. He preferred a complete tale that could be consumed in one sitting without interruption of the reader’s concentration.
And it was the same Edgar Allan Poe who likely never penned a vampire story given the research I conducted in Edgar Allan Poe Annotated and Illustrated Entire Stories and Poems and Coffee with Poe: A Novel of Edgar Allan Poe’s Life. If a reader has to stretch their imagination to determine if a character is a vampire, then it is likely not a vampire.
Teeth play a telling role (as does the presence of blood) in many vampire tales. Because of this a number of anthologist have placed Poe’s “Ligeia” in their collections in the hopes that if the tale is put in a substantial number of vampire anthologies it will be transmogrified into a vampire story. This is certainly a misapplication in a story where the supposed vampire never comes in contact with another vampire. When Ligeia dies and is subsequently brought back to life through Rowena’s body, the unnamed protagonist touches her and she moves away, again displaying no lust for blood. Before her death, Rowena is given a cup of reddish liquid that could easily be wine or a potion concocted by the protagonist. There is no evidence that anyone’s blood was spilt. The only other hint of vampirism comes when Rowena’s lips part on her deathbed to display a line of “pearly teeth.”
Yes, it would be nice for this fifty year period, this cradle of all vampire short stories in the English language, to include a vampire tale by Edgar Allan Poe. But the sad answer is that Poe never penned a vampire story. Poe’s only reference to vampires were in his poems. “Tamerlane” references a vampire-bat and “To Helen” calls out vampire-winged panels. Articles about the vampire motif in “The Fall of the House of Usher” have been disorganized and unconvincing. Essays about a volitional vampire in “Morella” have . . . well . . . sucked. The ponderous dissertations that seek to attribute the protagonist’s lust for teeth to a vampire fixation in “Berenice” have felt chompy. Vampires do not lust for teeth, rather blood. A Poe story listed in the Table of Contents for an anthology boosts sales. Nevertheless, in the case of vampire anthologies, Poe’s inclusion is misdirected.
Unlike the pure horror story genre in The Best Horror Short Stories 1800-1849, where Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote five of the dozen tales selected and the ghost story genre where Poe, Hawthorne and Irving collectively penned forty percent of tales in The Best Ghost Stories 1800-1849, American writers (apart from one) are sadly lacking from authorship of the vampire stories for this period as they are for the werewolf genre. The top purveyors in these genres all hail from Europe apart from a few limited exceptions.
This makes sense given the rise of vampire legends throughout Europe, especially countries touching the Carpathian and Harz Mountains. In the April 1819 issue of the New Monthly Magazine “The Vampyre; A Tale” was published as the first vampire short story originating in the English language. The ruminations of a plot for the story were constructed by Lord Byron; yet it was fleshed out and ultimately written by John Polidori, his physician, on a literary dare. Lord Byron, in turn, got the idea from tradition and folktales. The state of the vampire legend before this story was best laid out in an article published in The Monthly Review of May 1819:
“The superstition, on which the tale is founded, universally prevailed less than a century ago, throughout Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, and Poland; and the legends to which it gave rise were not only believed, but were made the subject of learned disputations by the divines and physicians of the times. In Dr. Henry More’s Philosophical Works, and in Calmet’s Dissertation on Apparitions, may be found many interesting particulars relating to this fancy; and in the latter is an ample account of its origin and progress. It was imagined that men, who had been dead for some time, rose out of their graves and sucked the blood of their neighbours, principally the young and beautiful: that these objects of their attack became pale and livid, and frequently died; while the vampyres themselves, on their graves being opened, were found as fresh as if they were alive, and their veins full of good and florid blood, which also issued from the nose, mouth, and ears, and even through the very pores of the skin. The only mode of arresting the pranks of these tormentors was by driving a stake through the heart of the vampyre; a practice frequently adopted, and during the performance of which, we are told, he uttered a horrid groan. The body was then burned, and the ashes thrown into the grave.”
In John Polidori’s foreword to “The Vampyre” we learn that much of the vampire legend bubbled up through poetry and European legend as did many of the tales found in The Best Werewolf Short Stories 1800-1849. Yet not all of them. In 1679 “The Blood-Drinking Corpse” was published from a posthumous collection by Pu Songling (1640-1715) titled Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. He was an educator whose hobby, apparently, was to write down popular Chinese folktales. When he died he had collected nearly 500 of them. One of the first English translations was in 1913 and it can be presumed that none of the authors in this collection had access to it.
In response to “The Vampyre,” came the quick publication of “The Black Vampyre, a Legend of St. Domingo” by American, Robert Sands. And from there the vampire mythos fluttered off in the English language, darting from one short story to the next until in 1847 the novel Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood was serialized in a London Penny Dreadful. Fifty years later the world received one of the best horror books ever written--Dracula by Bram Stoker.
From folktales to poetry to short stories to novels, the vampire mythos has developed into the robust, character-driven genre we have today—and it has done so with teeth. In my anthology are what I consider the best vampire short stories published in the first half of the nineteenth century in the English language. I hope you enjoy them.
#BestVampireStories #ClassicVampireStories #VampireShortStories
Monday, February 19, 2018
Shattered 'Pictures of You'
(water color and ink on paper)
The artist Maeve has just created a one-of-a-kind artwork based on The Cure. More specifically, it's a 3-D work of art based on the song "Pictures of You," which is one of the most popular Cure songs from Disintegration and a rather scary short story if you think about it.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Maeve at her home in southwest Florida. The underground artist is modestly shy. Her flowing blonde hair spills over her shoulders and she smiles when she talks about her art, clasping and unclasping her hands in a confident way, not out of nervousness. This is how it went.
Q1. What was your inspiration for your new artwork?
"'Pictures of You' by The Cure. I love the band and its songs. Of all the current bands I know they will be the ones remembered a hundred years from now. (blushes) 'One Hundred Years,' I guess that's another Cure song."
Q2. Why The Cure?
"They are one of my favorite bands from the 80s, though they are still writing music and I like the band's new songs, too. I like their songs that have a strong chorus."
Q3. Why "Pictures of You?"
"In my new work I wanted to illustrate a song and it has lots of good visuals that I could draw on for inspiration. I went lyric by lyric. Probably 85% of the lyrics to 'Pictures of You' are reflected in my imagery."
Q4. What is the material you used for your new artwork?
"Watercolor, paper, string, pen, felt, cardboard."
Q5. How long did it take you?
"Around two and a half weeks."
Q6. Are you working on anything new?
"Carvings on a stamp is all can say right now. We'll see where it leads. (smiles)"
Q7. What is the title?
"Shattered 'Pictures of You.'"
Q8. Any plans for a website?
Q9. Thanks for speaking with me.
"Thanks for the interview . . . and for keeping it short."
Maeve trailed off into the back of the house and that's the last I saw of her. A friend let me out the front entrance. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to peek behind any of the closed doors on the way out no matter how much I wanted to.
Shattered Pictures of 'Pictures of You' is available for purchase - $10,000 USD.
#CureArt #PicturesofYouArt #TheCure
Sunday, January 21, 2018
The Old Maid in the Winding Sheet
The modern concept of ghosts being clothed in sheets can be traced back to “The Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.” The story also furthers the perpetuation of the pale and gliding (or hovering) ghost.
“The Old Maid in the Winding Sheet” was widely reprinted as were most of Hawthorne’s short stories and novels. The story was first published in the July 1835 edition of the New England Magazine along with “The White Old Maid.” Hawthorne subsequently included it in his 1837 collection Twice-Told Tales. I included it in the annotated collection Phantasmal: Best Ghost Short Stories 1800-1849.
Edgar Allan Poe felt national pride in the collection as he pointed out a number of times, the last of which was published in Works of 1850. “Of Mr. Hawthorne’s Tales we would say, emphatically, that they belong to the highest region of Art — an Art subservient to genius of a very lofty order. We had supposed, with good reason for so supposing, that he had been thrust into his present position by one of the impudent cliques which beset our literature, and whose pretensions it is our full purpose to expose at the earliest opportunity; but we have been most agreeably mistaken. We know of few compositions which the critic can more honestly commend then these ‘Twice-Told Tales.’ As Americans, we feel proud of the book.”
The Old English turns of phrase are an annoyance in “The Old Maid in the Winding Sheet,” and at times make a person feel they are reading The King James Bible. Still, this is the finest example of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary prowess in the supernatural realm.
His power of suggestion throughout is surpassed only by his creepy story “The Minister’s Black Veil” that was included in 6a66le: The Best Horror Short Stories 1800-1849.
The Old Maid in the Winding Sheet
The moon-beams came through two deep and narrow windows, and showed a spacious chamber, richly furnished in an antique fashion. From one lattice, the shadow of the diamond panes was thrown upon the floor; the ghostly light through the other slept upon a bed, falling between the heavy silken curtains, and illuminating the face of a young man. But, how quietly the slumberer lay; how pale his features; and how like a shroud the sheet was wound about his frame! Yes, it was a corpse in its burial clothes.
Suddenly, the fixed features seemed to move with dark emotion. Strange fantasy! It was but the shadow of the fringed curtain, waving betwixt the dead face and the moonlight, as the door of the chamber opened, and a girl stole softly to the bedside. Was there delusion in the moonbeams, or did her gesture and her eye betray a gleam of triumph, as she bent over the pale corpse—pale as itself—and pressed her living lips to the cold ones of the dead? As she drew back from that long kiss, her features writhed as if a proud heart were fighting with its anguish. Again it seemed that the features of the corpse had moved, responsive to her own. Still an illusion! The silken curtain had waved, a second time, betwixt the dead face and the moonlight, as another fair young girl unclosed the door, and glided ghost-like to the bedside. There the two maidens stood, both beautiful, with the pale beauty of the dead between them. But she who had first entered was proud and stately, and the other a soft and fragile thing.
“Away!” cried the lofty one. “Thou hadst him living! The dead is mine!”
“Thine!” returned the other, shuddering. “Well hast thou spoken! The dead is thine!”
The proud girl started, and stared into her face with a ghastly look. But a wild and mournful expression passed across the features of the gentle one; and, weak and helpless, she sank down on the bed, her head pillowed beside that of the corpse, and her hair mingling with his dark locks. A creature of hope and joy, the first draught of sorrow had bewildered her.
“Patience!” cried her rival.
Patience groaned, as with a sudden compression of the heart; and removing her cheek from the dead youth’s pillow, she stood upright, fearfully encountering the eyes of the lofty girl.
“Wilt thou betray me?” said the latter calmly.
“Till the dead bid me speak, I will be silent,” answered Patience. “Leave us alone together! Go, and live many years, and then return and tell me of thy life. He, too, will be here! Then, if thou tellest of sufferings more than death, we will both forgive thee!”
“And what shall be the token?” asked the proud girl, as if her heart acknowledged a meaning in these wild words.
“This lock of hair,” said Patience, lifting one of the dark clustering curls that lay heavily on the dead man’s brow.
The two maidens joined their hands over the bosom of the corpse, and appointed a day and hour, far, far in time to come, for their next meeting in that chamber. The statelier girl gave one deep look at the motionless countenance, and departed—yet turned again and trembled, ere she closed the door, almost believing that her dead lover frowned upon her. And Patience, too! Was not her white form fading into the moonlight? Scorning her own weakness, she went forth and perceived that a negro slave was waiting in the passage with a wax-light, which he held between her face and his own, and regarded her, as she thought, with an ugly expression of merriment. Lifting his torch on high, the slave lighted her down the staircase, and undid the portal of the mansion. The young clergyman of the town had just ascended the steps, and bowing to the lady, passed in without a word.
Years, many years rolled on; the world seemed new again, so much older was it grown, since the night when those pale girls had clasped their hands across the bosom of the corpse. In the interval, a lonely woman had passed from youth to extreme age, and was known by all the town, as the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.” A taint of insanity had affected her whole life, but so quiet, sad, and gentle, so utterly free from violence, that she was suffered to pursue her harmless fantasies, unmolested by the world, with whose business or pleasures she had nought to do.
She dwelt alone, and never came into the daylight, except to follow funerals. Whenever a corpse was borne along the street, in sunshine, rain, or snow, whether a pompous train of the rich and proud thronged after it, or few and humble were the mourners, behind them came the lonely woman, in a long white garment, which the people called her shroud. She took no place among the kindred or the friends, but stood at the door to hear the funeral prayer, and walked in the rear of the procession, as one whose earthly charge it was to haunt the house of mourning, and be the shadow of affliction, and see that the dead were duly buried. So long had this been her custom, that the inhabitants of the town deemed her a part of every funeral, as much as the coffin-pall, or the very corpse itself, and augured ill of the sinner’s destiny, unless the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet” came gliding, like a ghost, behind. Once, it is said, she affrighted a bridal party with her pale presence, appearing suddenly in the illuminated hall, just as the priest was uniting a false maid to a wealthy man, before her lover had been dead a year. Evil was the omen to that marriage! Sometimes she stole forth by moonlight, and visited the graves of venerable integrity, and wedded love, and virgin innocence, and every spot where the ashes of a kind and faithful heart were mouldering.
Over the hillocks of those favoured dead would she stretch out her arms, with a gesture, as if she were scattering seeds; and many believed that she sought them from the garden of Paradise; for the graves which she had visited were green beneath the snow, and covered with sweet flowers from April to November. Her blessing was better than a holy verse upon the tomb-stone. Thus wore away her long, sad, peaceful, and fantastic life, till few were so old as she, and the people of later generations wondered how the dead had ever been buried, or mourners had endured their grief, without the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.”
Still, years went on, and still she followed funerals, and was not yet summoned to her own festival of death. One afternoon, the great street of the town was all alive with business and bustle, though the sun now gilded only the upper half of the church-spire, having left the house-tops and loftiest trees in shadow. The scene was cheerful and animated, in spite of the sombre shade between the high brick buildings. Here were pompous merchants, in white wigs and laced velvet; the bronzed faces of sea-captains; the foreign garb and air of Spanish creoles; and the disdainful port of natives of Old England; all contrasted with the rough aspect of one or two backsettlers, negotiating sales of timber, from forests where axe had never sounded. Sometimes a lady passed, swelling roundly forth in an embroidered petticoat, balancing her steps in high-heeled shoes, and courtesying, with lofty grace, to the punctilious obeisances of the gentlemen.
The life of the town seemed to have its very centre not far from an old mansion, that stood somewhat back from the pavement, surrounded by neglected grass, with a strange air of loneliness, rather deepened than dispelled by the throng so near it. Its site would have been suitably occupied by a magnificent exchange, or a brick-block, lettered all over with various signs; or the large house itself might have made a noble tavern, with the “King’s Arms” swinging before it; and guests in every chamber, instead of the present solitude. But, owing to some dispute about the right of inheritance, the mansion had been long without a tenant, decaying from year to year, and throwing the stately gloom of its shadow over the busiest part of the town. Such was the scene, and such the time, when a figure, unlike any that have been described, was observed at a distance down the street.
“I espy a strange sail, yonder,” remarked a Liverpool captain; “that woman in the long white garment!”
The sailor seemed much struck by the object, as were several others, who at the same moment caught a glimpse of the figure that had attracted his notice. Almost immediately, the various topics of conversation gave place to speculations, in an under tone, on this unwonted occurrence.
“Can there be a funeral so late this afternoon?” inquired some.
They looked for the signs of death at every door—the sexton, the hearse, the assemblage of black-clad relatives—all that makes up the woeful pomp of funerals. They raised their eyes, also, to the sun-gilt spire of the church, and wondered that no clang proceeded from its bell, which had always tolled till now, when this figure appeared in the light of day. But none had heard that a corpse was to be borne to its home that afternoon, nor was there any token of a funeral, except the apparition of the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.”
“What may this portend?” asked each man of his neighbour.
All smiled as they put the question, yet with a certain trouble in their eyes, as if pestilence, or some other wide calamity, were prognosticated by the untimely intrusion, among the living, of one whose presence had always been associated with death and woe. What a comet is to the earth, was that sad woman to the town. Still she moved on, while the hum of surprise was hushed at her approach, and the proud and the humble stood aside that her white garment might not wave against them. It was a long, loose robe, of spotless purity. Its wearer appeared very old, pale, emaciated, and feeble, yet glided onward, without the unsteady pace of extreme age.
At one point of her course, a little rosy boy burst forth from a door, and ran, with open arms, towards the ghostly woman, seeming to expect a kiss from her bloodless lips. She made a slight pause, fixing her eye upon him with an expression of no earthly sweetness, so that the child shivered and stood awe-struck, rather than affrighted, while the Old Maid passed on. Perhaps her garment might have been polluted, even by an infant’s touch; perhaps her kiss would have been death to the sweet boy, within the year.
“She is but a shadow!” whispered the superstitious. “The child put forth his arms, and could not grasp her robe!”
The wonder was increased, when the Old Maid passed beneath the porch of the deserted mansion, ascended the moss-covered steps, lifted the iron knocker, and gave three raps. The people could only conjecture, that some old remembrance, troubling her bewildered brain, had impelled the poor woman hither to visit the friends of her youth; all gone from their home, long since and for ever, unless their ghosts still haunted it—fit company for the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.” An elderly man approached the steps, and reverently uncovering his gray locks, essayed to explain the matter.
“None, Madam,” said he, “have dwelt in this house these fifteen years agone—no, not since the death of old Colonel Fenwicke, whose funeral you may have remembered to have followed.—His heirs, being ill agreed among themselves, have let the mansion-house go to ruin.”
The Old Maid looked slowly round, with a slight gesture of one hand, and a finger of the other upon her lip, appeared more shadow-like than ever, in the obscurity of the porch. But, again she lifted the hammer, and gave, this time, a single rap. Could it be, that a foot-step was now heard, coming down the staircase of the old mansion, which all conceived to have been so long untenanted? Slowly, feebly, yet heavily, like the pace of an aged and infirm person, the step approached, more distinct on every downward stair, till it reached the portal. The bar fell on the inside; the door was opened. One upward glance, towards the church-spire, whence the sunshine had just faded, was the last the people saw of the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.”
“Who undid the door?” asked many.
This question, owing to the depth of shadow beneath the porch, no one could satisfactorily answer. Two or three aged men, while protesting against an inference which might be drawn, affirmed that the person within was a negro, and bore a singular resemblance to old Caesar, formerly a slave in the house, but freed by death some thirty years before.
“Her summons has waked up a servant of the old family,” said one, half seriously.
“Let us wait here,” replied another. “More guests will knock at the door anon. But the gate of the grave-yard should be thrown open!”
Twilight had overspread the town, before the crowd began to separate, or the comments on this incident were exhausted. One after another was wending his way homeward, when a coach—no common spectacle in those days—drove slowly into the street. It was an old-fashioned equipage, hanging close to the ground, with arms on the pannels, a footman behind, and a grave, corpulent coachman, seated high in front, the whole giving an idea of solemn state and dignity. There was something awful in the heavy rumbling of the wheels. The coach rolled down the street, till, coming to the gateway of the deserted mansion, it drew up, and the footman sprang to the ground.
“Whose grand coach is this?” asked a very inquisitive body.
The footman made no reply, but ascended the steps of the old house, gave three raps with the iron hammer, and returned to open the coach-door. An old man, possessed of the heraldic lore so common in that day, examined the shield of arms on the pannel.
“Azure, lion’s head erased, between three flower de luces,” said he; then whispered the name of the family to whom these bearings belonged. The last inheritor of its honours was recently dead, after a long residence amid the splendour of the British court, where his birth and wealth had given him no mean station. “He left no child,” continued the herald, “and these arms, being in a lozenge, betoken that the coach appertains to his widow.”
Further disclosures, perhaps, might have been made, had not the speaker suddenly been struck dumb, by the stern eye of an ancient lady, who thrust forth her head from the coach, preparing to descend. As she emerged, the people saw that her dress was magnificent, and her figure dignified, in spite of age and infirmity—a stately ruin, but with a look, at once, of pride and wretchedness. Her strong and rigid features had an awe about them, unlike that of the white Old Maid, but as of something evil.
She passed up the steps, leaning on a gold-headed cane; the door swung open, as she ascended—and the light of a torch glittered on the embroidery of her dress, and gleamed on the pillars of the porch. After a momentary pause—a glance backwards—and then a desperate effort—she went in. The decypherer of the coat of arms had ventured up the lowest step, and shrinking back immediately, pale and tremulous, affirmed that the torch was held by the very image of old Caesar.
“But, such a hideous grin,” added he, “was never seen on the face of mortal man, black or white! It will haunt me till my dying day.”
Meantime the coach had wheeled round, with a prodigious clatter on the pavement, and rumbled up the street, disappearing in the twilight, while the ear still tracked its course. Scarcely was it gone, when the people began to question, whether the coach and attendants, the ancient lady, the spectre of old Caesar, and the Old Maid herself, were not all a strangely combined delusion with some dark purport in its mystery.
The whole town was astir, so that, instead of dispersing, the crowd continually increased, and stood gazing up at the windows of the mansion, now silvered by the brightening moon. The elders, glad to indulge the narrative propensity of age, told of the long faded splendour of the family, the entertainments they had given, and the guests, the greatest of the land, and even titled and noble ones from abroad, who had passed beneath that portal.
These graphic reminiscences seemed to call up the ghosts of those to whom they referred. So strong was the impression, on some of the more imaginative hearers, that two or three were seized with trembling fits, at one and the same moment, protesting that they had distinctly heard three other raps of the iron knocker.
“Impossible!” exclaimed others. “See! The moon shines beneath the porch, and shows every part of it, except in the narrow shade of that pillar. There is no one there!” “Did not the door open?” whispered one of these fanciful persons. “Didst thou see it, too?” said his companion, in a startled tone. But the general sentiment was opposed to the idea, that a third visitant had made application at the door of the deserted house. A few, however, adhered to this new marvel, and even declared that a red gleam, like that of a torch, had shone through the great front window, as if the negro were lighting a guest up the staircase. This, too, was pronounced a mere fantasy. But, at once, the whole multitude started, and each man beheld his own terror painted in the faces of all the rest. ‘‘What an awful thing is this!” cried they.
A shriek, too fearfully distinct for doubt, had been heard within the mansion, breaking forth suddenly, and succeeded by a deep stillness, as if a heart had burst in giving it utterance. The people knew not whether to fly from the very sight of the house, or to rush trembling in, and search out the strange mystery. Amid their confusion and affright, they were somewhat reassured by the appearance of their clergyman, a venerable patriarch, and equally a saint, who had taught them and their fathers the way to heaven, for more than the space of an ordinary lifetime.
He was a reverend figure, with long, white hair upon his shoulders, a white beard upon his breast, and a back so bent over his staff, that ho seemed to be looking downward, continually, as if to choose a proper grave for his weary frame. It was sometime before the good old man, being deaf and of impaired intellect, could be made to comprehend such portions of the affair as were comprehensible at all. But, when possessed of the facts, his energies assumed unexpected vigour.
“Verily,” said the old gentleman, “it will be fitting that I enter the mansion house of the worthy Colonel Fenwicke, lest any harm should have befallen that true Christian woman, whom ye call the ‘Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.’”
Behold, then, the venerable clergyman ascended the steps of the mansion, with a torch-bearer behind him. It was the elderly man who had spoken to the Old Maid, and the same who had afterwards explained the shield of arms, and recognised the features of the negro. Like their predecessors, they gave three raps with the iron hammer. “Old Caesar cometh not,” observed the priest. “Well I wot, he no longer doth service in this mansion.”
“Assuredly, then, it was something worse, in old Caesar’s likeness!” said the other adventurer.
“Be it as God wills,” answered the clergyman. “See! my strength, though it be much decayed, hath sufficient to open this heavy door. Let us enter, and pass up the staircase.”
Here occurred a singular exemplification of the dreamy state of a very old man’s mind. As they ascended the wide flight of stairs, the aged clergyman appeared to move with caution, occasionally standing aside and oftener bending his head as it were in salutation, thus practising all the gestures of one who makes his way through a throng. Reaching the head of the staircase, he looked around with sad and solemn benignity, laid aside his staff, bared his hoary locks, and was evidently on the point of commencing a prayer.
“Reverend sir,” said his attendant, who conceived this a very suitable prelude to their further search, “would it not be well that the people join with us in prayer?”
“Well-a-day!” cried the old gentleman, staring strangely around him. “Art thou here with me, and none other? Verily, past times were present to me, and I deemed that I was to make a funeral prayer, as many a time heretofore, from the head of this staircase. Of a truth, I saw the shades of many that are gone. Yea, I have prayed at their burials, one after another, and the ‘Old Maid in the Winding Sheet’ hath seen them to their graves!”
Being now more thoroughly awake to their present purpose, he took his staff, and struck forcibly on the floor, till there came an echo from each deserted chamber, but no menial, to answer their summons. They therefore walked along the passage, and again paused, opposite to the great front window, through which was seen the crowd, in the shadow and partial moonlight of the street beneath. On their right was the open door of a chamber, and a closed one on their left. The clergyman pointed his cane to the carved oak pannel of the latter.
“Within that chamber,” observed he, “a whole lifetime since, did I sit by the death-bed of a goodly young man, who, being now at the last gasp”—
Apparently, there was some powerful excitement in the ideas which had now flashed across his mind. He snatched the torch from his companion’s hand, and threw open the door with such sudden violence, that the flame was extinguished, leaving them no other light than the moonbeams which fell through two windows into the spacious chamber. It was sufficient to discover all that could be known.
In a high-backed, oaken arm chair, upright, with her hands clasped across her breast, and her head thrown back, sat the “Old Maid in the Winding Sheet.” The stately dame had fallen on her knees, with her forehead on the holy knees of the Old Maid, one hand upon the floor, and the other pressed convulsively against her heart. It clutched a lock of hair, once sable, now discoloured with a greenish mould. As the priest and layman advanced into the chamber, the Old Maid’s features assumed such a semblance of shifting expression, that they trusted to hear the whole mystery explained by a single word. But it was only the shadow of a tattered curtain, waving betwixt the dead face and the moonlight.“Both dead!” said the venerable man. “Then who shall divulge the secret? Methinks it glimmers to-and-fro in my mind, like the light and shadow across the Old Maid’s face. And now, ‘tis gone!”
Buy the Best Ghost Stories today!
Saturday, January 13, 2018
Titus Groan is the name of the first novel in the series and its namesake character, although Peake measured out a long list of fascinating characters in the trilogy. While still a child, Titus succeeds to his rightful place on the throne of Gormenghast by becoming its 77th earl. Backstabbing and outright skullduggery ensue from the vivid characters scampering about Castle Gormenghast. The first novel was met with wide acclaim at its release.
Gormenghast is the second book in the fantastic Gormenghast trilogy and my favorite of the three. In it, Mervyn Peake has managed to make the sprawling, never ending castle of gray and stone, one of the main characters. Yes, the moldering castle is most certainly a character. It is as large as a city and reminds one of Edgar Allan Poe's The Doomed City. Death is everywhere, lurking in dark corners and worn stairs and crumbling archways. Furtive and building horror sans blood and guts. As with the first book in the trilogy, Peake doesn't let up and cements his trilogy as one of the great Gothic texts of the twentieth century.
The final book in the trilogy was left uncompleted by Peake at his untimely death. As a result, it is disjointed and pales in comparison to the first two novels. In it Titus Groan meets characters outside of Ghormenghast in a rather modern age. For me, this was an unwelcome turn of events. I wanted Gormenghast to exist in its own time and space.
Other artists have paid homage to the books. Robert Smith and his band The Cure were heavily influenced by Gormenghast. "All Cats are Grey," "The Drowning Man," "Forever," and "In Your House" draw on Gormenghast and the ghastly doings that happen within it ever moldering walls. New Zealand progressive band Split Enz wrote "Titus" and "Stranger than Fiction" in homage to the series.
The songs are a must listen and the series is a must read!
Saturday, December 9, 2017
I interviewed Michael Katz in September in Hollywood, Florida. It was great to talk all things poetry and our love of the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Katz is a successful attorney, but he doesn't let his profession get in the way of writing poetry (and for good measure).
No Turning Back is Katz's first collection of poetry, though one could hardly tell it after reading his little slices of life, many set in Montreal where he grew up. Perhaps the evocative title tugs at that common refrain "you can never go home."
Regardless, No Turning Back demonstrates that the poet's power lies in brevity. You will find no epic poetry inside the handsome hardback pages filled with artistic photos. Poetos is a good name for it. This is where a collection of poems and photos are compiled together. Katz told me he thought it was important to visualize poetry. Who can argue with his vision? Turning through the pages one sometimes wonders if the photos or associated poems came first.
In the end it matters not. Katz poetry is the essence of a short story melted down into its tight core of poetry. His whimsical pieces are "St. Viateur Bagel Factory," "Cavendish Mall," and "Time to Party." Some poems tell of events (like relatives arguing) instead of showing the emotion springing from these events. Hot bagels are described instead the effect on the person standing before the oven on a cold Montreal night. These are the whimsical pieces and at times there is no guesswork behind their meaning. Near the end of the collection is the welcome surprise of "Skidoo," which Bombardier, Inc should have emblazoned on the wall of its headquarter lobby in homage to its former snowmobile brand.
Michael Katz has a way of turning a poem on a dime as found in "Rain" and "Turning a Corner." His effusion in "So High the Sky" is my favorite and is a poetic accomplishment to be debated and discussed in university classrooms. It is dark and fully of never-ending mystery.
And that's where Katz shines--in his darker efforts. "Not," "Yellow Blanket," "Rain," "The Homeless Man," "Detritus," and "Bone" are presented to readers with dramatic effect. They hint at one thing and give you another. There is no escaping the versification. The darker efforts are in touch with nature in only the way a Montrealer can be and exist somewhere out of time. I hope for more of these haunting efforts in the future.
On reading No Turning Back one realizes Katz is a poet who just happens to practice law, not the other way around. If you are looking for a handsome poetry book for the holidays and one that evokes everything Montreal and the great province of Quebec, click here to buy No Turning Back.