“I felt a warmth all around me, as if I was drifting in spring water, gentle hands cradling my head and neck, lovingly guiding me out into the middle of a midnight lake under a sky full of stars. And then the hands, so many hands, reached up from under the water’s surface, and clutched at me and pulled me under.”
This isn’t the sort of fantasy book I would typically read, as it is tied very closely to the horror genre, but I ended up really enjoying it! Told as a series of short stories taking place across many decades in and around WWII, this novella centers around several mythological creatures from Ukrainian and Romanian folklore that come from three neighboring villages. Ranging from blood-sucking Strigoi to water-lurking Rusalka, these stories are told from various perspectives which include those of these creatures, their victims, and those that would seek to eradicate them from this world… and they all slowly and subtly interconnect to gradually form of overarching plot ripe with mystery, horror, suspense and a surprising amount of moral complexity.
The horror in this book isn’t necessarily the type that relies purely on things like gore or chases in the dark for its’ scares (although these elements do pop up from time to time), but is the kind that I find to be far more effective: the kind that slowly starts messing with your head and creeps you out conceptually more than anything. This type of horror tends to leave a more lasting impact on me, as I’m often left contemplating elements of it long after I finish reading about it. This was especially true in this novella, as each short story only gives the reader a small snippet of information about each creature it relates to, gradually forming a more cohesive understanding as the book goes along. Just when you begin to think that you understand the nature of a certain monster, that story ends and another begins, but then that story suddenly mentions a creature from several stories ago… it sounds confusing but it really made for a fascinating read! I found myself at multiple points flipping back and forth between different stories as I attempted to piece the larger hidden narrative together, but I never felt inconvenienced by doing so; if anything I felt like some sort of supernatural detective gathering evidence, and it was a very unique reading experience (enhanced greatly by the eerie black and white photographs which preceded each story). Some of the tales were definitely scarier than others, and I do wish that the Night Police (the mysterious force set on eliminating these creatures) element had culminated into something more substantial, but it was overall very effective and thoroughly unnerving… in the best way.
My favorite, and most unexpected, element of this novella however was the level of moral ambiguity it presented amongst its’ characters. I went into this book expecting it to just be a series of scary stories, but much like his particular style of horror, Demchuk decided to go for a much more nuanced approach. As stated previously, while many of these stories were told from the perspectives of these monsters’ victims and simple passers-by, many were also told from the perspectives of the monsters themselves and their families. Yes there were some that appeared to by purely evil, but there were also several that were very sympathetic; they were portrayed as a race of people and just like people, there was a complex spectrum of morality that each character fell under. These monsters were not all necessarily evil, just as all humans are not necessarily good, and this theme was epitomized in my favorite story, titled “Gregor”. Without spoiling too much, it follows a man working at a home which cares for seniors, and the ensuing tale of his relationship with an old lady named Simone was truly frightening. Your trust in each character tortuously swaps back and forth between each page and it really kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end.
I wish I could get into more detail about these stories and their characters, but with there being about 25 individual stories, I would be here all day. Honestly, knowing as little as you can going into this novella is probably for the best, as it made for a very engaging and unique reading experience for me, knowing next to nothing. Each story had a surprising new element that it brought to my understanding of Ukrainian and Romanian folklore, while still being very unsettling, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to add a new type of fantastical horror to their library. 4/5