“There lived a certain man, in Russia long ago – He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow!”
Hello, friends and foes! You voted on Twitter and Instagram, and this month’s strange history subject is none other than Grigori Rasputin. The man, the myth, the legend. And what a bizarre legend it is. It’s nearly impossible to discern the truth from the fantastical myth surrounding the infamous mystic to the royal family. But I did my best, so let’s get into it.
Grigori Rasputin was born on January 22, 1869 in Siberia as Grigori Yefimovich Novykh. He earned the surname Rasputin (which is Russian for “debauched one”) due to his reputation for, well, debauchery. He had no morals, no restraint, and a great disregard for the rules of correctness at the time.
He went to study at a Khlysty monastery at 18 years old but was ultimately unable to become a monk due to his belief that, to reach God, you must experience total sexual exhaustion through prolonged debauchery. Groovy.
At 19, he married Proskovya Fyodorovna Dubrovina, who gave him four children. Unfortunately, only three survived; Maria, Dmitri, and Varvara. Despite his marriage and family, Rasputin wandered across Greece and Jerusalem as a starets (self-proclaimed holy man), alleging to heal the sick and see the future.
In 1903, his wandering landed him in St. Petersburg, where he was welcomed into the courts. This was a time of great entertainment and fascination in mysticism and the occult. Those of high-society were enamored by the strangeness of Rasputin and his (alleged) healing and prophetic abilities.
In 1908, the royal family invited Rasputin to the palace to heal their son’s bleeding episodes. Czar Nicholas Romanov II and Czarina Alexandra had one son, Alexei, who was diagnosed with hemophilia; a disease in which blood does not clot properly, resulting in spontaneous bleeding. After his initial success in curing Alexei of his ailment, Rasputin left the Romanovs with an ominous warning; the fate of their son – and the dynasty – were linked to him in ways beyond mortal control. And they must have believed him, because Rasputin was an integral part of the royal family for the next decade.
Did he really heal Alexei of his hemophilia, though? And if he did… how? Magic? It’s widely debated, but historian Douglas Smith says, “[he] calmed the anxious, fretful mother and filled her with unshakeable confidence, and she, in turn, transferred this confidence to her ailing son, literally willing him back to health.” So, maybe he just willed it to be so. Other historians cite the fact that Rasputin demanded all doctor prescribed medicines for Alexei to be thrown into the fire and destroyed. These medicines probably included aspirin – a blood thinner that would have exacerbated Alexei’s hemophilia. This change in medication probably appeared as a miraculous recovery to the royal family.
By 1911, Rasputin was a total scandal. He had countless mistresses under the guise that his touch had a healing and purifying effect. And, apparently, his wife was totally cool with it. Proskovya was quoted as saying, “he has enough for all”. Russia’s greatest love machine, indeed. Despite this, Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra were enamored with him. So much so that any members of the court that spoke out against Rasputin were transferred to remote regions of the empire, or outright fired from their positions.
During World War I, when Nicholas II went to the troops on the front lines, Rasputin served as Alexandra’s personal advisor, appointing his own selection of church and court officials. It is from this time one of Rasputin’s greatest myths emerged; his alleged affair with the Czarina. However, historians say there’s no substance to this myth and it was an exaggerated rumor spread by Rasputin’s political enemies.
Rasputin was blamed for much of the calamity of the Russian government during his time in the imperial palace, and many attempts were made on his life in an effort to eliminate his influence. Hell, people were trying to kill him years before his actual death. In 1914, a peasant woman stabbed him in the stomach for seducing too many young women. Not groovy.
In 1916, a group of extreme conservatives invited Rasputin to a private dinner. Legend states he was fed a plate of poisoned tea cakes but did not die, so his enemies then shot him no less than three times. When the gunshots did not kill him, they bound him and threw his body in the freezing Neva River, where he finally drowned. It was this recounting of events that gave Rasputin the reputation of being unkillable. One of his assassins, Felix Yussupov, wrote about the murder in his 1928 memoir. He said, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”
Rasputin’s daughter Maria (who fled Russia after the revolution and became a lion tamer in the circus, by the way) renounced these claims in her own 1929 book. Maria stated that her father didn’t even like sweets and wouldn’t have eaten a plate of tea cakes, poisoned or not. The actual autopsy lists shooting as cause of death, with no signs of poison even found in Rasputin’s system. There was allegedly a small amount of water in his lungs, which led to the theory of his drowning after surviving the poison and multiple gunshots.
One of the most prominent myths surrounding Rasputin’s strange life is that he actually rose from the dead. It was reported that after he was thrown in the river, he was fished out by a group of passersby who found that he was still alive! The truth is that his (very much dead) body was discovered by police several days after his death because the water of the river was frozen.
Rasputin’s assassins thought his murder would lead to a change in the Czar’s politics. Instead, it symbolized the corruption of the imperial court and was recognized as a desperate attempt by Russian nobility to disallow any common person to become influential in the government. Mere weeks after Rasputin’s death, the Romanovs were overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution and, eventually, murdered.
It seems perhaps Rasputin was right, and the fate of the dynasty was tied to his own, after all. Spooky.
Want more Rasputin? Here are some versions of his story worth checking out:
Anastasia, Dreamworks film (1997)
This film is really about the lost princess Anastasia who miraculously escaped during the Bolshevik Revolution and is trying to reclaim her position on Russia’s throne… but the real star of the show is Rasputin. He and his albino bat sidekick Bartok are on a mission for revenge, hunting down Anastasia in an attempt to kill her. Rasputin is voiced by the incomparable Christopher Lloyd, songs sung by Jim Cummings (who also sang as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King. Fun fact.) You can listen to Jonathan Young’s cover of In the Dark of the Night here: https://open.spotify.com/track/2sXChp7RKB6AOWBCO9f0X9?si=98d7cbd613e74ae9
Rasputin’s Daughter by Robert Alexander (2006)
This is an historical fiction account narrated by Rasputin’s daughter Maria, recalling her father’s final days in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Intrigue and conspiracy abound, revealing a shocking “truth” about the identity of her father’s killers, and those who conspired to have him killed. It has mixed reviews, most citing that you never really get a sense for Maria’s character, or who she is. But if you’re looking for Rasputin-centered historical fiction, this is a good place to start. Alexander has another novel set in revolutionary Russia called The Kitchen Boy.
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (2012)
Here’s an almost completely fictionalized tale about Rasputin’s daughter, with most historically accurate names changed but the setting of the Russian Revolution remaining. After the murder of her father, Masha is sent to live with the Czar’s family in the imperial palace. The Czarina hopes Masha has inherited her father’s healing abilities, so she can continue to heal the prince’s ailment. During the course of the Bolshevik Revolution, Masha and the Czar’s son take solace in each other, and telling stories about Rasputin and other fantastical characters of Russian history – embellished or not.
The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky (2001)
This one’s steeped in actual truth. In 1995, a lost file from the State Archives of Russia mysteriously turned up, containing the testimony of both Rasputin’s inner circle and those who kept him under close surveillance. Radzinsky reconstructs Rasputin’s life (say that five times fast), dispelling myths in a true story just as fascinating as the legend.
Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram so you can have a hand at choosing next month’s strange history subject. And, as always; Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or, not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one!”
We all know the story of Lizzie Borden: a big house in Massachusetts, a lonely spinster woman, and two hacked up parents. Lizzie Borden took an axe… well, you know the rest. On August 4th, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found murdered in their home on 2nd Street. Andrew was napping in the sitting room and Abby was in an upstairs bedroom, presumably cleaning. What really happened on that fateful summer day? And why did it happen? Did Lizzie really do it?
She was acquitted, so legally she didn’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
TRIGGER WARNING: CRIME SCENE PHOTOS (NO BLOOD)
Andrew Borden was a native to Fall River, Massachusetts. He had a huge net worth – almost $10 million in today’s money (a whopping $333,000 back in the day). He came from humble beginnings but became successful later on in life. He owned a considerable number of income properties and worked on the board of several large banks. He was frugal despite his fortune; the Borden house on 2nd Street didn’t even have indoor plumbing, despite it being available to the wealthy, and it still used kerosene lamps instead of electricity. His first wife (Lizzie’s mother), tragically passed away. Two years later, he married a woman named Abby Gray.
They lived in a wealthy area of Fall River, though not the wealthiest. Much of Andrew’s family lived in a neighborhood called The Hill, where all things high and society took place. It is said that Lizzie very much longed to live there, to be a part of high society, but her father refused. Their house on 2nd Street was close to town and shops and much of Andrew’s business dealings. The area was also home to a population of Irish immigrants, which was certainly considered undesirable.
Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860 (she’s a Cancer, of course) and she had a sister Emma, nine years her senior. When their mother was on her death bed, she made Emma promise to always take care of Lizzie, as if she was her own. This contributed to Emma’s ‘spinsterhood’, as she did not have time to marry and move away because she was raising Lizzie. She even dropped out of college after only a year to return home. Lizzie was described as a “moody” and “average” student in school. She was a sensitive child with problems meeting new people. She dropped out in her junior year of high school and spent the majority of her time involved in the local church. The Borden sisters were in their 30’s at the time of the murders, and were both considered ‘spinsters’; unmarried, childless, living in their father’s home.
This is neither here nor there, but Lizzie was also apparently a known shoplifter at the local stores in town. She would simply take things from the shelves and racks and walk out of the store without paying. The shop owner would then charge the cost of the items to Andrew Borden’s account, so technically it wasn’t “stealing”… but it still feels a lot like stealing.
The Borden sisters’ feelings toward their stepmother are recorded as being… not good. They resented Abby and never called her “Mother” or even “Mrs. Borden”, which was incredibly disrespectful at that time. Several months before the murder, Andrew Borden purchased a house for Abby’s sister, and Lizzie and Emma were reportedly irate. They hardly ate meals with their parents, which was essentially unheard of back then. Both Borden sisters would ignore Abby’s family when they greeted them in public, another act of Victorian disrespect. The Borden family maid, 26 year old Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (whom the Borden sisters called “Maggie” for no apparent reason), stated during the trial that there was palpable tension in the Borden household. She had even attempted to resign from her position because of it, but Abby paid her a hefty bonus to stay.
Lizzie is reported to have loved animals, often taking in stray cats and going horseback riding. A flock of pigeons had come to roost in the barn on their property, and Lizzie had taken to calling them her pets and feeding them. One day in early 1892, Mr. Borden killed all of the pigeons and made Bridget pluck them and put them in a stew. He claimed he did this to keep the neighborhood children from throwing stones at the birds, thus breaking several barn windows. Nonetheless, this fueled Lizzie’s mounting rage. (I have to put a note here that some Lizzie Borden scholars believe this situation to be more of a legend than reality, though I’ve come across it as part of the narrative in nearly every source I used for this research.)
The night before the murders, Lizzie went to visit her friend Alice. She told Alice that the whole family had recently fallen violently ill… except for her. It was later revealed that Lizzie had attempted to purchase prussic acid (poison!) from the local pharmacy several days prior, but the pharmacist refused to sell it to her. Did she poison her parents (and poor Bridget) in an attempt to kill them? Or perhaps just make them ill and weak? Lizzie also mentioned to Alice that she was worried someone might want to hurt her father. The home had been broken into several days prior to August 4th, and the only things stolen were sentimental items of Abby’s (and, according to some sources, Andrew believed someone within the home stole the items). Lizzie claimed to be worried that the intruder might return.
Also, Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John Morse was visiting the day prior to the murders. He slept in the guest room on the second floor. The reason for his visit is still unknown, but he was allegedly not involved in any part of the crime.
Let’s go over the timeline for the morning of the murders:
6:00 AM : Andrew and Abby Borden and John Morse wake up, go downstairs and have breakfast.
6:30 AM : Bridget wakes up, still feeling ill, and begins her work in the kitchen
8:45 AM : John Morse and Andrew Borden leave the home to go into town for business
8:50 AM : Lizzie appears for breakfast and coffee
9:00 AM : Abby Borden tells Bridget to clean all windows in the home, outside and inside *1
9:30 AM : (this time is approximate) Abby Borden is killed
10:45 AM : Andrew Borden returns from town early, feeling ill. Lizzie tells Andrew that Abby has been called away to tend to a sick friend, and has left the home. *2
11:00 AM : Bridget is in her room, resting but not asleep
11:15 AM : (this time is approximate) Andrew Borden is killed
11:30 AM : Lizzie Borden calls for Bridget to get a doctor upon “discovering” Andrew Borden’s body
(*1 it should be noted that, at this time, Lizzie asked Bridget if she had any plans to leave the home that day. Bridget said no, because she was not feeling well. Lizzie then informed her of a big sale taking place at a local shop, and suggested Bridget leave the home later that morning to go check it out)
(*2 it should be noted that, in court testimony, Bridget reported that Andrew could not get into the home when he returned, as there were multiple latches locked from the inside that were not typically locked. Bridget had difficulty getting them all unlocked to allow Andrew inside, and during this time she reported hearing Lizzie Borden giggling at the top of the stairs)
Lizzie screamed for Bridget to go across the street to their neighbor, who was a doctor. Bridget ran across the busy street only to find the doctor was not home. Lizzie then told her to go fetch her friend Alice (the same Alice she had met with the night before) because she did not want to be alone in the home, as the intruder could still be present. Eventually a nosy neighbor noticed Lizzie standing on the porch, distraught, and asked what was wrong. Lizzie told the neighbor about her father’s demise and the neighbor hurried over to check it out. When the neighbor asked Lizzie where she was at the time of the attack, Lizzie stated she was in the barn. Then, she told her neighbor that she might have heard Abby come home, but she wasn’t sure. Abby might be inside the house!
Alice arrives to the Borden home shortly after Bridget sends for her. Lizzie immediately insists someone search the second and third floors for Abby. Bridget and the nosy neighbor ascend the stairs to the second floor. From the landing they can see Abby Borden’s feet, outstretched behind the bed in the guest room. The neighbor flees in tears to tell Lizzie that they found Abby’s body. Bridget enters the guest room to confirm, and what she finds is absolutely horrifying.
The brutality of the crime was unmatched in Fall River history. Andrew Borden’s face was essentially chopped off; he was unrecognizable. Abby was attacked from behind, wounds gathered on her upper back. And, for the record, the nursery rhyme has the count wrong: Andrew was hit ten times with a hatchet (not an axe), after Abby was struck nineteen times.
Two police officers arrived at the scene. A large portion of the Fall River police force was actually out of town, at Rocky Point in Rhode Island, for some kind of event – not really relevant, but kind of funny that they were all at the beach when this happened. They immediately questioned Lizzie, who had trouble accounting for her whereabouts during the attack. She claimed that she had been sitting in the loft of the barn on the property, where she ate three pears, then spent twenty to thirty minutes looking in the barn for sinkers and fishing lures. She then insisted to have heard a scream or groan (she couldn’t remember which) from inside and ran into the sitting room to discover her father. This point is particularly interesting because Bridget, who was inside the house, reported having heard no sound whatsoever.
Lizzie had lots of stories for the police. She said she had once come home at night to find a shadowy figure slinking around the house… but she couldn’t elaborate further than that. She was quick to correct them when they referred to Abby as her mother, too. She was Lizzie’s STEP-mother. Big difference, especially to Lizzie. When the doctor finally arrived, he took Lizzie to her room to relax with the aid of morphine (which they were just handing out back then, apparently).
The police searched the entire home and barn. They recovered two hatchets and two axes, though none were believed to be the murder weapon, as they had no blood on them. In the barn, they noticed there were no footprints in the thick sawdust in the loft where Lizzie reported to have sat during the time of the murders… interesting. That night, Lizzie, Alice, and John Morse (the uncle, remember?) stayed IN THE HOUSE where two people were just MURDERED, while their DEAD BODIES were on slabs in the sitting room. (Were all the hotels full??) A cop was watching over the house and, in the middle of the night, he saw Lizzie go into the basement and kneel beside the sink for one to two minutes, though he could not see exactly what she was doing. A few days later, Alice saw Lizzie burning scraps of a dress in the fireplace. She said, “I wouldn’t let anyone see me doing that if I were you”. Suspicious.
The funeral was held on August 8th. Emma came back to town (she was away, visiting a friend, at the time of the murders) and stayed in the house on 2nd Street with her sister and uncle. On August 10th, the police informed Lizzie that she was a suspect in the murders. She was reported to have said, “I am ready to go at any time”. (Read: “I dare you to arrest me.”) Then, on August 11th, Lizzie Borden was arrested on two counts of murder. There’s a shocker.
Lizzie had her daddy’s money, and she bought the best attorneys it could buy. They were quick to deny Lizzie’s guilt on the basis of two main points, the first being lack of forensic evidence. They called in a Harvard chemist who claimed to have found no blood on any of the axes or hatchets that were recovered from the Borden house. There was a teeny tiny drop of blood on the hem of the dress Lizzie was ALLEGEDLY wearing on the day of the murders (was the dress she actually wore burned in the fireplace?) Further, fingerprint testing was in its infancy in the late 1800’s, and the police did not perform any kind of print collection at the scene or on any of the potential murder weapons.
The second point of denial was on the basis of Lizzie’s gender and social class. Yeah, that was a legitimate defense. She was well-bred, virtuous, and in the words of the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at the time, a “Protestant Nun”. In other words, she was a tiny little Victorian spinster who totally couldn’t kill her old and sick (hell, one of them was asleep!!) parents. Women’s suffrage groups turned out in droves to support Lizzie in her innocence. And Lizzie played the part of their heroine- dressed tightly corseted and in all black, a fan in one hand and a bouquet of flowers (seriously) in the other. She would sigh or act faint from time to time throughout the proceedings, just as any distraught Protestant Nun would.
The trial was a circus. The first true media frenzy surrounding a high profile trial (the Lizzie Borden case walked so the OJ Simpson case could run). Testimony was given before a packed courtroom. Bridget’s story never changed, from the initial inquest to the formal trial to follow. Lizzie’s story wouldn’t stop changing. Let’s review:
It was confirmed by the coroner that Abby was killed between 9 and 10 AM. Lizzie claimed to be setting up an ironing board at that time, but couldn’t remember how long it took. Bridget was seen by neighbors cleaning the outside windows during this time frame.
At 10:45 AM, Andrew Borden came home. Lizzie claimed she was in the kitchen at this time, reading a magazine. However, this directly contradicts Bridget’s testimony that Lizzie laughed at her from the top of the stairs! When questioned further about this inconsistency, Lizzie said she couldn’t remember if she was upstairs or not. Convenient.
Lizzie told Andrew and Bridget that Abby received a note, calling her away to tend to a sick friend. When police asked who the note was from, or for the note itself, Lizzie didn’t know and couldn’t find it. Also convenient. Even if the note was real, why didn’t Abby leave to tend to her sick friend?
The prosecution argued that it would be nearly impossible for an intruder to sneak into the Borden home, kill Abby, stay in the home for an additional sixty to ninety minutes, then kill Andrew. No neighbors saw anyone come in or out (remember the nosy neighbor from before? Yeah, they didn’t see anyone). And the pure rage used in the attacks suggested someone close to the victims had perpetrated the crime.
Lizzie’s attorney gave a five hour closing argument to a jury of twelve men – farmers, tradesmen, factory owners (and a single Irishman – not sure how he passed through the selection process). They quickly acquitted Lizzie of all charges, then waited an hour to come out of the jury chambers so it looked like they really thought long and hard about it. Women’s groups cheered! The presses of the high society were thrilled – justice was served, justice for the innocent Lizzie! Working class papers and immigrant-run papers, however, were dubious.
Either way, Lizzie was innocent. Well, she was acquitted, at least.
Lack of forensic evidence and her Victorian femininity led to Lizzie’s release as a free woman. I’m paraphrasing, of course, because there are a myriad of cultural and legal reasons for her to walk free when all signs point to her guilt, and I just don’t have the time to dissect them all. I’m not even convinced there are many people reading to this point.
Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited their father’s millions and moved into a large house on The Hill. Lizzie was infamous, “Fall River’s curio”, gawked at in public and shunned by many in the town. Though she did manage a nice life of travel up and down the East Coast, dotted with fine dining and trips to the theater. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904, and reportedly never saw each other again. They died within days of each other in 1927.
Turns out, there might be more information than we once thought (by the way, all court transcripts and testimonies can be read in full online). In March 2012, researchers at the Fall River Historical Society discovered the handwritten journals of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s defense attorney. I haven’t been able to find the contents anywhere public online, but I have been in touch with the Fall River Historical Society to see what’s up with them. They’re only an hour away from me, and I’d be happy to make a trip out there if it means taking a look at these secret notes.
And because Fall River is only about an hour away, I could easily stay at the Lizzie Borden House Bed and Breakfast! That’s right! It’s the original house where Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered by Lizzie Borden an unknown assailant. Under new ownership as of May 2021, they’ve apparently been going through some pretty sweet upgrades. And, of course, the house is haunted. Guests have claimed to hear voices, experience strange odors, objects moving on their own, footsteps, even full-body apparitions! You can just book a tour if you don’t want to spend the night. Rooms are around $300 a night with your choice of the Lizzie & Emma Suite, the Andrew & Abby Suite, or the John V. Morse Suite (where Abby as murdered!). You can also book out the whole house for weddings, so… that’s cool. September and October are almost fully booked, so you better hurry and make a reservation!
If you’re looking for more Lizzie Borden related media, there’s a true treasure-trove of options for you. Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014) is the only good Lifetime film ever made, starring Christina Ricci as Borden. It was followed up by a Netflix series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015). This retelling of the murders is super fictionalized, but still fun to watch. Lizzie (2018) is a feature film starring Chloe Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan. Another retelling steeped in fiction, this one portrays Lizzie and Bridget in a lesbian affair that eventually leads to the murders.
All jokes aside, the Lizzie Borden case is a fascinating piece of American legal history. Do you think she killed her father and step-mother? If you’re looking for motive, most people claim resentment of Abby and a longing to use her father’s money to enter high society, specifically The Hill. If you’re looking for forensic evidence, it’s long gone. Though I’d love to know if Lizzie did burn the dress she wore at the time of the crimes in the fireplace. And I’d love to know what she was doing in the basement sink in the middle of the night.
I guess you could always call her up on the Ouija board on your next visit to the B&B.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
From Plath to Poe to Baudelaire; channeling a lifetime of sadness into art.
Hello, friends and foes! Today we are examining the lives of several esteemed poets and the similarities that tie them together. I’ll preface this article by admitting that I am not a poet and have failed at writing poetry more times than I would care to admit (at least 15, maybe more). While I have enjoyed reading poetry as prose (think the Crank series by Ellen Hopkins), I have never been particularly drawn to poetry collections. I’ve put together this post in an attempt to learn more about the elusive art of poetry, and hopefully come to admire it more than I already do. At the end I’ve put together a small list of poetry I’ve recently read and enjoyed, and I hope you take a moment to check out some contemporary (and perhaps very sad) poets.
*Trigger Warning: the following post contains references to suicide and drug use*
We begin our journey into poetry with Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a man whose life could most certainly be hailed as a series of unfortunate events. Baudelaire was a French poet of a humble background. He experienced the death of his father at a young age and gained a sizable inheritance at 21 (sounds similar to a couple of other Baudelaires I know…). His first publication came in the year 1845 – the same year as his first suicide attempt.
Baudelaire was a gothic romanticist, writing poems and prose about vampirism, Satanism, and sex. The most notable of his poetry collections is Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Les Fleurs du mal, or in English, The Flowers of Evil, made Baudelaire a household name in France. He had a propensity to write about the Catholic sense of original sin, feminine beauty and the general sensuality of women.
He was deemed a legend, a cursed poet, a poète maudit (living on the fringes of society and relatively ignored by his contemporaries). He was eccentric and morbid and kept rather odd company. He had a fascination with the American poet Edgar Allen Poe and published several meticulous translations of Poe’s most famous works, thus bringing Poe’s work to a global audience. He experimented with drugs and alcohol and died in his mid-forties, presumably of syphilis. Baudelaire’s gothic legend lives on, however. Not only did Lemony Snicket write A Series of Unfortunate Events with a family bearing Baudelaire’s name (and several other Charles Baudelaire-themed Easter eggs throughout the series!), but The Cure adapted his poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (English: The Eyes of the Poor) into their 1987 song How Beautiful You Are. Both the song and the poem speak to the tragedy of love, and thinking you know the innermost thoughts of your partner when, sometimes, you do not.
This brings us to our familiar friend Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) and his similarly unfortunate tale. Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston and was tragically orphaned a mere three years later. He was adopted by a wealthy merchant in Virginia, raised with expectations of becoming a businessman and promptly sent to college. Unfortunately, Poe was forced to drop out of college because his father, though wealthy, refused to pay for it. Poe was later ejected from West Point Military Academy. Subsequently, he returned to visit his college fiancee only to find that she had become betrothed to another!
Eventually Poe found wedded bliss with his fourteen year old cousin (too much to unpack right now, but let me know if you’d like a whole article about this in the future). When his wife passed away at just 27, Poe was left devastated and unable to write for months on end.
Poe shot to literary fame with his 1845 poem The Raven, a lyrical tale of a man’s descent into madness. Annabel Lee (1849 – published posthumously) explored one of Poe’s most prevalent tropes – the death of a beautiful young woman. He also wrote a myriad of short stories including 1843’s The Tell-Tale Heart, another descent into madness after a murder has taken place.
When Poe passed away he was alone, for he had mysteriously disappeared during an outing and was found unresponsive in a bar outside of town, then taken to a hospital where he soon died. Upon his death, a literary rival wrote a defamatory obituary claiming Poe was a drunk with no respect for women or anyone else. Instead of erasing Poe from the literary realm as this rival intended, the obituary caused Poe’s sales to skyrocket (albeit, posthumously). Poetic justice?
Perhaps one of the most tragic figures in poetry is Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Another heartbreaking tale that begins in Boston, Plath endured the death of her father at a young age (another recurring tragedy, it seems). She went on to excel in her studies in college but began to exhibit symptoms of depression and what is now believed to be bipolar disorder; an illness that was not understood nor medicated during Plath’s time. Plath attempted suicide at the age of 20, miraculously survived, and was subsequently institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy. This horrific series of events inspired her now-classic novel The Bell Jar (1963). Later, Plath was abandoned by her unfaithful husband and left with two small children to raise alone. She took her own life at the age of 30.
Plath’s poetry described her mental turmoil in devastating detail. She was honest about her fascination with human emotion, the idea of death, and the allure (in her perception) of suicide. Some contemporaries deemed her to be ahead of her time, fascinating, and a prolific writer of the tragedies of the human experience. Others did not appreciate her morbidity nor her blatant honesty about the fragility of the human mind, emotion, and ego. A troubled life met with a tragic end, leaving behind traces of herself in her poems and prose.
Well, that was depressing. For such creatively brilliant minds to be plagued with misfortune and mental illness is indescribably sad, as is much of the work they left behind. Check it out if you don’t mind shedding a tear or two. In my research of poetry and poets, I found a small collection that I thought I would share with all of you. Take a moment to check them out if you like horror poetry, poetry that scares you, or poems that are just straight-up sad.
Poems from the Attic by Morgan Nikola-Wren (2019). The idea that this is a collection of overflow poems, the odd ones out, the poems too strange for other projects, is intriguing and endlessly appealing as I, myself, am strange and unusual. The companion images are full of gothic whimsy, including art-deco stylized moons and stills from silent movies. The poems range from the violence and passion of heartbreak to the pain of loneliness in heartbreak’s wake. They explore the pain of being ignored – except when writing poetry. The more haunting the poem, the more haunting the companion imagery. An odd collection for an odd soul that often feels out of place.
Adrift on a Sea of Shadows by Spyder Collins (2021). Collins is a Twitter personality known for his viciously dark poems and short stories- the gore of which are well-emulated in this collection. It is brought to us by the “quaint and curious” indie publishing house Quill & Crow. Collins’ poems are achingly sad and melancholic, pining for lost loves and singing odes to ravens, blood, bones, and murder (oh my!). Depressing laments mingle with rotten descriptions of death and decay and the delight that the narrator finds in such darkness. Heart-achingly sad, loneliness seeps off every blood-stained page.
I am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland (2018). Seeping with nostalgia for all our favorite horror flicks, this collection follows the fates of famous final girls, or as Holland dubs them “horror heroines”, from their point of view. The collection questions women’s role in these bloody tales. Why do we put women through such torture – both in fiction, and reality? It’s chilling to have such an intimate look into the minds of characters now so familiar in the horror genre. While they may have been slain in their respective films (or not – hence “final girl”), these badass women live on in these poems, giving voice to the horrors that come before and after the credits roll.
Bloodhound by Marie Casey (2020). A self-published poetry collection, Bloodhound recounts a bloody tale of the beauty and horrors of love and deception. Violence and gore are peppered amid what can only be described as love poems, creating a dichotomy true to the essence of love – it can hurt, and it can bleed. The pain of being betrayed, the ending of trust, and the depravity humans are capable of are explored through poems and lyrical prose. It is a noble cause, to write through trauma and the darkest of human experiences, and Casey has shown that it is possible, through darkness, to find light. That’s what art is all about, right? Giving medium to our fears and nightmares in the hopes that maybe they aren’t so scary, after all.
What do you think about poetry? Do you have a favorite poet? If you check out any of the above collections, please let me know. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible for any nightmares resulting from the reading of Collins’ work).
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re taking a look at some of Disney’s fairy tale retellings and their way-scarier source material.
Let’s get one thing out of the way – I don’t consider myself to be a “Disney Adult”, but I do consider myself to be a general fan and avid Disney animation historian. And through my obsession with the evolution of Disney animation, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about the history of the company as a whole. And what a fascinating history, it is…
It all started with a mouse. Well… kind of. In 1923, The Walt Disney Company was started by Walt and Roy Disney under the name Disney Bros. Studio. Mickey Mouse came along in 1928 and was quickly followed by Pluto and Donald Duck, etc. And the rest, as they say, is history. A history rife with wartime propaganda (Der Fuehrer’s Face, 1943; Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi, 1943; Donald Gets Drafted, 1942), racism (Song of the South, 1946, an offensive depiction of cheerful African Americans post slavery), and anti-union and low pay corporate policies (resulting in multiple strikes between 1941 and present day). It was on the backs of those underpaid animators and musicians and cast members that the corporate giant we know today was built.
Now, I’m not here to discuss Disney as a corporation (at least, not any more than I already have). The stunning artistry of the animators and musicians and writers deserves to be appreciated for what it is – moving and emotional art. Many of these stories and characters are cornerstones of our adolescence. I watched The Lion King every day for a year when I was five, and my mom fast-forwarded past Mufasa’s death scene every single time… no one tell her I run a horror blog now.
Disney applied its show stopping and jaw dropping art to many preexisting and classic tales. For example, Pinocchio. It was originally written as a serial by Carlo Collodi between 1881 and 1883 in Italy. According to Francelia Butler, scholar and pioneer of children’s literature, Pinocchio is the most translated Italian book (in over 250 languages) and the second most widely read. What’s the first most widely read book in Italy? Oh, just The Bible. Disney’s film version of Pinocchio was released in 1940 and left out just one little detail… Jiminy Cricket was supposed to be dead. Yep. In the book, Pinocchio kills him with a hammer, but little Jiminy stays with him as his conscience, teaching him right from wrong.
Turns out, this is a recurring theme of Disney’s retellings – taking out some of the gnarly, scary stuff. We here at Little Book Blog of Horrors want the gnarly and the scary. So, let’s talk about it.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with Cinderella (either the 1950 animated version or the 2015 live-action remake). The Disney film follows Cinderella, a maid to her evil stepmother and stepsisters, heckled and mistreated at every given chance. With the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella gets to attend a ball – but only until the stroke of midnight. Her dance with the prince is cut short as the clock strikes midnight, and in her haste she leaves behind a single glass slipper. The prince tries to find his lost love by having all the maidens that attended the ball try on the glass slipper. Eventually it is revealed that Cinderella is the prince’s mystery girl and they live happily ever after.
The film is based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the ancient tale (and I mean ancient – this story goes back to Rhodopis in Ancient Greece, around 7BC). Disney chose Perrault’s version of the tale because he was the first to include the glass slipper. Other versions have other calling cards like jewelry or notes. In the Brothers Grimm 1812 version of the tale, the glass slipper is gold and Cinderella’s name is Aschenputtel (literally just German for Cinderella). Also in the Brothers Grimm version and conveniently left out of Disney’s is the fate of the stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella. In their desperate attempts to fit into the glass slipper and marry the prince, one stepsister hacks off her toe and one hacks off her heel. Both times, the prince sees the blood on the slipper and says “no, thank you”. Then, at the wedding of the prince and Cinderella, pigeons peck out the stepsisters’ eyes and they were “punished with blindness as long as they lived”. Gnarly.
“Rook di goo, rook di goo! There’s blood in the shoe. The shoe is too tight, This bride is not right!”
“rucke di guck, rucke di guck, Blut ist im Schuck (Schuh): Der Schuck ist zu klein, die rechte Braut sitzt noch daheim”
Moving right along to another tale from those weird Grimm brothers: Snow White. The 1937 film was a benchmark for Disney; it was the first full length traditionally animated feature film EVER, and the first feature length film for Disney. In the tale we meet orphaned Snow White, living with her stepmother The Queen. The Queen forces Snow into servitude because she’s prettier than her. When The Queen’s magic mirror breaks it to her that Snow is still the fairest in all the land despite being demoted to lowly servant, The Queen orders a huntsman to kill Snow White and take out her heart.
Snow hides out with the seven dwarfs, safe until she is poisoned by a cunning witch with a poison apple. She falls into a coma and the dwarfs place her in a glass coffin in the forest, standing watch beside her. Then, a prince comes and kisses her and she wakes up to marry him. The End.
The 1812 Brothers Grimm version is pretty similar, though Snow White actually dies from eating the poisoned apple and the dwarfs put her in a glass coffin because she was still so beautiful after death (the poison kept her from decaying, apparently). The prince comes across the coffin in the forest and begs the dwarfs for it, claiming, “I cannot live without being able to see Snow-White!”… weird. As the prince’s servants are carrying the coffin to the castle, one trips and jostles Snow’s position. This dislodges the poison apple from her throat and she miraculously comes back to life! She still marries the prince and they live happily ever after, after all. Oh, but not before The Queen attends their wedding and is forced to dance on burning iron shoes until she drops dead. Perhaps an early rival to Game of Thrones‘ infamous Red Wedding?
Though there are plenty more Grimm x Disney collaborations to go through (Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, etc.), let’s take a look at some different source material. Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic Notre-Dame de Paris, or, as we know it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. DISCLAIMER: this article will contain usage of the word “gypsy”. This word is widely recognized as a slur against individuals of Romani descent. It is being used in the context of this article to refer to its usage in the works of Victor Hugo and the Walt Disney Company, and is in no way intended as derogatory by the author.
Disney’s 1996 animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably Disney’s darkest film (infanticide, murder, lust, sin and eternal damnation abound – and still rated G!). In 1460’s Paris, we meet Minister of Justice Frollo. He’s on a mission to rid the city of Paris of gypsies. He murders a gypsy woman while she pleads for “sanctuary” inside the Notre Dame cathedral. Frollo discovers a deformed baby in her arms. He attempts to drown the infant but is caught by the cathedral’s archdeacon, and is forced to raise the baby as penance for his sins. That infant grows up to be the hunchback Quasimodo (and his name literally means “half formed”… wtf).
Quasimodo has no friends – except for three cathedral gargoyles that come to life – until he meets the beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda. Frollo lusts after Esmeralda and burns down half of Paris hunting her and the other gypsies down (see Jonathan Young’s metal cover of the original Disney track Hellfire here: https://open.spotify.com/track/3VLFgFwCPediasLOXX2cUD?si=87c908a48c54404e ). Frollo tricks Quasimodo into leading him to the gypsy camp and tries to burn Esmeralda at the stake. Luckily, this is a Disney movie, so Esmeralda is rescued by Quasimodo, Frollo burns to death in a pit of molten lead, and Quasimodo is accepted into Paris society as a hero.
So, it was already dark. Especially by Disney standards. Still not as dark as Hugo’s version, however. In the original French text, Frollo frames Esmeralda for murder (he’s still lusting after her, by the way). Quasimodo tries to give her “sanctuary” in Notre Dame but she is eventually hanged for her ‘crime’. In the end, Quasimodo murders Frollo and then starves to death, clinging to Esmeralda’s lifeless body.
In short, Disney did a great job of turning terrifying children’s stories into… slightly less terrifying children’s films. I absolutely recommend checking out the source material if you want the gritty backstory to your childhood favorites. I’m thinking of doing a list of scary moments in Disney films (think Dumbo‘s Pink Elephants montage). If that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below!
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sneewittchen, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (Berlin, 1857), no. 53
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Aschenputtel,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales], 7th edition (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 21, pp. 119-26.
Hello, friends and foes! For my first-ever blog post I thought it would be fun to do a brief timeline of horror literature and try to figure out who might have planted the horror family tree. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Horror: who started it? There are several obvious contenders; H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe. When I dove into this research rabbit hole I began as any self-respecting researcher would – I Googled it. The answer might shock you.
While this search result is hilarious, it’s not exactly what I was looking for when I set out on this quest for an answer. So I, living my armchair anthropologist dreams, decided to dig (read: Google) a little further.
The encyclopedia Brittanica defines a horror story as “a story in which the focus is on creating a feeling of fear”. This definition is important because, for the sake of keeping this a brief timeline of horror literature, I won’t be delving into the different branches of the family tree (i.e. gothic horror, paranormal horror, body horror, etc.). With this simple definition in mind, who do you picture of when you think of horror? Stephen King? Anne Rice?
Stephen King’s reign of terror began in 1974 with the publication of the now-classic Carrie. Since then he’s published over 80 books so, sure, I’d consider him as a contender for Father of Modern Horror. (For the record, R.L. Stine has published over 300 books. Just sayin’.)
Anne Rice rose to fame around the same time as King, as Interview With a Vampire was published in 1976, a whopping 26 years before Stephanie Meyer published the insanely popular vampire series Twilight. Since 1976, Rice has published over two dozen books, including both Christian and erotic literature. She even cites Stephen King as an inspiration for her work (Billboard interview, March 11, 2016). The 1970’s saw an upswing in horror literature that has led all the way to present day, but that’s not where the genre began.
Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You know The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? Yeah, she wrote the book back in 1959. It’s often cited as one of the first haunted house novels in America. She also wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even before that, Jackson published her short story The Lottery in 1948. If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember this as being the single most traumatizing piece of assigned reading in your middle school English class.
Jackson was also a general badass, regarded as incredibly witty, confident, and successful in a field that did not grant easy access to women at that time. She also read tarot and allegedly practiced witchcraft. Spooky. I read her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and you should, too. While she didn’t cite a specific author of literary influence, Jackson seemed to be inspired by the darkness of every day – sometimes hidden, sometimes right under your very nose.
I’d say it’s typical for horror writers to be drawn to and inspired by the dark intricacies of life. Take a look at H.P. Lovecraft, for example. A fellow New Englander and anti-anthropocentrist (anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals). Lovecraft’s claim to fame is widely regarded as his short story The Call of Cthulu from 1926 which eventually became the staggering Cthulu mythos that most horror (or in Lovecraft’s terms, “weird”) literature fans have come to know. Lovecraft’s first known writings began in 1897, a staggering 77 years before Stephen King’s Carrie. His legacy in the literature realm is abundantly clear, as his Cthulu mythos has been adapted into film, TV, board games and more. And, while 1897 seems like a really long time ago, I wanted to know who inspired Lovecraft. So I kept digging.
Lovecraft’s influence is another pretty obvious contender for starting the horror genre as we know it: Edgar Allen Poe. Another New Englander (I blame the gloom) that became an instant success with the publication of The Raven in 1845 but had published horror shorts since the early 1830’s. Poe was a student of cosmology, another influence of Lovecraft’s work (cosmology: the philosophical study of the origin and nature of the universe). Poe is widely regarded as a pioneer of “gothic” and “gothic horror” literature. An interesting anecdote about Poe’s history that I might do a whole post on in the future (would you be interested? Leave a comment below!) is the case of Lizzie Doten in the 1860’s. Doten was an imitator of Poe’s poetry after his death and claimed to hear Poe’s spirit dictating new poetry from beyond the grave.
Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s get on with it.
Poe was a popular (and ultimately very tragic) figure in horror literature, but not the first. Before him came another one of our obvious contenders: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Shelley ushered in the age of science-fiction and horror during what can certainly be called a “Golden Age” for spooky literature. The early 1800’s saw the Brothers Grimm collection of short stories for scaring your children and other classics, like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
At this point in my research, I truly thought I was nearing the finish line. A big boom of horror literature in the early 1800’s meant someone had started the genre in the not-so-distant past, and I was determined to figure out who it was. I made it back in time to 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. FINALLY. Several sources claimed this to be the first gothic horror novel. And it was quite controversial at the time of its publication; it was initially published under the guise of being a romance story.
Finally, I had reached the end. Or… the beginning. I made it to the first ever horror story ever written!
Just kidding. Common sense tells us that horror has its roots in folklore, superstition, and myths from all over the world for as long as history has been recorded. Even real life events have been inspiring terrifying works of literature for hundreds of years. A serial killer inspired 1697’s Bluebeard, and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory inspired 1729’s Tragica Historia and the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story: Coven, portrayed by horror film icon Kathy Bates. And although we didn’t talk about Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, it’s thought that his inspiration came from the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who terrified all who knew him in the 15th century.
It wasn’t just vampires back then, either. Werewolf literature was popular as far back as the 12th Century, way before Leitch Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf in 1831. If you want to get technical, there was a werewolf in The Epic of Gilgamesh and that dates back to 2100 BC. Werewolves were also prominent figures in ancient Greek and Roman horror stories.
Now, here’s the thing. Horror stories as we know them go back basically forever. I’m talking before the year 1000. Hell, maybe even before the year 100. Euripides wrote stories about ghosts and necromancy that inspired Mary Shelley. Pliny the Younger wrote about a haunted house in Athens over 1800 years before Shirley Jackson was even born.
I guess the conclusion is that there is no conclusion. At least, not one I could come up with on my armchair anthropology expedition into the roots of horror literature. Horror’s roots are ancient, tying back to the oldest superstitions, folklore and ghost stories from all over the world. You can give Walpole credit for the first gothic horror novel, and Shelley for the first sci-fi horror, and H.P. Lovecraft for being straight-up weird, but it’s impossible to find a single originator of horror. And, I think I like that answer better. Ghosts, witches, vampires and demons have haunted humans for as long as we’ve been able to tell stories about them. And reading a good ghost story never gets old.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.