If there’s one thing I love in literary criticism, it’s a book that shows me a kind of writing I’m interested in from a completely new perspective, one that would never have occurred to me, and makes me see works and authors I already know in a new light while introducing me to others I’ve never heard of. Such a book is Muireann Maguire‘s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature, which the publisher, Peter Lang, was kind enough to send me. (That Amazon page lists the price as $5,398.35, which seems excessive even for a specialist item; the publisher’s page for the book shows a slightly more reasonable $73.95, €56.45, or £45.00.) Now, I’ve never read Gothic fiction at all—not The Castle of Otranto, not The Mysteries of Udolpho, not even Dracula (though I have of course seen more than one filmed version). In my sf-reading youth I despised anything with ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, and since then, although I’ve found myself reading and enjoying things I thought were as beyond me as brussels sprouts and ballet (Proust, for example), I’ve never gotten around to trying that particular genre. Now Maguire has shown me that the anti-realist impulses that power it underlie much of Russian literature, even though the typical stage props (ghosts, vampires) are rare. She writes, “The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is almost impossible to exaggerate, and certainly exceptional in the context of world literature,” and she backs it up.

Though she takes the story back to the early nineteenth century and forward to current writers like Petr Aleshkovsky and Dmitri Bykov, her main focus is (as the subtitle suggests) on the 1920s and ’30s. She spends a good deal of time on well-known masterworks like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Platonov’s Kotlovan, making me want to reread them with these affiliations in mind, but she also goes into detail about lesser-known writers like Alexander Belyayev and Marietta Shaginyan and Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky and largely forgotten ones like Pyotr Krasnov and Nikolai Ognev (obscure enough that he doesn’t have an English Wikipedia page), not to mention Pavel Perov, so obscure his death date isn’t known. She also discusses the unjustifiably neglected early-nineteenth-century writer Antony Pogorelsky, whose Hoffmannesque stories I happened to be reading at the time (see this recent post), which was a nice bit of synchronicity. And in describing a Krzhizhanovsky story called Фантом [Fantom], or “Phantom,” she taught me an unusual sense of both the English and Russian words: “Med. A model of the body or of a body part or organ, esp. one used to demonstrate the progression of the fetus through the birth canal” (OED). (The story is about one such phantom that comes alive and persecutes its creator—brr!) It was such an absorbing read I was sorry it was over, and I’m very much looking forward to the companion book of short stories, Red Spectres, which is even now on its way to me. (I might add that there are amazingly few typos for a 350-page book with lots of passages in Russian; well done, Peter Lang!)


  1. Dracula (whose subtitle, intriguingly, is A Mystery Story) is actually quite a fine work, if you can purge from your mind everything you know, or think you know, about the characters. That’s not easy, but I think it rewards the effort. I’ve attempted the other two you mention, but have not found them rewarding at all.

  2. No mention of Gogol?

  3. Interesting OED revision. The 2nd Ed. appears to think the phantom is the model of the fetus, not the birth canal, as the new ed. implies. The first three quots don’t rule this out, although they seem better suited to the former. The new quot from 1954 however can only apply to the latter. Yet perhaps two senses are being rolled into one? The 1904 quot is particularly unhelpful, so perhaps there wasn’t much evidence around. Yet it makes a difference, I would think.

  4. No mention of Gogol?
    Sure, he comes up a fair amount, as you’d expect.

  5. Otranto is alright, at least it’s short, and foundational. Udolpho is mind-bogglingly tedious.

  6. I came here to say exactly what John did. I still recall fondly that phase in my teens when I methodically explored the literary roots of the classic movie monsters — Dracula, Frankenstein [as in “Look out! A Frankenstein!”], Invisible Man, etc. I don’t think any were a waste of time.

  7. Credit for lack of typos must go largely to Libraries at the Movies, who corrected this manuscript many times before the final version ever reached Peter Lang…

  8. I should have known better than to suppose a modern publisher would have an eagle-eyed staff of proofreaders going over manuscripts.

  9. As you say, Conrad, Otranto is short, so I grabbed it and re-read it. Yuck. As is well known, you loathe and detest the very process of reading, so perhaps this doesn’t bother you, but the style is truly execrable even for a Gothic romance. The mayhaps, perchances, and forsooths and their grammatical equivalents are everywhere.
    What’s more, the storyline limps horribly. The intro to the Gutenberg version quotes Walpole as saying he wrote it without knowing what he was going to write next, and that really shows in the narrative logic, or lack of logic. When Walpole needs to introduce something that has already happened but wasn’t mentioned before, he just throws in a reference to it in the pluperfect. It reads not only as if he didn’t know what was coming next, but he never looked at it again after writing it.

  10. True, but a) I quite like quaint bad writing, and b) Otranto is of historical interest, which appeals to me on a higher level than intrinsic merit. It is experimental, in the true sense of the word. I visited Strawberry Hill this year, it is fantastic: a similar ad-hoc approach to aesthetics and to the past.

  11. Having considered buying the book at $5,398.35 (paperback), I decided rather to look for a hard cover version but couldn’t find one.

  12. Of only a handful of books that survived the war, my father passed on to me two by Ognev (Kostya Ryabtsev’s Diary and The End of Nikpetozh) and one by Belyaev (Jump into the Void).
    Ognev’s ‘Diary’ is great fun to read and an excellent source on school slang and school experimentation in the Soviet Union in 1920s.
    Belyaev is still popular and in print. His books are supported by the unfading 1961 film ‘Amphibian Man’ with Anastasia Vertinskaya, the daughter of singer Alexander Vertinsky.
    Congratulations to the Russian Dinosaur!

  13. Conrad: Strawberry Hill House is about half a mile from my home in London. It is, once more, a (literally) fantastic-looking place, but it was looking pretty shabby before £9m was spent doing it up a couple or three years ago. I don’t know why, but I get a small kick every time I pass it out of thinking that this was the place where the word “serendipity” was invented.

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