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Pique Dame by Mark Orr

Pique Dame by Mark Orr

Pique Dame

by Mark Orr


In July of 2017, my wife and I disembarked from our cruise ship for the first of two days to be spent exploring the old imperial capital of St. Petersburg. After surviving the interminable process of gaining admittance onto Russian soil, we found ourselves on a catamaran proceeding expeditiously down the Neva River towards the village of Pushkin. I asked our local guide if I was remembering correctly that the village was named for the writer, Alexandr Pushkin. Martina was pleased that an American would know anything at all about her country’s history, and confirmed that the village had been so renamed in 1938 in celebration of the centenary of Pushkin’s death. I mentioned that his 1833 story, Queen of Spades, AKA Pique Dame (Pikovaya Dama in Russian), was one of my favorite short ghost tales. At this point, my wife interjected herself into the conversation and reminded me that I was not allowed to talk to tour guides because it embarrasses her that I like to show off how much more educated I am than the average tourist. She’s wrong, but I’ve learned over the past thirty-seven years to not dispute her opinions, no matter how erroneous, lest I be shouted down and beaten about the head and shoulders.

Queen of Spades is not only one of the greatest short ghost stories of all time, but it is, as far as I have been able to determine, the most adapted into other media. And yet, I venture to guess that the majority of modern horror fiction readers are barely aware of it, if at all. I won’t bother with a synopsis; the story is readily available online here, Classic Reader – Queen of Spades by Alexandr Pushkin , or in audio-book form here: LibriVox – Queen of Spades.

While Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is without doubt the most adapted ghost story of all time, that is a novelette. I contend that Queen of Spades is the clear front-runner among all the short stories dealing specifically with ghosts that have ever published. It has been turned into three operas, numerous films and a variety of television and radio plays. And yet, you know it not.

The first operatic version was in 1850, by Fromental Halevy. I have not been able to find any recordings of a performance of this opera. There is one of Franz von Suppe’s supposed 1864 operetta version available, but it doesn’t appear to contain any of the supernatural story elements and barely references the source material at all. The overture is frequently performed, although not as often as Suppe’s best known work, The Light Horsemen. And yes, you do know that piece, although you probably don’t realize that you do. Dah-dah-dump, da-dump, Dah-dah-dump, da-dump, Dah-dah-dump, da-diddle-dah-dum-dum… You get the idea.

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera is much better known, and is frequently performed. It is the basis for several of the films, rather than the original story itself. The libretto, by the composer’s brother, Modeste, significantly altered the events of the story, but the basic plot is visible in the structure of the opera. I have several different audio or video performances in my collection, by a variety of companies around the world. A few are available on YouTube. I’m rather partial to the 1993 version recorded by the Kirov Theatre company in St. Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev. The score, with libretto in English, can be found here:

The earliest film adaptation I have been able to find is a 1910 Russian short, also available on YouTube. As noted above, it is an adaptation of the opera, rather than the story, although being a silent film the point seems moot. You can find it here:

There have since been at least twenty-four more film or television versions through 2016, plus two radio adaptations. One of the latter, a September 11, 1947 broadcast of the program, Mystery in the Air, is available at the Internet Archive:

Mystery in the Air was a short-run summer replacement show starring Peter Lorre in eight adaptations of tales of mystery and horror. Queen of Spades was the sixth.

The story was also adapted for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and aired on March 8, 1976. It can be heard here:

Of all the film adaptations, the best known is undoubtedly the 1949 version starring Anton Walbrook as Herman. Walbrook may be better known for his role as the conniving husband in the original, 1940 English version of Gaslight. This particular Queen of Spades also stars Dame Edith Evans as the Countess, future television Sherlock Holmes Ronald Howard as Tomsky, and future Bond villain (Dr. No) Anthony Dawson as Fyodor. It pops up on Turner Classics Movies occasionally, and is very much worth catching.

To quote the immortal Joe Bob Briggs, “Check it out!” Queen of Spades will, I suspect, please the true connoisseur of horror in any or all of its various manifestations. You know who you are.