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Eurasian Monsters coverEurasian Monsters is the last in a series of books that, according to editor Margrét Helgadóttir,  has taken readers on “a grand world tour exploring old myths, folklore and monster tales continent by continent” (p. 7). Wandering through the pages of this final and richly imagined collection are monsters, demons, ghosts, and other creatures, from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Five of the seventeen stories are translations, and some of the authors included in this volume are already well known to Anglophone readers, including Alex Shvartsman, K. A. Teryna, Bogi Takács, Karolina Fedyk, and Ekaterina Sedia. The stories in Eurasian Monsters fall into several broad categories: many involve shapeshifting or demonic female creatures, (good and bad) house spirits, the world of dreams, and threatening animals/amphibians/serpents [1]. While each story offers readers a unique glimpse into the myths, fairy tales, or folktales of a particular culture, they all exude a heady combination of mystery, dread, horror, and wonder. Some of these tales further highlight historical tragedies and social inequalities in unexpected ways.

One-third of the stories in Eurasian Monsters feature a threatening female creature: either the creature takes the form of a seductive young woman in order to lead men astray, or it is the ghost of a woman who has died before or soon after her wedding or because of unrequited love. Marta Magdalena Lasik’s Polish tale “Daemons of Their Time” transports the legends of the rusalka and chmurnik into a far-future world devastated by floods and uploaded consciousnesses. According to legend, rusalka lived in forests, fields, or ponds and streams and preyed on men, asking them riddles and then killing them by tickling them or making them dance; chmurnik, meanwhile, were demonic creatures that personified storms, hail, and other atmospheric phenomena. In Lasik’s tale, a rusalka and a chmurnik try together to navigate the hellish landscape before them. Another Polish story, this time by Karolina Fedyk, also features a rusalka-like character, only in “Our Lady of Carrion Crows” we meet Południca  (a noon wraith or noon maiden), who is the Slavic demon of midday. Here, this creature winds up helping an entire village escape from the yoke of a brutal lord in early-nineteenth-century Poland. The Khazakh Mountain Maid in Eldar  Sattarov’s story, meanwhile, is the echo of a girl dying in the wilderness because of unrequited love. Sattarov imagines such a creature pretending to be just another tourist at a ski resort—just one who attempts to lure the main character to a snowy, frozen death.

Other female creatures are even more menacing. Daryna Stremetska’s “The Whitest Linen” tells the tragic story of a hotel maid who was forced to move away from home in order to support herself and her daughter. The daughter dies when her mother is away and winds up turning into a nyavka or mavka from Ukrainian folklore, attacking men on her way to find her mother. In “Nine Tongues Tell of,” Bulgarian author Haralambi Markov imagines a poor, hard-working woman who takes care of her grandfather and also meets regularly with a hala (a flying serpent-like monster who can appear as fog, a storm, or a seductive young woman). Left alone with no hope, the protagonist follows the hala down to the Lower Lands in search of a better life. Finally, Russian author Alexander Bachilo’s “This is Moscow, Old Man!” is one of the most terrifying stories of the collection because its conclusion is so unexpected (at least, to me). Here we meet creatures from around Eurasia—a dwarf, a warlock, a vampire, a div, a shapeshifting bride, and a Black Widow.

Then there are the mischievous household gods known as “domovoy/domovoi” (Russia) and “domovyk” (Ukraine). Sometimes these creatures appear to a home’s inhabitants as short old men, as in Alex Shvartsman’s “A Thousand Cuts,” in which a woman starts cutting herself in order to save her husband from a malicious domovoi who has followed her to the US from Novgorod. Elsewhere, the creature in Kat Hutchson’s “The Housekeeper” terrorizes a child when she sleeps until the latter starts giving it gifts to appease it. The domovyk in Vlad Arenev’s “Rapunzel,” however, is kind to a young woman living alone (but with a ghost cat) after a catastrophe.

Dreams are a particularly terrifying space in this collection, where evil can prey on unsuspecting sleepers. K. A. Teryna’s frightening and dread-filled story “Morpheus” (which opens the collection), imagines a creature—named for the Greek god of sleep—who torments a young man with a mysterious power in late-1980s Russia. As a child, the young man had realized that he could enter other peoples’ dreams—and thereby kill them in real life. Morpheus always prowled around the perimeters of his own dreams, but by the start of this story has become more powerful. Similarly, in Yevhen Lyr’s “Sleepless in Enerhodar,” a lecturer on folklore starts researching the “Babai”—a monster that haunts the imaginations of Ukrainian children. The lecturer becomes obsessed with the legend—and then realizes that if he falls asleep, the Babai will make sure he never wakes up.

Demons and monsters also come in non-human forms. Sometimes they are angry chicks, gigantic stone frogs, or anthropomorphic dragons. Hungarian author Bogi Takács’ “Veruska and the Lúdvérc” imagines a clever young girl outwitting a demon in the shape of a chick that ultimately grows quite large and threatens to eat her. A huge stone frog stomps through the pages of Karina Shainyan’s Russian tale “Bagatazh,” terrifying horse tourists hiking the Altai Mountains, while Natalia Osoianu uses the zmeu—a magical dragon-like creature from Romanian folklore—as a metaphor for the evil advancing on the Jews of Europe just before World War Two.

Six of these stories are only available to us because of the dedication of their translators: Mike Olivson, Alex Shvartsman, Piotr Swietlik, and Maksym Bakalov. Furthermore, these wonderfully diverse tales are enhanced by the accompanying illustrations of Daniele Serra, Ell Glowacka, K. A. Teryna, Kieran Walsh, Nata Friden, and Vincent Holland-Keen. And while it’s a shame that the Fox Spirit Books of Monsters series has come to an end, we now have seven wonderful collections of monster tales from around the world to read and re-read.

Endnotes

[1]  A few stories defy categorization, including Ekaterina Sedia’s reinterpretation of a real-life tragedy that struck the Kalmykia Republic through a fantastic lens involving witchcraft, Marina Galina’s reimagining of Ded Moroz or Granddad Frost as a bitter old man, and Shawn Basey’s tale of a Georgian demon that lives underground and feeds on human hearts. [return]

 



Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. When she’s not at her day job or chasing three kids, she’s writing reviews and translating Italian speculative fiction. She runs the website sfintranslation.com, and can be found on Twitter.
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26 Sep 2022

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