Creepy Mansions in Hungary, Mexico and the Adirondacks

The cover certainly adds to the sense of mystery and ‘Old World’.

Márai Sándor: Embers (The Candles Burnt to the End), translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 1942 (published in English in 2001 by Alfred Knopf and in UK in 2003 by Penguin)

In theory this book that I read for London Reads the World Book Club should have appealed to me tremendously. It has that Central European sensibility, the author has been compared to Stefan Zweig, it mourns a lost world like Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, critics say ‘it works as a novel of suspense whose denouement is as exciting as a detective tale’ and it all takes place in a gloomy castle at the foot of the Carpathian mountains.

And yet… although I enjoyed parts of it quite a bit, overall this book left me unsure.

The owner of the castle, a former general in the Austro-Hungarian army, has invited his old friend Konrad, whom he hasn’t seen for forty-one years for a formal dinner by candlelight. At this dinner, the General brings up all the resentment and pain that he has felt for decades because he is convinced that his (now dead) wife and his friend were having an affair and possibly planning to kill him. While it’s understandable that this might infuriate him, in actual fact the General has been nursing this grievance so much that it has stopped him from really living his life. There is more than a hint of homoeroticism about his feeling of betrayal by his friend, especially since he seems to value male friendship above and beyond any marriage. However, his greatest anger and regret is that he was never able to understand either his wife (or his mother) or his friend and their passion for music. The way he speaks about his wife gave me a very ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning vibe.

Whether we think of this as a metaphor of the old vs. the new generation (the General comes from a wealthy aristocratic family, while Konrad is from a more humble Galician background and then gets involved in merchant-type work in the Far East), I am not entirely sure if the author intended us to find the General as repulsive as I did (not that Konrad is pure as drive snow either), whether he is rejoicing or mourning the death of such old-fashioned values (or simply feels ambivalent about them). There were a few scenes from his childhood, where you felt that he might have become someone different, but he had no choice but follow the family tradition.

One could argue that the bitter, lonely old General with the victim mentality is the way that Hungary likes to see itself at certain points in its history – and I simply cannot tell if Márai condones or criticises this (it is much clearer that Banffy is highly critical of the inertia of the Hungarian noblemen). It certainly didn’t help when I heard that Hungary’s authoritarian PM Viktor Orban claims this is his favourite book, often quoting things such as: ‘The miracle is not that Hungary is the way it is but that it still exists.’

Yet the passages about Vienna in particular really resonated with me (this is where the two men met as youngsters attending the military school). Here’s what Konrad says about it:

Saying the word Vienna was like striking a tuning fork and then listening to find out what tone it called forth in the person I was talking to. It was how I tested people. If there was no response, this was not the kind of person I liked.

Vienna wasn’t just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one’s soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life… Vienna was like another friend. When it rained in the tropics, I always heard the voice of Vienna.

There are also some really beautiful descriptive passages (although one might argue that the General does go on a bit and that no guest would put up with such haranguing and whining for uninterrupted for chapters at a time). Although they seem to glorify hunting, they also give a description of the deep forest surrounding the castle, where the General has retreated to just a few rooms in one wing, and everything else is falling into ruin.

It is no longer dark, it is not yet light. The forest smells so raw and wild, as if every living thing – plants, animals, people – were slowly coming back to consciousness in the dormitory of the world, exhaling all their secrets and bad thoughts… The scent of wet leaves, of ferns, of crumbling tree trunks, of rotting pine cones, of the soft carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles slippery from the dew, rises up from the earth to assault you like the smell of two lovers locked in sweat-soaked embrace… It’s the moment when something happens not just deep among the trees but also in the dark interior of the human heart, for the heart, too, has its night and its wild surges, as strong an instinct for the hunt as a wolf or a stag.

The description of the castle is also very evocative: it is a mix of the ‘East’ European splendid isolation and wilderness (‘the forest with bears’, as the Emperor of France calls it) and West European extravagance. But now it too stands sinister and haunted, resentful and claustrophobic:

The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses. Door-latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them. Every house in which passion has loosed itself on people in all its fury exudes such intangible presences.

I should say that I’d read the book more than 20 years ago in Romanian translation and was convinced it was set in Transylvania but there is no specific mention of a place, other than that it was a territory formerly belonging to Hungary, and since the author was born in Košice in eastern Slovakia, at the foot of the Ore Mountains, it might be safer to assume that the castle is located around there.

Sylvia Moreno Garcia: Mexican Gothic, 2020.

The cover does not feature the house, surprisingly enough, so only very slightly hints at the horrors within.

The line about the mushrooms and the mildew quoted above certainly chimed well with this book, written in English by this American author of Mexican heritage. Her rotting mansion is even more isolated and sinister, the host’s intention is even more evil and the suspense escalates into real danger.

Set in Mexico in the 1950s and inspired by a real silver mine town with an English cemetery, the book tells the story of spoilt wealthy socialite Noemi, who is sent by her father to this isolated mansion High Place, to see what is happening with her beloved cousin Catalina, who married in great haste the (impoverished) heir of this (now closed) silver mine and has been locked up in that eerie house ever since.

All the great Gothic tropes which appear accidentally in Embers are very deliberately placed here. There is plenty of suspense, plenty of surly and untrustworthy characters, graveyards and nightmares, shadows creeping about at night. The writer breathes new life into these clichés through the strength of her main character (I was less convinced by some of the others). Noemi might be completely alone and helpless, she might start doubting herself, but she is not stupid, not easily intimidated, she does not give up. I imagine her as the Katharine Hepburn character in High Society. The atmosphere is brilliantly creepy – the house itself becomes more than a setting, it is a character all by itself, the source of fear and danger.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, evoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired, slats missing from a couple of shutters the ebony porch groaning as they made their way up the steps to the door, which came complete with a silver knocker shaped like a fist dangling from a circle. “It’s the abandoned shell of a snail,” she told herself…

While I guessed some of the story of the house and the family, there were still some surprising twists there, although the ending was slightly disappointing. However, for me this book was not about the plot as much as about the atmosphere – and it certainly had that in spades.

Julia Bartz: The Writing Retreat, 2023.

The third book I also enjoyed more for its atmosphere than its plot, although originally it was the plot that drew me in. It’s interesting that the American cover is anything but subtle and features the Gothic house in the Adirondacks where most of the story takes place, while the UK cover opts for subtlety and atmosphere.

US cover
UK cover

As a writer, who hasn’t dreamt of winning a coveted month-long writing retreat in an idyllic location, especially one that is tutored by an author you hugely admire? For Alex, who has not been having much success with her dream of becoming a published novelist, it certainly seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She is not about to let the fact that her former best friend Wren will also be there spoil her delight. Nor the fact that the house has a reputation for being haunted. But when their tutor Roza starts playing nasty mind games with the participants, and Alex becomes a little too obsessed with the history of the previous owners of the house, things take a nasty turn.

At first glance, however, the house seems plush and extravagant rather than sinister (although any place with no mobile or Wifi reception should raise suspicion):

We zoomed through the entryway into a large front hall that rose at least fifty feet above us. An enormous marble staricase swept fown from a second-floor landing. Large paintings filled the walls – to the left, abstract shapes, to the right, looming figures. A chandelier hung suspended over the staircase, casting light with hundreds of electric candles. The space was grand, majestic, and a stream of giddiness filled my veins.

What is interesting is how all this optimism and luxury starts to look menacing a few chapters later. But I guess you can tell even from this brief excerpt that the author is no Shakespeare. The other two books were certainly better written. The premise for this one was interesting, and I read it quickly enough, but it did all descend into a rather implausible mess towards the end. Fast food consumption book for my taste, which is a bit of a shame, as I think this premise could have led to even more interesting and subtle things.

#EU27Project: The Transylvanian Trilogy

It’s taaken years of mental preparation and gradual acquisition of books, and about a year in the reading (the first volume followed by a gap and then a rather breathless devouring of the two remaining volumes). But I’ve finally done it: finished the entry for Hungary in my #EU27Project. And what a magnificent entry it is: Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy The Writing on the Wall, a.k.a. The Transylvanian Trilogy.

I have to admit to a stuttering start with it. I picked it up at least three times to read the first 10-20 pages and got lost in the profusion of unfamiliar names and events. But once I found the key that opened the door, I was rewarded with an entire (vanished) world that I had difficulties letting go of…

The 2nd book in the trilogy.

It’s a monumental work, running to 1392 pages, yet my feeling by the end was that it finished too soon, because it barely addressed the war and its aftermath. So, for people comparing it to War and Peace, I would say it’s more peace overshadowed by the gathering clouds of war. It is far more similar to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, mourning the loss of the same empire from the point of view of minority ethnic groups who have benefitted from the Empire, but have an ambiguous relationship to it.

Bánffy himself was an incredibly interesting man, a politician as well as a writer, mature and liberal, suspicious of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism, trying a conciliatory middle ground after the Versailles Treaty, a rapprochement to the Allies during the Second World War (during the period when both Hungary and Romania were in the German camp) and somehow forever caught in the middle as a proud Transylvanian. He lived long enough to see his beautiful home,
Bonțida, the inspiration for Denestornya in his book, destroyed by the retreating, resentful Germans, and his ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ occupied by the Soviets.

Banffy Castle, Bonțida. Renovations have started on it in the past couple of years.

It must have been even more heartbreaking ultimately than described the final chapter of his trilogy, where he allows himself to utter a cry of despair:

Now this beloved country would perish, and with it most of his generation… that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formulae, that had ignored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their strength was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

This is a family saga as well as a description of Hungarian society in the ten years preceding World War One. All of life seems to be present in its pages: we have a love story (several, in fact), affairs, friendships, betrayals, disappointments and heartbreaks, political intrigue, fraud and loving descriptions of a landscape (and its people) that clearly meant a lot to the author.

Bonțida Castle in 1890, from Wikipedia.

I certainly enjoyed reading about the fancy dress balls in Budapest, charity bazaars in Koloszvar (Cluj), carriage processions drawn by Lippizzaner horses bringing guests to a hunting party in Slovakia, weddings and parties, duels and conmen, romantic moonlit serenades, jinks and high spirits like stealing cows by youthful members of the privileged elite to prove the laziness of the nightwatchman… and yet… I felt uncomfortable with the excessive wealth and pomp, the hedonistic lifestyle of many of the characters in the book in their huge manor houses and lands bequeathed to them by the Emperor, and their casual cruel references to the ‘local’ populations who were their servants. I am sure that is precisely what the author intends: there is much affection in describing that lost world, but also a chilling indictment of his fellow aristocrats’ self-indulgence and indifference to the plight of others.

Miklos Banffy and his family in front of Bontida, including his daughter Katalin, who was involved in the translation of his masterpiece.

The main protagonist, Balint Abady, tries to be fair and organise cooperatives on his land (reflecting, I am sure, Banffy’s own liberal beliefs), but the truth is many of the Magyar landlords and artistocracy were unbelievably cruel to the majority Romanian population, who were essentially their property, i.e. serfs (and not that friendly to the ethnic Germans either, who were largely merchants and craftsmen, therefore more independent – as for the gypsies and Jews, well…). Balint’s mother has a generous yet very patronising way of distributing Christmas presents, and owns such vast swathes of land that she loses sight of it and falls easy prey to those who trick her and mistreat the people living there.

Still, I can’t help melting when Banffy describes the mountains so lovingly, the same mountains that I grew up with and adore. For him, they clearly represent the Garden of Eden. There are so many moments which impregnate themselves on your retina, like Balint and the love of his life Adrienne bathing naked in an ice-cold stream high up in the forest:

They emerged from out of the thick trees onto the bank of a sizeable basin of water, almost circular, with steep banks dipping down to it that were so regular they might have been carved by the hand of man himself. Here the cranberries tumbled in tropical profusion; and here and there could be glimpsed bluebells, buttercups and pale green ethereal ferns. In the middle of the basin, some rocks rose above the surface of the water… glistening with the water that flowed around and over their smooth, polished surface.

Apuseni National Park, photo credit: Gabor Varga,

I have a vested historical interest in Transylvania, of course, as some of my family originated there (then escaped across the mountains into Wallachia when things got too bad), so I found the political elements of the story fascinating. I hadn’t realised before quite how much tension there was between Hungary and the Austrians, despite the ‘K. und K.’ agreement (Emperor – Kaiser – of Austria, King of Hungary, so a dual monarchy and devolved parliament). Some of the speeches in the Budapest Parliament are probably taken word for word from the author’s own speeches and experiences of politics. Banffy (via Balint) is clearly highly critical of the infighting amongst Hungarian politicians, their focus on petty parochial issues instead of the major international threats heading their way.

It is, after all, a generally accepted rule that only some cataclysmic event or terrible danger can wipe away the preoccupations with the joys, sorrows and troubles of everyday life. The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals, but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone’s daily preoccupations. And how could it have been otherwise?

Most readers will skip the politics and be attracted to the diverse characters and family histories (be warned: there are lots of names and complex family alliances through marriage, it’s quite a challenge to keep track of them all). It is an immersive experience, you become so engrossed in the minutiae of their daily lives, anxieties and sorrows, that you are very reluctant to leave that world.

Above all, there are some real set-piece scenes that will linger in your mind long after finishing the books. Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy starts out with such high hopes, optimism and talent and becomes a tragic figure, a victim of his own foolhardiness at the gambling tables; his death is ignoble and lonely. The scene of the death of Balint’s mother, by way of contrast, is beautiful, peaceful, as she slips away, surrounded by all she loved. Balint’s lover Adrienne is quite frankly annoying at times, with her dithering between passion and keeping up appearances, although of course we have to understand that she was living in different times and there are examples in the book of what happened to women who defied social expectations.

A captivating and unforgettable reading experience, and if it makes you want to visit Cluj, Bonțida and the Apuseni mountains, then all the better. I’m planning to go there next time I’m in Romania!

Apuseni Mountains, from Senior Voyage website.

Love and Being Content in a Mad, Bad World

tooclosePascal Garnier: Too Close to the Edge (transl. Emily Boyce)

I always get something out of a Pascal Garnier book, but there are some which truly stand out. This is one of the stand-out ones. As usual with this author, it is a slim volume which leaves you ever-so-slightly moody and breathless.

It’s a simple-enough story of Éliette, a grandmother who is ‘not old enough or fat enough to be a Mémé’, who is facing life on her own after her husband’s death two months before he was due to retire. The house they had bought and renovated in preparation for their retirement is in an isolated location in the Ardèche and the life ‘which was supposed to be a never-ending holiday’. After a few months, she finds herself getting restless with this placid existence and overly helpful neighbours. She buys herself a tiny bubble car and zips around the countryside with it. Then, two kilometres away from home, just as the rain is starting, she gets a puncture. A man in his forties called Étienne stops to help and she offers to give him a lift. When he tells her he has broken down himself and is looking for a phone, she invites him into her house. Gradually, some kind of relationship develops between these two strangers, although Éliette is not the sweet, trusting old dear that people can easily take advantage of.

‘I’ll warn you now: if you’re a murderer, I have very little to lose, and there’s nothing here worth stealing unless you count the walls.’

Of course, readers familiar with Garnier’s dark stories will recognise the warning signs, but the danger only becomes apparent once Étienne’s daughter appears on the scene and Éliette finds out about the death of her neighbours’ son. I won’t tell you a word more, because these stories always veer off into unexpected, off-the-wall directions. I will just say that the similarity of the two names is probably not coincidental, as the two characters have more in common than might be apparent at first glance.

She was innocent, just like him, like the worst criminal, like the dog who kills the cat, the cat who kills the mouse, the mouse who… must kill something too. All around, in the bushes and the grass, prey and predators mingled in the same macabre dance. You could be one or the other, depending on the circumstances, all of which were extenuating. It was what they called life, the strongest of all excuses.

I rather loved this wistful but completely unsentimental look at aging, loneliness and hoping to find love or at least comfort in a world which seems to have gone crazy. This book will be released on 11th April and comes heartily recommended.

feveratdawnPéter Gárdos: Fever at Dawn (transl. Elizabeth Szász)

This is a fictionalised account of how the writer’s (and film maker’s) parents met and fell in love after the end of WW2.  After his father’s death, Gárdos was given the letters his parents had preserved with such care for so many years by his mother.

The backdrop is anything but promising: Miklos and Lili have just emerged from Belsen and are recovering in different refugee camps in Sweden. Miklos is 25 years old, emaciated and toothless, weighs barely 29 kilos. On his way to Sweden he starts coughing up bloody foam. He has tuberculosis and is told that he has only six months left to live, but that doesn’t stop him looking for a wife. He finds a list of all 117 young Hungarian women from his region ‘whom nurses and doctors were trying to bring back to life in various temporary hospitals across Sweden’ and writes to each one of them in his beautiful handwriting. A few of them write back, but it is the letter of eighteen-year-old Lili which captures his attention. He is instantly convinced that she is the one, but over the next six months they will have to make do with writing each other increasingly passionate letters and seeing each other only three times very briefly and with great difficulty.

When they do meet face-to-face for the first time, they almost run away from each other, but instead they recognise each other in choked emotion. They are kindred souls, although they have had different upbringings and disagree about a number of things. Lili wants to convert to Catholicism, Miklos is a committed Marxist. Miklos is a dreamer with poetic licence, Lili is more timid and realistic. And, although they try to tell each other everything, they never speak about certain important things, neither then, nor later.

My father never told Lili that for three months he burned bodies in Belsen concentration camp… Lili did not tell Miklos about the day of her liberation from Belsen. It took her nine hours to drag herself from the barracks to the clothes depot, a distance of about a hundred metres… Miklos could never bring himself to tell her of his time, before he burned corpses, as an orderly in the typhoid barrack… the most ghastly block in the camp… And Lili never said a word about her twelve-day journey to Germany in a freight wagon.

This is not a book about the Holocaust, but a book about survival, about finding hope and love against all odds, when all the world around you seems ghastly and hopeless. It is anything but sickly sweet – charming, poignant and with little shots of sarcasm and humour which keep it from descending into sentimentality.

The film director originally wrote this story as a film script, then later turned it into a novel. The film came out in December 2015 (in Hungarian). Here is the official trailer on Vimeo.