The P Files: From the Archives of Polish Horror
#language & literature
default, The P Files:
From the Archives
of Polish Horror, ‘Scherzo’ by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, 1861, photo: National Library / Polona.pl, scherzo_1861_norwid__0.jpg
Bleak, stately castles, haunted aeroplanes, table-turning, and poems dictated by Mickiewicz from beyond the grave. If you dare, read our review of Polish horror literature – and a tale of the spiritualist fascinations of the writers who inspired it.
‘To fear, or not to fear?’ – that is the question. Ghost stories are as old as honouring the dead, which is as old as the world itself. In more recent times, a flood of guests from the ‘other side’ coincided with the heyday of the Gothic novel in the late 18th century.
A pioneer of the genre in Poland was Anna Olimpia Mostowska, who made abundant use of established French and English literary tropes: haunted castles and ruins in the moonlight, with lurking spectres amid the ubiquitous hooting of owls and hellish moaning. These she transplanted into local settings, e.g., the realities of mediaeval Lithuania, as in Astolda, Księżniczka z Krwi Palemona, Pierwszego Książęcia Litewskiego (Astolda, Princess of the Blood of Palemon, First Prince of Lithuania). As she rightly pointed out:
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Everything beyond our comprehension is overwhelmingly alluring to us.
Romantic & patriotic ‘upiórs
Gothic novels paved the way for Romanticism. We encounter a ghost in Mickiewicz’s archetypal Romantyczność (The Romantic), in which the apparition of Jasia haunts his fiancée Karusia. Forefathers’ Eve also features the invocation of ghosts on the nocturnal backdrop of an empty funeral chapel, a romantic upiór returning to visit his beloved, and (as Maria Janion remarked) a vampiric theme – since, once Konrad is in his prison cell, he transforms into a ‘bloodthirsty vampire of patriotic vengeance’:
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Then up spoke Song: ‘I’ll walk by night
And first I’ll gnaw each brother worm;
When he feels my serpent bite
He shall rise in vampire form.’
Then we’ll seek the foe at last,
Suck his blood from him,
and hew His body fine and nail it fast
Lest he rise a vampire too.
In the Romantic imagination, one could become an upiór due to terrible sins committed while alive, as was the case with Władysław Siciński in Mickiewicz’s Popas w Upicie (Stopover in Upita): ‘The earth was unwilling to take him’ because he was the first nobleman to have disrupted the Polish parliament by absolute veto. One could also turn into an upiór due to love that was stronger than death, as in Słowacki’s Arab (The Arab). A romantic version of vampirism also appeared in the pages of Narcyza Żmichowska’s Poganka (The Pagan Woman).
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Dark Romanticism was fond of Gothic trappings, for example in Jacek Malczewski’s Maria and Seweryn Goszczyński’s Zamek Kaniowski (Kaniv Castle), which was full of macabre descriptions. From the spiral staircases of towers to castle dungeons, people dropped like flies in the frenetic early works of Zygmunt Krasiński. He also saw the ancient history of Poland as ideal material for the horror aesthetic, for instance Mściwy Karzeł i Masław, Książę Mazowiecki (The Vindictive Dwarf and Masław, the Mazovian Prince) or Władysław Herman i Dwór Jego (Władysław Herman and His Court).
Józef Bohdan Dziekoński, the leader of the Warsaw Cyganeria group, blended Gothicism with the occult in his tales of alchemists (Sędziwój), sorcerers, and Rosicrucians. There were odd goings-on in Walery Łoziński’s Zaklęty Dwór (The Haunted Manor). Henryk Rzewuski wrote several stories that Maria Janion described as ‘Gothic yarns’, whose horror atmosphere was dressed up in noble storytelling. In his short story Upominek Duchów (Souvenir of Ghosts), we read:
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Then, as usually happens in old castles, the evening’s conversation turned to things extraordinary […]. There was talk of upiórs, ghosts, the deceased appearing to their surviving friends and relatives, and so forth […]
‘I am bound for a world with which I have long been acquainted’, wrote Seweryn Goszczyński in his last will and testament. The afterlife fired the Romantics’ imaginations not only while writing their works. In the late 1840s, the fashion for spiritualism reached the Old Continent from America. Furniture on which otherworldly visitors would rap out their messages began to move around the salons of Europe. Mickiewicz was interested in table-turning and organised a séance at his Parisian flat. Paradoxically, however, no phantoms came to haunt the bard who had written so much about unearthly occurrences. The experiment alarmed his spiritual guide, Towiański, who told him: ‘This all stems from a desire to discover what goes on in hell’. Mickiewicz was torn, apparently – on the one hand, he kept up with spiritualist news but, on the other, could not indulge in the phenomenon due to his passion for mystical Christianity.
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His friend from his time in Vilnius, Antoni Odyniec, denounced séances involving furniture in a poem titled Szatańskie Zakusy (Satanic Ambitions). Cyprian Kamil Norwid warned that the phenomenon should not be dismissed and regarded it as one of the heralds of imminent ‘doomsday, to a certain degree’. Not everyone took it seriously, however. At the time, the novelist Józef Korzeniowski wrote the poem Odezwa Stolików Mahoniowych do Wierzących (Proclamation by Mahogany Tables to Believers):
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What’s the matter with you, ladies and gentlemen?
Up until now, we stood quietly in corners;
Why do you torment us so?
Or could it be, then,
That your wits have become as dull as our legs?
This was part of a letter to his friend Zygmunt Krasiński, who had already managed to organise his first attempts at spiritualism in his Warsaw residence. Somewhat later, Krasiński met the Scottish conjuror Daniel Dunglas Home in Paris, and for a while, the poet was obsessed with researching his extraordinary abilities. He was particularly concerned about the nature of the ghosts invoked – were they clean or unclean spirits? Like Norwid, he also wondered whether the invasion of ghosts in Europe was a harbinger of the apocalypse. The press began to report on unusual occurrences during gatherings at the home of the author of Przedświt (Daybreak), and the poet pestered the occultist so much that he began to hide from him. This also came as a relief to the poet himself, who wrote to a friend in satisfaction: ‘Finally, the medium has barred me from his séances!’
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Believing in innocent souls
Meanwhile, in Poland, the fashion was spreading ever further. In 1853, the Kraków magazine Czas (Time) wrote:
The craze for interrogating tables has already reached the villages from the cities. Our people are always inclined to believe in extraordinary things, and they have begun to ask tables for advice concerning many of their needs. To do so, they visit the cities or their lords, as they still do not trust their own tables […]
The first Polish spiritualist journal Światło Pozagrobowe (Light from Beyond the Grave) was published in Lviv in 1869. Its contributors included Słowacki and Mickiewicz – from the other side! They interviewed Słowacki’s ghost, asking him to explain several points in Kordian, to which he replied: ‘I had such a variety of weird thoughts at the time that I would rather not recall it. Ask me something else’. Mickiewicz was such a prolific writer – even from beyond the grave – that he dictated an entire book through a medium, published under the title Krótkie Porównanie Tadeusza Kościuszki i Napoleona (A Brief Comparison of Tadeusz Kościuszko and Napoleon).
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Positivism also kept up with the spirit world, but in its own scientific way. The rationalist Bolesław Prus grew interested in spiritualism thanks to his friend Julian Ochorowicz, a man of many interests: a journalist, teacher, psychologist, physicist, inventor and researcher of spiritualism. In The Doll, Prus portrayed him as the scientist Ochocki, who dreamed of inventing a flying machine, and he included a description of a séance in The New Woman (originally: Emancypantki). As an observer, he also took part in séances with a famous medium, Eusepia Palladino, and reported on them for the press. Prus was tormented by contradictions, telling Ludwik Krzywicki: ‘Dear Sir, I want to believe in the innocent soul. I should do, yet I cannot!’ He explained the popularity of spiritualism and the need to research it scientifically as:
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This century has proven the power of the mind more clearly than all previous ones and explains spirits away as chemistry and physics, yet in this century, spiritualism is developing like never before. The foundations of spiritualism are by no means ‘mediums’ and ‘levitation’, but simply a need to believe in something extrasensory after death. That is why no reasoning, exposés or mockery have killed spiritualism. Only when modern physics truly discovers a ghost amid the luminiferous aether and waves, and psychology links it to human feelings and desires, will the tables fall silent and mediums cease to be so widely admired.
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Young Poland gave Polish horror literature a new lease on life. Every effort was made to catch up in the uncanny tales department, and new themes of mental illness, parapsychology and the occult appeared alongside Romantic inspirations. Another new trend was Satanism, which played a prominent role in the works of Tadeusz Miciński and Stanisław Przybyszewski. Books on spiritualist theories were translated by authors such as Stanisław Brzozowski (Carl du Prel’s Der Spiritismus) and Maria Konopnicka, writing under a male pseudonym (Giuseppe Lapponi’s Hypnotism and Spiritism).
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Władysław Reymont took a keen interest in paranormal phenomena, describing them and even generating his own. He was found to have abilities as a medium when he joined a travelling theatre troupe and was also rumoured to be capable of bilocation. This resulted in a tour, during which he held close encounters with residents of the other world. He also travelled to the annual meeting of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1894. That trip inspired his novel Wampir (The Vampire), which features a mysterious Brahmin, vampiric femmes fatales, Satanists, fanatical flagellators, and other eccentric individuals prowling the labyrinth of foggy London backstreets. The novel is extremely interesting for its descriptions of black masses, for instance, which are not what immediately springs to mind when thinking of works by the author of The Peasants (originally: Chłopi):
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Daisy sat between the knees of Baphomet in the same position as him, her lowered arms stroking a panther sitting at her feet, and above her head, veiled in golden smoke from a censer, the greenish-bloody, mournful face of the Devil loomed down.
Paranormal phenomena were also present in the writer’s short stories, such as Czekam… (I’m Waiting…, 1905), which was clearly inspired by voodoo – its hero tortures wax dolls of his enemy, thus causing his death. He returned to spiritualist themes in one of his last stories, Seans (The Séance, 1924). A group of friends attempt to summon a ghost as an experiment, but they are unsuccessful. Then one of the participants starts to jeer at spiritualism, until the ghost of a person who committed suicide suddenly chases away the entire company.
For a while, Reymont rented a flat with another writer, Antoni Lange, who shared his interest. It was most evident in his 1924 novel Miranda, in which spiritualism is a key plot point. This was an esoteric utopia, in which the author presented his belief that humanity could achieve more by improving its spirituality than by simply refining its technology.
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A spectre circling in an aeroplane
The golden age of horror literature continued into the Second Polish Republic. The most famous writer of the genre was Stefan Grabiński, sometimes called the Polish Lovecraft or Poe. Underrated during his lifetime, he is being rediscovered by Polish and foreign horror buffs today. His great passion was railways, the overall theme of his short story collection The Motion Demon (originally: Demon Ruchu). It contains ghostly railway stations, eerie forces prowling through carriages, crimes in empty compartments, and an obsession with movement that transforms into a morbid addiction – but his range of interests was not limited to these. Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny (Illustrated Daily Courier) described his work as:
He is one of the few writers in Poland who are preoccupied with an invisible world full of secrets, depths, fears and marvels, which tap the scarcely discernible yet powerful forces lying dormant in the human soul. […] His fiction also embraces metaphysical phenomena […] such as psychometry, telepathy, xenoglossy, thought transference, prophetic dreams, infallible intuition, visions, mysterious shadows and encounters […]
The writer and pre-war air ace Janusz Meissner also served up ghost stories in a modern setting. The author made the most of the romantic aura surrounding the early days of aviation and transformed the legends and superstitions of his fellow pilots into short stories. Therefore, he wrote about haunted planes going out of control, and a cemetery hangar full of crashed aircraft and inhabited by the ghosts of pilots.
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All manner of hacks mass-published their horror stories in penny dreadfuls. Witold Gombrowicz also dabbled with the genre in 1939, writing a novel under the pseudonym of Z. Niewieski. It was serialised in the tabloid Kurier Czerwony (Red Courier), which had clearly tempted him with a large fee (he only admitted to writing it before his death in 1969). In The Possessed, he used every Gothic horror and pulp literary cliché possible: a haunted castle, degenerate aristocrats, romance and a criminal theme. The overall effect was excellent.
Interest in contacting the other world continued unabated. No séance was complete without the connoisseur of all curiosities, Witkacy, who (so he claimed) had been haunted by the ghost of his late fiancée, Jadwiga Janczewska, who had committed suicide. Two sisters, Magdalena Samozwaniec and Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, also took part in spiritualist experiments. In 1930, the latter published a book titled Profil Białej Damy (Profile of the White Lady), in which the titular heroine has a flowing gown of ectoplasm. Works with titles such as Materjalizacja (Materialisation) and Nieudany Seans (The Failed Séance, quoted below) speak for themselves:
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Imperceptibly the aura faded…
The table stopped and fell motionless.
From her pale hand to his, a tremor passed,
And love appeared instead of spirits.
In one of his Kroniki Tygodniowe (Weekly Chronicles), the great sceptic and satirist Słonimski wrote:
Warsaw is one of the most mystical cities in Europe. Not everyone is aware that our capital, which has so little of real value, still exports astrologers, spiritualist mediums, and miracle-workers to the entire world. Unfortunately, those exports have been too few, apparently, as plenty of that riffraff still remains here for us.
Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński had a more objective stance on relations with the other side. His journalist colleague Teofil Modrzejewski, aka Franek Kluski, was an internationally renowned theatre critic, poet, and medium. He was famous for never having been exposed as a fraud, and he accepted no money for organising séances, as his motives were purely scientific and educational. The critic described one such séance at length in his article Godzina w Krainie Czarów (An Hour in Wonderland). Two spectres appeared, and Boy made a paraffin mould of one of their ‘astral hands’:
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I never engaged in spiritualism. Not that I didn’t believe in it, which would be a bit like not believing in radiotelegraphy. […] But it was of no interest to me; I had my own way of communing with spirits, including the largest of them, and that was enough for me. […] One of my colleagues who has the same astonishing gift returned to the salon, looking terrible, with half-wild eyes and a swollen face. No one who saw him in that state could have believed that he had invited us here merely to perpetrate some hoax at our expense! […] I will not strive to explain his symptoms as that would be too complicated. Kluski himself simply replied: ‘I don’t know what it is!’, but added that he was inclined towards a spiritualist concept.
The year 1939 saw the start of the popularity of the rhyming Przepowiednia z Tęgoborza (The Tęgoborze Prophecy), which foresaw the coming of a great war, but also strengthened Poland’s resolve to be reborn even greater and stronger from it. Purportedly, it had been dictated through a medium by the spirit of Mickiewicz in 1893, but was probably written by the author Maria Szpyrkówna in that same 1939. When the war broke out, Poles began to distribute the prophetic text far and wide, and it remained popular in Poland under Communism because, as it tends to be, prophecies can be interpreted in various ways.
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The spirits had a hard time faced with the materialistic attitude of the Polish People’s Republic, as horror fiction had long been associated with potboilers. In the 1960s, Jeremi Przybora appealed for people to:
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Make a tiny hole in materialism
To allow the thread of spiritualism
Of pre-war times to slip back through
And enjoy being a spirit anew!
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Originally written in Polish by Patryk Zakrzewski, Nov 2017, translated by Mark Bence, Oct 2020