Books

Review – The Ghostly Stories of Hugo Rocha

We may say, without fear of contradiction, that Portugal does not have a great tradition in the field of horror literature, especially in the more restricted area of supernatural Fiction, even though the national folklore teems with supernatural beings, including witches, werewolves, enchanted Moorish princesses, etc.

Some important Portuguese writers, such as Alexandre Herculano (with the well-known tale “A Dama Pé-de-Cabra”), Eça de Queirós (with the short story “O Defunto”, among others), etc., have dabbled in the genre, but their production is scarce and sporadic. Even the translation into Portuguese of the classical gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries failed to give the national reading public easy and timely access to that kind of literature.

In December 1967, however, the daily evening newspaper Diário Popular began the publication of Portuguese translations of several of the best ghost stories of M. R. James(1). The translations were prepared by Hugo Rocha.

Hugo Amílcar de Freitas Rocha (1907-1993), was born in Oporto, and was a prolific journalist and writer, its literary production including novels, poetry, travel chronicles and short stories; he also wrote about Spiritism and the UFO phenomenon.

As a newspaperman, he started to work on the daily newspaper O Comércio do Porto when he was only 18 years old. Years later, he would achieve the position of director of the publication. During his life he won several literary awards and was decorated by both the Portuguese and the Brazilian governments.

The stories by M. R. James published in Diário Popular met with great success, not only because of their own high quality, but also because of the elegance of Hugo Rocha’s translations. As a matter of fact, when the series was finished, Rocha received many letters from readers asking him to write and publish other stories in the same genre.

This he did, and soon a new series of short stories, under the general title Histórias Fantasmagóricas (Ghostly Tales) began in the pages of the Saturday supplement of Diário Popular. These stories would be collected and published in book form in 1969.

In all, the book included 15 ghostly tales:

1. O guarda-vestidos de porta de espelho (The wardrobe with a mirror door)

2. A mulher da saia pela cabeça (The woman with the skirt over her head)

3. A maldição do almocreve (The mule driver’s curse)

4. A aposta (The bet)

5. O lobisomem (The werewolf)

6. A casa à beira da estrada (The house by the road)

7. O retrato do ‘Quimbanda’ (The portrait of the “quimbanda”)

8. A noite de Walpurgis (The Walpurgis night)

9. O cão da Quinta do Diabo (The god in the Devil’s Farm)

10. A vingança do ciclista (The revenge of the cyclist)

11. A esfera de cristal (The crystal orb)

12. O hóspede do hotel sem hóspedes (The guest at the guestless hotel)

13. A costureira (The seamstress)

14. Os irmãos gémeos (The twin brothers)

15. Francesca

The plots for these tales are classic, some of them inspired by the Portuguese folklore. They include ghosts (1, 2, 4, 6, 10, 12, 13, 14 e 15), vampires (3), werewolves (5 e 9) and witchcraft (7, 8 e 11). Several of the stories begin with a short introduction establishing their appropriate context, and the author often informs readers that he will narrate the story in the first person, even though it had nothing to do with him and was in fact told to him by someone else.

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Deliberately or not, in his stories Hugo Rocha often abides by an advice given by M. R. James himself to ghost story writers to-be, by placing the action in the past, albeit a not too distant past. For instance, The wardrobe with a mirror door (O guarda-vestidos de porta de espelho) begins with the sentence “What I am about to tell took place many years ago. Maybe twenty. Maybe thirty. Maybe more”, whereas the first words in The mule drivers curse (A maldição do almocreve) are “In a remote warm August…”

There are no spoilers involved in short descriptions of the several stories, since the plots are usually easily guessed from the very first lines, if not from the titles themselves.

In The wardrobe with a mirror door (O guarda-vestidos de porta de espelho), the narrator watches a murder being reenacted in the mirror of a piece of secondhand furniture  and approximately the same theme appears in two other tales, The house by the road (A casa à beira da estrada) and The Crystal Orb (A esfera de cristal).

In the story The Woman with the skirt over her head (A mulher da saia pela cabeça), the inhabitants of an old house in Oporto find it to be haunted by a deceased inn keeper, whereas The guest at the guestless hotel (O hóspede do hotel sem hóspedes) brings us the ghost of an old lodger of a hotel.

Francesca tells the story of how the narrator got engaged to a girl he met in a sanatorium in Switzerland; the girl dies and her ghost visits him to consummate their sexual union. It is curious to notice that several of the tales in this collection include a few erotic details, with suggestive descriptions of sexual intercourse, although, more often than not, modestly between husband and wife.

The story The Bet (A Aposta) is really a false ghost story, because the supposed apparition turns out to be no more than a poor widow by the grave of her recently departed husband. On the contrary, in The Revenge of the cyclist (A vingança do ciclista), the ghost of a cyclist killed in a road accident returns to try to kill his involuntary killer, who manages to escape by invoking the Virgin Mary (a detail that is also common to other stories). In the tale The Twin Brothers (Os irmãos gémeos), a man is tormented by the ghost of his bad brother, but this time the apparition does have the upper hand.

The story The seamstress (A costureira) which is the story of a young seamstress who falls in love with a boy who abandons her, making her commit suicide, after cursing him with the sound of her sewing machine that would haunt him forever, and this is in fact no other than the adaptation of a national urban legend! As a matter of fact, on the 1st September, 1920, the daily newspaper O Século published an item about a haunting that happened in the region of Torres Novas, according to which a young seamstress who suffered from a serious illness, had promised to offer her sewing machine to the Virgin Mary in Exchange for a cure, which she failed to fulfill. Upon her death, she was supposedly condemned to roam the nearby villages for seven years, continuously working at her sewing, in order to expiate her sin.

This story, which is sometimes told as originating from south Portugal(2), soon extended throughout the whole Portuguese territory. The seamstress and her sewing machine were heard more or less everywhere, even in military barracks in Oporto! A number of “explanations” were proposed for a phenomenon that almost became a sort of collective hysteria, from telepathic messages from some dying person to signals from extraterrestrial agencies and even rude noises caused by difficult digestions…

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As mentioned above, The mule drivers curse (A maldição do almocreve) is a typical vampire story: the narrator is seized by a young girl and her father, and is informed that one of his ancestors had seduced the girl, leading her to suicide. He notices that the girl casts no shadow and once he is captured the father urges the girl in these terms: “Go on, bite him, suck his blood, daughter! […] My daughter is a vampire, you know, damn you?”. Once again, the man gets away by wielding a crucifix he has on him, while invoking God and the Virgin.

On the other hand, The werewolf (O Lobisomem) and The dog in the devil’s Farm (O cão da quinta do Diabo) are standard werewolf stories, basically the descriptions of the chases for wolves (or large, mysterious dogs), although their endings are quite distinct. The action of the former curiously takes place in Galicia.

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Finally, The Portrait of the “Quimbanda” (O retrato do “Quimbanda”) e The Walpurgis Night (A noite de Walpurgis) are about witchcraft. The first tells of a Portuguese explorer who brings back from Angola the portrait of a local sorcerer, and gets killed when accidentally or not it falls from the Wall where he hanged it. The second story deals with a girl who witnesses a meeting of a local coven, presided by the Devil. Once again, the girl escapes by invoking the Virgin.

Globally, Histórias Fantasmagóricas is a good book, within the most classic tradition. Hugo Rocha wrote well, with a pleasantly vernacular prose and a style rarely found today. So, it is perhaps not surprising that the author followed that first series of stories with a second one, once again on the pages of Diário Popular, under the not very original title of Novas Histórias Fantasmagóricas (New Ghostly Tales). The new stories were:

1. O carro funerário (The hearse)

2. O “chorão” (The crying doll)

3. O solar da Lua Cheia (The Full Moon Manor)

4. O caçador de baratas (The cockroach hunter)

5. Requiem por uma freira (Requiem for a nun)

6. Um rosto na vidraça (A face at the window)

7. Os mundos subterrâneos (Subterranean worlds)

At the time, there was mention of this second collection being published in book form and even the Grande Enciclopédia Portuguesa e Brasileira (Actualização, vol. 10) does mention such a book, dated from 1980; however, I never found that publication and it is absent from the catalogs of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, which leads me to believe that the project was not completed.

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At the moment, I do not have access to the full text of the seventh story in the above list, but it appears to be rather a science fiction story, and in its first few lines the author mentions Jules Verne’s famous novel Voyage au centre de la Terre (1864). As for the other six, they are strict ghost stories (some of them, I’m afraid, containing a few inconsistencies), except for number 4, which has to do with metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls.

As a matter of fact, the stories numbered 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 share a relatively similar structure: there is a more or less recent death and the narrator (or, in the case of number 2, a friend of the narrator) meets the phantom of the deceased, experiencing extreme terror, although in every case he manages no go through the whole dreadful experience unharmed.

In this second series, as in the previous one, it is not exactly the plots that really make the narratives interesting, but in fact the way they are written, with the use of a rich, varied vocabulary, partially fallen into oblivion nowadays. Curiously, the story number 4 takes place in the old Portuguese India, while in the remaining ones, from 1 to 6, the action is located in north Portugal, and, for stories 1, 3 and 6, in the country.

Also by Hugo Rocha, it is perhaps worth mentioning one last title, Requiem por um amor do outro mundo e outras histórias (Requiem for an otherworldly love and other stories) (Lello & Irmão, Porto, 1977). Its contents, however, are less interesting and I will not dwell on them here.

Notes:

(1) – Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) is well-known as the most important British writer of ghost stories, for which he is best remembered nowadays, despite having been an important medievalist scholar. He was provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and of Eton College. His first book of ghostly tales was published in 1904, with the title Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

(2) – The version best known in Alentejo refers to a seamstress who used to work on Sundays, thus disrespecting the sacred day, while another one mentions an unfulfilled promess made to St. Francis. The latter version appears to have been mentioned by Diário de Notícias, in 1914, and appears to have started in villages in Ribatejo.

Published by António Monteiro

Born in Lisbon, sometime after the Stone Age. Married, with two daughters and five grandsons. University professor of Mathematics, author of many books, with a wide range of interests that include Malacology (was a founding member and president of the Sociedade Portuguesa de Malacologia, and coordinates the international project The Cone Collector; has published several books and numerous articles, comics (especially the works of Hergé and Edgar P. Jacobs, among several others) and supernatural horror fiction (with a special interest in the works of authors such as M. R. James, Jean Ray, etc.). Was co-organizer of the cycle Sustos às Sextas.

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