“…he cast no shadow in the shimmering silver gloom.” @Muireann @russianlife #WhiteMagic


Back in 2015, when I was on the hunt for every bit of Bulgakov writing in translation that I could find, I stumbled across (and was presented with as Christmas gift!) the marvellous collection of short stories, “Red Spectres”. Translated from the Russian by Muireann Maguire, it’s a wonderful anthology which I loved to bits; so when I found out that she had a new collection out, entitled “White Magic”, I was, needless to say, very interested. Muireann very kindly arranged for a review copy for me, which was absolutely lovely of her, and I’m pleased to report that the new book is just as great as her first anthology!

“Red Spectres” focused on ‘Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century’, as the subtitle stated; however, “White Magic” takes as its basis writing by émigré authors, and the consistent thread running through the stories is that of ‘mystery and terror’. That term can encompass a fascinatingly wide range of writing, and the tales featured here really are are wonderfully varied.

You were shown a phantom future, and by striving towards it you crush in your heart all desires and passions for your present reality as well as any memory of your past. In this ill-defined, wistful striving, you will seize on things instinctively, without knowing why; but your ignorance of your final aim will not stop you, only spur you on all the more, set you on fire and ultimately, little by little, rip you away from your life, in stubborn pursuit of the dream. (‘He’)

“White Magic” contains, appropriately enough, thirteen stories, and they’re arranged alphabetically by author. If I remember correctly, only four of these are names I already know, and so that’s an additional bonus – it’s always a treat to discover new authors! As I said earlier, the stories are very diverse: some, like “He” and “The Cimmerian Disease” by Alexander Amfiteatrov, are frankly supernatural; and that kind of element sneaks into others, like “Hermann’s Card” and “The Bells” by Ivan Lukash, which both have a very vivid St. Petersburg setting and heritage, as well as “The Venetian Mirror” and “The Companion” by Pavel Muratov. Others, like Irina Odoyevtseva‘s “By The Sea” and Teffi‘s “The Mother” deal with more human passions. And Zamyatin‘s “The Watch” and “The Encounter” have mysteries and twists in them, but set against a very satirised Soviet background.

Then there’s “Kum” by Georgy Peskov (who was actually Yelena Deisha); this is a very dark tale of vengeance which leaves shivers running down the spine; and revenge is at the root of Pyotr Krasnov‘s bloody story “The Eightieth”, which doesn’t shy away from the real horrors of the Revolution and Civil War. And last, but certainly not least, is the marvellous Gaito Gazdanov; his story, “An Adventurer”, is just wonderful and perhaps different from most the other work of his I’ve read. Set in 19th century St. Petersburg, it features a glamorous society woman who is bored with her lot encountering a freezing foreigner on her way home. Taking him in she discovers he’s actually Edgar Allan Poe – although his presence in Russia does seem somewhat chimerical…

On white nights Petersburg quietly shimmers from within, like a pale icon lamp. On white nights, everything is smoke and mirrors, half-heard, half-phantom, silver visions and sorrows. On white nights, everything quivers gently, everything floats lightly and dimly along in a pale current of houses, palaces, colonnades, avenues, and railings vanishing into obscurity. In this silvery, glimmering gloom, Petersburg slips its moorings. Petersburg stirs silently. On white nights, Petersburg dies – quietly and tenderly, without noise or palpitations, like a pale icon lamp burning all the way down. (Hermann’s Card)

As you can see, the book is a real box of delights! The scary stories really *are* scary, whether vampiric tales or hauntings or possessions. However, the tales which step away from that form are equally chilling; Teffi’s portrayal of the blindness of mother-love, for example, is unforgettable and disturbing. “The Companion”, which is a kind of morality tale really, has a very unsettling title character who I wouldn’t want by my side.. The Zamyatin stories are a particular treat, too, as they’re set firmly in the Soviet period yet hearken back to earlier times, as well as bringing a welcome twist of humour. And the Gazdanov is as mesmerising as ever. Making the acquaintance of the new authors was a joy too, and I shall have to dig through all of my Russian short story collections to see if I have any more by these writers. Having reshuffled the Russian shelves recently, I’m painfully aware of how many unread short story anthologies I have from that country…

So I’m pleased to report that “White Magic” more than lives up to its predecessor! The writing in these stories is often stunning, as you can see from the quotes above – wonderfully poetic and atmospheric, and very evocative. Maguire provides an erudite introduction as well as textual notes throughout the book, and it has some lovely black and white illustrations, one for each tale, by Asya Lisina (who also provides the cover illustration, a colour version of one of the inner ones). As Muireann points out, although these stories are all written from a place of exile, there’s so much variety; trying to pin down émigré writing to just one type or with one theme is pointless, as these wonderful stories demonstrate. What is clear, however, is the sheer quality of work which was produced by Russian émigré authors and hopefully this is a seam which translators will continue to mine deeply. Needless to say, I can’t recommend this collection highly enough; whether you’re a fan of the short story form, or love translated literature, like to be spooked, or simply want to read brilliant and thought-provoking writing, “White Magic” is the book for you!

Review copy kindly provided by the author and publisher, for which many thanks! 🙂 As there are some translated works by women in the collection, I shall count this as a read for #WITMonth!

A Book of Brilliant Things


Red Spectres: Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century compiled and translated by Muireann Maguire

I hadn’t realised quite how badly I’d been affected by my reading of “Grey Souls” until I came to try to pick up another book – and found it almost impossible to get into one! I’ve definitely been struggling a little with choosing my volumes recently, and nothing I touched appealed – I’ve just been putting everything aside after the first few pages.


However, I finally got over my stumbling block (or reader’s block!) by pulling “Red Spectres” from my pile of Christmas gifts, and it turned out to be exactly the tonic I needed.

The book is a collection of short stories in the Gothic vein, all written under Soviet rule. Now, Russia under the Bolsheviks is perhaps not a place you would expect this type of writing to flourish, but it very obviously did – maybe because this was a good way to disguise political comment, or maybe because it was a way of writing that was so far removed from politics that it was safe.

Whatever the reason, there is a whole genre here, and translator Muireann Maguire has actually written a book on the subject as well as collecting and translating the stories in this volume. And what crackers they are!

It was the fact that there were stories by Bulgakov and Krzhizhanovsky in it that first attracted my eye to Red Spectres – and in fact all but two of the tales are translated for the first time. It’s a fascinating and collection of stories, ranging from tales of ghosts and mirrors, through science gone wrong to seances that only call up the NKVD! Bulgakov is represented by two works: The Red Crown, a civil story of haunting, and A Seance, a wry comment on the clash between superstition and modern ideology. And the new Krzhizhanovsky is a dark story about a medical dummy that comes to live in a quite unnerving manner and lives through the years of turmoil in Russia.

It’s the speed of decline… Savages also love speed. What you seem to consider a sign of your unique refinement is simply atavism. All entertainments of this type – water sports, cycling, races of all kinds, skiing, funfairs, carousels, carriages, horse-racing – this is all a contagious enchantment with the dizzy sensation of free-fall. Speed has a limit beyond which movement along a horizontal plane becomes free-fall . And those who think like you want to create a motion that’s just like free-fall. What could be more primitive? And, one might say, pointlessly primitive? (Grin; The Grey Motor Car)

But the real revelation to me was the discovery of Aleksandr Chayanov; an agronomist by day, he also wrote 5 short stories and a novel. Maguire has translated three of these, and they’re a standout in the collection. “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin” tells of a man consumed by an obssession with the original woman who inspired a mannequin, one of a pair of Siamese twins, and his quest to track her down; “Venediktov” (which has the distinction of having inspired Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”), is a story of devilish possession and pursuit through Moscow; and “The Venetian Mirror” (one of two marvellous mirror stories in the collection) plays on our uneasiness with the reflected world and our fascination with the possibility of entering it. His writing is excellent and evocative, and the storytelling compelling.

I love the Moscow streets by night, gentle reader; I love to wander through them in solitude, without any goal in mind. The dozing houses might be made of cardboard. Neither the noise of my steps nor the bark of a wakeful guard dog disturbs the calm peace of the gardens and courtyards. The few lighted windows seem to be me to be full of peaceful life, of maidenly reveries, or solitary nocturnal thoughts. As one observed how the little churches dream their dreams, unexpected sights often loom up in the empty streets; now the gloomy colonnades of the Apraksin Palace, now the towering bulk of Pashkov House, or the stony shadows of Catherine’s great eagles. (Chayanov; Venediktov)

Each tale in the collection is a gem in its own right, and put together here they produce a most marvellous book; excellently translated and notated by Maguire, with an informative introduction, this is definitely one of my books of the year – I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s ideal reading if you have an interest in Russian literature, in the Gothic genre, in the development of writing under the Soviets, or simply if you love good short stories. A wonderful book, and just the thing to pull me out of my reading slump!

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Dr. Muireann Maguire

Red Spectres is published by Overlook, who have a history of producing Russian translation, and this is a lovely hardback edition too! For those interested in the subject Maguire has also published “Stalin’s Ghosts”, a study of supernatural fiction in early Soviet Russia, which sounds fascinating! Check out Russian Dinosaur for more about translating the stories for Red Spectres.

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