As a Jewish woman, who also recently found out that she’s 20% British, I thought that Jewish Folk Tales in Britain and Ireland was an amazing find. I love folklore, and I know so little about where the stories of my culture come from. Unfortunately, I ended up being a bit disappointed with Liz Berg’s work.
Jewish Folk Tales in Britain and Ireland is divided by different areas of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Before each story, Berg gives a brief overview of the history of the Jewish peoples that lived in the specific area of Britain. Then she goes on to tell a Jewish folk tale.
I will say, I did enjoy the stories. They reminded me of the stories that the rabbi would tell us every Friday on Shabbat when I was in elementary school. The feeling of nostalgia was a tad overwhelming.
Liz Berg, however, is not really a writer. I tried to find information on Berg, her history, writing career, etc. All I really found is that she is a storyteller and has preserved these Jewish folk tales. Because of this lack of information, I have assumed that this is Berg’s first attempt at writing anything major, but I will take corrections to my assumption.
The little historical overviews at the beginning of each chapter are not written as histories, but more in the style of the stories she’s about to recount. The histories felt flimsy and not very thorough. In addition to this lack of thoroughness, she never explained where each story came from. She would explain her little history, then jump completely to something that is seemingly irrelevant. Here is an example from the historical introduction for Dublin:
“The first Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1921-36) was Rabbi Dr Yitzhak haLevi Herzog, whose son, Chaim, was born in Belfast and brought up in Dublin. Chaim went on to become the sixth President of Israel, while his father was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, having been the Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate in Palestine. Chaim Herzog retained close links with Ireland, presenting a sculpture in honour of the fifth president of Ireland, Cearbhall O Dalaigh, which is in Sneem Sculpture parkk, Co. Kerry.
This story is from Poland, where Rabbi Dr Herzog was born.”
A short history about a well-known rabbi in Ireland, which is fine, but then Berg ends with “This story is from Poland, where Rabbi Dr Herzog was born.” Nothing about how the story came to Ireland, who told it to her, and why it is relevant to Rabbi Herzog, besides the fact that it is from Poland (which, in and of itself, is very irrelevant). Most of the chapters are like this, and because of that, I feel that I haven’t learned anything.
It is a shame, really, as I haven’t found many other books like this – I only have one other in my library, but it is larger and less focused on one country. If this book could be republished with more thorough historical contexts added in, I would buy it and keep it in a heartbeat.
I don’t know if I will keep this book, if only for the stories. My recommendation is to just go online to find these stories and the history behind them, as I don’t feel that this book is worth it in its present state.
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I also reviewed this book for Reedsy Discovery.
As a lover of folklore, I thought The Pine Barrens’ Devil would be right up my alley. In a way, it was.
Leigh Paynter tells four short stories that take place each in different historical periods, in which the Jersey Devil makes an appearance either as an instigator or one who passes judgment.
The first story, “Where Darkness Lives”, is Paynter’s own version of how the Jersey Devil came to be. Like most other origin stories, this one takes place in colonial New Jersey, and involves an unwanted or transformed child.
The second story, “A Long Walk”, takes place during the Revolutionary War. The protagonist, Whippany, not only gets lost in the Pine Barrens, but in the throes of his own desires.
The third story, “The Game”, very much illustrates the character of both the Pine Barrens and the Jersey Devil. They like to toy with travelers to the forest, especially those who deserve punishment. In this story, that person who deserves punishment is an antisemitic hustler looking after his girlfriend’s son, a chess genius. This story takes place soon after the end of WWII.
The fourth and final story is “Reflection in the Lake”, almost a reverse retelling of The Little Mermaid, though instead of a sea-witch, it is the Jersey Devil that causes the transformations. The protagonist, Emily, does get more than she bargained for when trying to impress her classmates on a camping trip, losing herself to Lake Absegami in the end.
All of these stories have to do with characters wanting more than they have bargained for, and the Jersey Devil is more than happy to comply with their wishes. I was familiar with some of the Jersey Devil folklore before reading this book, though it never occurred to me that the Jersey Devil would act more like the biblical devil, rather than a weird-looking cryptid that eats livestock and frightens travelers. I like this different take on the Jersey Devil, though it does make its character a bit less mysterious. I am eager to do more research about the Jersey Devil and the many versions of its folklore.
Now I want to discuss the aspects of this book that I liked.
Generally the stories are good and entertaining, and Paynter’s use of different historical eras really emphasizes that the Jersey Devil is a constant and frightening force of folklore.
I like that the stories were not too long, and did feel very much like campfire stories, as I believe Paynter had intended. Perhaps she will publish another collection of stories about the Jersey Devil, which I would be eager to read.
Unfortunately, there were quite a few aspects of this book that did not make it a 5-star read.
While the stories were good, the writing style could be improved upon. Paynter tells too much and shows too little, using statement after statement after statement. However, I am happy to say that this got better with each story. I think the stories’ writing style would have been more coherent if she had gone over each story again. Overall, I think Paynter just needs to practice her storytelling, and find the writing style that suits her best.
Grammar and spelling were off here and there, which further reinforces my statement that Paynter should have gone over her stories and writing more before publishing.
Overall, I did enjoy the stories, and I would recommend The Pine Barrens’ Devil to those who love folklore and the many aspects of this American cryptid.
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As promised, here is a more in-depth review of the anthology Weird Woods: Tales from the haunted forests of Britain. Below I briefly discuss each story in this collection, and seeing how the forests are portrayed in each, and whether or not I think they were portrayed well.
The first story, “The Whisper in the Wood” by Anonymous, is really one of the only stories in this collection that gives the atmosphere of a haunted forest. Essentially, a man goes into the woods where he hears strange voices on the wind, and a gnarly tree that holds him there in the forest long enough to find the corpse which the disembodied voice belonged to. I think one reason this is very much more of the haunted woods genre than the others is because it was written in the 19th century, when the sublime and the preternatural took up the minds of such authors.
“Man-Size in Marble” by Edith Nesbit is indeed somewhat of a ghost story, but really has nothing to do with the woods, except maybe to establish where the story takes place. However, the antagonizing powers in this story have nothing to do with woods or trees, rather they are involved with statues and graves, the opposite of trees.
To be honest, I am not sure why this story has been included in this anthology all about the woods.
“The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton is not about a haunted forest, but it is about the dangers that the woods can possess. Here the danger is a stream in Strid Wood (Yorkshire Dale), which can be treacherous to cross. In this story our protagonist envisions horrors that have taken place in this wood, the deaths caused by the stream. Whether these visions are of his imagination or are real omens are not specified.
I am happy this was included in the collection, as stories about dangerous parts of nature are often what end up as a major part of folklore.
E.F. Benson takes a more mythological approach to the forest in his story “The Man Who Went Too Far.” In this story, the central character has decided to become one with nature, taking his desire so far as to come close to meeting the god of nature himself, Pan. However, he realizes that meeting and communing with Pan could mean death.
There are so many woodland folktales about goat men, and Benson takes us right to its mythological source. Not so much a haunting of the woods, but a going back to a more primeval version of nature, which is why this story is so apt for this collection.
Have you ever walked in the woods and come upon a tree so unusual and captivating that you must know all about it – every root and twig? W.H. Hudson’s “An Old Thorn” focuses on such a tree that captures the interest, and perhaps the lives, of several different people. It stands in its place forever as a godlike being.
While a tree is the main focus, the descriptions of said tree were a bit lost on me – I could not really picture it, though perhaps that adds more to the mystery.
“The White Lady” by Elliot O’Donnell is indeed a ghost story, but the portrayal of the woods and trees is not really the main focus. A young man sneaks out in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of a ghost called “the white lady.” In order to see her, he must hide in a hollow tree, which is really the extent that we see any appearance of a forest or a tree.
It’s a fun story, but not really one that I would’ve picked for this collection, simply because the woods are not a focal point.
“Ancient Lights” by Algernon Blackwood is the one story of this collection that feels the most folkloric. In this story, a man on his way to a large house gets lost in the forest on the edge of the property. The thing is, though, this is not a forest one would expect to get lost in: it’s small, and at first glance you can see the house beyond it. But there are powers in the forest, powers of the trees and perhaps of the wee folk, that are determined to turn the man this way and that, making him completely lose his way.
Besides tales of the goat man, fairy stories are at the pinnacle of woodland folklore, and I am sad that more of those were not included in this collection.
Mary Webb’s “The Name Tree” doesn’t focus on a forest, but it does focus on a tree, specifically what she calls a “name tree”, which the main character is drawn to. This tree is also a representation of her life, and when a man desires to have this young woman sexually (and indeed beneath her own name tree!), she refuses, as she nor the tree could belong to anyone. But dire circumstances force her hand, and she submits to this man under her tree. During their sexual encounter, he breaks the tree, thus also ending her life.
This is a piece of folklore I would very much like to know more about, and if there is such a tradition in history. That a tree could be the vital force of an individual, it is almost a fairy story, but somehow seems to go much deeper than that.
Just like “An Old Thorn,” “The Tree” by Walter De La Mare focuses on a single tree that captures the minds of the main characters. This tree seems to bring its own climate, its own ecology, though it all seems alien, even unalive to the protagonist. And yet, he cannot get the tree and its creatures out of his mind.
I think this story would have been more interesting to me if I had understood the philosophy behind it. I like the premise of a sort of alien tree that is its own world, but I need to understand its effects on the characters better.
“He Made A Woman” by Marjorie Bowen is a retelling of a Welsh folktale from the Mabinogion, in which the woman Blodeuwedd is created to be the wife of the Welsh hero Llew Llaw Gyffes. In this retelling, a young man stays at the home of a scholar, who has there also a young woman named Blodeuwedd. The young man falls in love with her, how she connects to the forest, and seems to come from it, like a fairy creature. However, in the end as he tries to embrace her, Blodeuwedd vanishes and all that is left is an oak flower, a twig of broom, and a cluster of meadowsweet, the ingredients used to create her.
I am glad this tale was included in Weird Woods as so much of Welsh mythology has to do with and takes place in the woods. I am reminded of when king Pwyll meets Arawn, the god of death, in the woods, and I am tempted to do a retelling of this myself.
“A Neighbor’s Landmark” by M.R. James is indeed about a haunted forest, though the story tells of it more than tells of an experience within it. Betton Wood is a forest that no one will enter, that carries shrieks and cries on the wind. Even at the end of this story, the woods are still a mystery.
I think with more of an experienced telling this would have been a better story. However, its themes did remind me of stories like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
And the last story, “N” by Arthur Machen, explores the liminality that trees provide in so many folktales. It is reminiscent of a sort of NeverNeverLand, exploring the way forests and trees can represent an eternal childhood.
I really only have one comment for this story: needs more trees.
As I said in my initial review of Weird Woods, I was expecting much more folklore than was given. However, as I discussed above, there are individual stories that do exude folklore and the darker aspects of mythology. I don’t know that I would recommend this to anyone for folklore purposes, but to get a sense of how authors, and really everyday people, view nature in Britain.
If, however, you want something more folkloric, check out English Folktales, or any of those that revolve around the wee folk, and Welsh folklore. These are guaranteed to have woodland folklore.
I picked up Weird Woods because, if you do not know already, I am a huge fan of folklore and hauntings. From the description, I had expected to find folktales about Britain’s forests, sort of the origins for all the haunting stories we know and love. Basically I expected it to be more like The Book of English Folktales by Sybil Marshall. Instead, this book is an anthology of short stories that are set in haunted British forests or have something to do with trees, and are written by popular authors of this genre from about the early 20th century (some late 19th).
So, while I did enjoy most of the stories generally speaking, I was a bit disappointed at the lack of actual folklore, and that is why I have given this book only three stars.
Nonetheless I loved the dark atmosphere of all the stories, the gnarly roots of the forest, and the trees that seem to be guiding the protagonists to either happiness or misery, depending on their mood and on the attitude of the hero.
I recommend this book to those who want ghost stories, but, to those who prefer more folklore, this may not be the book for you.
I will be discussing the stories in-depth next week on my Patreon, so please do check it out if you want to see my extra analysis!
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As most of you probably know by now, I am a HUGE fan of ghosts and ghost stories and folklore concerning ghosts. I had heard about this book from YouTuber and author Jen Campbell, who recommended this book about Japanese ghost stories highly. I must say that I was hardly disappointed when I did read this book.
Not only did I get to read about ghosts, but in doing so I got to learn more about Japanese culture and folklore, a subject I wasn’t, and still am not, very familiar with. There were ghost stories regarding samurai, Buddhist ghost legends, and quite a few stories about death and ghosts regarding love and marriage, which I did not even consider could be a category in and of itself!
There are two main reasons I gave this book 3 stars instead of 4 or 5. The layout of this particular edition was only okay – I would have preferred it to be more organized in terms of style and layout. At the end of this book, we get a few essays about insects from Hearn, our early 20th century scholar and translator. I am fine with these sections, but Hearn didn’t relate them to Japanese ghost folklore as much as I would have liked.
In any case, this book of Japanese ghost stories was informative and intriguing. I recommend to all who want to learn more about ghosts in non-western settings.
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picked up Bierce’s collection of ghost stories because I am a huge fan of reading ghost stories written around the same time and style – think Edith Wharton, E.F. Benson, Shirley Jackson, etc.
While these stories were VERY spooky, and definitely enjoyable, I encountered some rather unfortunate mannerisms of the time; that is, sexism, racism, making men either murderers or gamblers. It is unlike Wharton’s stories, which center around circumstances outside of the protagonist’s control – Bierce’s characters often put the supernatural experiences upon themselves while also being kind of horrible people. I didn’t ignore it as I went, nor did I excuse the behavior of the characters, but I did feel these traits were what made the stories so centered upon the characters’ downfalls.
I don’t know if I would recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t like period ghost stories as much as I do.
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Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I got this book recommendation from author and Youtuber Jen Campbell’s video about comforting books to read during this time of Coronavirus, social distancing and uncertainty. I of course knew about Hyperbole and a Half comics from the internet, but when I found out there was a WHOLE BOOK, I could not resist.
I did indeed find Hyperbole and a Half comforting, and I could relate to it very much as a human being. Allie Brosh writes about real (and often ridiculous) human experiences, which we can all relate to, and which are quite hilarious (I may have been holding in laughter and tears as I read on the bus). The comics are, of course, hilarious as always, and add so much more to the text, though that was funny too. Brosh told stories from her childhood, about her dogs, and about looking at the bad parts of ourselves and accepting them as they are. My favorites were the stories from childhood, but I related no less to the others. Well, maybe less so with the dog stories, though I do desperately want a dog.
I recommend this book to anyone who needs to feel like a human being in all of this uncertainty at this time.
Also I’d like to mention that I read this book on Scribd, which, I believe, has been listing free books for those who have to stay home. Happy reading!
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Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If I had to pick a word to describe Through the Woods it would be gorgeous. I am always looking for new fairy tale and folklore retellings with horrific twists, and this gorgeous book did not at all disappoint. Through the Woods consists of seven tales, each one encapsulating some fear that we all see lurking in the heart of fairy tales.
The first tale simply illustrates the fear of what could be hiding under the bed.
The second, a sort of retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, illustrates the harshness of winter and the fear of possibly losing one’s family.
The third could be a retelling of any number of tales, including Bluebeard, The Fall of the House of Usher and the Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe, and vampire stories. The fear expressed here is the uncertainty of an arranged marriage – and of course the odd fear of the dead wife coming back for vengeance.
The fourth shows a man’s fear when a seemingly perfect copy of his brother comes back from the dead. Invasion of the body snatchers? Perhaps!
The fifth story is all about ghosts and spiritualism, both the reality and fears that come with it. A young woman who pretends to commune with ghosts. Her friend who can actually see ghosts. Who is more afraid?
The sixth story is similar to the fourth in body-snatching, albeit a bit more gruesome. The creatures featured in this story are what I would associate to the term “skin-walkers.” The fear here is, again, losing one’s family – and perhaps even oneself – and not being able to trust those around you.
he last story, which is not really a story, more of a moral, reiterates one of the big themes of all the stories in this book: getting lost in the woods, and either coming out different, or being eaten by the wolf.
I read this book so quickly, that’s how good the stories were – I didn’t want to put them down for a moment. And Carroll’s illustrations and art in this book had me absolutely entranced. I honestly may go back and just look at the art. It sets the moods of each story so well, readers will be mesmerized and enchanted, just as one would venturing into the strange woods that star in each story. I would love to see Carroll create more tales like this. It is the perfect bedtime story, and the perfect midwinter read.
I recommend Through the Woods to those who love fairy tale and folklore, who want to explore fears a bit, and who want to get lost in a good and gorgeous book.
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The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love ghost stories, especially those that border on the gothic. What I consider to be a good ghost story is when the writer takes the mundane and colors it with tiny traces of the supernatural, just enough to make the reader feel uneasy. Edith Wharton is among such writers, writing with such frankness as to lull the reader into a false sense of security. She even seems to add a sort of game for her readers. Going into each of her stories I knew there would be a ghost somewhere, but the fun and mystery is to speculate who the ghost is going to be and where. It could be the old gardener, a woman who died in the house long ago, it could even be the master of the house! After that it’s just a matter of how we the readers and the protagonists of each story choose to deal with the ghost presented to them.
I recommend this book to all who are ready for the spookiest season of the year, and who want some fun and games with the supernatural.
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Today I have just added The Missing Girl to my ever-growing collection of Shirley Jackson stories. If you do not know yet, Shirley Jackson is my favorite author. Now that is not to say that she has written my favorite book (that is Tolkien). Rather, I have loved all her work consistently, and the genre she writes in is my favorite: horror/thriller/downright odd. The three stories in The Missing Girl are no exception to my love of Shirley Jackson’s work.
Most of you have probably watched the recent show “The Haunting of Hill House”, based on Jackson’s book of the same name. The book is wonderfully spooky and psychologically compelling, dealing with the main character Eleanor’s neuroses about herself and how she fits into the world, and ultimately how she fits into the scheme of Hill House itself.
Shirley Jackson takes a mundane world and turns it upside down. Often her stories center on a female main character living a normal life – whether as a wife, a secretary, an old woman living alone in her house, friendly to all her neighbors (remember that these books were written from around the 40s to te 60s). These characters step out of their normal routine by doing something that wouldn’t seem abnormal – going on an errand, sending a letter, visiting a friend, getting away for the weekend – and she meets the abnormal on the way, getting lost in some way on the journey. Similar plots happen in the three stories of The Missing Girl.
In the first story, “The Missing Girl”, a 13 year old girl goes missing from a summer camp. Her roommate didn’t think anything of it at the time because the girl said she would go out. When the camp realizes she is missing they do what people normally do when someone goes missing: they search. However, as the search goes on longer, the camp and the girl’s family start to realize that the girl may not have ever actually attended the camp as she was supposed to. At the end, the question becomes, did the girl ever exist in the first place?
In the second story, “Journey with a Lady”, a young boy travels on a train alone, when a lady sits down on the train next to him. It turns out she is running from the law. The boy at first does not want anything to do with the lady, but when he finds out she is a fugitive and why, he spends time with her, giving her a sense of normalcy and life before she has to turn herself in.
The last story, “Nightmare”, lives up to its title. A secretary, Miss Morgan is tasked by her boss to deliver a package to someone across town. Along the way she sees advertisements for people to find a “Miss X”, who coincidentally (or perhaps not so much) looks exactly like Miss Morgan. After hours of trying to escape the advertisements and people following her, knowing she looks like their “Miss X”, she succumbs to this new role into which the world has put her. And ultimately, she is very happy with the change.
One of the key points in Jackson’s writings is the stepping over the threshold into a different reality. Sometimes the reality is better than the old one, as with Miss Morgan. Other times it leads to loss and confusion, dealings with supernatural beings, or otherwise, death as in Eleanor’s case. The liminality of these stories makes the reader (i.e. myself) feel so wonderfully uneasy, and has them wondering what threshold they have yet to cross, or what supernatural and odd aspects of life are waiting for them in a version of their own realities.