Somov’s Gothic Ukraine

“…He saw Katrusia lying beside him. There was no trace of yesterday’s insanity on her face, nor the frantic savagery, with which she had chanted incantations, in her eyes.” (Orest Somov, The Witches of Kyiv)

PrintWhether by coincidence or the hand of fate, our latest publication happens to be another beautiful example of the Gothic genre in Ukrainian literature. Our previous publications of Gothic works include Klym Polishchuk’s Treasure of the Ages: Ukrainian Legends (click here to see a free book preview) and Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska’s The Living Grave: A Ukrainian Legend (click here to see a free book preview). This time Sova Books have translated a compilation of Orest Somov’s short stories entitled The Witches of Kyiv and Other Gothic Tales: Selected Works of Orest Somov.

This book differs from its Gothic counterparts in several ways. First, it contains a beautifully written foreword by an expert in the genres of Gothic and Romantic literature, Svitlana Krys, PhD. The foreword makes a perfect starting point for learning about and understanding the author, his works and their place in Ukrainian and world literature during the 19th century.

Somov wrote in Russian, the lingua franca of the Russian Empire […]. His Ukrainian tales made a big impact on the literary canon of the 1820s and became the subject of a literary dialogue. To give just one example, Aleksandr Pushkin, the preeminent Russian Romantic and founder of modern Russian literature, revisited Somov’s ‘The Witches of Kyiv’, the inaugural tale in this collection and one of his most famous works, in his own writing. It is thanks to Somov’s efforts that, a few years later, young Gogol asked his mother in his letter home, dated 30 April 1829, to send him as much ethnographical material as possible, seeing that everyone in the imperial capital was captivated by all things Ukrainian. Gogol himself used Somov’s writing as inspiration.

Secondly, while our previous Gothic book covers were created by talented Eastern European artists Yanitsa Slavcheva and Nikola Nevenov, the current book cover has been conjured up by the equally talented young Australian artist Colin Thompson.

Mykola Pymonenko (1862-1912), “At the River”, 1900

Mykola Pymonenko (1862-1912), “At the River”, 1900

The illustrations in the book are images of classic works that are exhibited or archived at the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Curator Lesia Tolstova, who in the same capacity helped us with our very first book Taste of Ukraine, advised on and arranged for the use of the images. We are very grateful to Lesia and Yuliya Lytvynets for their assistance with our latest book.

Somov’s The Witches of Kyiv and Other Gothic Tales introduces many intriguing Ukrainian Gothic characters. In the book the supernatural is present throughout Ukraine, from a cemetery in Kyivan Rus, to an isolated forest cottage in the seventeenth century Kozak era, to the society ballrooms of Somov’s own world – the early nineteenth century. Gothic horror appears in many guises including witches, warlocks, demons and vengeful ‘rusalky’. Strange soothsayers and malevolent visitors represent the forces of good and evil. In her foreword Svitlana Krys, PhD, describes Somov as, “an initiator of an indigenous literary tradition of the Gothic in the Ukrainian literary canon”. Native folk traditions, ghost stories and European Romanticism are twisted together in Somov’s imaginative tales, most of which are published here in English for the first time.

Opanas Slastion (1855-1933), “A Ukrainian Woman, from Chernihiv”, 1886-1894

Opanas Slastion (1855-1933), “A Ukrainian Woman, from Chernihiv”, 1886-1894

‘The Witches of Kyiv’ – A besotted newlywed husband is drawn into a wild occult world of incantations, apparitions and a savage Witch’s Sabbath on the outskirts of old Kyiv.

Rusalka’ – Supernatural spirits who inhabit the waterways of Ukraine beguile a lovelorn young girl, and sorely test a mother’s devotion.

‘The Evil Eye’ – A prosperous landowner, Kozak Mykyta looks into the eyes of true evil when a hellish guest covets his three beautiful, virtuous daughters.

‘Wandering Light’ – Triumphant after a deadly battle, a warrior named Velesyl returns for his bride but instead encounters an eerie, glowing spirit.

Kupalo Eve’ – On the banks of the Dnieper River a handsome knight partakes enthusiastically in the pagan rites of Kupalo Eve and is entranced by the cool charm of a supple maiden.

‘God’s Fool’ – Fun-loving officer Melskyi, who normally frequents gaming tables and summer balls is confounded by the eccentric drifter Vasyl. Dubbed ‘God’s Fool’, yet able to read minds and divine fates, Vasyl guides Melskyi through flippant flirtations, bizarre dreams and a deadly serious duel to meet his destiny.