Last year, we took you on a lantern-lit tour of some of the most famous haunted locations in my adopted home of New York City. Once again, we don our novelty cloak and top hat and beckon you come with us for another round of macabre tales and spooky legends. Join me, won’t you, as we visit voodoo queens, gangland massacres, Edgar Allan Poe, and a ghostly garrison in the wilds of northern New York.
Author’s note: I wrote this piece for the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Route 66 magazine. It was my first professionally published magazine piece. I was a different writer then, though not perhaps quite that different than I am now. In the spirit of a happily haunted Halloween, I reprint it here, literary warts and all, unaltered even though some of the details are no doubt out of date. Photos by Ellie Tam.
On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. Written over the course of many years in the latter portion of the 1600s, Pu’s stories explore the world of ghosts, demons, monsters, spirits, and otherworldly folklore, usually with an eye toward tsk-tsking its audience over immoral, non-Confucian indiscretions. “The Magic Sword” takes up just a few pages and relays the tale of a young scholar named Ning who, upon finding himself unable to obtain lodging for the night, takes up residence in an abandoned temple. In the temple, he encounters another traveler, a man named Yin, and later that night witnesses a meeting between a couple mysterious people before being visited by a beautiful young woman named Hsiao-ch’ien who attempts to seduce him. Because Ning is righteous and has a sick wife at home, he banishes her from his makeshift chamber. He learns during a subsequent visit that she is a ghost cursed to prey upon men for her boss demon, and that Yen is a magical swordsman who fights devils. Impressed by the purity of his heart, the ghost implores Ning to help free her from her ghoulish master. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story.
In our recent article about the Rabbi Loew/Golem trail in Prague, we mentioned the statue of the Iron Knight (or Iron Man) that stands vigil over Prague’s Old Town from a corner in the city hall building. Because the other corner is occupied by a statue of Rabbi Loew himself, and because the legend of the Iron Knight is relatively obscure outside of Prague, an overwhelming number of publications — including many that should be respectable enough to check their facts, like a 1938 issue of Life — misidentify the statue as Rabbi Loew’s golem (a few also identify it as Darth Vader, but what can be done about that?). Of course, it looks nothing like the golem, but with Rabbi Loew hanging around on the other corner, most people assume any strange monstrosity must be his golem.
Which is perhaps why the Iron Knight still hasn’t been able to lift the curse placed on him over four hundred years ago.
If Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments proves a little too well-behaved and respectable for you, then perhaps you should switch gears a little bit and explore the two museums that make up the Mysteria Pragensia. Tapping into Prague’s rich occult and magickal history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians, and its sister museum down the street, The Museum of Ghosts and Legends, offer up all the gruesome wax dummies and delicious strange lore you want from a proper tourist trap museum.
Back around the turn of the century, there were few directors as committed to the maligned Hong Kong horror genre as Tony Leung. Unfortunately, Tony Leung wasn’t a very good filmmaker. And double unfortunately, he wasn’t a bad enough filmmaker. Everything he made had an air of middling, uninteresting near-competency about it, the work it seemed of a talented amateur or an untalented professional. Now before you fire off an angry email (do people still use email?) telling me how great Tony Leung is, keep in mind that I am not referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Ashes of Time. Nor am I referring to the Tony Leung who starred in Tom, Dick, and Hairy. Oh wait, that’s both Tony Leungs. Oh, you know the guys: Chiu-wai and Kar-fei. And maybe that third Tony Leung, action choreographer Tony Leung Siu-Hung (Bloodmoon, Superfights).
Time for a spooky new Frolic Afield. Back again on The Alcohol Profressor, I’m taking you all on a gaslight tour of New York City’s most famous haunted bars and taverns. Booo-zy Tales of Spirited New York will bring you face to face with spectral sailors, poltergeist pirates, and at the ghost of at least one drunken poet. Or, if nothing else, you’ll get a decent pint and a dram of Tullamore Dew.
I can’t remember exactly how it was I stumbled across the first in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. It was most likely a title dropped in passing by Veronica Belmont on the Sword and Laser podcast, coupled with the book then appearing on a Goodreads list of the best steampunk books. So I guess I take that first sentence back. Apparently, I remember exactly how I first heard of the book. Let’s move on, shall we? Anyway, it was a book well worth stumbling onto, and since finishing it, I’ve become a huge fan of the series and its author. The blend of supernatural shenanigans, romance, adventure, steampunk, and dandy vampires all wrapped up in a Victorian comedy of manners style tale was exactly the sort of breezy — but not unsubstantial — book for which I’d been hoping. Needless to say but here I am about to say it anyway, I was pretty excited to move on to the second book.
I read a lot, but that reading happens only in a few specific genres. Predictable ones if you’ve read anything on Teleport City — science fiction mostly, with a tiny smattering of fantasy, and a healthy dose of non-fiction ranging from military history, travelogues, and anything where Teddy Roosevelt punches out a rhinoceros and gets malaria while exploring some remote niche of the globe. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given my fondness for horror films, is that I read almost no horror fiction at all. I don’t know why this has traditionally been the case. What I read in the past just didn’t click with me. I mean, there was some Clive Barker, sure. Everyone in the eighties read Clive Barker. But the Barker I liked skewed much more toward the fantastic than actual horror — Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Everville, and Imajica.