The Bone Mother / David Demchuk
Peterborough, ON: ChiZine, c2017.
As my longer-term readers may know, horror is not my first choice for a good read. But this one, longlisted for the Giller Prize (a preeminent Canadian literary prize), and set on the borders of Ukraine & Romania, interested me for those very reasons.
It's a set of short stories, all connected in ways, featuring the ancient monsters of peasant folklore, salted with some scary 'night police' tracking them down, in a nod to Soviet style tyranny.
The stories are set in Ukraine, especially three villages near the Thimble Factory, as well as a couple of stories within the Ukrainian community in Canada (the one set in Manitoba was especially good, I thought - probably the most memorable for me).
They are full of horror; from bloody killings to cannibalism to monsters living among us -- but somehow the overall tone is more dark folklore than gratuitous gore. The stories in which I could identify real folkloric creatures like the rusalka or Baba Yaga were the most fascinating to me. There were a couple of these short tales that I didn't like much (mostly the last one) but as a whole this book was a great read. Creepy, spooky, dark, the stories were so brief (some only a page or two) that it really felt like reading folk tales, like these were stories that had been -- or should have been -- passed down in whispers through the generations.
As one of the reviews of this book has mentioned, the actual history that this book arises from is terrifying enough on its own: Demchuk mentions the Holodomyr (Stalin's forced famine, which created plenty of real-life horror) and the way the implacable Night Police are threaded through the stories reads as Soviet reality.
Another element that adds to the book is Demchuk's use of old photographs (in the public domain) by Roman photographer Costică Acsinte, taken between 1935 and 1945. They are portraits, with individuals staring out at you from stark backgrounds; the chapters titles are simply names. It's very effective.
A very unusual Canadian read, but one that I read in one sitting and by the way, didn't even have nightmares after reading it!