Monday, May 30, 2011

Haunted Venice Part III: Parte the laste

And so our imaginary journey through the streets of Venice comes to an end. The last two itineraries have blurred into one another, so I'll go just ahead and heartily recommend to one and all to buy the book, whether you're going to Venice or just plan to sit in your own backyard and imagine you're somewhere lofty and far away. I'll leave you with one last story, this one about beauty, for beauty has been on my mind of late (did you know your skin stops regenerating new cells or some shit after you turn 30? According to L'Oreal it does).

So, voila: The Fairy who Bestowed the Gift of Beauty

A young girl, just freshly turned sixteen, was walking home from Vespers one evening when she spied a beautiful woman all dressed in white. The beautiful woman watched her silently as she passed. This happened every day for three days and the young girl became curious. Who was this strange creature? On the fourth day the woman said, "Girl, wouldn't you love to become as lovely as I am?" And of course the girl replied, "Yes."

The woman told her to go home and cover all the mirrors in the house with white cloth and wait until midnight, when she would be visited by three beautiful ladies who would bestow their beauty upon her. "Do not be afraid, do not call upon the Virgin Mary," the woman said.

The young girl went home and did exactly as she was told, but in her excitement, she forgot to cover one mirror. The three women showed up at the stroke of midnight, dazzlingly radiant. But in the one small mirror she forgot to cover, the young girl saw the reflection of their backs: hideous, hairy and malformed, like "those of an animal."

The girl screamed and ran out of the house. On the street, she smacked right into the beautiful temptress who had conned her into this in the first place.

"Fool!" cried the woman, for she knew exactly what the girl had done.

She advanced toward the girl, who backed away. As she cowered she saw that the beautiful woman had the hairy cloven hooves of a goat peeking out from beneath her robe.

"Mother Mary, save me!" screamed the girl.

A bright white flashed from the sky, and when it had vanished, the evil fairy was gone.

The moral of this one? Don't trust a beautiful woman with ugly feet.


I'd love to do an imaginary ghostly travelogue again some time. If you're reading this, you must have a ghost story or two from your home town. Why don't you share it with me? Or, maybe you can suggest another town I can do a series on. Haunted Cincinnati? Haunted Krakow? Haunted Panama City? Do tell, won't you?

Monday, May 23, 2011


Hi readers,

Today is a bit of a somber day. I went to the memorial service for Don Krim, long-time president of Kino International and my former boss. If you are a movie fan at all, you'll want to have at least one Kino DVD in your house: "Movies without Kino would be like parks without trees, museums without paintings." Do me a favor and check their catalogue out here. If you live in one of those fancy high-priced cities with tiny movie-houses, you might even be able to find some of their theatrical offerings. Kino is definitely holding the torch for a lot of the best foreign, silent and classic films, and in an age when so many distribs are going -- or have gone -- out of business, it's important to show them we care, and that we appreciate Don's service to cinema. If you're short on cash, you can get a lot of their stuff on Netflix, and of course you can like them on FB or follow them on Twitter.

On a personal note, Don was a great boss -- he was always fair and equitable to those who worked for him and with him, and was incredibly generous and kind to me for the nearly four years I worked there. I remember being amazed to learn he actually paid his interns. In a business where this is almost unheard-of, I think it goes to show what kind of person he was. He believed in paying people for their work: an old-fashioned concept from a true gentleman.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"A Fitting Tribute" finds a home

My short story "A Fitting Tribute," has found a home over at Lightning Flash e-zine. The story was inspired by Charlotte Canda and Carmilla, and by my ex-roommate's girlfriend's weave, which would float on the floor in ghostly tumbleweeds....

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Haunted Venice, Part Two

Our second appointment with death begins in the sestiere of Castello, near the salizada de Pignater, where there is featured the sotoportego dei Preti. I think salizada means street and sotoportego means arch. No translation of these words is provided in the book, so hey, you'll learn by immersion! Over the arch you'll find a brick heart, which you can touch for a good luck charm if you're looking for that special humanoid to mate with. Here's the romantic story that goes with it:

Once upon a time, when "magic and reality peacefully shared the same dimension," a fisherman named Orio (yum) caught a mermaid in his net. Naturalment, they fell in love, and she agreed to give up the life aquatic to marry him. There was only one problem: because of a witch's curse, every Saturday she would turn into a snake. She warned him not to try to see her on Saturdays but of course he disobeyed. No biggie, though, because once they were married the curse would be lifted anyway (maybe it was contingent on her not having legs or something). Are you still following? Good. So now the mermaid has legs and she's a regular human wife and she keeps house and squeezes out some kids and everything is going fine until one day she grew ill and died, poor thing. The fisherman misses her but, hey, life goes on. Plus, an interesting thing is happening: no matter how sloppy the fisherman and his kids are, the house always stays clean. It's like some kind of ghost-maid is taking care of them or something. But Orio doesn't put two and two together and one day when he returns home from fishing unexpectedly early only to find a snake -- a snake! -- in the kitchen, he chops it in half! Orio, nooooo! Sure enough, the house thereafter grows messy and cold, as his dead mermaid snake-wife was to visit nevermore.

I think the moral of this story is fairly clear: don't do housework.

Moving right along, we get to another deliciously irreverent tale, that of "The Magician who Joked with the Devil." I quite like this one: in the late 15th century there lived a man who practiced black magic. He was cruel and mean and despised by all, and he was comfortable with that. One night he was out walking when the moon went behind a cloud and it was too dark for him to find his way home. So he summoned his old pal Lucifer and asked for a torch, which was summarily provided. After he got home, he snuffed it out and put it in the woodbox to use again later. In the morning the maid opened the woodbox and screamed -- inside was not a torch at all but a charred arm! Now, this is my favorite part of the story: the magician's reaction. Apparently, he just laughed. Oh Old Scratch, you are a funny guy! You sure got me!

Zing! I love that he isn't disturbed in the slightest that he just used a flaming human arm as a torch.

As long as we're on the subject of wizards, here's another story I liked in this itinerary: "The Wizard with the Heart of Stone." It takes place near the Arsenal, in front of which stands a frightening-looking stone lion.

In November 1719, the mangled bodies of two sailors appear floating in the city's canals. The corpses look as though they've been torn apart by wild beasts. Six days later, another body surfaces, that of Jacopo Zanchi, a Venetian who apparently "lived hand to mouth" with his wife Giovanna. Now, Giovanna had a bad rep and occasionally turned tricks for money, so nobody was surprised when she stood outside the house of a merchant named Fosco and started screaming, "Murderer! Bastard -- you'll pay for what you've done!" I mean, bitches be crazy, right? Now, Fosco leans out the window and hisses, "We'll see, woman, where your boldness will take you, on the next stormy night!" Slightly suspicious, no? Ten days later, said storm blows up but nothing happens, not for hours and hours. Giovanna walks the wet streets; business is slow. Then, at one o'clock in the morning, an "arch of fire" sizzles out of Fosco's house and "literally materializes the old man" in front of the statue of the stone lion. He walked around the lion, running his fingertip along its body, until a huge bolt of lightning appeared and struck it with a blinding flash of brilliance. Slowly the stone crumbled and a huge flesh and blood lion emerged, roaring, from its casing. The lion bounded down the alley and pounced on the helpless Giovanna. The wizard then began to cast a spell on a second lion, but a guard witnessing the scene rushed toward the wizard and plunged his sword into his chest. Now, according to the book, "with a tremendous roar and a blinding flash of lightning, everything suddenly fell silent under the driving rain: the mangled body of the woman on the paving stones, the guard's blackened sword on the ground. There was no trace of Fosco, except for a heart of stone near the razor-sharp sword: it was the stone heart in his chest that could change stone into flesh." Then the guard picked up his sword and cut off the lion's head. Instead of falling to the ground, "the head rose several meters up into the air, and with a final roar exploded into a black substance which covered everything below."


The guard then cut off the head of the second lion, whose body still stands before the Arsenal today. If you look closely, you can see the line around its new where a new stone head replaced it.

(Now this is a slightly amended version of the tale. In the book, there are three lions, and two women, Giovanna and her friend, also a hooker. But this abridged tale retains the essential awesomeness of the original.)

There are a number of bad-weather stories in this itinerary, as it turns out. (I suppose humans need something to do while waiting out the rain and snow.) The next one takes place on a cold, snowy night in November 1917, and is called "The Death Shawl." It's a classic tale of a waifish little girl who flags down a passing gondola with a call of, "Doctor, doctor, come help my mother, she's sick!" and the doctor therein agreeing to help the poor little thing (although he is somewhat puzzled -- "How did she know I was a doctor?") and he helps the sick woman just in the nick of time because she totally would have died of pneumonia if he'd gotten there even a minute later and when he says, "Good thing your daughter flagged me down," the mother replies, "But doctor, she's been dead for a month...."

I just like the classic simplicity of this tale. It's the kind of ghostly tale you could really believe might have happened in the dreary aftermath of the War when death was present everywhere and half of Europe consorted with the ghosts...

But what a downer to leave you with. Our final tale shall also deal with stormy weather, but in a lighter way:

Saint Peter was a stand up kind of guy but, unfortunately for him, his mother was a total scrod. She was such a mean, jealous, selfish woman that she inevitably ended up in hell when she died, despite St. Peter's pleas with god to extricate her from the underworld. Finally, though, god relented and allowed Peter's mother to visit him on earth once a year for fifteen days, seven days before and seven days after the feast of the apostle. Peter was delighted, but the old hag was "so full of envy and spite that every year she brings with her storm, winds and hurricanes, so that no one feels sorry for her anymore, and can't wait for her to go back where she came from."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Haunted Venice, Part One

I've been working my way through the four itineraries described in Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories; here are the highlights from the first walking tour:

The tour begins at the gothic church Santi Giovanni e Paolo and wends its way over to the campo de Gheto Novo. At the Gothic church, author Alberto Toso Fei entertains us with the story of the Bell Ringer's Skeleton. In this 19th century tale, a curiously tall bellringer is approached by a medical doctor who, marveling over his strange proportions and giant hands, convinces him to sell his body to science. The bellringer accepts, as the doctor pays up front. Now I bet you think you know where this is going, right? But no, no body-snatchers here. The bellringer merely assumes he'll outlive the aged doctor, and happily takes the money to the tavern every night thereafter, where he drinks and drinks to his heart's content. Unfortunately, the bellringer, who's never had so much money all at once before, goes a tad overboard and ends up drinking himself to death. Whoops! Guess who's body's on display at the Museum of Natural History right now? Sucker! Watch the booze kids: that's the moral of this story. Ghost quotient: medium. The spectral skeleton apparently climbs up the tower to ring the bell at midnight, then stumbles down to the street to beg the passersby for enough money to buy himself back. Might've been scarier if the premise wasn't so wryly amusing. [Disclaimer: "ghost quotient" is an entirely meaningless criterion I just invented now to make this sound more fancy.]

Along we walk, and, strangely the author skirts the tour past the Island of the Dead, possibly because he disdains the obvious... although he does tell the perfect story to imagine whilst staring out over the water: The Cosmographer who stole Lucifer's Dreams. Fra Mauro, a monk living on San Michele in the mid-1400s, was an amazing cartographer who left a treasure trove of maps when he died. The only strange thing about him: he never once left Venice to visit any of the places he drew. This is how he did it: he saw the images in dream -- not his own, mind you, but the dreams of the devil, which he (get this) projected onto the cloudy skies above Venice. Art! Hubris! Proto-cinema! I love it. But, as all things the devil wrought, these dreams sometimes slipped out of his grasp and moved through the skies freely, terrifying townspeople and directing witches on their way to the sabbath. Some say they can still be seen up there on cloudy nights, when a storm rages... Weird quotient: high. This story is pure awesome.

We keep toddling along on our imagination tour just until the fondamenta dei Mori, where we stop at number 3399. There, we learn the story of Tintoretto -- yes, the painter -- and how his daughter was nearly tricked by a witch. Apparently a beautiful, mysterious woman told the little girl that she could become a nun if she hid her communion wafers instead of eating them in church, and instead took them home and hid them. Once she had ten, she'd become a nun. The girl obeyed the woman but halfway through the plan, freaked out and spilled it to her pops. Tintoretto was wise in the ways of the witch and knew the old crone would recruit the girl to the craft once she got the ten wafers. He told his daughter wait five more days, then invite the woman into the house to get the wafers. Of course, once the witch crossed the threshold, the artist "rushed her with a knobby stick" until she screeched, changed herself into a cat and flew out the window. Witch factor: medium to high. I like the idea of the witch recruiting a youngster through deceit, like a drug pusher.

Finally, at the Gheto Novo, we learn of the Plague of the Children, a twist on the Pied Piper tale, where the sins of parents are thrust upon their sons and daughters. In the summer of 1576 there was a Plague in Venice and many people died. But in the Jewish Ghetto, a strange thing happened: only children died. One after the other all the children perished, but not a single parent died. They begged the rabbi to find a solution and he pored over esoteric books like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for days and days to no avail. Finally one night he had a dream: in his dream he saw little children playing and dancing in the graveyard. He tore the shroud off one of the children, whose ghost returned the next night to beg for it back. "I cannot return without my shroud," the ghost child said. The rabbi refused unless the child could tell him the cause of the Plague of the Children, and the child told him it happened because a woman had killed her newborn. Well, they brought that crazy bitch to justice and, sure enough, no child died in the Ghetto again... for the rest of the summer. Little lamb* quotient: High. I love the idea of a ghost child wailing, "Give me my shrouuuuud!"

There are far, far many more stories than these; I've merely selected my favorites. No doubt any ghost aficionado will find their own favorites if the buy the book, and no doubt the tour will be even more impressive if walked while glimpsing the macabre floating island of death and such things. But for now, I am content with my virtual tour, and happy to let myself imagine what the ghosts themselves might look like something even someone present at the scene might be forced to do (ghosts have a strange habit of being uncooperative with tour groups and often failing to appear on demand).

One last little bit of business: nowhere in the book does the author mention how long it would take to walk this route, though I doubt it very much matters since time has no meaning in the land of the dead....

Join me next week for part two, where for wizards and mermaids and sainted mothers.

* Little lambs mark the graves of dead children in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Man In The Picture and other Venice Ghosts

Just got through finishing Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, a capably executed novella of the M.R. James school. I generally agree with the criticism out there -- it's classic, restrained, elegant, a wee tad disappointing at the end -- but am intrigued enough by her style to go out and get a copy of The Woman in Black. It's not easy being a writer of classical ghost stories these days, and I'm happy to have found someone with a similarly old-fashioned sensibility. Look for a review of that soon.

There's not much more to discuss about The Man in the Picture, other than I very much liked its use of an inanimate haunted object (I love me a good inanimate haunted object!) but the book is a handy springboard for introducing my newest adventure, the first in what will hopefully be a recurring series: virtual tours through haunted cities. The first, of course, will be Venice (I've already alluded to it here) and draws heavily upon this book, since I've never actually visited the place. (The book is the magic lantern show to my 19th century country rube.)

Before we actually wander the haunted streets of our imaginations, a little background on Venice, specifically on Venice as a trope in the horror canon. According to, cities with canals instead of streets are a perennially popular setting for works of fantasy, though they're not sure why -- perhaps it's an aesthetic thing, or perhaps it's simply because watery bi-ways are so unusual. My theory hews somewhat closely to the latter; the unreal, shape-shifting quality of water opposes all that is solid -- earth, asphalt -- and thus lends itself to fevered imaginings, to the dreaming of dreams. And in dreams, of course, we all know the symbolic qualities of water include birth, death, sex, the deepest parts of the psyche: the perfect setting for our darkest tales.

Perhaps the most famous suspense story set in Venice is Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now," though a significant portion of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is set in Venice as well. (The is also a ghost story called "The Haunted Hotel" by Wilkie Collins, which I shall clearly have to read.) "The Man in the Picture" joins this illustrious crowd as its narrative moves between the Most Serene Republic and sedate Cambridge. Hill's descriptions of the city are marred with dread: "It seemed to me to be a city of corruption and excess, an artificial place, full of darkness and foul odors... [of] dark and sinister water." In the course of the book, two young couples visit Venice on their honeymoon; the first couple visits quite innocently, the second seem drawn to it even though they know it brought death and tragedy in the past. In Hill's world, the city and the eponymous painting depicting it exert a dark power over anyone who beholds them.

Though I'm sure it's a perfectly delightful city, thanks to speculative fiction I can now only think of Venice in terms of gloom and darkness. Why not profit from my fear and misery, gentle reader? Come with me on a journey that starts dark and will only get darker. Headless monks, drowning witches, the sighing ghosts of dead children... all these things await you as you shiver through the summer months in various dank and moldy catacombs, taking the Deathly Grand Tour with your beloved Spinster Aunt...

Venetian Cemetery Photo courtesy of Lisa Manetti

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Ghost books, follow me home

I'm currently reading two books about ghosts and Venice: Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, and Alberto Toso Fei's Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories, which jumped off my friend's bookshelf and thrust itself into my hands back in February, and so I obligingly took it home. The chapter titles alone fire the imagination: The Flight of the Witch, The Sigh of the Severed Head, The Sad Song of the Mermaid. Perhaps, as I move through the book next week and through the rest of the month, I shall post updates, imaginary travelogues, that take you and I through the very hauntedest haunts of the city watery graves! And, of course, a review of The Man in the Picture is forthcoming as well!