Obsession, possession, insanity, incest and horror wander through the pages of “Red Spectres,” an erratically brilliant collection of Gothic short stories from 20th-century Russia. In the opening tale, a woman’s reflection in a mirror “seized me by both hands and wrenched me towards her,” plunging the unhinged narrator into a terrifying world of shadows. These stories do the same to their readers, haunting the imagination on many different levels.
Valery Bryusov’s pre-revolutionary gem “In the Mirror” (1903) shows that the genre was not only a response to the nightmarish phantoms of Soviet life. But most of the other stories here were written the 1920s and use images of supernatural or psychological disturbance to reflect the contemporary world. Only two of them have appeared in English before.
In her conscientious introduction, Muireann Maguire explores historical and literary contexts and observes that Gothic stories often appear at times of cultural upheaval: “Russia by the mid-1920s had endured two revolutions…and a shattering civil war…” But – as responses to living in a time of frightening change – these tales also “transcend the specificities of the Soviet era.”
The mysteries of madness and mortality, a “dread and fascination with technology,” ghosts, grotesques and monsters are all generic features, their shades and tentacles reaching back to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and beyond, and forward into contemporary horror. With a population of flame-haired Siamese twins, zombie fetuses or mad scientists, these stories explore life and death, town and country, crossing continents in the turn of a page, visiting a factory in Heidelberg or death row in Sing-Sing. One recurrent and suitably gothic setting is Venice, “great city of masks, ghostly mirrors, silent doges…”