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

 

Advertisements

Greed and Prejudice

Pushkin’s The Undertaker and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle

Two very different stories with at least two common themes. I read these stories for the first time in university and they’ve stayed with me ever since, Pushkin’s story (one of the wonderful Belkin Tales) because of the humour and Chekhov’s story because of the melancholy.

If the undertakers that were created by Shakespeare and Walter Scott were jolly characters, the ones created by Pushkin and Chekhov were anything but. Always grumpy, suspicious and waiting for people to die; that sums up the Russian undertaker.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker* (1831) is about Adrian, an undertaker who has just moved from one area in Moscow to another with his daughters and his business. In the new area there are apparently a lot of German tradesmen. One of them invites Adrian and his daughters over for a party. The party is very jolly, Adrian drinks and eats, his daughters are above such behaviour, and there is one toast after another. The only Russian official at the party, a Finnish watchman called Yourko, suggests that Adrian make a toast to his clients, the dead. Adrian doesn’t think that’s funny at all and goes home in a bad mood. He vows that instead of inviting his new neighbors to a party as he had intended, he shall indeed invite his dead clients. The next day he gets a lucrative job and when he comes home in the evening, he finds a party going on in his house. All the corpses that were once his clients are there. They reproach Adrian for charging too much for the coffins and for ripping off their next of kin. When he wakes up the next day, he realises that he has been asleep since he came home drunk from the neighbor.

Rothschild’s Fiddle

In Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894) there’s a different kind of humour. A melancholic humour. The old undertaker Yakov lives in a small town full of old people who refuse to die. Yakov always counts his losses: people who die elsewhere, holidays when he can’t work, etc. The only thing that makes him happy and comforts him, is his violin. He sometimes gets asked to play in a Jewish wedding orchestra, but only in case of emergency, because he always argues with the Jews, especially with a certain Rothschild. One evening his wife gets ill and she dies the next day. Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour. In his own way he makes up with Rothschild and leaves him his violin when he dies.

 

Greed and prejudice

Both stories deal with misplaced xenophobia and greed. Adrian only seems to befriend his German neighbor because he expects free food and drink. At the party he is quick to make friends with the Finnish watchman, because he can be of use to him. But when they make a joke at his expense, they’re all heathens. While Adrian was sleeping and cursing his new friends, those same friends stop by his house to invite him again. We don’t know if Adrian has learned anything from his nightmare, but judging by the fact that he has tea as if nothing happened when he wakes up, I fear not.

 

Yakov does realise after the death of his wife and before his own, that he has always been wrong, that it was completely unnecessary to treat his wife and Rothschild badly. His wife is already dead, but he can still make up for it with Rothschild. He leaves Rothschild his most prized possession; his violin and something immaterial: a song. It’s a sad song that makes people cry, but they always ask Rothschild to play it again.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo (The Fiddler (1913) – by Chagall at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

 

*There’s a scene in the story where “Before the door of the house in which the deceased lay, the police had already taken their stand, and the trades-people were passing backwards and forwards, like ravens that smell a dead body”. Tolstoy apparently borrowed this scene for War and Peace, when Pierre’s father dies: “While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides.”

 

******

Typically Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is the last Russian realist and the first modern writer. His plays made him world-famous, but above all his stories are phenomenal. His sincerity and moderation are his biggest accomplishments as a writer and earn him a place among the other giants of Russian literature.

His life

After an unhappy childhood, Chekhov studied medicine, and his medical practice, like the unhappy childhood, turned out to be a great source of inspiration for his literary work. He never made a choice between literature and medicine, as he put it himself: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”. In 1901 he married actress Olga Knipper, but unfortunately Chekhov died in 1904 from tuberculosis, an illness that he had suffered from for years.

Style and content

Above all Chekhov kept it short, there is not one word too many. Important themes in his work are inner conflict, feelings of nostalgia, a longing for the past or a better future, hopelessness, lack of willpower and powerlessness. His characters wish to escape their current situation, but they are incapable of doing so, even if there is apparently nothing holding them back. The Three Sisters (1901) for instance talk about moving to Moscow all the time, but it’s their own indecisiveness that stops them from actually moving. People (and dogs, like Kashtanka) prefer to remain unsatisfied or unhappy in familiar circumstances than to risk happiness in the mysterious unknown.

Stanislavski

Chekhov wrote the play The Seagull in 1896. When it premiered in Moscow it was not exactly a success and Chekhov decided not to write any more plays; however, when the famous theatre director Stanislavski put it on stage in Moscow, it became a huge success. Stanislavski’s method focused on psychological realism and all the subtle details were done justice to. After this success, Chekhov continued to write Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, every one of them plays that are still being performed nowadays.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov wrote a lot about writing and his most famous piece of advice is called “Chekhov’s Gun”: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”. In other words: use only relevant details and use them to create a certain expectation with the reader.

Influence

His work has influenced countless writers. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Kunio Shimizu; most modern writers were influenced by Chekhov. His contemporary Tolstoy thought he was a genius and was genuinely sad when he died before him. Chekhov himself was influenced by Pushkin, specifically by his Belkin Stories, short stories with a surprising ending.

In short:

Chekhov is a calm and objective story teller. Always an observer and never a preacher. His characters are real, not purely good or evil, often complete with human flaws. He appeals to the sentimental feelings of his reader. He is subtle and often funny. His work is modern and fresh. Chekhov is justifiably considered to be the best short story writer ever.

*****

Books read:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Several stories, plays, letters and fragments from Chekhov

Practically everything that Chekhov wrote has been translated into English and his collected stories are widely available. Below follows a link to 201 stories in English online. My favourites are Kashtanka and Rothschild’s Fiddle.

Photos © Elisabeth van der Meer and Wikipedia

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/