Before reading Chtenia: Readings from Russia, my only experience with Russian literature was in college, where I read Chekov’s “The Lady with the Dog” and Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” I fell in love with these stories and realized that I needed more Russians in my life. Chtenia satisfies with its wonderful selection of fiction, poetry, and essays from Russian authors both past and present. The winter 2013 issue is a special treat because it is dedicated to all things dark and scary in Russian literature. Senior Editor Tamara Eidelman writes:
Many years ago, a favorite childhood activity was sitting with friends in a pitch dark room, listening—breath suspended—to scary stories . . . It was a bit like riding on a roller coaster—yes it was fun and you wanted to speed down the hills, but you also wanted to clench your eyes shut so you didn’t have to stare into the abyss . . .
So come with me, dear reader, and see what this issue has to offer. But please watch your step. It’s awfully dark in here.
Included is an excerpt from Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy,” which is about a young seminarian’s terrifying ordeal with a witch and the supernatural. Khoma, the young seminarian, is ordered to say prayers for three nights in a small church for the body of a dead witch. Khoma wants nothing to do with it, but the witch’s father, a colonel, makes a very convincing argument: “If you don’t obey, you won’t be able to stand again, and if you do, you will get a thousand ducats.” Khoma performs his priestly duties all by himself in the church, but the dead witch returns to life and summons all kinds of monstrous creatures and spirits. The ending to this tale is chilling and is best read with the lights on.
Alexei Tolstoy’s “The Vurdalak’s Family” is a great vampire story set in rural Moldavia during the 18th century. The speaker tells the story of his youth as a diplomat to the small country in Eastern Europe. He falls in love with the countryside and the small family that gives him shelter, but things start to turn strange when the grandfather of the family returns from hunting a notorious bandit in the hills:
Everyone looked at him in horror. At the same time, the man was coming closer to us. It was a tall old man with a white mustache and a pale, severe face. He moved with difficulty, leaning on his staff . . . Approaching us, the old man stopped and cast his gaze over his family, with eyes that seemed unseeing, dim and sunken.
Madness and death slowly engulf the family and the small village. Our narrator is forced to flee for his life from a horde of angry vampires. The chase scene alone is worth reading and even made me jump in my seat. With all of the sparkling vampires frolicking around our movie screens, this story was a refreshing read.
“ScrubbleDub” by Korney Chukovsky is a more whimsical poem about personal hygiene with just the right amount of creepiness added to it. Lydia Razran Stone does a good job translating this poem for a modern English speaking audience with a Seussian flair. The speaker of this poem is a little boy who refuses to wash himself. He gets so filthy that all of his clothes and belongings fly away from him. Just as the boy is trying to understand why everything is running away from him, a monstrous walking bathroom sink crashes through the front door and berates him for his uncleanliness:
“You alone think it’s a bother
Washing up with soapy lather.
Such a dirty face is shocking,
Scaring off your shoes and stockings.
“I’m the mighty Scrubbledub,
Tsar of sink and soap and tub,
Boss of washcloth, sponge and shower.
No one can resist my power!
The pacing of this poem is fantastic. One can hear the heavy stomping of Scrubbledub’s porcelain feet as his army of scrubbers descend on the boy. The last few lines of the original 1923 poem, which were didactic in the old Soviet style, were left out, but it does not ruin the joy or the deliciously creepy vibes.
Anna Starobinets’s short story “Burning” is full of murder, madness, and holiday cheer. The story begins in a police station’s interrogation room. The main character is literally grilled for answers as the police make the room unbearably hot during his interrogation. He tells the police how he works as a Father Frost impersonator who entertains children in their homes on Christmas Eve. A woman hires him to entertain her six-year old daughter, but when he arrives at their apartment, he discovers that the girl is really a middle-aged woman with the mind of a six-year-old. He is greatly disturbed by this, but does his job regardless. The creepiness of the situation eventually becomes too much for him and he tries to leave, but the woman locks the door and keeps him prisoner. The man starts to panic as he is forced to entertain this deranged woman. Things only get worse when he hides in a closet during a game of hide-and-seek: “I peeked through the crack. She stood right there, next to the wardrobe, but I couldn’t see all of her—only her pigeon-toed feet in their bunny slippers. And one hand—it was level with my eyes and it held a pair of very sharp scissors.” The story is a thrilling ride with a shocking ending.
If you need to read more Russian literature, then Chtenia is a great place to start. There’s a lot of solid writing in this issue, but be careful if you read this one alone in the dark. You may be in for some sleepless nights.