The Duel  by Anton Chekhov – ★★★★★
This is a story that I read in Russian. This novella by Chekhov is set in the Caucasus, near the Black Sea, and tells of Laevsky, a lazy, egoistic, good-for-nothing government official who spends his days playing cards, swimming, drinking, arguing with his mistress and getting deeper into debt. Laevsky is increasingly tired of and frustrated by his mistress, Nadezhda Fedorovna, the wife of another man, and decides “to get rid” of her by going away. However, he starts to understand that he is both out of money and out of friends. On his path then appears Von Koren, a scientist and a man of principles, who does not think twice about challenging Laevsky to a duel.
Chekhov had this incredible talent of conjuring up deep and unforgettable character studies/insights in a very few words and paragraphs, and The Duel is a classic tale of disillusionment, crushed ideals, deceiving appearances and humanity caught in an endless cycle of other people’s opinions and judgement. Everyone “has their own truth” in the story, especially Laevsky, who finds himself at the biggest crossroad in his life, facing the possibility of the weight of harsh reality crushing him. The largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as in the process of brutal self-confrontation. With humour and wit, Chekhov takes a penetrating look at the human nature in The Duel, trying to answer the question whether even self-acknowledged scoundrels like Laevsky could hope for forgiveness and redemption; whether even these people are deserving of hope; and whether even they could also find their place among the virtuous and the good, mending their ways.
Don’t Look Now  by Daphne du Maurier – ★★★★1/2
“...so many things happen to us of which we are not aware” [Du Maurier, 1971: 257]. In this fascinating, eerie short story/novella by Daphne du Maurier, a couple, John and Laura, are touring Venice, Italy, trying to put behind them their recent tragedy – the loss of a child. Their holiday is turning out to be an odd mix of psychological tension, apprehension and attempts at relaxation, especially when they accidentally meet a strange pair of twin sisters. Du Maurier had this great ability to balance quietness and tension in her books, and Don’t Look Now grips from the very first opening line and does not let go until the very last. The author makes Venice claustrophobic, day-to-day reality – enigmatic, the mind – paranoiac, and ordinary people – full of threatening agendas. I am not sure if the last two paragraphs convinced me entirely, but this beautifully-written tale of the unexplained, of appearances deceiving, of eerie coincidences and of psychic premonitions opens a whole new uncertain world.
Cogwheels  by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – ★★★★
This short story is one of the last ones that Akutagawa wrote before his tragic death, and it certainly feels very personal and autobiographical (especially with its hints on depression and anxiety). In this story, our narrator, a famous writer, is invited to Tokyo to attend a wedding of his acquaintance. What follows is his running around Tokyo in a slowly increasing feverish delirium, as his mind starts drawing all sorts of unlikely parallels. Interestingly, I found many thematic similarities between this short story and the one above by Daphne du Maurier (Don’t Look Now). Both stories concern themselves with narrators that think they are close to madness, eerie premonitions, nightmarish visions and unsettling coincidences.
The Country of the Blind  by H. G. Wells – ★★★★
“In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King“. Deep in Ecuador’s Andes, there lies one mysterious land of the blind. Its people are afflicted by one terrible and common-to-all disease – inexplicable blindness, even though the valley itself…”has in it all that the heart of man could desire – sweet water, pasture, and even climate…” One seeing man, Nunez (nicknamed “Bogota”), then comes to this strange kingdom and the consequences of his visit surprise even him. Wells was probably influenced in some way by the mysterious Inca civilisation, who seemingly had no writing system to speak of, apart from knot-records, and whose architecture/building capabilities still astonishes many. The people in the story are cut off from the outside world and has no notion of sight whatsoever (“there is no such thing as “see”), living in a superstitious belief that the end of their rocks is also the end of the world. This classic tale takes a horrific turn, and could also be read as a powerful satire on the humanity’s guidance by limited knowledge and on the sheer power of conformity.
The Veldt  by Ray Bradbury – ★★★★
This short sci-fi story from the author of Fahrenheit 451  is all to do with the advances in modern technology and what horrors these may bring in future to families. In distant future, George and Lydia Hadley is a happily married couple with two highly strung children, Peter and Wendy. They installed a new nursery at their “self-sustaining” home with reality-generating technology whereby a room may appear as though it opens to real worlds with no barrier between the viewer and the scenery. This function soon proves to be too realistic for its owners, while the children’s addiction to their nursery grows. This sounds like one of those “domestic horrors” which Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives) could have penned as well, and Bradbury undoubtedly wanted to show how humans may feel “redundant” in future and what could be the consequences of a home entertainment technology taking over one’s home and family life. This story may be short, but it is impactful, especially since it was written in 1950.