‘THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL HER NEIGHBOR’S BABY’ BY LUDMILLA PETRUSHEVSKAYA
SCARY FAIRY TALES OF THE SOVIET UNION
Though Russian literature is typically associated with long and dense works, Soviet literature subverts this stereotype and proves that to be gripping and profound few words work as well as many. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s collection of short stories is a perfect example of this. Her shockingly-titled There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales is a dark, gory and surprisingly tender selection of her work. The stark and accurate translations by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers lets what has enjoyed a celebrated popularity in Russia join the ranks of horror greats of the English writing world.
Each tale, all about the length of a ghost story told around a campfire, reads like a spooky bedtime story, starring soldiers with phantom limbs, young mothers, kerchiefed babushkas, and more against a backdrop of communal apartments typical of the Khrushchev era, vodka, and evil presences that lurk unnamed in dusty corners. With spare, direct prose, she demonstrates an uncanny ability to bring to life an entire atmosphere of psychological dread and uncertainty with a single detail. Horror here is not some frivolity, the horror Petrushevskaya uses is ultimately about expressing the limits of the human heart and soul in a regime devoid of a respect for human dignity. Petrushevskaya’s unique use of horror returns us to the humanity that never left the common folk, the biggest victims of socialism in the former Soviet Union.
With this in mind, the themes of survival, both military and civilian, and relationships between family members lose their whimsy, and though her works read like dark fairy tales, the exaggerations she draws are not as extreme as any reader would want stories like this to be. Their darkness has two foundations- one in genre and the other in the reality of the era. Petrushevskaya is clearly not looking for sympathy or to create a sense of the maudlin; she is simply following in the footsteps of the great horror writers, (think Mary Shelley, Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.), before her of using fantasy to attempt to tell the truth better than fact.
She has drawn comparison to another Russian great, Anton Chekhov with her use of details to tell a psychological puzzler. Yet her folktale inspired plots and elements of the supernatural that play vague, sinister roles in many of her stories recall Nickolai Gogol, another golden age Russian author. Gogol’s stories are brimming with the fantastic and otherworldly, often to ridiculous effect. Where Gogol is humorous, Petrushevskaya is dark; where Chekhov probes global questions, Petrushevskaya remains specialized, offering a more fanged bite. Her inspirations are clear, but her voice stands alone-she takes her place alongside these authors through innovation and sheer originality.
Her unflinching perspective and her ingenious use of the horror genre draws you in, and through the gruesome, she teaches you that hope dies last, even in the worst circumstances. Read her for a good spine-tingling, or to dip a toe into a new literary tradition, or for a reminder of how strong the human spirit is.
[+]THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL HER NEIGHBOR’S BABY: SCARY FAIRY TALES BY LUDMILLA PETRUSHEVSKAYA