Madame Griselda’s Reviews: Two Supernatural Tales by a Master of the Genre

Reviewed by Gabrielle Mochizuki, MD

I love a good ghost story when the weather starts to chill. Of course, anyone who knows me will tell you that I love them at any time of year, but there is something special about fall and winter: the long nights, Halloween and Christmas, leafless trees looking like tortured and withered skeletons. I always turn to my personal favorite, M.R. James, for an old fashioned English ghost story, but I’d like to let you know about another classic author of ghostly tales, J.S. Le Fanu. Madame Griselda wrote an earlier review of “Green Tea” by Le Fanu in her inimitable style. Today I’d like to recommend two more of Le Fanu’s best short works.

“Madam Crowl’s Ghost”

 This is an especially spooky take on the old idea of a woman who lives for a very long time, dressed always in the finery of her youth (powdered wigs, shoes with heels “as tall as nine-pins,” and an elaborate dress). She becomes steadily mad as time goes on, tortured by a secret which only she knows. Madam Crowl is almost vampirelike in her withered appearance, with disgustingly long fingernails, fake eyebrows, and bright rouge covering her pale cheeks.

The story is told by a nameless thirteen-year-old girl who has come from London at the request of her aunt to help wait on Madam Crowl. It is on her journey to the house in the company of a couple of men that she gets some idea of what she is in for:

“Ho, then,” says one of them, “you’ll not be long there!”

And I looked at him as much as to say, “Why not?” for I had spoke out when I told them where I was goin’, as if ‘twas something clever I had to say.

“Because,” says he—“and don’t you for your life tell no one, only watch her and see—she’s possessed by the devil, an more an half a ghost. Have you got a Bible?”

“Yes, sir,” says I. For my mother put my little Bible in my box, and I knew it was there and by the same token, though the print’s too small for my ald eyes, I have it in my press to this hour.

As I looked up at him saying “Yes, sir,” I thought I saw him winkin’ at his friend; but I could not be sure.

“Well,” says he, “be sure you put it under your bolster every night, it will keep the ald girl’s claws aff ye.”

Our heroine is sometimes a little difficult to understand because she speaks in a dialect (of which part of England, I’m not sure). But that doesn’t detract from the terrifying nature of her discoveries at Applewale House, the lair of the old woman. On her first night, she finds a leather strait-waistcoat in a cupboard, and is immediately told off by her stern aunt for handling it. I’ll leave it to you to guess what it might be for. Our narrator doesn’t meet Madam Crowl till the next night when the girl decides to creep into her bedroom to have a peek at the old dame while she is sleeping. Bad idea!

Le Fanu generates a strong sense of foreboding in this short (12 pages) tale. And I think the fact that it is told by a youngster who is perpetually in fear and awe of her surroundings at the creepy old mansion helps add to the dangerous atmosphere. But this is largely a personal story, with the strongest element of terror being not so much the house, but its elderly occupant.

“The White Cat of Drumgunniol”

This is another short and sweet piece (about 10 pages, if you’re counting). I say sweet, but really it’s a story about members of a family who all come to a bad end. I’ve read all sorts of stories about cats, one of my favorites being Poe’s “The Black Cat,” and, of course, there are many superstitions surrounding cats, particularly of the black variety (and that doesn’t even begin to cover black dogs!)

But in this case, the harbinger of doom is a white cat, so this piece reverses the stereotype about creepy cats. It takes place in Ireland, and again is told in the first person, but this time by a learned old member of the cursed Donovan family who has wisely removed himself from the village where the terror takes place to Dublin. The descriptions of the surroundings are vivid, particularly the ancient stone monoliths and the dry riverbed down which our narrator’s grand-uncle is riding his horse when he first spots the cat of doom. Here is something of the prose of the story:

“When I was a boy, said he, living at home in Drumgunniol, I used to take my Goldsmith’s Roman History in my hand and go down to my favourite seat, the flat stone, sheltered by a hawthorn-tree beside the little lough, a large and deep pool, such as I have heard called a tarn in England. It lay in the gentle hollow of a field that is overhung toward the north by the old orchard, and being a deserted place was favourable to my studious quietude.”

The scene of the grand-uncle’s wake is particularly menacing, with the cat really coming into its own as a terrible fiend. Mr. Donovan, the storyteller, likens the cat to a banshee, except that he says a banshee is friendlier. I’m not so sure of that—I don’t think I’d like to run into either this cat or a banshee—but I suppose from the point of view of a man whose family are being forewarned one by one of their own demises, the cat is worse.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish author of Huguenot descent, hence his French last name. He lived from 1814 to 1873. After his wife died in 1858, he became reclusive, but these years were his most productive writing period. He published a number of novels, including The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Uncle Silas (1864), as well as the short story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). He was well respected in his lifetime, but neglected after his death, which is a shame, because he wrote some of the very best ghostly tales I have run across, like the stories I discussed above. I found these two in a Wordsworth Classics edition called Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories, published in 1994, though the original edition was compiled by M.R. James (who was an admirer of Le Fanu) in 1923. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Happy Reading!

Madame Griselda’s Reviews: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Reviewed by Trevor Atherton

Madame Griselda has been encouraging me to write a guest review for her website, under the assumption that I have “untapped authorial talents.” She gave me a copy of a new book and said that it had the “requisite degree of extramundane content” to be appropriate for such a review. Therefore, I bring you James Morrow’s new novella, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari. It would be a stretch to call it a ghost story, which is usually the fodder of Madame Griselda’s columnists, though there are some elements of people returning from the dead. However, the book is certainly strange and atmospheric. Extramundane is a good way to describe it.

I often wonder what doctors get up to in their spare time. I mean, what do you do to destress from listening to people’s medical problems all day? Many of them, I’ve heard, golf, though I’ve tried this and haven’t found it even remotely relaxing. My wife, Gabrielle, who’s an ophthalmologist, likes to hunt ghosts. (I try to avoid discussing this with the neighbors, but it’s a pretty open secret.) And I know of at least one psychiatrist who’s a very talented jazz pianist. But what would the head of a creepy asylum in Weizenstaat at the beginning of World War One do to occupy his spare hours?

The answer, of course, is that he’s an alchemist and likes to make magical pigments to create paintings that have a profound effect on the viewer. The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is about one such painting and how a group of inmates at the asylum confound its malign influence.

The novella is a fascinating look at the devastating effects of World War One and the flowering of modern art. The narrator is an American, Francis Wyndham, who has seen the famous Armory Show in New York and decides that he wants to become a painter. He finds a job peeling potatoes on a passenger ship and makes his way to France, where he looks up Picasso in hopes of apprenticing himself to the renowned artist. True to form, Picasso sends him packing:

“Enraged by my presumption, Picasso escorted me to the second-floor landing outside his Montmartre studio, threw my portfolio down the escalier, and, taking me by the shoulders, pushed me in the same direction. I tumbled to the bottom, humiliated but unharmed. Rube Descending a Staircase. As the coup de grâce, he hurled a jar of azure-tinted turpentine toward my recumbent form (he was evidently still in his Blue Period).”

Francis has a little better luck with André Derain, the newly appointed art therapist at Caligari’s asylum, who exchanges places with him, giving Francis his job while the Fauvist heads off to fight in the war. The corpulent Caligari is blunt in his criticism of Francis’ portfolio, but sets him up teaching art to three troubled young men and one woman, Ilona Wessels, who believes herself to be the Spider Queen of Ogygia. The outward manifestations of all four students’ illnesses are unusual and debilitating, which makes them all the more sympathetic as heroes in the novel.

Both Francis and Ilona are curious about a new painting which Caligari has done, an enormous canvas titled Ecstatic Wisdom which he keeps hidden in the basement of the art gallery at the institution. It turns out that the piece has power to drive young men into a lust for war, which is just what the commanding officers of the various armies involved in the coming conflict are after, and Caligari is making a fortune showing the work to squadrons of soldiers, inflaming their passions for battle.

If you think that this all sounds a bit bizarre, you haven’t seen half of it yet. The way in which Francis, Ilona, and their friends stop Caligari’s war profiteering is complex and as mystical as Caligari’s painting technique.

You may suppose that the book is going to be rather like the 1920 silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Plotwise, it bears little or no similarity other than the names of some of the characters. However, having watched the movie again after reading the book, I can say that there is a strong element of the artistic in both. The movie is highly expressionistic, particularly notable in the sets used—all those weird angles and strange upright chairs, as well as the heavy emphasis on shadow. These sets give a gloomy and strange aspect to the film, heavy with foreboding and dread, as well as a feeling that things aren’t quite sane, which makes sense given the fact that the story is narrated by a madman.

Morrow’s novella, on the other hand, seems to fall more into the realm of surrealism, another movement which was getting its start at about that time. In this case, the author portrays more realistic people and places, but something is odd about how the humans and settings interact. For example, Fräulein Wessels is a youngish, attractive woman, but also very peculiar in her actions and speech. Even the plot, though rooted in the very real setting of wartime Europe, takes off on the most bizarre and unexpected turns.

I thought at first that The Asylum of Dr. Caligari might be a bit overwritten, heavy on old fashioned formal and figurative language. Take the opening lines of Chapter One, for example:

“From its birth during the Age of Reason until its disappearance following the Treaty of Versailles, the tiny principality of Weizenstaat lay along the swampy seam between the German Empire and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg like an embolism lodged in an artery. Ruled by a succession of harmless hereditary monarchs whose congenital mediocrity enabled their respective parliaments to run the country without royal interference, Weizenstaat was for many generations a prosperous and idyllic land.”

When I see an opening like this, I am struck by two things: the author has an awesome way with words and a wily sense of humor. But it is this very tongue-in-cheek stodginess that allows the book to maintain a foothold in reality while following such a wild and unbelievable plot. In some ways, the piece reads like a dream or an elongated fairytale, though I think neither comparison is sufficient to describe what is really a small masterpiece of speculation on the horrors of war and the power of art.

James Morrow was born in 1947 and has turned out over fifteen novels and novellas, including The Last Witchfinder (2006), Galápagos Regained (2015), and The Madonna and the Starship (2014). Though he is sometimes identified as a science fiction author, he calls himself a “scientific humanist,” and his work has often contained a satirical look at politics or religion.  The Godhead Trilogy (1994-1999), for example, discusses what happens when God dies, leaving an enormous corpse. Such imagination is evident in The Asylum of Dr. Caligairi, as well.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari will be published by Tachyon Books in June 2017, and available in all formats. Enjoy!


A New Review for a New Year (of an Old Classic)!

Madame Griselda’s Reviews: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

Reviewed by Gabrielle Mochizuki, M.D.

I asked my husband, Trevor, if he had ever read The Invisible Man, and he said he thought Claude Rains was a good actor. I told him that seeing the movie wasn’t the same thing as reading the book, that they took all sorts of liberties with the characters and plot. He asked me how I knew, since I hadn’t read the book or seen the film. As if they don’t always change things around with movies! So, just to prove a point, I rented The Invisible Man on Netflix and then read the book.

I was right, of course; the two are totally different! For one thing, one of the good guys dies in the film, whereas he didn’t in the book. And for another, they give the Invisible Man a girlfriend in the movie. What kind of woman would be interested in an invisible man, I can’t imagine, but I guess he was visible when they met. But if your boyfriend’s hobby is figuring out how to make himself disappear, I’d say it’s time for a new boyfriend.

Anyway, the book was much more interesting. To give the book its full title, it is called The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance, by which I guess you have to take the idea of “romance” as it was once meant: a fanciful story. It all starts with a mysterious stranger arriving in the village of Iping during a snowstorm. His head is swathed in bandages, and he wears dark glasses, a hat, gloves, and a heavy overcoat. I don’t know if I’d call Wells a master of foreshadowing since he gives away a big surprise right there, especially since he titled the book The Invisible Man. I mean, who else could it be? The stranger takes a room at the local inn and demands that his luggage be brought up from the station. He has huge boxes full of bottles of chemicals and, as soon as he gets them, he sets to work mixing up solutions in the parlor.

All the afternoon he worked with the door locked, and, as Mrs. Hall testifies, for the most part in silence. But once there was a concussion and a sound of bottles ringing together as though the table had been hit, and the smash of a bottle flung violently down, and then a rapid pacing athwart the room.

Having an ill-tempered guest take over your parlor and start performing explosive experiments would be a bit trying. And when he comes up short on the rent, the innkeepers decide he needs to go. He is evicted, there is a fight, and the stranger removes his clothes (guess what—he’s invisible!) and makes his escape. Fortunately, it’s spring by this time, so he doesn’t freeze to death running about the countryside without a stitch of clothing on.

We next catch up with Mr. Marvel, a good natured tramp, who is pondering life by the side of a road, when the Invisible Man shows up (he doesn’t really “show up,” of course). He coerces Marvel into helping him, and they return to Iping to recover some notebooks and divest the vicar of his trousers (although the Invisible Man never seems to put them on). Marvel and the Invisible Man begin a string of robberies, but Marvel is not happy working for a man of such violent and immoral character. So he makes his escape, taking both the notebooks and the spoils of their crimes.

The Invisible Man is understandably unhappy and tears after Marvel with the intent of killing him. There is a fight in another small town, and the Invisible Man is shot, but manages to get away nonetheless. Fortunately for him, a former college friend, Dr. Kemp, lives nearby. We discover that the Invisible Man’s real name is Griffin, and, while recuperating, he tells the story of how he became invisible. It is clear that Griffin is unbalanced, and he reveals his plan to start a “reign of terror.” I wasn’t sure what he hoped to accomplish, other than mayhem and killing, but Kemp decides he has to stop him. Can he do it? I’ll leave it to you to find out.

The Invisible Man is a short book, more of a novella, and was originally serialized in 1897 in Pearson’s Weekly. Like much of Wells’ work, it is a science fiction story, and the science in this case has to do with optics and the concept of reducing the refractive index of a living thing to that of air, hence rendering it invisible. This is done in the book through a combination of chemicals and radiation. Some have said that turning the entire body invisible would mean that a person couldn’t see, since the eyes need to be able to absorb light to function, and becoming invisible by the means described would cause light to pass right through them.

As an ophthalmologist, I find this argument interesting, but I think the point of the story has more to do with Griffin’s lack of morality, that it is a cautionary tale about a scientist without feeling or compassion performing experiments that lead to destructive results. Wells did this in quite a few of his pieces, such as The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells lived a long life (1866-1946) and saw a great many advances in technology, some of which led him to believe humanity was in big trouble. God knows what he thought of the atomic bomb, which he lived just long enough to see.

I convinced Trevor to read the book, and he said that a person might confuse an invisible man for a ghost. Once again, I told him they weren’t the same thing at all, but it did get me to thinking that, in some respects, there was a resemblance, albeit superficial. I suppose it’s ironic that the Invisible Man turns visible when he dies rather than turning into an invisible spirit. The Ghost of the Invisible Man? Sounds like a sequel . . .

The Invisible Man is available just about everywhere, including the usual suspects, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and Project Gutenberg. You may, if you have a tablet, find Project Gutenberg’s free Himalaya Reader to be interesting. They put a lot of effort into making the page turning effects pretty slick, and you can download Gutenberg books right into the reader so you don’t have to worry about mobis or epubs. But my favorite is a 1983 Bantam Classic paperback with a painting of a man in bandages and a hat and overcoat on the cover. It’s like the Invisible Man was sitting for a portrait! Now that opens up a whole new realm of speculation, doesn’t it? Happy Reading!

Madame Griselda’s Reviews: Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon


Reviewed by Gabrielle Mochizuki, M.D.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I like ghost stories. I also love a good dscn0191mystery. So when you stick the two together, it’s reading heaven for me. There’s nothing better than an old fashioned whodunit set in a seemingly quiet seaside village inhabited by spirits of the dead. In fact, such a setting reminds me of that trip to Mendocino County that my husband, Trevor, and I made a few years ago—crashing waves, interesting people, historic buildings, and lots of ghosts wandering around. Of course, when I tell people about that trip, no one believes me (except the local parapsychological society, of which I am a proud member). I remember once that I was trying to explain it all at a doctors’ convention, and the attendees looked at me like they thought I had gone round the bend. The medical profession sometimes seems completely devoid of imagination.

Not so with Alexia Gordon, who is a physician and also knows how to put together a rip roaring supernatural mystery. Murder in G Major takes place in the small Irish village of Dunmulloch, where the people have more secrets than a pack of spies. Our heroine is Gethsemane Brown, a talented musician, who comes to Ireland to take on a position as conductor of the Cork Philharmonic only to find the job has been handed away to the music director’s mistress. On top of that, she has lost her luggage. Somehow, she makes her way to Dunmulloch, where she takes up residence at Carraigfaire Cottage and lands a new job as a music teacher at the local boys’ school. It’s all a comedown for her, and she has designs on winning a big competition with the school band in order to gain a conducting gig with an orchestra back in Boston.

But, as is always the case, baffling events intervene. The cottage was the home of a famous modern composer, Eamon McCarthy, and his wife, the poet Orla McCarthy. Orla met her death at the bottom of a cliff near the cottage, and everyone in town believes Eamon pushed her over the edge and then took his own life by drinking poisoned whiskey.

Enter the ghost. Eamon McCarthy still haunts his old home and wants desperately for Gethsemane to clear his name and hopefully reunite him with his wife in the other world. Of course, Gethsemane is pretty skeptical of his existence at first, but after she throws a paperweight at him, she wises up quickly.

“Gethsemane hurled the weight. It sailed through the man’s chest, disappearing into him like a sugar cube into hot coffee, and thudded behind him. She gasped. She’d thrown a low fastball dead center. A direct hit. He should be on the floor.”

It turns out that there are also a lot of really sketchy characters in town, from the aggressive, drunken police inspector who closed the case without much thought to a pair of batty sisters who spent time in the nearby psychiatric facility. But Gethsemane has allies too, including a ne’er-do-well maths teacher at the school, the town’s priest (who saves her from eating a poisoned sandwich served by one of the aforementioned batty sisters), and the head of the new cold case unit at the police station. Despite threats and the hostility of many of the locals who don’t like the idea of the newcomer American stirring up unpleasant old memories, Gethsemane carries on to find the solution.

I particularly liked the creepy old buildings, such as the lighthouse near the cottage and the old mental hospital, located on a rocky hill the townsfolk call Golgotha. Trevor, who’s more up on his biblical history than I am, tells me that Golgotha is the place where Christ was crucified and it means “the place of the skull.” Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it?

“She leaned her bicycle against a gnarled tree bordering the overgrown semi-circular drive in front of the former psychiatric hospital and examined the massive brick building, half its windows boarded up, the other half with broken panes of glass looking like so many black eyes A wind sprang up, carrying with it a hint of leather-and-soap. A faint voice suggested—or did she imagine it?—she forget about spooky basements and moth eaten records and do something sensible like ride back to the Mad Rabbit for a drink. She ignored it and approached the abandoned asylum.”

I was a bit surprised with the abrupt ending of Murder in G Major, in which things all come crashing together in kind of a heap of resolutions and loose ends. But apparently there will be a sequel in which some of the ghostly happenings should, hopefully, be tidied up. A little more scene setting, haunting description might have been nice as well. Otherwise I found it to be an entertaining, atmospheric, and wittily written read. It’s just my cup of tea, or as Gethsemane would have, a glass of Waddell and Dobb Double-oaked Twelve-year-old Reserve single barrel bourbon!

Murder in G Major is brand new, released in September, 2016, by Henery Press. It is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books in hardcover, paperback, and electronic formats. I got mine from the iBooks store, so I could read it on my handy-dandy iPad Mini.



Gabrielle Mochizuki is an ophthalmologist and the heroine of The Mendocino Room series of ghostly mysteries written by Ian G. Wilson. In between adventures, she enjoys penning reviews of supernatural literature for Madame Griselda.

© 2016 Ian G. Wilson

Madame Griselda’s Reviews: “Green Tea” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Periodically, I will add reviews of literature which may be of interest to my readers.  Below you will find the first of these available for download in various formats at no cost.

Review of “Green Tea” (PDF) (81.9 kB)  Download

Review of “Green Tea” (ePub–iBooks) (5.5 kB)  Download

Review of “Green Tea” (ePub–Nook) (66.4 kB)  Download

Review of “Green Tea” (mobi–Kindle) (41.0 kB)  Download