#34: The Viy
Strange Slavic spook story in the gothic mode
Initial release: 1835
Author: Nikolai Gogol
There’s a strong relation between the horror genre (especially the gothic horror of the 18th and 19th centuries) and folklore. Folklore is an oral history of the unknown, from a darker, bigger world, and The Viy stands firmly in that tradition. Published as the penultimate entry in Nikolai Gogol’s short story collection, The Migorod, The Viy is at heart another witch tale, but lurking in the background is the Viy itself, a demonic creature, a “king of the gnomes,” with eyelids that stretch to the floor.
The Viy, as named, does not seem to exist in Ukrainian folklore, despite Gogol’s claims in the preface to the story, but there’s a possible link to the real legend of St. Cassian the Unmerciful, a semi-demonic figure in Orthodox lore who supposedly had long eyelashes. It’s a tenuous link, but it’s telling that both the Viy and St. Cassian supposedly had penetrating evil eyes capable of wilting a person on the spot. And certainly, that’s what happens to the hapless hero of The Viy.
Lemme back up. Three young seminarians are heading home from school for summer vacation sometime in 18th-century Ukraine. They get lost and stumble upon the farm of a cranky old woman, who, after much cajoling, permits them to sleep in separate places around the farm.
In the night, one of the three boys, Thomas (or Khoma, depending on the translation) is beset upon by the old woman, who climbs on his back and forces him to run for miles. He eventually manages to kill her, but seeing that she’d turned into a beautiful woman, he runs away.
Returning to the seminary in Kiev, he’s soon caught by the rector, who tells him that a colonel a ways outside of town has a dying daughter who’s requested his presence. He’s immediately suspicious, but goes anyway under duress, escorted by a bunch of Cossacks. When he gets there and goes to sleep, the daughter dies overnight; the colonel then tells him that Thomas is to recite prayers for the dead every night for three nights. Thomas notices that there’s something hauntingly familiar about the dead girl, who he’s never met.
What follows are three nights where Thomas desperately tries to stave off the depredations of an increasingly terrifying corpse that rises from the casket, and in between he talks to the colonel’s domestic staff and learns of the daughter’s reputation as a witch. It becomes clear to him that the dead girl is the same old witch who he’d killed, and on the third night the Viy itself shows up. Despite himself, Thomas cannot help but look when the Viy looks at him. All ritual and incantation fail as he’s struck dead on the spot. The end.
It’s not a very long story. and, true to gothic tradition, it’s not a very deep one either. If anything, it’s a bit more explicit with the misogyny that lurks behind fears of witches and witchcraft than most similar tales. An old woman who corrects a cossack is rudely threatened. Twice it is said, as if reciting an old idiom, “every old woman is a witch.” And there’s of course always a tale of seduction and destruction.
Look, I don’t seek this shit out, it’s just endemic to the fucking genre.
It’s not a BAD story, really. The basic setup is charming enough, and the way each successive night is worse than the last helps build suspense. Things rattle about, candles flicker, the old church is sinister in character all by itself. But it’s just… well… kinda standard.
We’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Locked in a room with a corpse or whatever, something lurks the wilderness beyond, all that. Sure, gothic literature helped invent a lot of these tropes we now take for granted, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done more compellingly.
Side note: There’s been a few movie adaptations of this story. The most famous one is probably a Soviet film from the 60s — notable for being one of the rare horror movies out of the Soviet Union. There’s also a more recent adaptation, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.