Monday, October 31, 2011

An Ancient Ghost Story

From The Letter "Concerning Phantoms," By Pliny The Younger

"Consider now, if the following story is not as wonderful and still more terrible than the former. I shall relate it in the manner that I received it.

"There was at Athens a very large and spacious house, but of evil report, and fatal to its inhabitants. In the dead of night, the clinking of iron, and, upon closer attention, the rattling of chains was heard; first, at a great distance, and afterwards very near. A spectre immediately appeared, representing an old man, emaciated, and squalid. His beard long, his hair staring, bolts upon his legs, upon his hands chains, which he rattled, as he carried. From these circumstances the inhabitants, in all the agonies of fear, continued watching through several melancholy, and dreadful nights. Such constant watchings brought on distempers, illness was increased by fear, and death ensued; for even in the day, when the spectre was not visible, the representation wandered before their eyes, so that the terror was of longer continuance, than the presence of the spectre. At length the house was deserted, and left entirely to the apparition.

"A bill however was posted up, to signify, that the house was either to be sold, or let, in hopes that some person, ignorant of the calamity, might offer for it. Athenodorus, the philosopher, came at that time to Athens; he read the bill; the price surprised him: he suspected some bad cause to occasion the cheapness, and, upon inquiry, was informed of all the circumstances, by which he was so little deterred, that they were stronger inducements to hire it.

"When the evening came on, he ordered a bed to be prepared for him in the first apartment. He called for lights, his table-books, and his pen. He sent all his servants to the farther parts of the house, and applied his eyes, his hands, and his whole attention to writing; lest, as he had heard of apparitions, his mind, if unemployed, might suggest to him idle fears, and represent false appearances.

"The beginning of the night was as silent there, as in other places. At length, the irons clinked, and the chains rattled. Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor quitted his pen, but collecting his resolution, stopt his ears. The noise increased, it approached, as it was now heard at the threshold of the door, and immediately after, within the room. The philosopher turned back his head, and saw the figure, which he observed to answer the description, that he had received of it. The apparition stood still, and beckoned with a finger, like a person, who calls another. Athenodorus signified, by the motion of his hand, that the ghost should stay a little; and again immediately applied himself to writing.

"The spectre rattled his chains over the head of the philosopher, who, looking back, saw him beckoning as before, and immediately taking up a light, followed him. The ghost went forward at a slow pace, as if encumbered by the chains, and afterwards turning into a court belonging to the house, immediately vanished, leaving the philosopher alone, who, finding himself thus deserted, pulled up some grass and leaves, and placed them as a signal to find the spot of ground.

"The next day he went to the magistrates, informed them of the event, and desired, that they would order the place to be dug up. Human bones were later found buried there, and bound in chains. Time and the earth had mouldered away the flesh, and only the skeleton remained; which was publicly buried: after the rites of sepulture, the house was no longer haunted.

"I give credit to these circumstances, as reported by others." --Pliny the Younger, 61-113? A.D.

And there you have the classic elements of the Ghost Story, established and set at the very beginning of Western civilization. The abandoned house with a history (with even the shady real estate effort!), the intrepid investigator, the restless ghost (with chains, yet; perhaps the trope setter for this detail), the grim secret revealed, peace restored by the proper care of the dead, the story told by "a friend of a friend." How many tales follow this pattern, in life and in literature; but does it confirm an influence by this story, or does it reflect experiences in real life? Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Twenty Haunting Tales For Halloween

In A Dim Room...Lord Dunsany

The Boy Who Drew Cats...Lafcadio Hearn

The Canterville Ghost...Oscar Wilde

The Water Ghost...John Kendrick Bangs

The Lonesome Place...August Derleth

The Haunted Dolls' House...M. R. James

The Whistling Room...William Hope Hodgeson

Feathertop...Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Devil And Daniel Webster...Stephen Vincent Benet

The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow...Washington Irving

The Monster Maker...William C. Morrow

The Haunted And The Haunters...Lord Lytton

Markheim...Robert Louis Stevenson

A Terribly Strange Bed...Wilkie Collins

An Account Of Some Strange Disturbances In Aungier Street...J. Sheridan Le Fanu

The Phantom Coach...Amelia B. Edwards

Captain Murderer...Charles Dickens

In The Vault...H. P. Lovecraft

The Monkey's Paw...W. W. Jacobs

The Fall Of The House Of Usher...Edgar Allan Poe

Twenty tales tailored by my own (rather old-fashioned) taste. This is the anthology I would like to see put together and published; they are not particularly about "terror" or "horror" but are what I would term "haunting." Both in the usual sense, and in the sense of lingering in the memory and emotions, long after the tale is told. Of course, you could glut the list with many by Lovecraft, Poe, and James, but I thought I should limit it to one apiece.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Just Fiddlin' Around

Another surprisingly persistent trope, wherever chirping insects and stringed instruments are known.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

MORE Witches!!

It seems like I finished Witch Week just a little while ago, but here a whole year has cycled around and Halloween is almost upon us. While I have little more to say right now about witches, there is always more to see; I therefore present another gallery of witches from around the world and through the ages.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What The Scarecrow Said: Poems

What The Scarecrow Said

The dim-winged spirits of the night
Do fear and serve me well.
They creep from out the hedges of
The garden where I dwell.

I wave my arms across the walk.
The troops obey the sign,
And bring me shimmering shadow-robes
And cups of cow-slip wine.

Then dig a treasure called the moon,
A very precious thing,
And keep it in the air for me
Because I am a King.

--Vachel Lindsay.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

J. C. Leyendecker

If you are like me, you have probably seen the work of J. C. Leyendecker and mistaken it for that of Norman Rockwell; this is completely understandable, because Leyendecker's art and career made him Rockwell's idol and later, mentor. Many of the themes and subjects that are identified as quintessentially Rockwellian, such as America, family, and holidays, were all influenced and developed from this bachelor immigrant's work.

Joseph Christian Leyendecker was born March 23, 1874, in Montabaur Germany; his family immigrated to Chicago, Illinois, in 1882. At the age of 16 he commercially produced 60 Bible illustrations even before he had any formal training; he then studied at the Chicago Art Institute, after which he spent a year at the Acadamie Julian in Paris, where he was influenced by the work of Toulouse Lautrec, Jules Cheret, and Alfons Mucha, a leader in the Art Nouveau movement.

In 1899 he returned to Chicago and began his formal commercial career. That year he produced the first of what would be 322 covers for The Saturday Evening Post; thus began what would be a forty-four year association. In 1900 he moved to New York, the hub of publishing and commercial art. Here he developed the Arrow Collar Man, an advertising icon which along with Charles Gibson's Gibson Girl defined fashionable American society in the Twenties. His magazine covers helped develop images and traditions that stick with us today; the New Year's Baby, the chubby Santa clad in red and white, flowers on Mother's Day (his picture of a bellhop delivering hyacinths on a cover of an issue celebrating the very first Mother's Day is credited with starting it).

During the Thirties, however, his popularity began to decline. It was the Depression, and the economic situation put an end to the starched collars and elegant appointments that had fuelled much of Leyendecker's commercial art. A change of editors at The Saturday Evening Post put a damper on his relationship with the magazine, and he had fewer and fewer commissions from them; in 1943 he published his last Post cover.

Leyendecker died on July 25, 1951, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. Norman Rockwell was a pallbearer at his funeral, but he carried more than the body of his friend and mentor. He carried on an artistic inheritance that is still influencing culture today.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Miguel

"Some hundreds of years ago there was born in one of the southern peninsulas of Europe a man whose life was very like the life of a boy in one of Mr. [G. A.] Henty's books. He did everything that could possibly be expected of a boy's hero; he ran away to sea; he was trusted by admirals with important documents; he was captured by pirates; he was sold as a slave. Even then he did not forget the duties of a Henty hero. He made several picturesque and desperate attempts at escape, scaling Moorish walls and clambering through Moorish windows. He confronted the considerable probability of torture, and defied it. But he was not like the unscrupulous prison-breakers, like Cellini or Casanova, ready to break the world as well as the wall, or his promise as well as his prison. He remembered that he was the hero of an honest boy's story, and behaved accordingly.

"Long afterwards his country collected the depositions of the other Christian captives, and they were an astonishing chorus. They spoke of this man as if he were a sort of saint, of the almost unearthly unselfishness with which he divided their distresses and defied their tormentors...And in all [the] still horror of heat and sleep [of the Turkish prison], the one unconquered European still leaping at every outlet of adventure or escape; climbing a wall as he might a Christian apple tree, or calling for his rights as he might in a Christian inn.

"Nor did our hero miss that other great essential of the schoolboy protagonist; which is accidental and even improbable presence on a tremendous historical occasion...Here also my hero in real life equalled any of the heroes of juvenile fiction; for he was present and took an active part in one of the most enormous and earth-changing events in history.

"This was the great battle of Lepanto, and of course our hero was there, sword in hand; of course he was wounded there. I can fancy him standing on the deck, with his arm in a sling and looking at the slender escape of Europe and the purple wreck of Asia with a sad, crooked smile on his face. For he was a person whose face was capable of expressing both pity and amusement. His name was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, commonly called Cervantes. And having another arm left, he went home and wrote a book called Don Quixote, in which he ridiculed romance and pointed out the grave improbability of people having any adventures."

--from "The True Romance," by G. K. Chesterton.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Haunted Houses: Poems


All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table, than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear.
He but perceives what is, while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star,
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o'er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,--

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

First Day Of October

Fresh October brings the pheasant;
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Good October, a good blast,
To blow the hog acorn and mast.

If in October you do marry,
Love will come, but riches tarry.

--from "Mother Goose's Almanack."