Phantoms by Ivan Turgenev, 1864
The magic trick:
Using a literary story to dabble in genre elements
It’s not an infrequent trick to turn a genre piece into something more substantial, You see it all the time in movies – and short stories. I’ve probably gone to that well for a magic trick to highlight on this website several times.
It’s rare – and exceptionally cool – then to see the opposite. “Phantoms” could reasonably be termed genre fiction. It’s a horror story at its core. But if you were to dissect and map out its key elements, I think you’d find the ratios skew heavily in the direction of what is most often called literary. This is a story of symbols and metaphor, of characters and feelings. It just so happens to also be about blood-sucking phantoms.
Instead of using a vampire story to talk about the human condition, it uses a pondering on the human condition to talk about vampires.
And that’s quite a trick on Turgenev’s part.
She was a woman with a small un-Russian face. Greyish-white, half-transparent, with scarcely marked shades, she reminded one of the alabaster figures on a vase lighted up within, and again her face seemed familiar to me.
‘Can I speak with you?’ I asked.
‘I see a ring on your finger; you have lived then on the earth, you have been married?’
I waited … There was no answer.
‘What is your name, or, at least, what was it?’
‘Call me Alice.’
‘Alice! That’s an English name! Are you an Englishwoman? Did you know me in former days?’
‘Why is it then you have come to me?’
‘I love you.’
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