Tag Archives: Theodor Storm

‘Grieshuus’ by Theodor Storm (GLM X)

Image from publisher’s website

Grieshuus: The Chronicle of a Family was originally published in 1884 as Zur Chronik von Grieshuus. This translation, by Denis Jackson, who sadly died earlier this year, was published by Angel Classics in 2017. The events in Storm’s novella take place in a northen Schleswig town and covers four generations of an aristocratic Junker family, roughly covering the period of the mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century.

The novella begins with the narrator recalling an incident in his youth when he went out walking on the heathland and discovered a few remains and foundation stones of what he was convinced was once Grieshuus manor; after discovering a book abou the manor the narrator had tried to find out more about the manor and its inhabitants. The first book mainly concerns the twin sons of the current Junker, Hinrich and Detlev. Although quite similar when young they grow up to be quite different; Detlev is studious, whereas Hinrich prefers the outdoor life. Although they get along together quite well, the narrative in this first book ends with a violent quarrel between the two. Generally quick to temper, Hinrich’s passion soon cools, and he is then ashamed of his actions. One time, Hinrich hits a boy on the head with his heavy stick in front of a girl, Bärbe, and later on he beats his dog to death because it refuses to join in on a wolf hunt. He admits this beating to Bärbe, who is now a young woman, and vows never to do such a thing again. Of course, Hinrich and Bärbe have fallen in love, which others have noticed, including Hinrich’s father, who disapproves of the match as Bärbe is a commoner. Both Hinrich’s father and Bärbe’s father die and their funerals are held on the same day; Hinrich asks the pastor to wed himself to Bärbe at the end of her father’s funeral. But a will has been written and Grieshuus has been left to Hinrich’s brother, Detlev, who has married a more suitable woman.

I shall reveal some of the plot in the next paragraph so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know what happens.

Although Hinrich is happy to have married Bärbe, he resents the fact that his brother has inherited what he believes is rightfully his, as he is the older of the two. Animosity grows between the two brothers and when Detlev sends a letter to the pregnant Bärbe insinuating that their marriage is invalid, in shock she goes into a premature labour and soon dies after giving birth to a daughter. In a rage he confronts his brother and kills him. Not only has he committed murder but he has broken his solemn pledge to Bärbe not to be violent again. And so, like Cain, Hinrich disappears to wander the earth, as far as anyone knows. Book Two begins a generation later; there are more foreign troops occupying the land, a Swedish colonel, who is besotted with Henriette, marries her. Henriette is Hinrich’s daughter and within a year Rolf, Hinrich’s grandson is born. With Hinrich still absent the family move into Grieshuus.

The rest of the book is an account written by Rolf’s tutor, Caspar Bokenfield. In many ways Grieshuus is a typically nineteenth century work, concerned with families, inheritance and forbidden love affairs, but with Storm it seems much different than an English novel of the period. This is partly because it is written as a novella rather than a novel; it proceeds at a pace, but does not seem rushed; with Storm the reader needs to pay attention to every word and to slow down their reading. The double funeral scene where Hinrich marries Bärbe is wonderful, but packed with events. In under two pages we learn of the deaths of the fathers of the couple, that Hinrich’s father has left a will and of the marriage of the couple. Blink, and you might miss something important.

And when the final Lord’s Prayer had also been said, he took the deceased’s daughter in his arms in front of everyone and held her firmly until he saw the pastor striding down the path on the way to his house. ‘Come!’ he said softly to the lovely girl, such that he was overheard only by an old woman next to him who looked up at him in puzzlement. And as though each knew the other’s thoughts and were both of the same mind, they followed the pastor hand in hand to his house. ‘Would you kindly marry us, Herr Pastor,’ said the Junker, ‘so that this girl may find a home in my heart.’
    And the old priest laid his trembling hands upon their heads.

In the perceptive introduction David Artiss highlights the amount of symbolism that exists throughout the book, most of which I wouldn’t normally notice. Wolves are a constant threat to humans throughout the novella with the heathland virtually off limits because it is so dangerous. Dogs are also mentioned often. Artiss notes that Hinrich’s own character is more wild, more wolf-like at the beginning but by the end he has tamed his own nature to be more dog-like, more domesticated. But still, it is not enough to save Grieshuus from decay.

Grieshuus was the second book that I read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

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Bits & Pieces (Dec 2016)

Well first I would like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that everyone is looking forward to some fun reading in 2017. I don’t feel like writing a retrospective of the books I read in 2016 but I thought that I would have a bit of a roundup of those I read in December. Since finishing German Literature Month (GLM) in November I haven’t posted too often but I have been reading, honest.

My Big Reading Task of 2016 was Anthony Powell’s twelve volume Dance to the Music of Time which I sort of ‘fell into’ really at the last minute as I read along with a GoodReads group; even when I started I wasn’t too sure if I’d stay to the end as I had intended in being free of any ‘Big Read Challenges’ for the year but I was soon hooked. I didn’t blog too much on the series as I found it a bit awkward to write Powell_Dance-04posts for separate books in the series where a knowledge of the characters’ antics in the previous volumes was really necessary. Each review would only have been of interest, I felt, to someone who was reading the same volumes at the same time as me. So, at one volume a month I got to the last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in December; I was a little wary of this volume as I’d read quite a few negative comments on it but I found it to be one of my favourites of the series. It jumped forward to the early 1970s and almost brought events up to date as it was written in 1975. One of the joys of reading ‘Dance’ was that there were a whole host of characters, some of which appeared throughout the series, whilst others appeared and faded away. In later volumes we had X Trapnel who was based on the novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross and in this last volume we get the Manson-like hippy leader, Scorpio Murtlock, and the bizarre scenario of Widmerpool trying to join and take over the cult. It did seem a bit of an odd direction to take but I felt that Powell handled it brilliantly. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read ‘Dance’ to consider reading it, although it’s twelve volumes it’s not as daunting as that sounds and each volume was a breeze to read.

After my reading for GLM I felt like reading something a bit ‘lighter’ and turned to an old favourite author of mine from the late ’80s, Martin Millar. He had a new book out called Kink Me Honey and where his previous book called The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies which was set in Ancient millar_kink-me-honey_amazonGreece hadn’t really appealed to me that much, this one did. Most of Millar’s books that I’d read had an urban setting and usually revolved around some kind of subculture, such as punks, travellers, etc. Kink Me Honey centres around an S&M club in London and whilst it is funny it is pretty raunchy as well. The book contains what are supposed to be posts and comments to the club’s website and through these we get a lot of subplots and diversions from the main plot; initially I thought that this part of the novel was a bit of a gimmick but I soon realised that Millar was using it to good effect by enabling him to poke fun at the way our online lives play out. Part of the humour is in the way that the cast of characters act just as they would in any other organisation or club and so there are feuds, bitching, funding problems, organisational problems, character clashes etc. Even though I finished it a month ago I still hope to write a longer review on it so I’ll not comment any further for now.

Theodor Storm is an author I only discovered from being a part of GLM and I had hoped to read another volume of his short stories/novellas for this year’s GLM but I ran out of time. Paul the Puppeteer and other Short Fiction consists of the three novellas all translated by Denis Jackson: The Village on the Moor, Paul the storm_paul-puppeteer-fcx-700pxPuppeteer and Renate. The title story is the best of the three as it is more immediate than the others; the main story is told to the narrator by the elderly Paul Paulsen and is basically a love story, even though it’s not really apparent until late on in the story. Paul is destined to become a master craftsman but he is fascinated with the puppetry of a travelling puppeteer and his daughter, Lisei. The puppeteers have to move on and Paul loses contact with them only to be reacquainted with them when he is older at a time when the elderly puppeteer has been falsely imprisoned for theft. The puppeteers are hounded by the authorities as if they’re vagrants and their form of entertainment is now falling out of fashion. It’s a sad, beautiful and uplifting story told in Storm’s unsentimental way. Renate takes place in the early eighteenth century and centres around the love of a Lutheran pastor for a girl who is subsequently accused of being a witch. As is usual with Storm the story is revealed from several incomplete sources. I feel that this one would benefit from another read.

I felt that overall my reading went quite well in 2016. Along with Powell’s ‘Dance’ I tackled Orlando Figes’s book on the Russian revolution, A People’s Tragedy. My GoodReads summary of the year (which can be viewed here if you’re interested in the details) shows that I read 45 books or 14,949 pages, which is paltry compared to some people but I’m quite happy with it. If I worried about such things I may mention that the Powell books only counted as four, rather than twelve, as I read them in the omnibus editions.

And so on to 2017! I have few plans for this year other than to read as many books as I can that I already own as the number of physical books that I now own is starting to be unmanageable. I’m not going to try to quantify what I intend to get through as I will undoubtedly be diverted from this task throughout the year but I shall chip away at the pile. Here is a photo of what I have to get through…and there are quite a few on my kindle as well…

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

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‘In St. Jürgen’ & ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm

Storm_Rider-on-White-Horse-fc-magXC-700pxI read my first stories by Theodor Storm at the end of last year and thoroughly enjoyed them but since I’d read them I noticed that many of the shorter stories had all blurred together in my mind and I couldn’t distinguish one from another. So, finding myself inbetween books and not in the mood to decide what to read next I decided to revisit a couple of them. I read In Saint Jürgen, quickly followed by Immensee and even though I’ve only just read them they are already starting to blur together again in my memory. Both stories are quite similar, they begin with frame stories and involve wistfully looking back over past unrequited loves. The basic plots are quite unremarkable; take for example In Saint Jürgen, where Hansen, the ex-nanny of the narrator who is currently in a home for the aged, reveals how she came to work for the narrator’s parents. This had followed her father’s bankruptcy and her prospective husband, Harre, leaving town and not returning, despite his promise to do so. Later on we hear Harre’s version of what happened and….well, I won’t spoil it for you. I can imagine other nineteenth century authors turning this into either some grand melodramatic Romantic extravaganza or else making a mawkish mess of the whole thing; but Storm tries, and succeeds, to imbue the story with real, believable characters told in a poetically realistic manner.

Storm uses images of the natural world throughout the story, but the comings and goings of birds, particularly swallows, are used to signify the time of year and the passing of time. The first paragraph is worth quoting in full:

It is only a simple little town, my native place. It lies in a treeless plain near the sea, and its houses are old and dark. Nevertheless, I have always considered it an agreeable spot; and two birds that are sacred to men seem to share this opinion. These are storks, and they hover continually in the high summer air over the town, their nests down below on the roofs. They are sure to bring the swallows with them, when the earliest breezes blow out of the south in April, and one neighbor tells another that they have come back. So it is at this very moment. In the garden under my window the first violets are out, and on the opposite side, on the board fence, the swallow already sits and twitters that old song of hers: “When I went away, when I went away…” and the longer she sings, the more deeply I remember someone who has been dead for a long time, someone whom I can thank for many good hours when I was young.

This opening paragraph beautifully echoes with the last paragraph where the swallows are singing: “When I came again, when I came again, my home was bare.”

Immensee begins with an old man returning home from a walk, ready to relax in his chair:

As he sat there the air steadily darkened, and soon a ray of moonlight streamed through the windows and touched the pictures on the wall. The old man’s eyes helplessly followed the course of this luminous thread as it slowly spun past him and moved on still further.
   Then it touched a small, simple, and black-framed picture. The old man whispered: “Elizabeth!” And as he spoke that name, the time changed: he was young again.

And so the memories start flooding back; he remembers when they were both children and they were inseparable, Reinhard, being older, would tell stories to Elizabeth and later on he would write poems for her. When Reinhard is older he has to go off to another school and the couple have to make do with meeting up during the holidays and sending letters to each other. But in his absence Elizabeth begins to gain the attention of Erich, a childhood friend of both, who has recently inherited the estate called ‘Immensee’. Erich appears a little boorish to Reinhard, but what with his long absences and the fact that Elizabeth’s mother considers Erich ‘such a nice, sensible young man’ events proceed without him and Elizabeth and Erich marry. They meet again but it is often awkward and painful for them. One day, whilst out walking together, he picks a flower and explains that he has a similar one, that she gave him years before, pressed in a book of poems:

Then she looked down at the flower which he held. The two of them stood there for a long moment. When she looked up again, she saw him weeping.
   “Elizabeth,” he said, “behind those blue mountains we were young. What happened to us?”
   They spoke no more. Side by side, silent, they walked back down to the lake. The air had grown sultry. Clouds were darkening in the west.

The weather matches their mood and later they meet only to say goodbye – they’ll never meet again. The narrative returns to Reinhard as an old man; he shakes himself out of his revery and returns to the present.

For some readers this will all be a bit too sentimental, but for me Storm handles it perfectly. As with his other stories, he doesn’t overdo things, he doesn’t turn the story into sentimental drivel and doesn’t dwell on the emotions; instead he describes them clearly and beautifully and then moves on. I really must read some other stories by Storm but at the moment I’m quite happy re-reading those in this collection as they stand up well to repeated readings.

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‘Aquis Submersus’ by Theodor Storm

GLM-V 2015Aquis Submersus is a novella that is included in the New York Review of Books collection called The Rider on the White Horse translated by James Wright. I’m a new convert to Theodor Storm’s work and although this collection is all that I’ve read so far I will certainly be reading some of the other collections that have been translated by Denis Jackson and published by Angel Books. It’s probably fair to say that I generally prefer short stories and novellas to long novels. I find that a short story stands more chance of reaching perfection than a novel does and Aquis Submersus is such a story, so close to perfection.

The story was written in 1875/6 and begins with a contemporary narrator recalling his childhood friend, the pastor’s son, together with descriptions of the surrounding countryside. On the very first page of the story we get this description:

Here the honeybees and white-gray bumblebees hummed over the fragrant blossoms of heather, and the beautiful gold-green beetles ran among the plants; here in the sweet clouds of the erica and the resinous bushes hovered butterflies that could be found nowhere else on this earth.

But it’s not nature that particularly piques the narrator’s interest, instead it is a picture of a dead five year old boy holding a water lily that hangs inside the church. Next to this there is a portrait of the boy’s father, a severe looking pastor. The Storm_Rider-on-White-Horse-fc-magXC-700pxpicture of the boy is dated 1666 and all that is known is that the boy drowned in a pond on the premises of the church. The narrator notices that the letters C.P.A.S. appear at the bottom of the painting. The pastor explains that ‘A.S.’ must stand for ‘Aquis Submersus’ or ‘drowned’ but is unsure what ‘C.P.’ stands for. After a while the narrator suggests ‘Culpa Patris’ or ‘Because of the father’s guilt’. The pastor dismisses this suggestion vehemently. Years later, whilst looking for a room to rent, the narrator notices a portrait of a man holding a dead boy with a water lily in his hand. When he asks the landlord about the painting it is revealed that there are some old papers including two notebooks. The narrator is intrigued and these notebooks contain the story of Johannes, a painter, that begins in 1661.

Johannes is studying to be a painter and since the death of his father has been lucky enough to have Herr Gerhardus, an old aristocratic friend of his father, as a patron. Life with Gerhardus had been idyllic, he had often spent days playing with Gerhardus’s beautiful daughter Katherina and chatting with the friendly caretaker Dietrich. However Johannes is disliked by Katherina’s brother Wulf and it is apparent that a local young aristocrat, Kurt von der Rusch, has eyes for Katherina. When Johannes leaves for Amsterdam to continue his studies Katherina comes out to see him on his way and to give him a gift.

But on his return five years later the situation has changed. Gerhardus has recently died and now his son, Wulf, is the new master. Kurt has a vicious streak and is pursuing Katherina’s hand in marriage. The atmosphere is now one of violence and oppression. Katherina is happy to have Johannes present as a kindred spirit. They get to spend some time together when Johannes is asked to paint Katherina’s portrait and Johannes soon agrees to help deliver messages between Katherina and her aunt in order to escape from Kurt and Wulf. Johannes returns late one evening with a reply from Katherina’s aunt. It is too late to enter the estate so he goes to an inn only to find that Wulf and Kurt are there. Wulf guesses that Johannes is carrying messages for Katherina, tussles with him and then sets his dogs on him. Johannes manages to escape and finds himself up a tree outside Katherina’s window. She lets him in and they spend the night together. With their love for one another now certain they plan to elope the following day, but when Katherina doesn’t appear Johannes confronts Wulf and asks for her hand in marriage. Wulf shoots Johannes but does not kill him. After recuperating Johannes escapes to Amsterdam and has a relapse. He is unable to contact Katherina and no-one has seen her since that day. The first notebook ends.

There is much symbolism and foreshadowing in the first notebook. When, as children, Katherina wants to show Johannes some birds that have nested in the hollow of a tree, she is shocked to find an owl standing guard over the opening waiting for the birds to exit. She cries ‘the goblin!’ and urges Johannes to shoot the owl, which he does. Later on Katherina would shout ‘the goblin!’ whenever Kurt would appear and they would both run away. Wulf later became a more sinister manifestation of the goblin, preventing Katherina from escaping. After Johannes had escaped to Amsterdam following the shooting he still had hopes of returning to Katherina; but he was unaware of those intent on thwarting his ambitions:

…and soon I could see the day of my journey to Katherina moving happily toward me, nearer and nearer and nearer—totally unaware of the evil obstacles that I would have to struggle against, before I came to the end.
    But a man’s eyes cannot see the darkness that lies right in front of him.

When Johannes is looking at the older portraits in Gerhardus’s home and he comes across a painting of a woman displaying Wulf’s harshness it is revealed that she cursed her own daughter for not marrying the man she wished her to. The daughter was found the following day drowned in the pond.

I will reveal the ending in what follows so if you wish to remain ignorant of the ending it may be best to stop reading any further.

The second notebook resumes the story five years later in 1666. Johannes is living with his brother and he has a steady income from his painting. One day he receives a commission to paint a portrait of a pastor; it’s not well paid but he’s between jobs and he decides to use it as an excuse to spend some time in the country. When he arrives he sees the pastor leading ‘a ‘beautiful, pale little boy of four’ by the hand. The boy is often present when the pastor sits for the painting and Johannes is surprised to discover that the boy is also called Johannes. He only catches brief glimpses of the boy’s mother. Later at home it dawns on him:

The eyes! The eyes of that beautiful, pale little boy! They were her eyes! What had I been thinking of? But then, if it were she, if I had already seen her again—I shuddered at my thoughts

Whilst the others are away in town he manages to talk to the boy’s mother, who is indeed Katherina. She reveals that the boy is Johannes’ son and that the pastor had been kind enough to take her as his wife despite her being a ‘fallen woman’. When the pastor and the sexton return Johannes leaves Katherina to speak to them, but they are interrupted by a cry—little Johannes has drowned in the pond.

The ending of the story is very powerful and controlled. The pastor discovers the truth about Johannes and Katherina and he orders Johannes to paint a portrait of the dead child. Left alone, for the first time, with his son, Johannes holds him. Johannes explains that C.P.A.S. stands for ‘Drowned in the flood of his father’s guilt’.

I felt it necessary to include much of the plot details in this post because the basic plot could so easily point towards a melodrama. Indeed, I could imagine other nineteenth-century authors really going to town with such a story and creating some hideously mawkish story. But it’s Storm’s incredibly controlled, but poetic, style that really brings the story alive. The story is told in a clear, realistic way. For example, the scene where Johannes and Katherina spend the night together following Johannes’ escape from Wulf’s dogs is so naturally depicted that it’s entirely believable. Due to Johannes’ lowly status, their intended marriage will never be accepted by others and so they plan their escape the following day; Johannes asks:

“Should I leave you now, Katherina?” I said at last. But the young arms raised me up to her mouth without a word, and I did not leave.

That Johannes somehow feels guilty over the death of his son may be, to some extent, understandable but would we agree with his judgement? I’m still unsure why he feels guilty over his son’s death unless it was just a brief, but overwhelming, feeling as he came to the end of his painting. Or is it that he feels guilty of his son’s existence and therefore his death? Is this what is meant by this quote?:

We had created the life that came to this death;

Is it guilt over creating a life that had to die young?

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‘The Dykemaster’ by Theodor Storm

GLM-V 2015The Dykemaster was originally published in Germany in 1888 as Der Schimmelreiter. It is also known in English as The Rider on the White Horse. The Dykemaster is novella length story that begins almost like a ghost story and where the main story appears as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The original narrator tries to recall a story that he read as a child fifty years previously which appeared in a magazine. The magazine narrator recounts travelling along a North Friesian dyke during a storm.

…I now saw nothing but the yellow-grey waves beating continuously against the dyke as though bellowing with rage, from time to time spraying dirty spume over my horse and me, and further out, a bleak half-light in which it was impossible to tell earth from sky, for even the half-moon, now at its height, was more often hidden behind swirling dark clouds.

Storm_Dykemaster-fc-mag-XC-700pxHe believes he sees a rider on a grey horse go past him and later he thinks he sees him in the distance. When he arrives at an inn he encounters some men having a meeting, it turns out they are members of the dyke committee. When he mentions the ‘man on the grey’ the others become interested and soon the schoolmaster is telling the story of Hauke Haien beginning with his childhood as the son of a farmer. Hauke shows an early interest in the local dykes and mathematics and prefers being alone to the company of other children. One day Hauke, in a furious rage, strangles an old woman’s cat and this event leads to Hauke leaving his father’s house to take up work, as a farmhand, with the dykemaster, Tede Volkerts. There is also the attraction of the dykemaster’s daughter, the eighteen year-old Elke Volkerts. Hauke works hard and helps out with the dykemaster’s accounts but he makes an enemy of the head farmhand, Ole Peters.

Hauke learns the dykemaster’s job quickly and is soon doing most of it himself. After a few years both his father, and then Elke’s father both die, and when it is revealed by Elke that Hauke and Elke are betrothed to one another it is agreed that Hauke will become the new dykemaster. The story starts to become more interesting from this point as we follow Hauke as he tackles his new job, as he ponders over making changes to the dyke and has to challenge the resistance of the populace. He has an idea to create a dam that will divert the watercourse so that with a new dyke built more land will be reclaimed. He then begins to work on diagrams and calculations as well as the funding requirements for the whole project before presenting his ideas to the authorities. Elke, as daughter of the previous dykemaster, is fully aware of what lies ahead.

    “Have you really the stomach for it, Hauke?” his wife asked him.
    “I have, Elke!” he responded quickly.
    “Don’t be hasty, Hauke; it will be perilous work; and nearly everyone will be against you – no one will ever thank you for your worry and trouble!”
    He nodded: “I know!” he said.
    “And if it were to go wrong?” she asked again. “Ever since I was a child I have heard that the watercourse cannot be blocked, and for that reason should never be touched.”
    “That was a lazy man’s excuse!” said Hauke; “why shouldn’t it be possible to block the watercourse?”

Elke’s concerns are valid but Hauke is determined to go through with his plans. Hauke also buys a half-starved grey horse which he nurses back to health and which he uses to ride along the dyke. Work on the new dyke begins and we begin to see Hauke in a slightly different light, he becomes even more isolated and hard as he faces opposition from others. This is in comparison with his homelife where we learn about the couple’s hopes of having a child. There are some tender moments, particularly between Hauke and his daughter, epecially when he takes her out with him along the new dyke. Hauke is an extremely rational man which makes him conspicuous; not only can he see the advantage of the new dyke but he realises that his daughter is backward before others do, and he dismisses stories of ghosts, demons and mermaids. Even his religious beliefs appear paganistic, almost atheistic, to others. However when, on All Saints’ Eve in October, a storm is brewing the new dyke is going to face the ultimate test.

This is a very powerful story which builds to a climactic ending. I thought it was a little dull at first but it picks up once Hauke begins to work for the dykemaster. Storm’s style is very realistic or naturalistic but he does intersperse the narrative with poetic flourishes, especially at the beginning and end of the story. Personally, I feel that the story would have been better without the frame stories as they just distract us from the main story and don’t really add anything to it.

The edition that I read was published in 1996 by Angel Classics and was translated by Denis Jackson. It contains loads of notes (too many really), an afterwood and a couple of maps of the area from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which it was believed that Storm used when writing his story. The main story was based on a story called ‘The Ghostly Rider’ that Storm read as a child and it is this story that is presumably alluded to in the original frame story. The story also appears in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) edition called The Rider on the White Horse and Selected Stories and Angel Classics have other collections of stories by Storm and translated by Jackson so there’s no shortage of material available for the interested reader.

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