As I have been known to point out occasionally, Portuguese literature is not especially rich in works belonging to the field of supernatural fiction or, for that matter, more classic Gothic fiction.
The reasons for that are certainly manifold, beginning in the traditional influences that shaped our national culture and ending in our generally mild sunny weather, quite distinct from the much darker misty ambiances of haunted Scottish castles. The distance separating the western part of the Iberian Peninsula from central Europe probably also played some part in delaying the arrival of genres and fashions originated in more northern latitudes(1).
In modern times, several writers have tried their hand at the genre, but usually only rather sporadically, and some collections labelled as horror often include a variety of genres, such as the fantastic, or the surrealist.
It constituted a pleasant surprise for me, back in 2010, to find in a bookshop a new publication, titled A Noite e o Sobressalto (which could probably be translated as “Of Night and Fright”), and bearing the subtitle “Sete Histórias de Mistério” (= Seven Tales of Mystery). The name of the author, Pedro Medina Ribeiro, did not ring any bells, which was after all to be expected, since this was his first book!
Born in 1977, graduated in the Lisbon’s University and currently lives in Algarve, working as a high-school teacher of Physics and Chemistry. Already as a student he collaborated in students’ publications, thus discovering his vocation as a writer. We met soon after publication of that first book and been good friends ever since.
As the subtitle clearly indicates, A Noite e o Sobressalto comprises a total of seven stories that I propose to examine in some detail, albeit trying not to spoil the fun for anyone not having yet read them but planning to.
The book was published by Oficina do Livro and includes a Preface by Deana Barroqueiro. The cover was by Neusa Dias and is quite suggestive, with a hooded figure holding a lamp, at dusk, walking through a wood under a blue light, against a very dark background (image ©Andy & Michelle Kerry-Trevillion Images).
Let me then address each story in turn.
1. A Séance (The Séance)
This is a pure Gothic tale, one of the two longest in the volume. The action takes place in Berlin, where a very wealthy man, Herr Multscher hires a famous Italian medium, Guillermo Maura, to hold a séance for a very selected assembly of guests at his house.
Things inevitably go terribly wrong and until the very end we are swayed by the author between two plots, one involving a supernatural explanation of the phenomena described, the other a natural one. Nevertheless, a few details comply with the advice offered by Montague Rhodes James to ghost stories writers, namely that the door to a natural explanation should be narrow enough to prevent its usage.
Speaking of the comments left by M. R. James about what he considered to be the ideal settings for ghostly fiction, I am also reminded of the following: “For the ghost story a slight haze if distance is desirable. ‘Thirty years ago,’ ‘Not long before the war,’ are very proper openings” and also “A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’”.
And Pedro Ribeiro – as far as I am aware of, based only on his intuition as a story teller – certainly abides by these advices, as witnessed by opening sentences such as “No ano de 1883, cheguei a Praga para estudar Medicina” (= “In the year 1883 I arrived at Prague to study Medicine”, in A Face Obscura da Lua) or “[…] agora, já velho, é frequente não conseguir recuperar as referências de uma ideia. […] Há, porém, uma lenda que me é demasiado querida para tornar imperdoável que não me consiga lembrar de quando a adquiri […]” (= “[…] now, already an old man, I am often unable to recover the references to an idea. […] But there is a legend that is so dear to my heart that it would by unforgivable to remember when I got it […]”, in O Monstro Marinho).
2. A Face Obscura da Lua (The Dark Side of the Moon)
This is certainly the darkest tale in the collection. Cleverly told in an indirect way, it is a werewolf story with a rather poignant ending.
It starts very mildly and advances in a well-built crescendo, while the final scenes, summarily hinted at – as opposed to being described in great detail – probably owe something to the cinematographic tradition of a mob carrying torches and rural implements sieging the monster, quite typical of the Hammer films of the 1950s and 60s, based on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
3. O Caminheiro (The Hiker)
One of the interesting features of A Noite e o Sobressalto is that the seven stories included represent a rather wide range of subjects and subgenres within horror fiction. The present one, for instance, neatly fits into what can be classified as folk horror, a very trendy subgenre nowadays.
The plot refers to the revival in modern times of an old legend involving a sort of vampire that haunts the paths of a region in northern Europe, sucking the life from those he manages to meet on their nightly walks. Once again, some restraint is used in the narrative and we are spared the details of the actual attack, to be left only with a creepy description of its consequences, which in themselves are disturbing enough.
4. Mandrágora (Mandragora)
This very short tale can also be labelled as folk horror, but of a very different kind when compared to the previous one. This time we deal with witchcraft, in an indeterminate period of time and an unidentified country. The opening sentence sets the general tone of the narrative: “O caminho continuava pelo cume da colina apartando em dois o campo de trigo, e, ao percorrê-lo, com a brisa a ondular as espigas, quem tivesse visto o mar imaginaria estar a atravessar águas divididas pela mão de um profeta” (= “The path continued along the top of the hill, separating the wheat field in two, and, when walking it, with the breeze undulating the ears, whoever had seen the sea would have imagined that they were crossing waters divided by the hand of a prophet”).
Characters are not even named, but instead are referred to by their occupations or characteristics, o Agrimensor (The Surveyor), A Velha (The Old Hag), o Estalajadeiro (The Innkeeper), o Médico (The Physician), which gives the narrative the general tone of a fable.
5. Post Mortem
This is the story of a haunting but is based on a strange premise involving an encounter with an already haunted old man. The general ambiance created is remindful of the Belgian school of the fantastic, represented by authors such as Jean Ray, Gérard Prévot, etc.
6. O Monstro Marinho (The Sea Monster)
The easiest way to describe this short story is probably to label it as a fairy tale. The Sea itself is treated as a character.
The location of the tale is nor indicated, but a detail actually hint at the Azores, as the narrator specifies “Nasci num arquipélago vulcânico em que os pescadores caçavam baleias” (= “I was born in a volcanic archipelago where fishermen hunted whales”); at the same time, it is said that “Nossa Senhora do Forte era a vila maior do arquipélago” (= “Nossa Senhora do Forte was the largest village in the archipelago”), and although the toponym Nossa Senhora do Forte does not seem to really correspond to a real Azorean location, there are a number of fortifications in the region going by the name of Forte de Nossa Senhora(2).
7. A Herança (The Inheritance)
With the first one, one of the two longest tales in the book, this is a story of witchcraft and particularly a sort of voodoo. A malicious ship owner fakes its own death and tries to bring his rivals to the brink of ruin by hexing models of their ships, with the help of a witch.
A bit of adventure is intertwined in the narrative, as the plot is uncovered and dealt with, until all comes to a happy ending.
In her interesting Preface, Deana Barroqueiro makes some interesting comments about the subjects and narrative structure of these seven stories, as well as the author’s style, particularly referring to his “elegant and richly nuanced language” (“linguagem elegante e rica de matizes”) and his ability to use metaphors and other figures of speech. A single example will probably be enough to underline these qualities: “Relendo o que escrevi, lamento não ter maior mestria com as palavras, pois receio que imaginarão […] um avaro que se barbeia no escuro para poupar gás, alguém que vive pobre para morrer rico” (“Rereading what I wrote, I regret not having greater mastery with words, because I fear that they will imagine […] a miser who shaves in the dark to save gas, someone who lives poor to die rich”, in A Herança).
As can be inferred from the above, A Noite e o Sobressalto (included in the Plano National de Leitura, the National Reading Plan) is a book I strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in supernatural horror fiction.
The author also published O Diletante e a Quimera (ed. Teorema, 2013), an adventures novelette on which I will not comment here, and texts by his hand have also appeared in anthologies, such as Contos Capitais (Edições Parsifal), O Caso do Cadáver Esquisito, and Microenciclopédia de Micro-organismos, Microcoisas, Nanocenas e Seus Amigos de A-Z (Edições Prado).
I am, of course, looking forward to his next foray into the supernatural genre.
(1) – See my Preface for A Dança dos Ossos (Livro B/Letras Errantes Lda., 2020)
(2) – Forte de Nossa Senhora da Salvação (Ponta Delgada, São Miguel Island), Forte de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres (Corvo Island), Forte de Nossa Senhora da Guia (Horta, Faial Island), Forte de Nossa Senhora da Luz (Praia da Vitória, Terceira Island), Forte de Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Vela, São Jorge Island), and possibly others.
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.