The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

I’ve never read anything by Washington Irving but The Legend of Sleepy Hollow appears in an anthology of classic ghost stories I bought for my Kindle a few years ago and Halloween seemed like the perfect time of year to read it. I thought I already knew the story from the 1999 Tim Burton film but of course it turns out that it’s only very loosely based on Irving’s original work, which is often the case with adaptations. It’s also not very scary, so if horror stories make you nervous, don’t worry – this one isn’t likely to give you nightmares!

Irving begins by describing the valley of Sleepy Hollow, an old Dutch settlement in New York State steeped in legend and superstition.

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere…Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air.

The most famous of Sleepy Hollow’s legends involves a ghost known as the Headless Horseman, said to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in battle and goes on a nightly ride through the Hollow in search of his missing head. When Ichabod Crane, an outsider from Connecticut arrives in the valley to take up the position of schoolmaster, he is fascinated by this story. A believer in witchcraft, Ichabod is naturally superstitious and enjoys listening to the tales of local ghosts and goblins.

Soon Ichabod sets his sights on the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, daughter and only heir of a wealthy farmer. However, he faces stiff competition for Katrina’s hand in marriage in the form of Brom Bones, a ‘burly, roaring, roystering blade…the hero of the country round’. After being rejected by Katrina during a party at the Van Tassels’ home one night, the disappointed Ichabod rides off alone into the night – only to find that he is being pursued by a mysterious figure on horseback…

There’s not much more I can say about this story without spoiling it. It’s a short one, so if you want to read it for yourself it shouldn’t take up too much of your time. Published in 1820, it’s easy to read and to follow and although Irving’s descriptive writing provides a lot of Gothic atmosphere, it’s a fun and entertaining ghost story rather than a terrifying one. It also has a wonderfully ambiguous ending!

I’ll have to read more of Washington Irving’s stories at some point. The only other one I’m familiar with is Rip Van Winkle, but obviously he has written a lot more than that!

This is my seventh and final read for R.I.P. XVII

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

The next book I’ve read for this year’s R.I.P. XVII event is a fascinating and unusual collection of Japanese short stories, first published in 1904. The writer and translator Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece and raised in Ireland, before later settling in Japan where he began to collect Japanese legends and folktales which he translated into English. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things contains seventeen of these tales, as well as three essays on insects – one on butterflies, one on mosquitoes and one on ants. These mainly focus on the role of the insects in Japanese and Chinese mythology, art, drama and poetry and are full of intriguing little snippets of information.

The other seventeen pieces are a mixture of ghost stories, fairy tales and strange anecdotes, some of which Hearn translated from old Japanese texts and others which he heard on his travels through Japan and attempted to put into words himself. For example, in his introduction, Hearn states that the story of Yuki-onna, in which a beautiful young woman in white appears to two woodcutters during a snowstorm, was told to him by a farmer in Musashi Province. Although the Yuki-onna character dates back centuries, Hearn’s account is based on this verbal version and not translated from any other source.

The creepier stories in the book are the ones that explore the different kinds of ghosts and monsters that appear in Japanese myth, such as the ‘faceless ghosts’ or noppera-bō, the human-like goblins called rokurokubi with detachable floating heads and the corpse-eating spirits known as the jikininki or ‘hungry ghosts’. These are interspersed with more traditional ghost stories, involving spirits returning after death to look for a loved one or to search for a lost possession. There’s also a great story recounting the legend of Hoichi the Earless, a blind musician who is tricked into playing his biwa (lute) for an audience of ghosts in a cemetery every night. If you want to know what happens to his ears, you’ll have to read the story!

Not all of the stories are particularly spooky, though – some are just, as the title suggests, ‘studies of strange things’. Of a Mirror and a Bell is an account of the legend of the Mugen-Kane bell which was made by melting down old bronze mirrors. Hearn then goes on to explore the Japanese concept of nazoraeru, where one item can be used as a substitute for another, to bring about magical results. There’s also a very short but beautiful story about a pair of oshidori, or Mandarin ducks, and another I enjoyed is The Dream of Akinosuke, about a man who falls asleep and dreams that he is the ruler of his own island province. This story incorporates both butterflies and ants, which makes the insect essays at the end of the book feel more relevant!

Some of the stories are too short or incomplete to be very satisfying, but the collection as a whole is fascinating and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture and folklore. There’s also a Japanese film version from 1965, also titled Kwaidan, which I haven’t seen, but it seems to be very highly acclaimed and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Have you read this or any other book of Japanese ghost stories?

Book #4 read for R.I.P. XVII

In the Shadow of Queens: Tales from the Tudor Court by Alison Weir

This is a collection of thirteen short stories and novellas written by Alison Weir over the last few years to accompany her Six Tudor Queens series of novels. The stories were released as individual ebooks one by one as they were written, but are now available all together in one volume.

I have read all six of the full-length novels in the Six Tudor Queens series, each one exploring the life of one of the wives of Henry VIII. These short stories fill in the gaps between the novels, providing more insights or looking at things from a different perspective. They are arranged in roughly chronological order, starting before Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and ending after the death of Katherine Parr. I had already read one of them – The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today, about a Tower of London tour guide with a strange resemblance to Anne Boleyn – but the rest were all new to me.

Several of the stories are written from the perspectives of members of the Tudor dynasty whose voices weren’t heard in the main series. Arthur: Prince of the Roses, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated elder brother Arthur Tudor, The Unhappiest Lady in Christendom, narrated by the future Mary I, and The Princess of Scotland, about Henry’s niece Margaret Douglas, all fall into this category. Others provide more background and depth to the stories of the six wives themselves – for example The Chateau of Briis: A Lesson in Love explores Anne Boleyn’s years at the French court as maid of honour to Queen Claude and her potential link with a tower at Briis-sous-Forges called the Donjon Anne Boleyn.

The stories that were of most interest to me were the ones that follow characters on the periphery of the Tudor court or those who are living ‘in the shadow of queens’, as the title suggests. I particularly enjoyed reading about the court painter Susannah Horenbout, sent to Cleves to investigate the background of a potential bride for the King, and Lady Rochford, wife of George Boleyn, who was instrumental in the downfalls of both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Naturally, given the time period and subject matter, some of the stories are quite sad, involving executions, imprisonments, betrayals and infant deaths. If you’re of a squeamish disposition, be aware that the final story, In This New Sepulchre, describes in graphic detail the shocking desecration of Katharine Parr’s tomb and corpse.

My favourite story in the collection was probably The Curse of the Hungerfords, which introduces us to Agnes Cotell, the second wife of Sir Edward Hungerford, who becomes involved in a 16th century murder case. Her narrative alternates with that of Anne Bassett, whom many people believed would become one of Henry VIII’s wives, although obviously that never happened. Weir keeps us waiting to see how the lives of these two women are connected and I thought this could easily have been developed into a longer novel, which would have allowed for more depth and detail.

I haven’t discussed all of the thirteen stories here, but I hope I’ve given you a good idea of what the book contains. I would have been disappointed if I’d paid for some of these stories individually in the e-short format, but as a collection I found this a worthwhile read. If you’ve read some or all of the Six Tudor Queens series it works well as a companion volume, but it’s not essential to have read any of those books before reading this one. Alison Weir’s next novel, Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown, will be published in 2023, but in the meantime I have her latest non-fiction book, Queens of the Age of Chivalry, to read.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 52 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Dubliners by James Joyce

I read Dubliners at the end of July but haven’t had a chance to post my thoughts on it until now as my 20 Books of Summer reviews had to take priority. This is not my first experience of James Joyce’s work as I have read one of his novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but that was about twenty years ago and I can remember very little of it now except a long and vivid description of the horrors of hell! Not being a fan of experimental writing, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have never appealed at all, but Dubliners sounded much more accessible.

First published in 1914, this is a collection of fifteen short stories. Apparently they are arranged so that the first three are about children, the next few about young adults and the rest about older characters – although I didn’t notice this while I was reading and wasn’t aware of it until after I’d finished the book. Each story provides a snapshot of Dublin life in the early part of the 20th century and I found each one interesting for the insights it gave me into the people, society and culture of that time and place. However, they are not the sort of stories I personally prefer; I like them to have a beginning, middle and end, like a novel in shorter form, but many of the stories in Dubliners are more what I would describe as character sketches and others introduce ideas that are not fully developed, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what might happen next.

I’m not going to discuss all fifteen of them here and I don’t think I would have much to say about some of them anyway, but one I particularly liked was Eveline, about a young woman who made a promise to her dying mother to keep the family home together. Now she has fallen in love with a sailor who wants her to go with him to Buenos Aires and she must choose between keeping her promise and staying at home with her abusive father or seizing her own chance of happiness. I also enjoyed The Dead, the longest and most developed story in the book – almost a novella – in which a man makes an unexpected discovery about his wife at a Christmas party, while the snow falls outside. This has been described as one of the greatest stories in the English language and although I wouldn’t go that far myself, I did find it the most intriguing and satisfying story in this collection.

The other themes and topics Joyce includes in Dubliners range from religion, politics and Irish nationalism to poverty, loneliness and marriage. Together they paint a portrait of a city and its people, often bleak and miserable, but that’s how life would have been for some of these people, I suppose. Although most of the stories feel incomplete and leave a lot open to interpretation, I’m still glad I read them.

This is book 32/50 from my second Classics Club list.

A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

This is the second collection of classic short stories I’ve read from the Pushkin Press Essential Stories series. The first was I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville, an author I had never tried before, and I found it a good introduction to his work. In the case of Dostoevsky, I have previously read two of his novels (Crime and Punishment and The Idiot) but was curious to see what his shorter fiction would be like. This collection contains six stories, all in new translations by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. They are all quite different in subject and style and I think they would give new readers a good idea of what his writing is like, while also being of interest to readers like myself who are only familiar with his full-length novels.

I think my favourite of the six stories was The Crocodile (1865), in which a civil servant, Ivan Matveich, is swallowed alive by a crocodile being exhibited in St Petersburg. There’s not much more to the plot than that, as the rest of the story revolves around the conversations Matveich has with various people from inside the crocodile, but I found it entertaining and surprisingly funny, not something I’ve really associated with Dostoevsky’s work before. It also takes a satirical look at the economic situation in Russia at that time – the German owners of the crocodile refuse to have its stomach slit open to free Matveich because they would be losing their investment, particularly as the crocodile has now increased in value due to becoming so famous!

Conversations in a Graveyard (1873), also published as Bobok, is another satire in which the narrator is sitting in a cemetery after attending a funeral and hears the disembodied voices of the recently buried telling each other their stories. The literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin describes this story as “almost a microcosm of Dostoevsky’s entire creative output,” because it involves many of the themes, ideas and character types that appear in his other work. I probably haven’t read enough of Dostoevsky to be able to fully appreciate this, but I did still find the story interesting – and it reminded me very much of Lincoln in the Bardo!

The title story, A Bad Business (1862), follows a general in the civil service who, after discussing his political ideals with friends, decides to test one of his theories by being nice to people from lower social classes. Unfortunately, when he arrives, uninvited and unwelcome, at the wedding feast of one of his subordinates, things quickly begin to go wrong. A very different type of story is A Meek Creature (1876), about the relationship between a pawnbroker and one of his customers, a girl who pawns items to earn money so that she can advertise in the newspaper for work as a governess. This is a darker story than most of the others in the book and not one of my favourites.

The four stories mentioned so far take up more than 90% of the book, which means that the final two are much shorter. One is The Heavenly Christmas Tree (1876), a sentimental and poignant little story with a fairy tale feel, and the other is The Peasant Marey (also 1876), in which the narrator recalls a childhood memory of being comforted by a peasant after convincing himself there was a wolf in the woods. I liked both of these stories but felt that they suffered from being placed at the end of the collection; I would have preferred the shorter stories to alternate with the novella-length ones to provide more variety.

Although I don’t think any of these are stories I would want to read again, apart from maybe The Crocodile, it was good to have the opportunity to explore Dostoevsky further. I’m hoping to read my copy of The Brothers Karamazov soon.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

I am the Mask Maker and other stories by Rhiannon Lewis

I enjoyed Rhiannon Lewis’ My Beautiful Imperial, a fascinating novel set in 19th century Wales and Chile, so I was pleased to receive a copy of her new book, I am the Mask Maker and other stories. This is a collection of eleven short stories, some of which have previously been shortlisted or won prizes in literary competitions and been published in other anthologies. The stories are very varied (apart from two which work together as a pair and provide opposite perspectives on the same event). The settings range from a farm in 1960s Wales and a nursing home for the elderly to a bookshop in London and a version of heaven where the angels have decommissioned their halos and are getting ready to leave. Some of the stories are funny and uplifting; others are more poignant, but every one of them left me with a lot to think about.

I find it difficult to write about the individual stories in collections like this without giving away too many of the surprises that each one contains, so I will just briefly highlight a few that I thought were particularly impressive. These include Piano Solo, the story of an unhappy, middle-aged school teacher whose life takes on new meaning when he sits down at his piano, and Being Bob, in which an Oscar-winning actor takes the place of his driver, Bob, for the day – with unexpected results. But I think my favourite story was The Significance of Swans, an eerie tale of disappearances following the sighting of seven flying swans. I was so intrigued by this one and wished it had been longer!

The final story in the collection, I am the Mask Maker, also deserves a mention. When I first saw the title it made me think of the masks many of us have been wearing throughout the pandemic, but this is a story set in Renaissance Venice where our young narrator dreams of learning to make the beautiful decorative masks for which the city is famous. However, halfway through the story it becomes obvious that it’s much more timely than it appeared to be at first.

I’m not always a fan of short stories as I prefer fiction in its longer form, but I found these eleven stories entertaining, original and thought-provoking – and the perfect length for dipping into as a break from my other current reads. It’s also nice to be able to support a small independent publisher like Victorina Press. The book ends with a short piece by the artist David Hopkins describing his artwork which appears on the cover of the book. The painting is called Javi and fits the ‘mask’ theme of the book. I found it very interesting to read about the background to the painting and how he came to create it!

Thanks to Rhiannon Lewis and Victorina Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville

I’ve never read anything by Herman Melville – I know I should have read Moby Dick by now, but it has never sounded appealing to me – so when I spotted this new collection of Melville short stories from Pushkin Press it seemed a good opportunity to experience some of his work without having to commit to a 600+ page novel.

I Would Prefer Not To contains four stories, although the final one takes up more than half the book and is probably better described as a novella. My favourite was the first story, Bartleby the Scrivener, which was first published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. The narrator is an elderly Wall Street lawyer who employs two clerks, or ‘scriveners’ – Turkey and Nippers – whose job is to make copies of legal documents, and one office boy, Ginger Nut. An increase in work leads the lawyer to look for a third scrivener and, as he has been having difficulties with the temperamental natures of the other two, he decides to hire Bartleby, a quiet man whom he hopes will be a good influence on the others.

At first Bartleby works hard at his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to proofread a copied document, he replies with, “I would prefer not to”. Over the following days, he refuses to do more and more of the tasks that are requested of him – never giving an angry or rude response; always just those same five words: “I would prefer not to”. As the lawyer decides how to deal with this unexpected problem, the reader wonders what is wrong with Bartleby and what has caused his unusual behaviour. I enjoyed the story, but it left me very confused and I didn’t really understand what Melville was trying to say. However, after turning to Google for help, it seems that the meaning of the story was deliberately ambiguous and it can be interpreted in many ways, which made me feel a lot better about not understanding it!

Next is The Lightning-Rod Man, a short and intriguing tale of a salesman who arrives at the narrator’s house in Albania during a thunderstorm and tries to sell him a lightning-rod. The narrator is sceptical and says he will trust God to keep him safe, but the salesman won’t take no for an answer. Again, the meaning is not immediately obvious, but it’s an entertaining story and reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. The third story, John Marr, is the weakest in the book, in my opinion. The title character is a retired sailor trying to adjust to a life on land, in a remote community on the American prairies. Feeling isolated and out of place, he remembers his seafaring days through songs and poems. The piece included in this collection is taken from John Marr and Other Sailors, a volume of poetry published in 1888, so maybe it would have worked better if read in the context of the original book.

Finally, we have the novella Benito Cereno, in which an American sea captain sailing off the coast of Chile encounters a Spanish slave ship in distress. Boarding the ship to see if he can help, he meets the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, who tells him how the ship came to be in trouble. As he observes the behaviour of Benito Cereno and his slaves, he begins to wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye. This was another interesting story, but I felt that it was much too long and too easy to guess the twist; we see things only through the eyes of the narrator, who is frustratingly oblivious to what is really happening on the Spanish ship. It was also another difficult one to interpret: was it a racist, pro-slavery story or an anti-racist, anti-slavery story? It could be either and it can’t be assumed that the views of the narrator reflect the views of the author.

So, now that I’ve had my introduction to Herman Melville, will I be reading Moby Dick? At the moment I think I would prefer not to, but maybe I’ll be ready to tackle it one day in the future!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.