Russian Ghost Stories

img_0648Now that the evenings are getting longer again, it’s the perfect time to read ghost stories. And there were plenty of ghosts, witches and other scary things around in 19th century Russian literature! With the greatest pleasure I emptied my book shelves and (re)read some, in fact most, of the following examples.

Pushkin

Pushkin‘s Queen of Spades (1833) is without a doubt the best known Russian ghost story. It is also the best, even if it’s not the scariest. Written in a masterly way, Pushkin gradually builds up the tension. The young officer Hermann wants to extract a secret from an old Countess. It’s a combination of cards that will guarantee you to win at Faro, a betting cards game. The Countess, however, doesn’t just give away her secret… A story as fresh as if it was written yesterday and highly readable any day of the year.

Lermontov

And what to think of Lermontov’s Shtoss (1841)? Shtoss is a cards game similar to Faro. The hero Lugin keeps hearing a voice in his head repeating an address in St Petersburg. A friend advises him to investigate, and the address exists and is up for rent. He moves in, but it turns out there lives a ghost who likes to play Shtoss… The story ends with an open question and it is unclear whether the story is finished or not, and whether Lermontov was serious about it or not. In any case, Lermontov died shortly after writing it.

A.K. Tolstoy

A.K. Tolstoy, a remote cousin from Leo, wrote several classic horror stories. The Vampire was published in 1841 as well, under the nom de plume Krasnorogsky. This highly entertaining and original novella features a female vampire: an old woman who is after the blood of her (obviously attractive) granddaughter. The hero of the story, Runevsky, tries to protect her from her loving grandmother. Elegantly written horror with a healthy dose of humour.

Gogol

And that brings us to Gogol: the writer who knew all about (Little) Russia’s legends and superstitions. They feature in many of his stories, particularly in those from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and Mirgorod. Gogol had a vivid imagination and the coffins and witches almost fly off the pages. His heroes are not in the least surprised; they do not doubt that witches and sorcery exist. Viy (1835) is the scariest, but May Night and A Terrible Vengeance aren’t for the faint hearted either.

Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky, who did have a contagious sense for the absurd like Gogol’s, also wrote a ghost story: Bobok (1873). It’s a short and funny story about a certain Ivan Ivanovich, who one day happens to hear the dead chat amongst each other under their gravestones. What are the consequences of dying and what do dead people talk about? I had a good laugh reading this story!

Odoevsky

The inspiration for Bobok came from Odoevsky’s The Live Corpse (1838), an amusing story about a man who finds out he has died, but has a hard time accepting that. Other, more serious, mysterious tales from this Russian nobleman are The Salamander, Cosmorama and The Sylph. Odoevsky was, among many other things, interested in science and his works feature metaphysical, occult, gothic and romantic elements. Harry Potter fans will recognise a thing or two.

Turgenev

Even though he was a firm Realist who didn’t believe in God, Turgenev wrote numerous ghost stories: the best known being Klara Milich (1883); a great Turgenev story, that due to its almost claustrophobic atmosphere has a Dostoevskian feel to it. The recluse student Aratov literally becomes possessed of a young female singer who commits suicide while performing. His dear old aunt Platosha is worried sick about him, and not without reason…

Chekhov

The last of the great Russian Realists was of course Chekhov. The Black Monk (1893) is one of his best works. Chekhov, who was actually a doctor, considered it primarily a case study of a young man suffering from megalomania, but in a literary sense the novella could be categorised as a supernatural tale. Kovrin is a brilliant student who leaves for the countryside to rest his overworked brain. Once there, however, he starts getting visions of a black monk… Chekhov at his understated best!

*****

Hopefully I have inspired you with this diverse lineup. Did you read any of these stories, are you going to, did I miss something or would you simply like to share your favourite ghost story? Let me know in the comments…

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

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60 thoughts on “Russian Ghost Stories

  1. Fabulous and timely autumn post, Elisabeth! And I’m impressed with how many memorable ghost stories were penned by Russian writers between 1833 and 1841; must have been an atmospheric eight years in that country. 🙂 I regret to say I’ve read only one of the spooky tales you mentioned (the great Chekhov’s). The last collection of ghost stories I read was by the very NON-Russian Edith Wharton — they were superb.

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  2. Thank you so much, Dave, I’m happy to hear you liked it. The years between 1833 and 1841 were indeed fruitful! Imagine that in those days these stories (and others) would have been published in magazines first. I’m sure enthusiastic readers around Russia were anxiously awaiting new editions! I would have 😄

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  3. Very interesting and enlightening post, Elisabeth;covers a lot of ground. I read it hastily (due to being at an “offsite” computer) and did not study it as carefully as I probably should.A couple of American writers who come to mind with whom you may or may not be familiar: Edgar Allan Poe. Never was my favorite, but considered a master of horror and the macabre. Washington Irving I always loved his famous ghost story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; it’s very well done. Both were nineteenth century writers.

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  4. Oh Elisabeth!!! Another timely post that welcomes Halloween. I shuddered with delightful horror through your entire post. What a great reading list. “Two fixed ideas can no more exist together in the moral world than two bodies can occupy one and the same place in the physical world.” Alexander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades. So many insights in these stories. Thank you again for another excellent post.

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  5. Great suggestions for the Halloween season! I read more short stories than novels, though I’ve read the Pushkin and Gogol, since they went in for the shorts. Some of these guys I have never heard of. It’s time for me to get back to Russian literature: I’ve been tied to English lit for months now!

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  6. Thank you so much, Rebecca, it makes me very happy to hear that! That’s a wonderful quote from Pushkin, one that makes you think. Some of these stories are mostly entertainment, but others appeal to our minds and make us think again, even if we don’t always realise it.

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  7. Good to hear from you, Kat! You’ll be happy to know that none of them are very long. Although I had already read most of the stories at some point, I didn’t realise when I started writing this post that there were so many. Together they make a great collection! I’m now longing to read some English ghost stories…

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  8. If you would have asked me in advance what all this authors have in common, I never would have an idea that all wrote gost stories. That is a surprise, really. ..and that makes me curious. Hmmm.. …I will check if there is a german or english version of book which conclude all this gost stories… …or can recommend a book like this.
    spooky regards and have a wonderful week 🙂
    Markus

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  9. I was surprised too by the length of the list. And I was thinking too, wouldn’t it be great if all these stories were collected in one volume?! But I don’t think they are 😏 Sppppooookkkky regards back 💀👻🎃

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  10. I just checked it briefly… found only this (but its not only about russian authors and not a collection of stories):
    “Romantic Prose Fiction” (Gerald Gillespie)

    “OOOOAAAAHHH” 🎃👻 🎃👻 🎃👻

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  11. Elisabeth — I already mentioned it, but when it comes to English (meaning English) language ghost stories, I always thought “The Legend of Sleeping Hollow” (also known as “The Headless Horseman”) by Washington Irving was pretty good. Not certain that it would be classified as a ghost story, but I think it would — it’s Gothic (as in Gothic novel). I was briefly in upstate New York last week very near where the story is set. Irving was very popular ih his day — he was one of the first popular American novelists. H was popular internationally and still is. But he probably can’t match your Russian masters. There are a lot of overrated American horror writers.

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  12. I haven’t read “The Legend of Sleeping Hollow ” yet, but I shall look out for it. I think in this genre it’s perhaps more about entertainment than quality, even in Russian literature.

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  13. Thanks, Elisabeth. “The Legend of Sloepy Holliw” is not a masterpiece, and Washington Irving is a very good writer but probably would not be called great. I don’t want to give the wrong impression.

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  14. Elisabeth, I thought about you the other day. On the game show “Jeopardy,” there was a contestant named Emily who taught and had a passion for Russian literature. I think she is s professor at Swarthmore. Given your passion, I was wondering if you knew her. All the best, Keith

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  15. Elisabeth, I bet you would. During the Q&A with the host, she shared her passion for a few of the authors you note above. Do you have any Emily followers? Keith

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  16. This is cool. I am learning Russian since a year and am interestersted in anything Russian. I never thought of spooky Russian stories but why not? I am curious now. Thank you.

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  17. Great overview!I liked “Queen of Spades” quite a lot. Some of the other stories you mentioned we touched upon at school, but I think somehow the study programme was always concentrated around the most monumental works by those authors. For example, if Gogol, then it’s “Dead souls. If Dostoevsky, then it’s “Crime and Punishment”. I feel like somehow the shorter stories or stories that focused on some occasional themes were set aside. Need to go back and catch up on that. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

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  18. Hello Elena, so nice to hear from you! And our blog names are sisters:-)
    Yes, you’re right, study usually focuses on the monumental works of an author, and although those are monumental for a reason, there’s often al lot more to discover. I was surprised that there were so many Russian ghost stories, even though I had read most of them already. It was a lot of fun to read them again.

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  19. There was a good Russian movie based on such ghost story, I cannot recall, but it must have been some 45 to 50 years ago. I also had to study at school and later at high school all Russian classics. Some of that was impressive and some book were very boring. Well, that was like some 45 years ago when I was just 15 or 16. I can still recite from memory lots of poems I learned back then. The good thing is the ability to read everything in original Russian language.

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  20. I’m impressed, Inese! So that’s how you know so much about Russian literature! I saw on YouTube some old Gogol movies, Viy and Taras Bulba. Viy was pretty good 😊

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