Words Without Borders is an online magazine dedicated to translating and publishing contemporary fiction from around the world. For their December issue, they decided to “counter the merriment with a dose of the macabre” by focusing on horror stories from a variety of countries—Germany, France, Serbia, and Japan, among others. Among the ten stories on offer, there’s a ghost tale, a visit from the devil, an invitation from a lunatic, and more than one mysterious death. All impeccably translated into English and capable of giving you chills.
The first and scariest story is “On Killing” by Markus Orths, translated from German by Renate Latimer. Orths has won the Sir Walter Scott Prize and the Telekom-Austria Prize, and in “On Killing” he puts fear on a slow boil in a story that is part Poe, part Hitchcock. When the narrator receives an invitation to visit the home of a mysterious celebrity, at first he thinks it’s a joke. When he learns it’s real, he decides to go. From the moment he steps inside Carola Johansson’s house, however, his uneasiness at the strangeness of the situation slowly builds into terror as he realizes this enigmatic woman’s intentions. It’s a story about fear and insanity, but it also suggests that the only way to escape the mundanity of life is to come to terms with our own death. This is the only way we will truly be able to live.
The creepiness of “The Garden” by Jyrki Vainonen (translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers) is enhanced through the skillful use of an unreliable narrator, in this case a young boy who is either deeply in denial or just doesn’t understand what has happened to his parents. Jeremias’s mother and father are working in the garden when the strange seedpod that has been growing on one of their bushes falls, breaks, and showers them with pollen. The reader witnesses what unfolds after this event through the eyes of young Jeremias—though we are not given an exact age for him, he tells us he cannot yet read. Despite having suspicions, the reader is left uncertain of what has actually occurred, due to Jeremias’ unreliable narration, until the very end of the story, when it becomes horrifyingly clear. A wonderfully creepy story that puts the innocence of its narrator to use for great effect.
“The Cover” by Dejana Dimitrijevic, translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic, is about two women who make their living from their needles and dream about the day when they will own houses and gardens like the ones they see in Spanish soap operas. It’s also a story in which two seemingly innocuous things take on a sinister—even deadly—aspect. Tangibly, there is a crochet pattern. Intangibly, the very dreams upon which these women thrive. It’s almost a cautionary tale, a warning that too much daydreaming will turn the dreams into your reality, leaving no place for you in the real world. The diary structure of the story gives it a choppy, disconnected feel which lessens the emotional impact it could have, but it is still a sad, quiet story about the sad, quiet lives of these two women and how one of them is destroyed by her dreams of a better life.
“Delphine’s Illness” by Laurent Graff, translated from French by Helen Dickinson, is a much more light-hearted story—or as light-hearted as it gets in a horror collection, anyway. Delphine suffers from a strange illness: she loses her last name, one letter at a time. Delphine grows weaker with each letter lost, so she sets out to cure her illness by getting a new name. The story is not humorous, necessarily, but it is not steeped in darkness to the same extent as the rest of the collection. Instead, “Delphine’s Illness” wears a slightly melancholy air, covering a story that could be a sleepy, lethargic cousin to a comedy.
Next in Words Without Borders’ collection is “The Visitor Edward Hopper Received Two Years Before His Death” by Mario Sabino, winner of the Brazilian National Library’s Clarice Lispector Award. Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers, this is a story about art and the nature and existence of the devil in which a mysterious man befriends an Italian painter named Edoardo and commissions a painting. The story starts a little slow, due to translated passages from Il Diavolo by Giovanni Papini and lots of discussion about art. But once Edoardo begins his portrait of his new friend, the mystery of this man’s identity takes center stage, and the story behind Edward Hopper’s final painting, Two Comedians, takes on a very personal—and foreboding—meaning for Edoardo.
“The Kiso Wayfarer” by Okamoto Kido (translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori) is the collection’s only historical piece. Kido lived from 1872 to 1939 and is credited with introducing the detective story to Japan. “The Kiso Wayfarer,” a ghost story of sorts, is set in 1891. Kido establishes the superstitions of Japan’s mountains early on, setting the stage for what is to come when a strange traveler visits a woodcutter and his son in their isolated mountain cabin. As the evening passes, the woodcutter slowly realizes that something is wrong. The framework detracts a bit from the story, making it once removed—a young man and his father meet the woodcutter at an inn and ask him to tell them a story—but such a structure is a standard narrative tool from this time period and serves to enhance the historical feel of the piece.
The author of the next story, Quim Monzó, is the winner of multiple awards, including the National Prize of Literature, the Prudenci Bertrana Prize for Novel, and the Crítica Serra d’Or Award. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. His story “My Brother,” translated from Catalan by Mary Ann Newman, shares a concept with Vainonen’s “The Garden” in that both depict a boy’s reaction to the sudden, inexplicable death of a loved one. In Monzó’s “My Brother,” a boy’s brother dies, and in the face of his parents’ shock and complete, delusional denial, the surviving brother does the only thing he thinks he can. There’s a greater suspension of reality happening in this story than usual—certain realities of death and decay are never an issue, and the story dips a toe in the absurd by the end. But it is another death beside Toni’s that is most poignant—the death of the narrator’s identity, obsessed as he is with keeping his brother’s alive. We are never even told the surviving brother’s name. Toni is all that matters.
Completing Words Without Borders’ December Horror collection is “They Always Come in the Autumn” by Vincent Mondiot (translated from French by Paul Curtis Daw), which won second place in the Prix du Jeune Écrivain français competition in 2006. The most emotionally evocative piece in the collection, it’s a wrenching story of a family being separated against their will. Every year, the reapers come to Suzanna’s village and take the villagers’ sons. This year, it’s her son’s turn. “Autumn” is set in what could be wartime, or perhaps some alternate universe or futuristic regime; the characters, struggling to survive in their remote village, don’t know and have no one to ask. It’s a tragic and moving story, made more so by the humanization of the piece’s villain and how his obvious, ordinary humanity simply makes things harder on those left behind. No one—on either side of this event—has a choice in the matter.
The final story offered in the December issue of Words Without Borders, “The Island,” is not part of their horror collection, though it is just as mysterious. It’s also the only piece that could be considered a Christmas story. The author, Violeta Ivkovic, won the 2009 Mali Nemo Award, and “The Island” was translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic. While searching for an artificial Christmas tree, a woman living on an island has an encounter with the island eccentric that changes her life. Hints at the story’s setting add to the mystery of the eccentric’s existence and Nada’s future. Is it thousands of years in the future? (“He reminded me of something that had been forgotten, left behind, of the years with four numbers.”) How old is Nada? (“Tonight is the third Christmas. I started counting them two summers and eleven months ago when I came to the island. The previous thousands weighed me down.”) “The Island” offers up more ambiguity than it does facts, leaving the reader with a sense of magic and many questions.