Monsters of Our Time: Review of Eurasian Monsters ed. Margrét Helgadóttir
Eurasian Monsters. Edited by Margrét Helgadóttir. Fox Spirit Books, December 2020.
When I started studying Russian a few months ago, I was driven by my desire to read traditional fairy tales in their original language. Leafing through pages of Slavic story collections, I became familiar with creatures like Baba Yaga, the domovoi, the rusalka, the kikimora, and others. These beings were simultaneously familiar and foreign to me, but the biggest surprise came after I talked to people raised in Slavic-speaking countries, in the realization that the presence of these creatures did not stop at the end of a tale or a book page. My friends told me, for instance, how they had to clean up all the cutlery from the kitchen before going to bed to avoid distressing their domovoi and that they often attributed missing items to a dissatisfied domestic spirit. Such practices bring these creatures to life in a manner that escapes strict fictionality. In the hands of the Eurasian Monsters authors, these same creatures have been turned into monsters; equally vivid ones that almost jump out of the pages of this book, taking readers by the hand in a daunting ride to the folkloric depths of these cultures.
Eurasian Monsters is the seventh and final installment in Fox Spirit’s Books of Monsters coffee table series, edited by Margrét Helgadóttir and published between 2014 and 2020. Not having read any of the previous volumes, which traversed Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific telling forgotten monsters’ stories, I did not know exactly what to expect. By referring to folklore, the book description had me imagining stories occurring centuries ago, in natural settings or small villages occupied by eerie spirits. And so, my introduction to the series through the Eurasian volume was nothing short of a surprise.
The collection comprises a total of 17 stories, both originals and re-prints, including translation to English specifically for the purposes of this volume, from authors such as Haralambi Markov, Alex Shvartsman, Maria Galina, and K. A. Teryna. Drawing from regional traditions, these authors reimagine and mold through their pens ancient creatures from myths and folktales, often transporting them to modern or futuristic settings. Although the editor’s grouping of locations (mostly countries behind the former Iron Curtain) is hardly an innovative choice, it is nonetheless a pleasure to find such a collection that, according to Helgadóttir, seeks to acquaint readers with the realistic, contemporary life of these places that is little seen, let alone examined.
Stories take us from Russian streets and houses (domestic settings seem to be very popular) to dystopic wastelands, where nature is unusually omnipresent, and to (ubiquitous in folktales) forests and mountains. Contemporary settings do prevail, meaning that an underlayer of topical social themes is often woven into the tales. Monsters have regularly been seen as symbols of otherness and frequently function to portray what is different, unknown, or feared in human societies. In this collection, however, humans sometimes turn out to be worse than monsters and although the latter are no less terrifying, sometimes they do appear as what the editor fears they are: lingering cultural fragments of an almost-forgotten past.
Some tales unravel, and it is only at the very end when the authors introduce or name their monster. In most cases, these have a rough, disjointed feeling to them, as if the creature came in late, only after the story had been already shaped without it. On the contrary, in others, the monsters feel natural; they are seamlessly entwined with plot and setting alike, as well as the rest of their characters, and it is, inevitably, these stories that are most successful.
The thrilling, Russian-based opening that is “Morpheus” stamps fear in the deepest psychological levels, giving only a glimpse of what is to follow.
I must wake up. Not because of the river, the seagulls, or fishing—which I can’t stand—but because of sleep itself and of my realization. I can’t recall why being asleep is a bad thing, but the foreboding of something unkind lingers at the edge of my mind.
K.A. Teryna’s story serves as a terrifying, sardonic welcome and at the same time a reminder of the dread brought about by monsters occupying one’s mind, keeping one awake at night and feeding from one’s helplessness; the kind of monsters one cannot get rid of.
In “Bagatazh,” Russian author Karina Shainyan ingeniously makes a monster out of a huge stone frog, in a tale epitomizing the essence of classic scary storytelling around campfires. Shainyan aptly transfers her reader up in the Altai mountains, a place brimming with ancient spirits where humans are but transient passers-by, seemingly unfearing until the night falls… Then the mountain dwellers awaken:
The noise cobwebs you; it penetrates your skull, weaving itself into intricate patterns.
The protagonist, a tourist guide, cannot escape their presence, while Shainyan exquisitely stimulates the reader’s five senses in a rich tale with impressive rhythm and imagery.
The sounds lie, but she knows how to listen. It took her a long time to learn, and that knowledge will never leave her.
She hears it again.
Haralambi Markov’s “Nine Tongues Tell Of” is one of those tales which leaves an enduring imprint by virtue of their poignancy and blunt directness. The Bulgarian author’s story brings together a young, orphaned woman and a hala, a female demon of bad weather, specifically hail, that originates in his country’s folklore.
‘You invited me to find you.’
‘I invited you to die.’
Despite their seemingly insurmountable differences, both creatures are alone and disconnected from their worlds, and in that they develop an unusual companionship leading up to a bittersweet ending.
Finally, “Verushka and the Lúdvérc” has a taste of haunting old-time fables; the story by Bogi Takács, a Hungarian author and poet, is at once fresh and instilled with the essence of ancestral tales told by grandmothers after grandmothers hundreds of years ago. The opening line, in its enchanting simplicity, captivates the reader from the very start:
Once in a more starlit age, on the plains surrounded by the Carpathian mountains, there lived a young girl with dark brown eyes and a cheerful smile, by the name of Veruska.
All the stories are accompanied by an illustration; in fact, due to the square coffee table format of the book I had anticipated more. Some of them were simply outstanding (Teryna’s Ded Moroz for Maria Galina’s story is undoubtedly the most terrifying Santa I have laid eyes on) whereas others suffered from poorer quality.
Though I cannot say if this is a fitting end to Helgadóttir’s global survey of the world’s monsters, I can definitely say Eurasian Monsters functions perfectly as an opening to it as well. I am looking forward to reading more of these books, hoping to encounter the same diversity, creativity, and haunting images exemplified in this one.
Alkisti Kallinikou (she/her) is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She found her true calling after spending some time in the corporate world, following which she returned to academia, and received a BA in English from the University of London and an MA in Creative Writing from the Hellenic Open University. Her research interests include children/YA literature, fantasy, mythology & folklore, (eco)gothic, environmental and blue humanities, and nonfiction (nature) writing. Alkisti is also a writer, translator, and composer.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in late March 2021 from a hard pitch and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. The editor and author were not previously acquainted prior to an earlier request by the author to review for ARB (the previous book was not received and the review was cancelled). The editor of the book under review provided ARB with a review copy.