Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Helgadóttir ed., Eurasian Monsters (2020)

Margrét Helgadóttir (ed.), Eurasian Monsters. Fox Spirit Books, 2020. Pp. 182. ISBN 978-1-910462-31-7. £10.00.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

When I was thirteen, one of my favourite video games was Shadows of Darkness, the fourth entry in the Quest for Glory series. It was my introduction to Slavic folklore. Creatures like the rusalka, the leshy, the domovoi, and Baba Yaga featured prominently, and were a revelation to a Canadian girl who barely knew what Cyrillic looked like. An entire new mythology to explore, and one I was delighted to revisit in Eurasian Monsters.

This is the seventh and final book in Helgadottir’s “Monsters” series, consisting of European Monsters, African Monsters, Asian Monsters, Pacific Monsters, American Monsters I & II, and now Eurasian Monsters. I have previously reviewed (and enormously enjoyed) Asian Monsters, and have American Monsters I on my bookshelf. I’m sad that the series has come to a close, but I guess Antarctic Monsters was just too much to hope for. So, was Eurasian Monsters a fitting end?

The stories in this volume come from a wealth of locations in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Helgadottir makes a point in her introduction to mention that six of these authors’ stories were translated exclusively for this volume. It’s always a treat to encounter new authors, and it particularly feels a privilege to enjoy work from folk being translated for the first time. I should also make it a point to say that each of the stories feature a single unique illustration. These illustrations are of somewhat varying quality, but none of them are bad, and some are really lovely. They’re a nice shake of sugar sprinkles on top the rich sundae of the stories.

I was interested to find that the most common creature to feature in this anthology was the domovoi, a household spirit similar to the Scottish brownie. Like brownies, the myth of the domovoi likely derived from the worship of ancestor spirits, and they helped care for the household and family in exchange for respect and minor offerings (bowls of milk or porridge, bread, salt, or tobacco, for example). The domovoi was generally a benevolent creature said to bring good fortune and aid, but they have a sinister side. A domovoi denied offerings or who disapproves of his family’s behaviour may harm livestock, torment the family while they sleep, or abandon the household altogether. It’s interesting to me that a creature considered friendly under normal circumstances, so much so that its departure was considered the worst punishment of all for a family, was by far the most frequently seen in this collection. I suppose perhaps it has to do with the intimacy of it, the idea of an otherworldly being living within your home, watching and judging your behaviour. Benevolent or not, it is an idea that could have a person looking over their shoulder. Kat Hutchson’s “The Housekeeper” and Alex Shvartsman’s “A Thousand Cuts” both explore the extortionate side of the domovoi, with the creature tormenting their protagonists when they fail to give it what it wants. “Rapunzel” by Vlad Arenev looks at the gentler nature of the domovoi, and also ties it into its origins as an ancestor spirit. His story is probably my favourite of the three, with a twist at the end and a melancholy sweetness that was genuinely touching.

The next most common monsters found stalking these tales are variations on that universal bugaboo, the spirit of the wronged woman. She has many names throughout the world—the Japanese onryo, the Malaysian langsuyar, the Ancient Greek gorgon, the Indian chedipe… the list goes on. In this book, her names are three: the Ukranian nyavka, the Polish poludnica, and the Slavic rusalka. Marta Magdalena Lasik’s “Daemons of Their Time,” while not my favourite of the stories, was certainly a standout in terms of creativity, with its post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Its presence as the second story lets us know that this collection has little in the way of limits, and also is a rather interesting musing on how the monsters of our folklores may live on after our civilization has fallen. I quite enjoyed the variation we meet in Daryna Stremetska’s “The Whitest Linen,” with her nyavka not being a traditional scorned woman and her victims not the men who might have wrong her, but instead… well, you’ll see. But the standout here is “Our Lady of Carrion Crows” by Karolina Fedyk, an eerie, lush fairytale whose sunwashed pastoral setting is as incongruous as the poludnica herself, a malevolent spirit who appears in the heat of the noonday sun (her name in English is often translated to “Lady Midday”). It’s a story of madness, the pain of being powerless, and the hard choices a poor young man must make to save those he loves.

The other creatures in this collection are all unique. There are no losers here, but I want to give a nod to my favourites. Karina Shainyan gets a lot of credit for making a giant stone frog genuinely terrifying in “Bagatazh.” As a side note, the illustration that accompanied this story is probably my favourite. “Nine Tongues Tell Of” is a sweet, sad story about a broken young woman befriending a hala, a hydra-like monster known for raiding crops and bringing hailstorms. Harlambi Markov makes both his protagonists, one an unhappy girl with an empty life, one a monster in a world where its kind has been forgotten, sympathetic and tragic.

A bigoted nationalist is confronted by some of his country’s oldest monsters in Shawn Basey’s “Lysa Hora,” and it was with no small delight that I watched the jingoistic protagonist being given exactly what he wished for. Bogi Takács gives us a more traditional fairy tale in “Veruska and the Lúdvérc,” in which a kindhearted young girl unwittingly brings home a monster and must outsmart it before it devours her. But if I had to choose a favourite among these stories, it would most likely be Maria Galina’s “The Visit,” in which the monster in question is Ded Moroz. Those of you who speak Russian will know him as “Grandfather Frost” or, as we’d call him here in Britain, Father Christmas. Galina combines the modern ideal of Santa Claus with the somewhat eerier origins of Ded Moroz as a demon or sorcerer of winter, all wrapped up in a blackly humourous, dark, yet still uplifting story of a disheartened and dissatisfied man being visited by a familiar childhood face. It reminded me very much of Rare Exports, one of my favourite Christmas movies, and I had a grin on my face all the way through.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Helgadóttir’s commitment to diversity. It would be very easy for a an anthology focused on a particular geographic area to be lacking in this area, but both authors and editors make a tangible effort here to allow all different voices to shine through. There are authors of various genders, cis and trans, and of multiple nationalities featured here. I was also pleased to notice trans and disabled characters amongst the protagonists. It’s always nice to see.

Do I have any complaints about this collection? The only issue I can find is that the only indication of which artists drew which illustrations is the copyright page at the beginning of the anthology, which I honestly failed to notice until it was pointed out to me. I would have preferred it if the artists were individually credited in the table of contents or alongside each image. But otherwise, this collection is a gem. Helgadóttir should be extremely proud of this entire series, and it has ended on one hell of a high note.

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