Turning Widdershins: Finding Baba Yaga

Finding Baba Yaga,
Jane Yolen,
Tor Books


(cover image by Shutterstock, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill)

So, this is a tale
Both old and new,
borrowed, narrowed,
broadened, deepened,
rethreaded, rewoven,
stitches uneven,
re-plastered, re-harled,
rehearsed, reworked
until it’s my own.

Love comes through a back door,
leaves by the front.
Not all baptisms occur at the font.
Witches are made, of blood and bone.
Witches are made, not only born.
A story is, not always means.
We pass on our genius
as well as our genes.

You think you know this story.
You hope you know this story.
You want to tell this story,
perhaps now you will.”

Our many cultures in our world are rich in folklore and myth, tales and characters that persist for generations, centuries, even outlast the millennia; passed down, by oral storytellers originally, later through the written word, later still radio, film, comics, online. They never go away, prove an endless spring of inspiration to creators of each age because the old stories that have endured the battering winds of the centuries without eroding speak, at their heart, of very human conditions, of love and hate, isolation and belonging, fear and hope, youth and age, ignorance and wisdom, cowardice and bravery, treachery and loyalty. These tales can feature trickster spider gods like Anansi, or brave but flawed heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh; gods, heroes, villains, talking animals, magical creatures like dragons. But all of them, really, are about us, about people. It’s why they still fascinate us.

We denizens of the 21st century are no different in that respect from any of the people who went before us, from that writing explosion fueled by libraries and journals in the 19th century back to the medieval monk in a scriptorium working by candlelight, the storyteller sharing his tales by firelight at night as the caravan camps in its desert crossing (a tradition still honoured in some remote places), the wandering bards going from town to town to spin their tales to the Classical Greeks, right back to our ancestors painting tales on rock walls (again, not entirely gone, the Aboriginal people of Australia still honour this practise, telling stories and singing them to the land and the people).

Certain stories echo more frequently, prove truly flexible and adaptable to each new age, yet without losing their ancient roots, and that great figure of Russian and Eastern European folklore, the Baba Yaga with her iron teeth and chicken-leg house that wanders the forest is one of those. In very early versions of the Russian language her name can mean midwife. Or sometimes a seer or fortune teller, or a witch. Those multiple possible meanings nicely illustrate the complex nature of the Baba Yaga: sometimes she can be a kindly woman who helps a traveller, sometimes she is feared, flying through the air on her giant mortar and pestle, kidnapping children to devour. For others she is a protector of the wild nature of the land, or even a spiritual guardianr of the nation.

(Above:the Baba Yaga as depicted from the great Mike Mignola in Hellboy, published Dark Horse; below Ivan Bilibin’s 1902 illustration of the Baba Yaga)

The prolific and highly gifted Jane Yolen gives us all those aspects of the Baba Yaga and more; she plays both with the mythic tropes and archetypes and yet at the same time she gives us a rounded, real character we can believe in, not just a mythic figure, but a person. This is no mean feat and takes dexterous writing skill; to do it in verse takes even more ability, and I can’t help but wonder if it added to the difficulty for her in penning this story. But it was a good decision: some stories simply work better in verse. I’m not sure why, they just do. I think poetry, sometimes, can touch our emotions and immerse the reader further into a feeling, a setting, than prose can (I often find when prose creates those feelings so well in me that it almost becomes lyrical, poetic). Poetry can be like jazz is to classical music, or magic to science, a different perspective on the world, on people.

In Finding Baba Yaga, Jane Yolen gives us Natasha, a young girl in a troubled home, running away, going into that place that so many of our old stories warn us about, into the deep, dark forest that still haunts our collective dreams, and it is there, after walking by the silver moonlight, that she will find that famous chicken-legged house and the iron-toothed old lady inside. Had she been a pretty young lad she’d have ended up in the pot, but, grumpily and yet acceptingly, almost as if she (and the house) knew she would come, the Baba Yaga lets her enter, lets her stay, and as their relationship forms the young woman comes to understand more of the world, of its stories, of her place in those stories, of her own past, her future, and her own being, her own power.

There’s a strong element of the feminine throughout the verses in Finding Baba Yaga; there are a few male figures, such as the handsome (and crafty) prince, but they are very much relegated to supporting characters, ornaments there to help the story unfold. It is the women here who are the important characters, and with the arrival of pretty Vasilisa they become, for a time, a trio, which again harkens back to myths, some older than Baba Yaga’s, the three women who are also one (think the Kindly Ones in Gaiman’s Sandman or Medusa and her sisters or a thousand other takes on this ancient belief of a trinity of womanhood). It also manages to weave some sly, often dark humour into the tale – the Baba Yaga remarking about her sister’s house made of gingerbread and candy and how impractical that Hansel and Gretel house actually is (bears eat parts of it), and how dirty it is inside because she can’t help herself, she always bundles her young help into the oven and eats them…

It is, quite simply, a beautiful, magical, immersive piece of storytelling. I was extremely fortunate to find that the regular science fiction evenings in Edinburgh that the Shoreline of Infinity journal team organise had Jane as a guest earlier in the summer, and months before the book came out she read some of it to us. Poetry is, I find, often best when read out loud, especially by the original writer, so this was an absolute delight to hear Jane reading from her tale in verse. In a nice bit of coincedental timing I had just received an advance copy a few days before that event; it’s rather nice when coincidence turns into a little spark of magic like that.

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(Jane Yolen reading from Finding Baba Yaga at the Shoreline of Infinity’s regular Event Horizon evening in Edinburgh, photo from my Flickr)

This is another of the extremely welcome little novellas which Tor has been publishing over the last few years both physically and in digital form. We’ve reviewed quite a few on here, some by writers new to us, some by established favourites, but all a short but delightful dip into that writer’s world. I think Tor are to be commended for continuing to support and publish these novellas (which cover everything from hard sci-fi to fantasy to horror and even, as here, poetry); it’s a terrific way for readers to encounter new writing without the investment in time a larger book may require, and a good showcase for the writers (as are Tor’s regular short stories they post on their site). It’s also an ideal format for this unusual form of storytelling, of spinning a new take on the bones of old myth, a young woman’s journey seen through the magical power of poetry.

Plus Jane uses the word “widdershins” several times, which I find quite pleasing…

Finding Baba Yaga, a short story in verse, is published by Tor in October

Yukki-onna – Snow Woman

Yuki-onna / Snow Woman,

Directed by Kiki Sugino,

Starring Kiki Sugino , Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi

Another of the films I caught during the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was Kiki Sugino’s hauntingly beautiful film from Japan, Snow Woman. Drawing on an ancient folkloric tradition of the Yuki-onna, a spirit, almost ghostly being who, like the vampire, has had many variations in the telling and re-telling of her tale across the year. Here director Sugino takes the eponymous role, first appearing in an opening prologue, shot in a silvery black and white as a pair of hunters struggle through heavy snow on the mountains around Hiroshima, the elder male clearly losing the struggle, his young companion aiding him into the relative shelter of an old hunting cabin.

Awoken in the middle of the night, the younger man, Minokichi, is frozen by terror as much as the bitter cold, for their rough shelter has been invaded silently by a pale woman with piercing eyes and long, dark hair, crouched over his companion, and as her chill breath passes over his face the older man dies. Turning her attention to Minokichi the Snow Woman looks as if she is about to do the same to him, but then she tells him she will take pity on him because of his youth, and spare his life, on the condition he never tell another person what happened (a detail nicely lifted from one of the more popular versions of the many stories of the Snow Woman in Japan).

Moving to colour, it is now much later, the winters have departed the mountains, and Minokichi is returning from a hunting trip when he finds a beautiful woman alone on one of the paths. She asks the way to the ferry, and he takes her, inviting her to spend the night in the home of he and his elderly mother. The woman, Yuki, is beautiful but quiet and mysterious – she seems not to know where she came from, or of any family, but she is pleasant and both Minokichi and his mother are happy for her simply to stay with them, Minokichi slowly falling in love with her and asking her to become his wife. And for many years they are quite happy – Minokichi is curious about his strange wife, but as they live and love together and even have a child – a girl, Ume – he swallows this curiosity and seems content to live his life with wife and daughter in their small, barely changing village.

Of course it can’t last – Yuki has a familiar look to her and it is clear Minokichi has wondered if she is related to the Snow Woman he encountered (but if so how can she be here living as a human wife outside of her winter season?). He bites back his curiosity, partly perhaps because the Snow Woman warned him never to mention what happened on pain of death, but mostly, one feels, because he loves her and his daughter. But as the years pass – Yuki looks no older than the day she arrived – and their daughter starts to grow up, events start to happen around the village and mountain, strange deaths, the victims frozen…

This is such a beautifully crafted film – despite the supernatural elements and the folklore it is based on, it avoids the route of J-horror, instead creating a more chilling atmosphere in some places (no pun intended), like a Victorian ghost tale, perhaps. But mostly this is less a tale of strange spirits and more a tale of love and people and men and women, and how they can love one another truly but still sometimes simply cannot share a life, or at least not always, and sometimws can’t even communicate properly to one another (“husbands and wives are strangers to each other” Minokichi’s mother once tells him), a theme of Sugino’s other works too – she explained in a Q&A after the film that as a Korean-Japanese the idea of the outsider and not quite understanding one another is one she is very familiar with, while the tale itself reminds me of elements of the Selkie wife from my own country’s folklore tradition.

Snow Woman is a work of beauty though, the slow pacing and the almost timeless setting (a few items, like electric lights, hint at mid-20th century, but the village and clothing could be almost any time in the last few hundred years) allowing the audience to sink into the pace with the nature the villagers live closely to, and there is a real feeling of the turning of the seasons here (appropriately enough as some versions of the Yuki-onna associate her with seasonal spirits), the feeling of the village life in the shadow of the mountains and forest, the closeness of the natural world (and the supernatural Other World), told in some luscious cinematography and clever, precise use of soundscape until it feels less like watching a film and more like walking slowly through a dream. I can see why Sugino is making a name for herself in Asian cinema.

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Kiki Sugino 02
(Kiki Sugino talking after the film festival screening of Snow Woman)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Kelpies in Edinburgh

Kelpies in Edinburgh 02The remarkable – and apparently huge – statues of the Kelpies have been a great success since they were erected by the canal near Falkirk, rapidly becoming a landmark as well as an artistic installation. For a short time the original maquettes – the scale versions the actual statues would be based on – are on show in the West End of Edinburgh’s New Town, quite striking even at this scale. I’m looking forward to eventually seeing the full scale versions at some point. As ever, click on the pics to view the large versions on my Flickr.Kelpies in Edinburgh 01

Review: Fairest – the Hidden Kingdom

Fairest Volume 2: the Hidden Kingdom (buy from Forbidden Planet)
Fairest Volume 2: Hidden Kingdom TP(buy from Amazon)
Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda,

DC/Vertigo

fairest hidden kingdom beukes miranda cover

Yes, I know, I’m recommending a Volume 2 to you – but worry not, although if you already know your Fables history there are little references hidden away for you to enjoy, but to the new reader this Fables spin-off series focused on the female characters is a terrific way into this long-running world of tales (and if it is new to you you will want to explore not only Fairest 1 but the whole of Willingham’s magnificent Fables series afterwards). For this story arc Willingham sought out South African writer Lauren Beukes (rhymes with Lucas, if you are wondering), who I’m sure some of you will alreadyknow from her Zoo City novel, which won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award, the UK’s top prize for literary science fiction (I’d also commend her recent, disturbing, fascinating and compelling The Shining Girls novel, reviewed recently by James on our blog and now nominated for the prestigious Golden Dagger award), while Brit comics readers may have seen Inaki’s work in Judge Dredd.

fairest hidden kingdom beukes miranda 01

Lauren was given Rapunzel (of flowing locks fame) as a character to play with and teamed up with Spanish artist Inaki Miranda, and although she felt tempted to do something with folkloric characters from her own African homeland she couldn’t resist the lure of Japan. And while I would love to see the duo revisit Fairest later for an African myth-themed tale I, am glad they did go Japanese for this first outing. Despite working in different countries the two were soon swapping ideas, references and influences, from ancient Japanese folklore to modern anime and J-Pop, and the hugely influential J-Horror (as Lauren put it, there had to be a crazy hair horror moment in the Japanese setting!) which fuse in the tale to give a fantastic setting that takes in the hypermodernity of big-city Japan mixed with its much, much older rich seam of folklore.

Rapunzel has had a mysterious message, that a dark chapter of her long personal history is calling her to Japan, where she had been centuries before. A potion helps slow her astonishing hair growth so she can travel in the human world without drawing too much attention (when your hair grows several inches every few hours it’s hard to hide it on a long flight from the US to Japan!) and with some other Fables she begins her search in Japan, where we get to meet a whole array of Japanese Fables, many of whom soon prove memorable characters in their own right, some quirky, funny, some disturbing and monstrous, some rather sexy.

fairest hidden kingdom beukes miranda 04

This is no simple tale of personal rediscovery in a (too us anyway) exotic setting and culture though , as Beukes and Miranda layer in a whole lot of other elements into both the story and the characters. This isn’t a story that shies away from exploring dubious moralities and the consequences to many from the actions of one, and it is also a story in which sexuality (in a very sensual fashion though, not an exploitative way) plays a major role. Also mixed in with this is violence, including a particularly harrowing sequence which writer and artist crafted to be brutal, not wanting the stylised, almost, as Lauren put it discussing this scene recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival, consequence free violent fights of some superhero tales (lots of violence but rarely seems to matter much). This shows the awful nature of someone being hurt, repeatedly and brutally, deliberately shocking the reader, as indeed it should. Miranda conjures up some wonderful visuals, from a splash of neon Tokyo that looks like a J-Pop album cover to a brooding, dark old forest in which the overgrowth of Rapunzel’s hair (and the things that come from it) are spun into a nest, like something from one of Del Toro’s early films, menacing and disturbing, while the aforementioned violent scene flashes from different protagonist’s perspectives until the physical punishment leads to the frames breaking up, shattering, cleverly echoing the victim’s point of view as the punishing concussion of the blows drives her into unconsciousness, or a psychedelic, disturbing birth scene – the pair of them reallydo craft some memorable scenes.

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There’s been a real push to bring in novelists – especially from SF&F – into comics to help stir things up in recent years, bringing in new perspectives, and this is one of the fruits of that push. Much recommended. You can read a special guest Commentary post by Lauren and Inaki discussing their approach to Fairest here on our blog. Inaki’s art will be seen again this autumn in Coffin Hill as part of the big, new DC/Vertigo series of titles and I reckon he’s one to be watching. Lauren is already working on a new book and let’s hope it won’t be long before she also returns to comics.

fairest hidden kingdom beukes miranda 02

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Happy Beltane to everyone!

The ancient Celtic rite of spring, welcoming the return of the fertility to the land and the easy availability of outdoor drinking for the summer. True to course it pissed down! And this year we didn’t have the usual Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill because Edinburgh City Council are a bunch of eejits and screwed it all up over costs. They are more than happy to spend huge amounts of the local taxpayer’s cash on events for the tourists but not on the people who actually live here (and pay their bloody wages). Yes, the modern version may not be ‘historically accurate’ (but then this goes back to way before the Romans ever came here so no-one knows exactly what happened at the ceremony) but it is enormous fun. Fire jugglers, the Green Man, several Red Men, a May Queen, sprites, dancers, drummers, drink, drugs, snogging and laughter – it certainly has the spirit of the old pagan festival. What do you mean, how do I know? Because I’m Celtic, so there :-)! We know these things and if anyone disagrees they can chew on an Irn Bru bottle. Still, a happy Beltane to you all and may the Earth Goddess or the deity of your choice spread peaceful blessings on you as the world rotates into summer.

Passed the old cemetery nearby a couple of evenings ago and the huge, gnarled old tree (the one with the bat in it) which hangs right over the wall is slowly awakening from it’s winter slumber (just in time for the Beltane). It’s an amazing old tree, fantastically twisted, branches reaching out over the wall to caress the roof of passing double decker buses. Green is reappearing as it comes back to life for another year, like seeing an old friend again.Took all of this rebirth of the land thing to mean one of two things: 1) I must ride forth and find the Holy Grail. Onc Arthur has drunk from it the land and he will be reborn. Fussy bugger, why he couldn’t just have a decent dram… 2) I should use my list vote for the Scottish parliament to vote for the Greens. Discharged my civic and demcoratic duty. Not overly mad on the election system, but as Matthew observes, you have to use what voice you have. He’s obviously on his poitical high horse today (anything to avoid studying), you should have a look.My political high horse is eating hay as we speak, so I had to use my mountain bike instead. It doesn’t look as good, but it doesn’t crap all over the road either (although that may be a way of getting back at idiot drivers).