What goes into a story? In my case, inspiration strikes at the most inconvenient times. Like, while I’m perusing the book of folk creatures from northern Croatian regions called Hrvatska bajoslovlja (“Croatian Mythology”) by Vid Balog with illustrations by Patricio Agüero Mariño, searching for something I can use in my dark urban fantasy novel (in Croatian). But then I see an illustration of the glođani, Croatian skeleton ghouls who come up on the night of All Saints’ Day, and I’m instantly struck with an idea for a short sapphic gothic horror story, perfect for a submission call I saw on Twitter earlier that month. And suddenly, I’m not working on my novel anymore, but instead, reading on the pokojniki—glođani and dušice—and taking out anthologies of old Croatian literature, searching for a particular 19th Century story that’s been stuck in my mind ever since I’ve read it as a part of a college course.
Welcome to the newest installment of my story behind the story segment, or what went into the recipe that resulted in the story All Sweet Souls.
It’s hard to say what came first—the wish to do a sapphic retelling of Stella Raïva, or the wish to write about undead skeletons searching for their loved ones to share one last meal together. I know I’d seen the submission call (from Nyx publishing, for the anthology of queer gothic stories), and I knew I wanted to do something, I just wasn’t sure what. But somehow, when inspiration hit alongside the illustration, I knew it was going to be a sapphic retelling of a very obscure 19th Century short story that almost no one knows about, with a folklore twist.
In the time when all Croatian authors wrote about how much they love Croatia, how Croatians are the best and everyone else sucks (but mostly those who oppressed us), Rikard Jorgovanić was writing what’s considered trivial literature, about love and obsession, with supernatural elements. He wrote weird macabre stories and, unfortunately, he died young, not leaving a lot of stories behind. I think I saw someone mentioning that Stella Raïva is the weirdest of his stories, which could be true. This is why I loved it. It’s beautifully unhinged, about obsessive love turned to possible necrophilia, with potential ghosts and stolen skulls. And it’s the guy that’s the love interest who suddenly and inexplicably falls dead because he couldn’t see Stella for hot five minutes (she was just visiting family in another city, he literally dies during her train ride), not the other way around. I’d just read a lot of stories and poems about how beautiful dead girls and their hair are on the bier, so this came as a nice surprise, especially when Stella’s reaction to his death is dramatic grave digging and keeping a part of his corpse as company while waiting for his ghost to come back each year on the anniversary of his death for the implied sexy times (or maybe I’ve read to much into the ending and it’s not actually implied sexy times, but what is she doing with his ghost, then? Huh?).
I loved the imagery of the story, I loved Stella, but I forgot most of the details about it. Like the fact that it’s told from the perspective of Some Guy who met Stella one night (guess what night), and who hears the story from her, but runs away before the ghost comes to join the party. I also forgot that she was an opera singer, or the fact that the story takes place in an Italian town, or that the guy she falls for is a Croatian student, or that she’s of Indian descent. At the time of rereading the story, I already had completely different ideas in my head, so instead of doing a faithful retelling which would simply be sapphic, I decided to go with a sort of a loose reimagining that’s also a bit of a folk horror.
Because I really wanted to have undead skeleton ghouls from Croatian folk tradition, okay? And I wanted to have a story set in Zagorje (the Croatian region where my father hails from), which in turn meant I was already remembering another Croatian author that I quite like (and who is much, much more famous than Rikard Jorgovanić).
This is where we come to the second big inspiration for the story—Ksaver Šandor Gjalski, born as Ljubomil Babić to a noble Croatian family, and who also wrote short gothic horror stories (with a haunted house, no less), but is more known for his nostalgic short story collection and novels about Croatian politics and the ruination of Croatian small nobility in Zagorje. This is how you know I’m a professor of Croatian language and literature. I’m not sure anyone else would utter the words “authors that I like” and “Ksaver Šandor Gjalski” in the same sentence. And maybe someone will recognize the reference at a short story collection by Gjalski I snuck into the story, in the form of the neighbor, the illustrissimus Batorić.
I don’t know why—since I don’t like a lot of political stuff from 19th Century Croatian literature—but I think I liked Gjalski’s stories because they were so melancholic in nature. He wrote about a time when small-time nobility was coming to an end, when they were nothing but shells of their former self. Long after their glory days. On top of it, Croatian politics at the time was tumultuous, new players emerging onto the stage, new things were starting to get important, and these guys were turning into living ghosts haunting their homes. I didn’t want to necessarily write about that, I’m not a historian; my second degree may be in History of Art but that’s not enough for me to say I know a lot about history itself. I simply wanted to use that same melancholia and the nostalgic atmosphere, and write about a cursed noble family living in a kurija (sort of a manor/castle typical for northern Croatia), who’s slowly losing everything they have. Mostly, about a young woman who is witnessing this ruination, but gets reenergized when she meets a beautiful young governess, and then falls for her even though she knows how foolish that is with the curse looming above them.
And here’s where we come to the last part of the inspiration. The supernatural aspect. The folklore behind the story.
The pokojniki (which means “the deceased” in regional Croatian). Those dead that come out on the night of the 1st of November (so not the night of Halloween but the next one, the night before All Souls’ Day) and then, depending on whether they’re the dušice (literally “little souls”), or the glođani (comes from the Old Croatian regional term for “bone”, so it literally means “skeletons”), either search for their loved ones, or for those to drag to hell. This is a folk tale originating from one small village called Gotalovo, and they have a tradition for the All Saints’ Day very similar to Halloween because, as a protection from the glođani they use—you can probably guess it—carved pumpkin lanterns. And if someone’s had a recent death in the family and hopes to see them as a dušica, it’s said that they prepare a place at the table for them.
Needless to say, I was stoked to learn about this tradition. And the illustration of the glođani by Patricio Agüero Mariño gave my brain the jolt needed to write a story.
All Sweet Souls is a melancholic tale of loneliness, longing and love, and if you wonder how it all blends together, you’ll get the chance to read it in the aforementioned anthology, called Unthinkable: A Queer Gothic Anthology. I’m so happy and grateful that my story got accepted for Unthinkable—thus getting the chance to share a bit of Croatian folklore and history with others.
If you’re interested in queer gothic and want more of it, Unthinkable is getting published in October 2022, by joint efforts of Haunt Publishing and Nyx Publishing. If you want to pre-order the book, you can do so through the Kickstarter campaign. Check out more about the project, other stories in the anthology, reasons for the Kickstarter, and get even more queer gothic books buy supporting the campaign. It ends in thirteen days—on Sunday, July 17 2022 1:00 PM CEST.