Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres is a stunning and engaging collection of eleven Russian gothic tales written by various authors during the early Soviet Era, all but two stories of which are featured in English for the first time ever. These are not your usual ghost stories, told for cheap thrills around a campfire. Instead, I found myself puzzling over these tales for far longer than I normally would while reading a short work of fiction, and several nights I awoke from dreams—nightmares?—eerily similar to what I had read the night before.
Maguire’s translation is the most noteworthy feature of each tale, transforming relatively simple stories into remarkable works of fiction. While the stories themselves are simple, they have been made immeasurably chilling, exciting, and memorable. And what’s interesting to note, as written on the Angel Classics webpage, is that this type of Gothic-fantastic genre did very well for itself in the early 20th century, despite official efforts to shut it down. I don’t want to spoil the tales for you by describing each of them. I doubt that I will be able to convey them as wonderfully as Muireann Maguire has, but here is a passage from one of the tales, “The Red Crown” by Bulgakov . . .
“I’ve become used to everything: to our white building, the twilight, the ginger cat that comes and scratches at my door. But I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened I still lived downstairs, in room 63: he appeared out of the wall, wearing his red crown. Nothing about him frightened me: he looks just the same in my dreams. But I know perfectly well that if he’s wearing the crown, he must be dead. And then he spoke, moving dry lips clotted with blood. He parted his lips, came to attention, raised his hand to his crown, and said:
‘Brother, I can’t leave the squadron.’
And every time since the first time, the same thing happens. He arrives in his soldier’s blouse with the ammunition-belts over his shoulder, with his curving sabre and spurs that never jingle; and he says the same words. First he salutes. And then:
‘Brother, I can’t leave the squadron.’
How he frightened me the first time! He scared the entire clinic. It was all over for me then. I’ve figured it out rationally: if he’s wearing the crown, he’s been killed, and if a dead man comes and speaks to me, I must be mad.”
The translator here manages to convey the narrator’s sense of confusion and subsequent acceptance beautifully, but in other stories (and in fact, in other places in the same tale) conveys the sense of panic and frantic secrecy, allowing the reader to experience the chaos characteristic not only of the Russian gothic genre, but of early twentieth century Russia itself in the aftermath of two revolutions and a civil war. Maguire is skilled because she allows the reader to experience the seven different authors in the same volume, and each unique voice is preserved. The storytelling seems deliberately just vague enough to entertain separate readings of the same story, where ghosts and insanity and alternate realities are equally possible and the reader gets to choose.
The stories in Red Spectres, featuring authors such as Georgy Peskov, Valery Bryusov, and the aforementioned Mikhail Bulgakov, are exciting and full of possibility. And, upon subsequent re-readings . . . somehow, brilliantly, these eleven translated short stories can easily transform into twice as many tales, if not more—no doubt the way the masters of Russian gothic literature who invented the stories intended them to be.
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