Reading Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales


As Chris Baldick pointed out in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Gothic fiction is concerned with "the tyranny of the past" and its continuing influence on the present. Historically, this meant the tyranny of the Catholic Church (Gothic fiction started as a British, Protestant phenomenon): evil monks or vicious Italian noblemen amassing their power through superstition and intimidation. In more modern times the genre has expanded to reflect the tyranny of repressive societal mores or dysfunctional family histories, while retaining its characteristic claustrophobia and brooding atmosphere. So if I wanted to be cranky, I could argue that the stories collected in Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century (Overlook Press, 2013) are not strictly Gothic, because they evoke nostalgia for the past as a reaction to the tyranny of the present: that is, the tyranny of a newly emerging Communist state.


Yet, they feel Gothic. If you didn’t know anything about the socio-political milieu in which these stories were written (especially the earlier ones), you would unhesitatingly class them as such. And now that the Soviet Union is moving further into our past, maybe these stories can indeed be considered true examples of the genre.


The volume includes eleven stories written between 1903 and 1927, the period from immediately before the Russian Revolution to immediately afterward. While a few stories are by émigrés who left for the West (Georgy Peskov, Pavel Perov), most are by writers who stayed, although their writings were often censored or suppressed. Several of the early stories are set in the pre-Revolutionary period, with upper-middle class or aristocratic protagonists. Even those which do take place either during or immediately after the events of 1917 have one foot firmly set back in the the old days, and reveal a certain amount of fear about the new regime. The past is a comfortable life or a promising career; the present is uncertainty, alcoholism, insanity.

Muireann Maguire, who selected and translated the stories in the collection and wrote the Introduction, points out that the State adopted Socialist Realism as the official literary aesthetic in 1934, effectively shutting down the publication of any other literature, including the fantastic. This was after the stories in this collection were written, but I suspect the nostalgic tone that permeates many of them didn’t exactly endear them to the official censors, at the time.


I was struck by how often madness appeared as a theme or subtext of these stories—no doubt emblematic of the madness and chaos of the period. The collection opens with Valery Bryusov’s “In the Mirror” (1903), the story of a repressed housewife who is trapped in a mirror by her own reflection, which takes her place in the world.  The piece is subtitled “From the archive of a psychiatrist,” and it's clear that the narrator enjoys the passivity of being in the mirror (she describes it as "a sensuous trance"). At the same time, her freed mirror-self can do things that she wouldn't do, like take lovers. Given the time and place in which this story was written, I couldn't help thinking of the luxury of authority (whether royalist or socialist), of how easy it is to deny responsibility for one's actions, if "someone else" is in control.

More madness: Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Red Crown” (1922) is told by the inmate of a sanitarium, who appears to have had a nervous breakdown over the death of his brother, an officer in the White army. Alexandr Grin’s “The Grey Motor Car” (1925) is the story of a disturbed, priggish young man who is in love with an unlikeable young woman, whom he believes to be an automaton. Georgy Peskov’s “The Woman with No Nose” (1927) is a delirious story (literally) that takes place as the narrator struggles to flee the typhus and the Red Army, both of which are poised to take over his city.


I especially liked the offerings from Aleksandr Chayanov, an agronomist by profession who wrote these pieces under the pseudonym "Botanist X." My favorite was the E.T.A. Hoffman-inspired, ultra-gothic “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” (1918),  about a jaded collector who finds and falls obsessively in love with an exquisitely sculptured mannequin—one modeled after one half of a pair of Siamese twins. Also notable was “Venediktov” (1922) about a young man whose soul, and the soul of the woman he loves, have been mysteriously captured by another man in a game of cards. The story is a direct influence on Mikhail Bulgakov’s famous satire of Soviet bureaucracy, The Master and Margarita. Chayanov's third piece, "The Venetian Mirror" (1922) is the dual to "In the Mirror;" this time, a man struggles against his mirror-self. It wasn't bad, but I thought Bryusov's version was stronger, mostly because I prefer the ambiguity of his heroine's narrative. Did she get pulled into the mirror, or did she imagine it? Chayanov's story reads as more definitively supernatural.

Bulgakov’s “The Seance” (1922) is a funny satire about bourgeoisie trying to maintain some semblance of their old lifestyle in the new regime. Bulgakov skewers everyone in this story: the middle-class, foolishly hoping that the Bolsheviks will be gone in three months; the working class house servants; even the secret police. Peskov’s “The Messenger” (1927) is a melancholy story about a lonely, formerly aristocratic couple whose son, a member of the White Army, has disappeared. Even religion has failed them (though the village priest is the only one who looks out for them). They turn to spiritualism for comfort and companionship: it's a way to keep in touch with departed old friends (so they can chat about the old days)—and a way to search for their son. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Phantom” (1926), about a preserved fetus that comes to life and imprints on a young medical student, contrasts the effect of the war on the medical student (now doctor) and his "child." The doctor becomes a shell-shocked alcoholic. The fetus survives, hidden in the basement of the deserted university and cared for by an old lab assistant, both of them irrelevant to those on either side of the conflict.


All of the stories are interesting, though often indirect, reflections of the time and place in which they were written. But more than that, they’re interesting, engrossing stories. I’ll be searching for more of these authors’ works in translation—and of course, rereading The Master and Margarita