Eurasian Monsters edited by Margrét Helgadóttir is the seventh and final installment in the Fox Spirit Books Monsters anthology series. Like the other installments in the series, including African Monsters, Asian Monsters, European Monsters, and more, this book is a lovely physical object. The 8.5 x 8.5 square format gives the anthology the feel of a children’s book of dark fairy tales or ghost stories, and each entry is accompanied by its own illustration. The majority of the stories are original to the volume (published in December 2020), with a few reprints thrown in, and includes work by authors such as Haralambi Markov, Alex Shvartsman, Bogi Takács, and Ekaterina Sedia. The anthology also offers a mix of stories originally written in the English language, and translations. As the title implies, all the tales offer their own take on monsters, legends, and supernatural creatures in various Eurasian settings. Overall, it was an enjoyable anthology, with a few stories in particular that really stood, highlighted below.
Daemons in Their Time by Marta Magdelena Lasik (translated by Piotr Swietlik) offers a fascinating blend of a technologically advanced world and old mythology. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose as a rusalka follows a man through a desert wasteland, trying to get him to admit he’s not human, while he refuses to believe could possibly be anything but human.
You are lying. Perhaps even without knowing it, but you’re not telling the truth. I understand riddles. I recognize the correct answers even if I don’t know them. When you answer my question, my puzzle, I know, with the wisdom of a centuries-old rusalka, that it is not the correct answer.
Of all the stories in the anthology, this is probably the one that edges closest to science fiction, yet there’s also a timelessness to it, despite the post-apocalyptic setting. The story deals with questions of identity and self knowledge, and coming to accept truths, even when they are difficult to face.
Bagatazh by Karina Shainyan (translated by Mike Olivson) has the feel of a classic ghost story, told around a campfire. Indeed, much of the story does take place in the vicinity of a campfire, as Katya, one of two guides tasked with guiding tourists on hike and camping excursion, begins to suspect they are being stalked by a local legend.
Boom. There is something large stirring in the night shadows beyond the fire. Katya recoils, as the air wheezes into her lungs and freezes, transforming into stone. Boom, says the heart, beating painfully in her eardrums. Boom-boom-boom. The dark mass stirs and mutters. The low flames dance as the details of the approaching figure come into view. Recognizing it, Katya relaxes, and realizes she can breathe again.
Tucked within the eerie, supernatural tale is the story of a woman who feels caught between two worlds, and thus like she belongs nowhere. Katya’s predicament is mirrored by the monster of the tale, a massive ancient frog, cursed by the spirits of the mountain for refusing to pay tribute to them because it claimed to be a creature of the water as much as a creature of land, not living full time in either, and thus owing allegiance to no one.
Nine Tongues Tell Of by Haralambi Markov is lovely story of the friendship that develops between an orphaned woman caring for her elderly grandfather, and a nine-headed mythical creature. Similar to Katya in Shainyan’s story, Damyana in Markov’s story never feels entirely as though she belongs to the human world. While the hala she faces is terrifying, and does have its monstrous aspects, the gifts she gives it in order to keep it from devouring her ultimately become an act of healing, allowing her to let go of her grief and lighten her spirit.
When her grandfather died and she truly became an orphan, Damyana brought his ashes, neatly packed in an urn–a ceramic box decorated with cherubs and painted in a mournful green. All seven heads shed tears then and gently the hala took the box into one of its maws and stored it away for safe-keeping.
As with many of the stories in the anthology, the monster in Markov’s tale shows itself to be more compassionate than many humans in its own way. While some of the monsters are truly monstrous, most stand in for various states of mind – anxiety, fear, a lack of belonging, or a desire to be loved. The humans are often the monstrous ones, where more often than not, the monsters simply are what they are – obeying their nature, and holding up a mirror to the mortals who encounter them.
The Visit by Maria Galina (translated by Mike Olivson) tells the story of Sergey Stepanonvich, a middle-aged man who is visited one night by Ded Moroz, a frightening Santa Claus-like figure. At first Ded Moroz claims he has come to make amends for Sergey’s childhood disappointment when he wished for a telescope for Christmas, and instead received a drum. Ded Moroz tells him that had he received the telescope, he might have achieved his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer, instead of ending up in a dead-end job he hates, divorced, alone, and overall let down by life. He brings gifts of food and whiskey as an apology, but the longer they talk, the more Sergey begins to suspect that Ded Moroz’s motives may not be entirely pure.
At the border where light met shadow, he could see red, gold, green, and silver reflections, somewhat unclear and out of focus. But if you looked at them indirectly, from the corner of your eye, they somehow became a sled with a high back, decorated with shining patterns, and unmoving white silhouettes which stood out from the snow, either wolves or huge dogs…
The slow unfolding of the tale, and the ultimate reveal of Ded Moroz’s nature is nicely done. The imagery is evocative, and the author deftly blends touches of humor with an increasingly dark exploration of whether simple external factors have the power to shape our entire lives, or whether humans are ultimately responsible for creating our own success and happiness, but would rather look to those outside forces as convenient things to blame when our lives don’t go as we imagined.
Veruska and the Lúdvérc by Bogi Takács spins a classic fairy tale of a young, kind-hearted girl named Veruska who discovers what appears to be a strange, orphaned bird, and takes it home, only to find that she has unwittingly brought home a monster.
Yet suddenly she heard a popping sound. The chick jumped off the oven-ledge and squealed with human words, in a little girl’s voice. “What shall I bring? What shall I bring?” Veruska rubbed her eyes, opened the curtain over the ledge and tried to see better in the light of the full moon. The fledgling suddenly looked much larger, like an adult’s fist in size.
The lúdvérc at first seems only mischievous, pulling pranks which Veruska is blamed for, but then turns more sinister. If Veruska isn’t able to fulfil its demands, it threatens eat her, as it has eaten many children like her before. The story unfolds in a satisfying battle of wits, as Veruska must rely on her cleverness to out-trick the trickster to save her life and that of her family.
Each story in the anthology offers its own unique take on the monstrous, with a wide variety of supernatural beings that range from frightening to tragic and everything in-between. It’s a fantastic addition to the Monsters series, all of which are well-worth checking out.