Disappointing Reader Expectations and Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

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Most books about successful novel writing emphasize that above everything, the writer who wants to sell well and avoid bad reviews must at all costs respect the  tropes of a genre, and particularly avoid ‘disappointing reader expectations’.

In fact, Chris Fox in his well argued and generally witty book  ‘Write to Market’ emphasizes this to the point of going into the specifics of market research,  cover design and plot details including even the sex of a spaceship’s pilot.

Besides this, genres are not at all costs to be mixed. He gives some brisk advice in a chapter headed ‘Don’t Get Cute’, citing his own experience.

Market research had already told him that Super Heroes and Alien Conspiracy stories were popular around 2016, and he had the idea of combining features of his two favourite television series, ‘The X Files’ and ‘Heroes’. He joined the themes of alien conspiracy and superheroes in the first novel for a projected series called ‘Project Solaris’, ‘Hero Born’.  As both of these are popular sub genres of fantasy, he hoped to draw in readers of both and market a best seller (his first novel had in fact been a best seller, though he modestly ascribes this to a stroke of luck) .

He claims that as it turned out, ‘Hero Born’  failed to attract readers from both genres because the expectations of each group were different and even conflicting.  For instance, market research advised him that readers of superhero stories tend to be in their teens and indulging a fantasy of being suddenly special. By contrast, readers of alien conspiracy themes are interested in reading about uncovering a deeper truth, solving a mystery, and putting right an injustice. He argues that the two themes  of his novel clashed.

The result was, that his book sold hundreds rather than thousands of copies. His current fans loved it, but it attracted no new ones.

Write to Market

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For me, and for many other writers, selling in hundreds is fine – it is selling in dribs and drabs of a couple a month that is soul destroying.  Chris Fox however, aims to sell thousands in weeks, and disappointing reader expectations is not the way to do that.

All this made me think enviously of writers in previous ages, who may not have had the advantages of internet publishing, but who seemingly did not have to adhere to such rigid demands from readers.

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When I recently re-read the collection of Pushkin’s prose in the book ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’  (also In this collection is to be found my favourite robber novel, ‘Dubrovsky’ but that is irrelevant here), it occurred to me that this story, phenomenally successful in its day and now of course a renowned classic, almost seems to be designed to wrong foot the reader.

‘The Queen of Spades’ is of course, Pushkin’s most famous piece of prose writing and was the equivalent of a best seller in his own time. Obviously, with so small a reading public, the numbers sold would be insignificant compared to internet sales in the modern age, but not in his. It was an overnight sensation, and the talk of fashionable society – and possibly of unfashionable society as well.

I first read it at twelve – my father had an old edition of this book – and was struck even then by the concise, dry style, even in translation. For instance, there is the famous beginning of the story: –

There was a card party at the rooms of Naramov, an officer of the guards. The long winter night had passed unnoticed and it was after four in the morning when the company sat down to supper’.

Apparently, Pushkin used the concise style of the old French masters to perfection.

However, it is not about his style that I want to write in this post – though reading it makes me reflect how I must write more concisely myself – but about how in this classic story  Pushkin in fact seems to delight in disappointing those dreaded reader expectations.

For those who haven’t read it, it is about a secret gambling formula which gives inevitable success at cards. It was given to a spoilt young noblewoman by the mysterious Saint- Germain in the 1770’s. She at that time faced the threat of ruin, having lost a massive sum at faro at Versailles. Through using it, she recouped her losses, winning spectacularly, but never played again.

She refused to give the secret to her sons – all determined gamblers – but did once reveal it to another man in desperate circumstances, who also recouped his losses and ceased play from then on.

This story is told at the card party by Tomsky, her grandson, and is overheard by a German officer of the Engineers, Hermann. This man is remarkably careful of his money, having been left only ‘a small independence’ . He does not even touch the interest on his capital, living on his pay. However, so fascinated by cards is he, that he sits up watching others play until the small hours.

Pushkin says of him: – ‘He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but strength of character preserved him from the customary mistakes of youth’.

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That he is a very odd character is surely shown by this. This is further reinforced by his obsessive thinking over the story as he wanders about Petersburg the next evening, musing on finding a way of getting the Countess X to reveal her secret to him.

As he sees it, winning her favour and perhaps posing as an admirer might compel her to do so. However, he dismisses this idea on the grounds that ‘She is eighty-seven. She might be dead next week, or the day after tomorrow, even.’

The callousness of this calculation made me start on first reading it, and then laugh at the grim depiction of his coldness.

His wanderings take him to a great house outside which a great many carriages are arriving for some social occasion, which he learns belongs to the Countess X.  Dreaming that night of winning enormous wealth through gambling, he returns to patrol outside the Countess’ house, and sees the Countess’ lovely young companion, the unfortunate Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom the Countess  has raised as an orphan and treats as a drudge. He looks up at the windows.

In one of them he saw a dark head bent over a book or some needlework. The head was raised. Hermann caught sight of a rosy face and a pair of black eyes. The moment decided his fate.’

At twelve, I had read a fair amount of romances and novels of other genres with romantic sub plots, and I knew that men more callous than Hermann were often destined to cast aside their wicked plans as they fell in love with the heroine. This is what I naively assumed would happen here. After all, I knew nothing about Pushkin save that it seemed that he had died young in a duel over his wife, which seemed to me romantic indeed.

I was startled and dismayed when far from falling in love, Hermann remains cold and calculating. He writes Lizaveta love letters (copied, so Pushkin tells us, from a German novel) and gradually persuades her to agree to an assignation with him. She tells him how to get into the house.

Hermann waits for this ‘like a tiger trembling for its prey’.  He waits until the staff have retired and the Countess is left alone in her room, and then approaches her.  At first, he begs her to reveal her secret to him. When she refuses, he threatens her with a pistol. She dies of fright.

He goes to confess to the horrified Lizaveta.

So those passionate letters, those ardent pleas, the bold, determined pursuit had not been inspired by love…It was not she who could satisfy his desires and make him happy! Poor child, she had been nothing but the blind tool of a thief, of the murderer of her aged benefactress! …She wept bitterly in a vain agony of repentance…’

The most sinister developments of the story are yet to come, but I will write no more spoilers, having made the point that this tale does not follow a conventional pattern. The anti-hero remains cold and callous, indifferent to Lizaveta’s appeal:

‘…Neither the poor girl’s tears nor her indescribable charm in her grief touched his hardened soul.’ 

Reading this at twelve, I was dismayed by the sheer unpleasantness of the anti-hero, who incidentally, is described facetiously by Tomsky to Lizaveta Ivanovna as having ‘the profile of Napolean and the soul of Mephistopheles’. I recall my reader expectations were disappointed in a big way. I did read to the end, and found it a fascinating tale, but at this age found the cynicism in the story rather too much for me, so that it was many years before I read any more Pushkin.

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Though I was very young when I read the story, I tend to think my expectations of it were typical. I seem to remember reading  somewhere that in this story, Pushkin deliberately upends expected tropes, and that most readers would expect some sort of love story between Hermann and Livaveta Ivanovna, even if it was not the main focus of the plot. How far Pushkin deliberately toyed with disappointing these dreaded tropes and reader expectations, it is hard to say. Pushkin was fascinated by innovation in writing, and Hermann has also been described as a character of a new type for Pushkin’s age.

There are all sorts of levels of  irony in this story, of course. One is that while it might ostensibly be called a story with a moral that points against becoming obsessed with making easy money through games of chance, Pushkin himself was dangerously drawn by gambling himself. On his death in that infamous duel, the Tsar paid off gambling debts for him amounting to hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Pushkin was, of course, a writer of literary fiction, not genre fiction, though this story might be defined as belonging to the genre of horror, or as a ghost story. By the time he wrote ‘The Queen of Spades’ of course, he was so renowned that he could afford to ignore such incidentals as readers’ tastes.

Have specific requirements for genres become more of a requirement in the current era? I do think readers make more demands for specific tropes for genre fiction, and in pointing this out, Chris Fox is doing a great favour to the writer who aspires to sell more.

But it is surely a hindrance on innovative sorts of writing, and I also wonder; isn’t it by breaking out of the demands of a genre, perhaps creating a new one in the process, that a writer often obtains the greatest success?

Interstingly, various highly successful writers have achieved this in the past, Mary Renault for one, and Anne Rice for another. Perhaps I should not try and speak for advocates of sticking  to the tropes of a genre. Still, I suppose they might say that yes, that is true, but those are the ones in several thousand who became world famous, and that perhaps it is best to build a firm readership base before starting to tamper with the boundaries of a genre.

There are, to sum up on a tediously neutral note, there must be arguments either way.  Finally, I supose it must depend upon how well you can write for the market (and I would like to emphasize that Chris Fox in no way advocates selling out and writing about what you hate). Some can do it brilliantly; others, I suspect, less so.

 

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‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Elizabeth Gaskell: An Excellent Classic Ghost Story for Christmas

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A ghost story is always particularly enjoyable at Christmas.

Last Christmas, I recommended ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen, a comically grotesque ghost story.

A few weeks ago, I recommended a modern one – Mari Biella’s modern ghost story, the stirring  ‘Dark Moon Fell’ as excellent reading in the run up for Christmas.

Here is one of my favourite classic ghost stories,  a decidedly spine chilling one, which I first read many years ago when I was about twelve. It is called ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’  and  was the first story I read by Elizabeth Gaskell’.

This story, which is to be found in various anthologies of classic ghost stories, was written for the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’ ‘Household Words’ in 1852.

The tale is recounted in the first person by, naturally, the said ‘Old Nurse’ and is about a chilling experience she shared with their mother, ‘Miss Rosamond’ then a small child newly orphaned. Hester has been working for Rosamond’s  mother, who was the grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall in Northumberland, who had married a curate and lived with him in his Westmorland parsonage.

On the sudden death of Rosamond’s young parents, Rosamolnd is sent with Hester to live with a maternal relative, the great-aunt of the current Lord Furnivall, at  Furnivall Manor House at the foot of the Cumberland Fells.

The house is a rambling  isolated mansion and Miss Furnivall and her companion Mrs. Stark are very old and melancholy. Altogether, the surroundings fill both the young nurse and her charge with awe:

‘At one end of the hall was a great fireplace, as large as the sides of houses in my country, with massy andirons and dogs to hold the wood, and by it were heavy old fashioned sofas. At the opposite end of the hall, to the left as you went in – on the western side – was an organ built into the wall, and so large that it filled up the best part of that end…’

However, the two old servants, James and Dorothy are friendly. They, and a maid to do the rough work, make up the staff. The aged Miss Furnivall and Mrs Stark soon become very fond of Rosamond.

The east wing of the house is shut up, but Rosamond takes Hester exploring all over the north and west parts of the house,. Here they find many fascinating things, though the windows are darkened by the sweeping boughs of the trees and the ivy growing up the sides of the building.

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They come on portraits of Miss Grace Furnivall as she had been in her youth, and another young women resembling her, whom Dorothy says was her sister.

There is a sinister atmosphere about the house.  Now the winter sets in, and after dark, Hester she often hears peals of someone playing the organ in the hall. The other staff insist that it must be the wind; but Bessy, the kitchen maid, tells Hester that: ‘Folks do say that it was the old lord playing on the organ in the hall just as he used to do when he was alive.’

When Hester peeps into the organ, she sees that it has fallen into ruin inside, though it still looks impressive from the outside.

‘That winter was very cold. In the middle of October the frosts began, and lasted many, many weeks. I remember one day at dinner, Miss Furnival lifted up her sad, heavy eyes,and said to Mrs. Stark, ‘I am afraid we shall have a terrible winter,’ in a strange kind of meaning way. But Mrs. Stark pretended not to hear, and talked very loud of something else…’

One day Rosamond goes missing after dark, and after searching all over the house, Hester thinks to  look outside, and sees her footprints in the snow going across the court and out onto the Fells. Hester follows them and comes upon Rosamond being carried by an old shepherd, who had found her under a holly tree:  ‘In the terrible sleep which is frost begotten’.

When back at the hall they revive her.  She tells them that she saw a little girl out in the snow, beckoning for her to come out. Hester only saw one set of footprints, and rebukes her charge for making up stories. Rosamond weeps and says that she is telling the truth; that the little girl took her by the hand – and hers was very cold – and led her up to the holly trees on the Fell, and there was,  ‘A lady, weeping and crying; but when she saw me, she hushed her weeping, and smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull me to sleep…’

Old Nurse's Stolry

Furnivall Hall is indeed haunted, and these ghosts scheme to lure little  Rosamond away with them.  At last, Dorothy tells Hester the tragic old story behind these visitations. Hester swears to stay in the sinister house and protect her charge…

I recommend this story as a brilliant example of the traditional type of ghost story, with an isolated haunted house. Set on the snowy deserted Northumberland Fells, it makes an excellent spine chilling read for Christmas.

Halloween Post: ‘The Death of Lord Tyrone’ from Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book

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It is nice to tell a spooky tale on Hallowe’en, and it is all the  more enjoyable to relate one which hints at an afterlife. One that contains a love story is the more intriguing.

This is one of the stories from Lord Halifax’s collection of supposedly true anecdotes, and took place in the eighteenth century.

One morning, Lady Beresford, the daughter of the Earl of Tyrone,  surprised her husband Sir Tristram Marcus Beresford  by coming down to breakfast wearing a black velvet ribbon about her wrist. She was pale and seemed distraught, and asked him not to ask her about why she wore the ribbon, as it was not a secret that affected him as her husband. She seemed on edge to read the post and said she expected to hear that her brother Lord Tyrone had died last Tuesday at four o’ clock.

When the post arrived, Lady Beresford did receive a letter with that news.  She then told him that she knew that she was expecting the son and heir for which he wished. This also proved to be true.

Four years later, Sir Marcus himself died. After that, Lady Beresford lived an almost solitary life, only visiting one family, a clergyman and his wife, who had one son, still only a youth at the time that Lady Beresford started to visit them. Some years later, she astonished society by marrying this young man, who was far younger than she and considered by far her social inferior.

‘He treated her with contempt and cruelty, his conduct being that of an abandoned libertine, destitute of every virtue and human feeling. After bearing him two daughters, Lady Beresford was so estranged by his profligate conduct that she insisted on a separation. They had been parted for several years, when on his expressing deep contrition for his former conduct, she consented to pardon him and once more to reside with him. After some time she bore him a son.’

Lady Beresford had given birth just before the age of forty-eight. At least, she thought that she was forty-eight; but when, a month later, a lifelong friend, the clergyman who had entered her birth came to visit, he told her that a mistake had been made about her age, and she was in fact, forty-seven. Instead of being pleased at proving to be a year younger, Lady Beresford said, ‘You have signed my death warrant.’

She then called her son by Sir Marcus into the room besides a close friend as witness, and told him the story of how she had come always to wear the black velvet ribbon.

She said that she and her brother Lord Tyrone had often discussed their belief in Deism, and had made an agreement that whichever of them should die first, should come back and tell the other whether their religious convictions were true.

On the night before the one where she heard of Lord Tyrone’s death, she awakened to see him standing by her bedside. He told her of his death, and assured her that she would hear of  his death the next day, that in seven months she would bear Sir Marcus a sons, and that he would die a few years later. That she would then go on to marry a man who would cause her much unhappiness, and die as a result of childbirth at forty-seven.

He also warned her against ‘infidelity’ but smiled acknowledgement when she asked if he was happy in the afterlife (I do wonder if this warning – not about adultary, but about hetrodox religious views, was added later on to the tale by someone, as it does rather go against the grain of most information given by spirits or gained in NDE’s) .

She asked if she could prevent her unhappy fate, and the brother said yes, but her passions were stronger than she at present knew, and would prove hard to resist.

To prove the reality of his visit, which his sister might otherwise come to think to be a dream, the apparition touched her wrist with fingers cold as ice. The muscles in the wrist instantly withered. He then vanished.

Lady Beresford had tried to avoid her fate by keeping from society as a widow. She never expected to fall in love with the young man who was the son to the only couple she visited, but she had. She long resisted it, but when on the day he was due to join the army, he came and confessed to strong feelings for her, she gave in. The marriage had subsequently proved to be as unhappy as her late brother had predicted.

She had thought herself safe to go back to her husband, being now forty-eight, but as in fact, she was forty-seven, she now expected to die within hours.

She then asked her son and friend to leave her to rest, and when they ran up at a violent ringing of the bell, one of the servants was exclaiming that Lady Beresford was dead. When her son undid the ribbon on her wrist, he found that it was indeed withered as she said.

What happened to her widower is not revealed in the story, nor, sadly, whether the motherless baby thrived.

This was the story that Lord Halifax had from a descendant of Lady Beresford. A later edition corrects a couple of details, concerning  her age (she was in fact forty-nine, believing herself to be fifty) and that it was the brother-in-law of the couple she visited with whom she fell in love, and not their son.

It is certainly an intriguing story and I thought, very suitable for Hallowe’en.

 

 

Christmas reading: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen – An Excellent Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

 

 

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I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those, but for now, which of the many to choose as a seasonal ghost story?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatrabes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history.  Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be. It is also written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with her contentment.

I think for sheer spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ takes a lot of beating.

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

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The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

 

 

 

 

‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aiman – Wonderful Classic Tales of Terror

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I recently re-read ‘The Fontana Book of  Great Ghost Stories’ Edited by Robert Aikman, dated 1964.  I would still say that this is one of the best collections of tales of terror – not all of them are truly ghost stories – that I have ever read.

To some extent, I would say that for sheer spine tingling thrills, I have never found this collection to be beatable.

Of course, arguably some of it might be ‘learned response’ if that is the term. I did read it first at an impressionable age, and I was living in a notoriously haunted house at the time, the infamous and then isolated ‘Plas Isaf’.

My father, mother and sister were all in the house at the time; but they were corridors away as I foolishly sat up late, fnishing reading ‘The Wendigo’ by a dying fire, with the wind howling outside.

And yes, it did come from  – wait for it – those inexhuastable bookshelves in my family houses, like ‘The Outcast of the Family’  ‘Eve and the Law’ and so many others…

All the short stories in the anthology are written by renowned authors –the one by D H Lawrence, which naturally is largely psychologically based, came as a surprise.

There is also a very peculiar, and horrifying, tale which is more of a horror story, ‘The Travelling Grave’ written by L P Hartley, who of course wrote that wonderfully evocative tale of the Edwardian schoolboy in ‘The Go Between’.

The anthology contains some funny ghost stories. I still find ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen grotesquely hilarious, and there is an amusing tale about a landed pirate ship.

There are also ones on conventional lines – ‘The Old Nurses’ Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful example of the haunted house and threatened innocent variety. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu is of course, another wonderful example of the traditional ghost story.

The tales of terror, include  some perturbing ones by comparatively recent authors, such as that sinister one about deserted waterways which has always puzzled me by Elizabeth Jane Howard  ‘Three Miles Up’. There is also one by the editor Robert Aikman, ‘The Trains’.

This is an extraordinary story; it is partly psychological, partly a tale of terror with horribly plausible elements, and it has many unexplained elements. It is set in the 1950’s, when trains were in fact, still the predominate form of transport for most people in the UK, before the sorry onset of car culture.

I can date the age I was when I read it, because that was the day I made my first apple crumble at school, and the scent of apple and cinnamon was in the air when we were re-heating it and I began reading, ‘The Wendigo’.  In fact, ‘The Wendigo’ will always make me think of apple crumble, and vice versa.

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I still find ‘The Wendigo’  a truly terrifying story, for all the florid language of Défago when he is taken by it is so improbably poetic: ‘Oh, these fiery heights, my burning feet of fire’ etc.

My own prosaic memories about apple crumble aside, the depiction of those huge, Canadian forests, the Northern Woods, struck me with awe then and does to this day:

‘And now he was about to plunge even beyond the fringe of wilderness where they were camped into the virgin heart of uninhibited regions as vast as Europe itself…The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with a sense of his own littleness. The stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of those far blue woods swimming on the horizon…’

It is an alarming story. Défego’s fate also seems to be unfair, in so far as he is not some casual tourist, viewing these secret regions for a thrill. On the contrary, he dreads the Wendigo as an apparition personifying the awe these forests should inspire:

‘”All the same, I shouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Défego added, looking over Simpson’s shoulder into the shadows. “There’s places in there that nobody won’t ever see into. – Nobody knows what lives in there, either.”’

I must confess my ignorance as to whether that is still true today as it undoubtedly was in 1910, when this story was written,  before so much of the forest was destroyed. I assume it is, but I may well be wrong.

Algernon Blackwood, who of course, wrote the story, does seem to have changed the Native American legend, although I gather that there are many versions of the legend.

The Wickipedia entry states:

‘In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada.[] The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism,, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.’

In these regions of harsh winters and traditional food shortages, to me that makes sense as the behaviour of the predatory Wendigo in Blackwood’s tale does not. It does not take its victims for food, but is described as a ‘moss easter’ and when the terribly damaged Défego returns from his sojourn with it, he reveals that he too has become ‘a damned moss eater’.

Therefore, the Wendigo does not take its victims to eat, and the sheer illogic of its bothering to take victims at all makes it the more horrible. I have heard that some of our relatives, the great apes, like humans, keep small orphaned baby animals as pets. Perhaps this is the explanation for the Wendigo’s behaviour?  Perhaps it doesn’t like people intruding on its domain.  Or – worse – perhaps its actions are meaningless to the human mind?

I thought one of the few weaknesses of the tale was the fact that it seems the Wendigo initially tries to pull the sleeping Défago from his tent.

That so powerful a monster should be temporarily defeated in this merely by Simpson’s wakening seem slightly absurd, though still horrible. The guide might even have been saved.

Another weakness is, of course, the racist assumptions about Native Americans of the era.  Inevitable though they may be for 1910, they are dismal to come across.

Overall, though, it is a powerfully written and wonderfully evocative story, and like all the stories in this anthology, it sums up images that you will never forget.

Perhaps one of the reasons that these stories are so good is that they come from an age when ‘short stories’ could begin at 3,000 words – ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ is this length – and go up to near novella length at approximately 14,000 words, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There was none of the modern pressure to write an extremely brief short story.

This post is too long for me to continue with accounts of the wonderfully comic, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’, or the puzzling and sinister story, ‘The Trains’. I will have to make that my next post.