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The Bone Mother

Written by David Demchuk

Reviewed by Matthew Rettino



David Demchuk’s horror novel The Bone Mother portrays the doom of the last mythical creatures in Eastern Europe, while offering a window into the lives of marginalized people in Ukraine and Romania before the Second World War. It is a literary mosaic of supernatural hauntings that reflects the era’s atmosphere of violence, struggle, and survival.

Readers of horror and fantasy will recognize the creatures from Slavic folklore who inhabit Demchuk’s Ukraine. For example, there is the ruselka, a beautiful water spirit who lures children and men to their deaths, the vovkulaka, a type of werewolf, and Baba Yaga, an old crone who lives in a cabin in the woods and eats unwary stragglers with her iron teeth. There are also lesser-known creatures, such as the strigoi, who feed on the blood of those who offer them hospitality. These fairy tale figures, monsters of the all-too-real, add an air of the uncanny to the horrors that defined the nine-year period of Ukrainian history known as the movchanya, or the silence.

The mosaic format of The Bone Mother enables Demchuk to paint a deep picture of rural life on the borderlands. He deprivileges any single character as the ‘protagonist’ in favour of a collection of mixed viewpoints and a fractured plotline. Authors such as Jeff VanderMeer, Tanith Lee, and Claude Lalumière have used the mosaic form to achieve unique effects. Demchuk brings an archival sensibility to his mosaic by opening each chapter with a historical black-and-white photograph from the archives of Romanian photographer Costică Ascinte.

In an interview with The Quillery, David Demchuk says that Ascinte’s photographs of pre-war Romanian villagers “were the spark for the book.” These images paint a vivid portrayal of the ordinary people who lived through the depredations of war, famine, and fascist pogroms during the movchanya. The photos inspired such characters as Borys, the thimble factory worker who realizes the bones of dead workers are being used as raw material to create luxury products, and Dmitri, the young boy who witnesses his neighbours cannibalize their own son during a famine. Ascinte’s photographs let Demchuk particularize his characters, whose humanity might otherwise have been lost amid the weirdness and terror of their circumstances.

The photographs themselves produce an unsettling visual effect. Each image has suffered physical decay: crumbling photographic paper obscures the faces and bodies of Romanian children, women, and men. The deterioration of these images suggests the memories lost during one of the great silences of history. In Camera Lucida, philosopher Roland Barthes states that “every photograph is a certificate of presence.” In effect, the presences in The Bone Mother are all ghosts.

This reminder of impermanence drives home the horror, since these spectral presences suggest the hauntings of the strigoi and ruselka, mythical creatures that are as real in Demchuk’s Ukraine as famine and cannibalism. The link between character and photograph can be striking: for example, the photo preceding the chapter “Krisztina” is a heavily damaged portrait of a girl whose entire body is obscured except for her face. The film has lifted from the underlying paper, forming air pockets that suggest the frozen lake in which Krisztina drowns. The photograph and story mutually reinforce each other: it is as if the girl photographed is Krisztina, her eyes wide awake and staring at the reader through the ice.

Not all chapters are accompanied by a historical photograph. The chapters set in twenty-first century Manitoba are preceded by line-drawing illustrations of matryoshka dolls. These dolls suggest the nested layers of history that return to haunt the contemporary characters, who have mostly forgotten the old country’s fairy tales. Katerina watches as her grandparents’ house outside Winnipeg burns to the ground at the hands of the mysterious Night Police, which has been hunting down and killing the survivors of the movchanya. Ivan investigates the haunted remains of Edward House, the site of a burned-down gay nightclub, and discovers the horror lying in wait. The fragmented nature of the novel rejects a decisive resolution to these dangers, implying the terrors of the past continue to haunt the present, beyond the pages of the novel.

Though few genre books are ever nominated for top-level literary awards in Canada, The Bone Mother was longlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Demchuk’s novel exemplifies the high quality, literary horror readers can expect from ChiZine Press. Given recent headlines about the rise of the far right in Eastern Europe and Russian aggression in the Ukraine, the horrors of The Bone Mother are as much of a present, relevant danger in today’s world as ever before.



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