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.

Event Horizon June 2018 08
(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

Reviews: disturbing Gothic horror in The Atrocities

The Atrocities,

Jeremy C Shipp,

Tor.com


(cover art by Samuel Araya, design by Christina Foltzer)

Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sores the size of teacups. If you come across a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws, you’re going the wrong way.”

Right from this opening paragraph Jeremy C Shipp’s novella The Atrocities crafts a delightfully, delectably creepy sense of unease. A tutor coming to a mysterious, isolated old home is, of course, hardly new in the fantastic genres – the governess in an old mansion with peculiar owners and even more peculiar children has been a staple of Gothic fiction since the 1800s, and the Old, Dark House has haunted our fictional nightmarescapes for just as long. It’s been quite a while since I came across someone opening up that particular playset again though, and I’m glad to report Shipp not only plays with an old generic type, he twists it and has fun with it; clearly he has a lot of love for some of those older tales, and that shows in the craft and attention to building mystery and atmosphere in The Atrocities.

The garden maze and bizarre, disturbing statuary could have come from the Addams Family mansion, but the constant, growing sense of unease, of things simply not being right, owes much to masters like Poe – there’s a feeling of dread growing throughout this book. On the surface it seems a very straightforward appointment: Danna has been engaged to tutor Isabella, the young daughter of Mr and Mrs Ever in Stockton House. There’s one somewhat unusual factor here though: Isabella is dead. Deceased. She has ceased to be, joined the Choir Invisible.

Mr and Mrs Evers, however, do not see this as any reason she should not have her education continued, like any proper young lady. Isabella is, according to Mrs Ever at least, still here, a phantom, and a playful impish one at that. Danna can see why previous teachers declined to stay, but is talked into giving the post a go, mostly because it may be emotionally helpful to Mrs Ever, who is unable to let her little girl go – has she lost the balance of her mind due to her grief, imagining that Isabella is still with her in her home, in spectral form?

Naturally there is much more going on here, but given how short this is, I’m not going to risk potential spoilers by dropping any major plot points. Besides, as with Poe the real prize here is the brooding, menacing, disturbing, Gothic atmosphere. That’s not to downplay the narrative here, which works beautifully – I’ve always thought shorter fiction is a good way to measure some writers, it is, contrary to what some think, harder to build a solid story, create characters and craft atmosphere in a short space, compared to a full-length novel. When someone does so, as Shipp does very well here, it is, to my mind, a mark of someone who really understands their craft.

Tor has been putting out some quite brilliant novellas and novelettes in the last couple of years, science fiction, fantasy and horror, and we’ve been loving them on here. A brilliant way to experience writers you may not have read before, also ideal for a quick read electronically, and The Atrocities is a very fine, hauntingly creepy addition to that range.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Books: Disturbing, personal horror on the Downs – Chalk

Chalk,

Paul Cornell,

Tor Books

(cover design by Peter Lutjen)

The great publisher of SF&F, Tor, has been doing a cracking run of shorter books recently, some by new talent, some by existing, some very short (like 90 page novellas), some a bit longer (as is the case here, although still a bit shorter than many modern novels – which is a good thing, actually, it’s just the length it need to be, nothing unnecessary). When this one arrived on my desk it went straight into my eternal tottering pile of must-reads because – well, it’s Paul Cornell. And I also had that mysterious vibe, the bookseller’s Spidey sense, that just whispers to me sometimes that this is a book I need to read. And yes, I did need to read it (bless you, Spidey-sense, you never lead to anything less than a great read).

Andrew Waggonner is a schoolboy in the early 1980s, at a private school that’s seen better days,  in rural Wiltshire, and like any school anywhere there are all the usual things any kid has to try to juggle – the expectations of parents, indifferent teachers “preparing you” for life, the different social castes of your fellow schoolkids, avoiding the bullies, wondering about the opposite sex with a mixture of eager desperation and terror, about trying to figure out who you are, or who you want to be, and, this being school, how not to have any of that stand out too much in case you get picked out as different, listening to music and trying to make sure it’s the “right” music – music that the other kids will approve of and not make fun of you for listening to.

Like pretty much every school ever there is, of course, a bully – Drake – and his clique all desperately trying to make themselves look hard in front of their leader. But when Waggonner becomes the target for their violent urges, they overstep the mark, going far beyond the normal name-calling or hitting to something much worse, far more damaging, both physically and emotionally, something that scars both victim and perpetrators. And it will have repercussions. Nobody here is entirely good or bad, entirely villain or victim; as Chalk unfolds, rather satisfyingly they become elements of each.

At only 265 pages I don’t want to go into too many plot details, because this is a beautifully compact, self-contained work and to describe too much of the events, especially that key moment of bullying abuse, would be to spoil too much. Suffice to say that it is extremely disturbing, even to a seasoned horror fan, and the chain of events it sets in motion, rippling forward is equally disturbing and unsettling. The story oozes a creeping sense of horror, and a sense of an inevitable dread, like something from Poe, that feeling of the world moving off-kilter with a slow but unstoppable, irresistible force, of darkness becoming visible.

Set in the West Country, Cornell makes great use of the location – this is ancient landscape, both natural chalk downs and the landmarks made by the hand of man, ancient man, like the eerie, haunting chalk figures, the great stone circles like Avebury, or West Kennet Long Barrow. This is a region steeped in the arcane, the ritual, myth and magic since the neolithic days of our distant ancestors and anyone who has walked there will be well aware that those long-distant times can still raise a tingle on the back of your neck, a feeling of … something… The people here were an old people long before Rome’s Legions marched across the land. There’s still a sniff of magic in the air now that even a modern world of motorways and television doesn’t erase, and what happens if that ancient magic starts pushing into the modern world, reshaping it?

Chalk bleeds atmosphere, a slow-burn build towards a satisfying, well-paced, faster and faster urgent climax that could go one way or the other, the sense of place and history and myth almost palpable. The atmosphere of 80s school life is just as well articulated by Cornell – Doctor Who on a Saturday night, the hidden world of classroom cliques and groups that no adult (parent or teacher) can protect you from (or often even wants to know about), and, this being the 80s, listening religiously to the Top 40 each week, because this is an era where the radio and singles are how you get your music (no multi-channel digital streams here, this is an era where the school is just getting its first Dragon 32 computers) and it is vital to know what the latest number one is in case another kid asks you. It doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, but it does evoke the era extremely well, and I found myself having more than a few flashbacks; Cornell invests the settings, character and tales with a personal touch that makes the reader empathise all the more (even the bullies are fully-realised, not cardboard cut-outs but complex, contradictory human beings).

There are moments of sharp horror, of violence, blood, fire, some from the now, some echoes from the distant past, but still recorded into the very landscape, almost like Kneale’s Stone Tapes (I found it also, for me, evoking something of another creepy tale of that era, the Children of the Stones). But mostly Chalk, like much of the best horror stories, thrives on atmosphere, the type that gets under your skin, of a growing disturbance, both personal and more widespread across the land, slowly but inevitably building; a creeping horror, the ancient meshing with the modern, a sickening sense of dread cresting like a dark wave that, sooner or later, must hit the shore….

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Cthulhu horror meets racial bigotry in the Ballad of Black Tom

The Ballad of Black Tom,

Victor Lavalle,

Tor

victor_lavalle_ballad_black_tom_tor_books_cover

In recent months top SF&F publishers Tor have bee putting out a series of rather tasty wee novellas covering fantasy, science fiction and, here, straying into Lovecraftian horror, and indeed urban horror, the sort that is generated as much by the more vicious, ignorant elements of humanity as it is by supernatural and magical threat. Charles Thomas Tester – Tommy Tester, the eponymous “Black Tom”, is a black man in early 20th century America; it may have been decades since Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, but even in urban New York (let alone the Deep South), discrimination and intolerance is rampant, the Civil Rights movement and hard-won battles of the 60s are a long, long way away.

This is an era of know your place, and if you are a young man of colour then that’s even more important – keep to your “own areas” (such as Harlem), don’t get in the way of the white folks (especially the rich ones), and avoid the attention of the police. And given Tommy grafts a living from a mixture of playing a simple repertoire for busking in the street and from running slightly dodgy errands, which can take him outside his comfort zone of Harlem. And we see him early on running one of those errands, delivering a strange manuscript to a mysterious woman in a richer (and whiter) part of town, a book which may have esoteric learning in it, possibly dangerous knowledge. Despite keeping his head down and often adopting the servile and simple stance expected of him though, Tommy’s no idiot, he’s sharp, sharp enough to deliver the book and take his payment, but to ensure an important page is held back so that its knowledge can’t be fully used.

There’s a little hint of the John Constantine around Tommy, not so much a streetwise magus like Constantine, but a man who knows there is more about the world than just what most people see, and this knowledge and his esoteric errand-running bring him to the attention of a very wealthy man who asks him to play his music at a private party at his large house. And it is there that Tommy Tester learns that there is even more behind the everyday scenery of the stage we call the world than he suspected, and he thought he knew a bit. That there are other realms, and dark, ancient beings to whom human civilisation is but an ant hill. But living as a black man in that era of US history, being seen as unimportant, beneath notice almost, is something Tommy knows all too well, and his perspective on the ancient, dark beings is coloured (no pun intended) by how the simple fact of his own skin tone has seen him treated in his own society.

This is a superb read – Lavalle, even in the brief length of a novella, conjures up a superbly atmospheric story, both in terms of the atmosphere of dark, Lovecraftian dread and unease building throughout and also in the way he so wonderfully brings out a real feeling of New York in that period, the different areas with different ethnic cultures overlapping, each with their own ways and districts, and the realism of those streets – all now so changed, entire subcultures and communities moved and changed in the intervening decades – works perfectly as a contrast against the darker fantasy elements. And the aspects dealing with they way race, class and wealth  dictate how someone is treated – does the policeman respectfully raise his cap to you or does he wallop you over the head with impunity – and viewed have many parallels to modern society.

In a mere 149 pages Lavalle crafts an increasing air of menace an unreality lying just beyond the seemingly solid walls of our reality, just waiting to break in, and at the same time does what the best writers do, uses the fantasy to draw parallels to social problems of the present day. This is the first time I’ve read Lavalle, but I’ll be happy to pick up anything else by him after this.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog