Scary and weird

Oleksandr Zavara. Helter Skelter. Kharkiv: Ranok; Fabula, 2019. 400 p.

Pavlo Derevianko. Arkan of Wolves. Vinnytsia: Dim Khymer, 2019. 448 p.

Thriller and black fantasy. People kill people. Supernatural powers kill people. Our, reader’s job is the same: sit, flip the pages and fear. They have imagined once that the son should kill his father and take his place. They got frightened, of course, but decided to make it a basic cultural myth. But it’s scary indeed! And this story is scary not because there is no flying from fate. If they say, “Kill your father!”, you have to sharpen your knife and keep silent. It’s scary when you have to take your father’s place, to become his echo. Inheritance – that’s scary. The most intimate of our private property – phobias, nightmares and fears – don’t belong to us. The original sin is food for a good fantasy and a good thriller. For bad as well. Since it’s scary to be an heir of other people’s sins. And honours too.

In other words, the next two books are A) intrusively scary, B) exploiting the immortal generation gap, hence C) an ideal page-turner for summer holidays.

Helter Skelter from the title of Oleksandr Zavara’s new novel is a quote from The Beatles. The song-mess is atypical for them, and so remarkable. There is a central metaphor – spiral Gutter-Attraction-Slope: gripping, swift, dangerous, scary – and whack in the end. The reputation of the song was spoilt by Charles Manson and his Family, this was the first printed biography of the maniac. Association with the serial killer is not accidental for Zavara’s novel. Manson called the end of the world a “helter-skelter”, which can’t be postponed but can be brought closer. The Apocalypse will come in the form of an interracial war in which the black will win, and among the whites, only the “family” will survive because they also have experienced depreciation. Experiences of the system depreciation are important for Zavara’s novel as well as most auto-suggested experiences of his maniacs. This bloody phrase “helter-skelter” Manson Family left on the walls of their victims. One of the characters of the novel constantly listens to this song. Offended by the whole world, a man with a complex of God and the manners of a serial killer is skilled in fatal classics.

At the party, several sophomores of the Chernivtsi University gather in the dormitory to summon Panochka (a lady – ed.). One of them read on the local legends website information needed for the ritual: if everything is done properly, Panochka will implement the cherished desire of each and won’t ask anything in return. Lavish Panochka with a sad female fate. Once Sotnyk had a daughter, many proposed to her but she refused because she was high-minded. All at once she fell in love with somebody and began to spend nights outside of the village. After one of such nights, she returned home beaten and died shortly after. A guy she loved turned up, spent several nights with her dead body before the funeral and died himself. Now, Panochka in the mirror can be asked for anything: she is compassionate, she will shower you with gifts.

Two girls and six boys sit in a room (one of the boys doesn’t take part in the ritual, he is a pal of the local alpha, he isn’t seen as a human being). They make wishes in turn – one minute should be enough for everyone. They wish some gibberish, to tell you the truth: one needs a new laptop, another to pass finals for all A’s, a couple needs an apartment, a local macho wants to spend a night with an inaccessible beauty, another wants a ticket for a concert and another runs out of time to voice the wish. Panochka got everyone.

That night and the party have consequences. Firstly, there is someone who drank up a fresher girl, raped her in an inadequate state, in the morning she tried to commit suicide. Secondly, wishes begin to come true. And these two events are linked since an implemented wish is followed by bloody and chimerical suicides (the description of deaths is impressive, body horror attempts to catch Zavara’s attention). Those who talked to Panochka through the mirror and received the desired, commit suicides. And it is highly likely that the raped fresher-suicide in these events is a zero-patient. A so-called slasher-horror revolves, a thriller with a sludge of mysticism in which the one can survive if… well, someone must survive anyway.

By the way, did you recognize in this urban legend The Viy plot? You might have understood already by the word “panochka”.

Witty characters of Zavara only on the two-hundredth page begin to realize that they deal with a zero-patient of the Ukrainian horror. In Helter Skelter, the level of humanitarian education of its characters unconditionally, desperately, frantically scares. After realizing that the plot of the horror story resembles The Viy, there will be a hundred pages, give or take, of the “investigation” of a local historian student: “Gogol was involved in occultism! Gogol was a friend of Devil!” (and Gagarin was kidnapped by the aliens, of course). Frightened and still alive “investigators” even manage to find a village where Panochka lived and Khoma Brut died. This is important because some of them finally read The Viy and noticed that after the death of Panochka, the mirror was not covered in the house, which means the witch took advantage of the portal for troubled souls and now, through the mirror, commits her crimes. And Panochka is not so generous with the desires of six stupid drunken students with desperate gaps in education.

Gogol’s narrative of Helter Skelter is the least interesting part of the novel, openly desperate and badly implemented. Reminiscence of another popular story by the name, title song and several passages of Manson and the novel about an American psychopath, are embodied much thinner. A forced spoiler, excuse me: it’s not a mystical thriller, but simply a thriller that’s why it’s worth attention. Unless I note that in the world of frightened kids Zavara is characterized by boldness. He generously mixes his text with wide-ranging quotations from The Viy, and the comparison has a bad effect, not for Gogol. However, fruitless rivalry with predecessors, the pain of an overwhelming inheritance of parents is the main theme of the novel. And what about Viy? And Viy isn’t all that he seems.

In the novel, there are less known quotations – from the interview of the serial killer Anatoliy Onopryyenko (yes, according to the plot, they are important and appropriate). It is Onopryyenko who will be called in the novel Viy, they say that the media once have tried to add the maniac this nickname. A pedestrian, run-of-the-mill man who turned out to be the most terrible felon of the end of the XX, whose motives and some of the crimes are still unknown. The reality is scarier, it’s always scarier than its literary processing. However, the literature can make an impression, let’s admit it. Onopryyenko climbs out of the mirror-portal, turning into Gogol’s Panochka to cut young idiots who skipped their history of culture course dead… Well, there is no such thing in the novel. Instead, there is an idea of how much our impressions of people and the impression that they are trying to make on us don’t coincide. In a nutshell, classical conflict of the visible and the living on the material of the bloody baths in the Chernivtsi dormitory.

The characters can also make a false impression. It means we have a set of stereotypes. A rich guy, for example. A rich wino who lives in a dormitory to get on his father’s nerves who doesn’t care one iota about him. Or a chick, let’s say. Or a weed smoker-bigot. All Zavara’s characters act and think as stereotypes from the teen slashers. But they are the stereotypes who suddenly became conscious of themselves. However, it’s too late: around the corner, someone has already prepared a loop, and a knife, and rebar… That’s all, I’m silent. However, I have advice: “Parents, call your gloomy children shortly and say that you love them.”

In the centre of the first novel by Pavlo Derevyanko Arkan of Wolves, there is a boy who also bears grudge against his father, that’s why he does hell knows what. And since Severyn isn’t a dropout student but a Cossack sorcerer from the hut of the Otherworld and the Arkan of Wolves isn’t a slasher but a dark fantasy, so the problems of Severyn and his environment are much cooler and mysterious. This novel doesn’t aim to frighten, unlike the previous one, rather seduce, but it really succeeds in striking (and not only by inappropriate referring to Kulish and Shevchenko and the absurd use of the Rorschach test in the 1840s).

1845. The Hetmanate. At first glance, it differs little from the times known to us. Except that in Kyiv, there are the Spiers, where zeppelins park, a massive construction of railways is ongoing, Chumaks sit in the cars, and sometimes there are talks about the advantages of steam engines over internal combustion engines (however, this doesn’t affect the plot completely, and who knows why the ghost of steampunk appeared). Another difference is important: the sorcerers formed their army and the cursed werewolves constitute a powerful force in both domestic and foreign politics. But a weird thing is happening. For example, the Emerald Horde fights China, and in the Hetmanate, there are two councils – the Black Council and the Red Council – from the time of Tymosh Khmelnytsky who became a hitman. Since the Republic of Khmelnytsky withstood, that’s true. And twenty years ago, the whole country turned to the Latin alphabet, only privileged few read in Cyrillic, this is how the secret knowledge of the witch and the sorcerers is transmitted… And it seems, there are many new things in this world.

Besides the Gray Order, there are several more military organizations in the country: Sich army, Secret guardship, the army of the Orthodox Church. The Hetmanate is not at war with anyone, but there are suspiciously a lot of military groups. And they don’t make friends with each other. And the inside of the army isn’t calm. Not so long ago, in the ranks of the Gray Order, a riot broke out. Against the rigidly structured Gray Order under the authority of the Council of Seven, the Free Flock spoke out. They didn’t intend to seize power, their searches were connected with attempts to revoke the curse. For only the damned can find the wolf’s path. The riot was stranged, renegades lurked. In those events, a young she-wolf died, and now her widower vowed to destroy all the apostates one after another. This couple is Severyn’s parents. And this is the first detective plot in the novel: there are two wolf families and bloody vendetta between them.

The father involved in revenge didn’t bring up his kid. First, Solomia the witch took care of Severyn, then – Zakhar the sorcerer. The kid was his squire until he received the third golden buckle. Young sorcerers before being distributed by huts that correspond to their abilities must serve in the guardhouse (the lowest in the hierarchy). Five recruits, including Severyn, take up the service. And here they find out that during the last years young wolves disappear and nobody can help that. But one morning, there are four young warriors left: their colleague got into trouble and he had to be saved. This the second detective line in the novel.

For those who initially didn’t catch the similarity of Derevyanko’s fellow brothers to Dumas’s musketeers, there will be a direct hint: they will be called musketeers, and one of the characters will be forced to read Dumas’ novel. The three of the young men are handsome and charismatic but they don’t go beyond the roles of “Aramis” “Athos” and “Porthos”. They form a very politically correct company since they originate from different regions – from Tavryda to Halychyna. Internal conflict adds some life to this company since one of the sorcerers is a Jewish, another one is an anti-Semite. But generally, the “musketeers” don’t compete for anything more than a bright (and this is true!) background. Severyn is a different story.

Arkan, naming the book, is a dance, it’s clear. But several more moments matter here.

First, male Arkan is associated with initiation, the inclusion of a boy to the dance makes him a man. Arkan of the Wolves is a novel about initiation: first blood, first betrayal, first kiss (not with a woman, by the way, “kissed by the mavka”), first sex (also not with an ordinary woman), first turn into a beast. The main element here, according to Freud,  is the essence of inheritance – for a boy to grow up he has to kill his father. Severyn can talk to otherworldly creatures, and one woodsman foresees him killing his father. Whether this prediction is realized is one of the storyline intrigues.

Second, Arkan consists of two types of movements that alter. Derevyanko’s novel is also formed the same way: either a storyline with revenge or abduction; therefore, there are two finales in the novel. More precisely, one and a half since the author missed the second finale. (Is a series of novels about Severyn planned?) In the battle that killed Olha, mother of Severyn, everything is vague: her family, who Olha had close relations with attacked her, now each clan blames the other for betrayal. But who killed Olha and launched the series of bloody murders? The question is open so there is no finale of the revenge storyline.

And finally, Arkan is a circle, sometimes – a semicircle. And thus Derevyanko writes a novel about the male fraternity as a socially and culturally closed community. A sentimental moment: youngsters at the first party in Kyiv take a group photo, already grey and aged Severyn (half a year didn’t pass!) takes daguerreotypes from the master. In that photo, the boys are posing according to their character: someone moves and mysteriously looks over the camera, someone comes to the fore and flashes his eyes. They are not semicircular, they are divided between the “first” and the “second” plan. The army of sorcerers is determined by a harsh rigid hierarchy, no equality of relations here can be a priori. Even the young men are not equal in the picture. Meanwhile, the one who fervently came to the fore, by the end of the novel doesn’t make it. In the end, “Arkan” means “hidden, mysterious”. When you bear the secrets in yourself don’t rush ahead of yourself.

“And he recalled everything. Severyn Blackwolf, the fosterling of Solomia, the squire of Zakhar. He came to the Otherworld to find Gaad and to leave his blood signature on his scroll to become a knight of the Grey Order. Like his father. And his mother.” Ihor and Olha (parents’ names) are your Middle Ages, literary in particular. Solomia and Zakhar are between Gogol and Franko. Severyn’s name is also literary, especially at the end of the novel, thanking for the generous donation, a kobzar will sing on the Sofievska Square “Duma about Severyn” (duma is a sung epic poem which originated in Ukraine during the Hetmanate Era – ed.). The canonical thought of Nalyvayko starts with a description of hops and feats and ends with death in a “copper bull”. If only Blackwolf’s fate were better but now the novel is about him – as a brief content of the first half of the duma about Severyn. And one more thing: the fellow brother of the warrior sings that duma; for this, we need grey brothers in Derevyanko to witness each other’s feats. “Let Mamai help!”

The first thing after signing the contract in the Otherworld – the evil reads Tarot cards to Severyn (oh, don’t ask, but it’s also Arkan). A “rainbow” card falls out, Gaad bursts out laughing. It is clear: an easy carefree road ahead, you will say the same. Arkan of Wolves is an uninterrupted road, but not easy and not carefree, and there will be enough of dismembered bodies on it, and bitten gulps. This is called the wolf’s path, and it is often said about the fate of such a purpose in the novel. But nobody is forced to become a sorcerer, even if he has parents-wolves. This is a conscious and voluntary choice. Zakhar’s son, for example, went abroad to earn money. The curse doesn’t find the characters of Derevyanko, they actively look for it. But the reflections about bad heredity, about Oedipus complexes and parricide, go from the evil one, literally from the devil… Although only in the novel the phrase “he looked like Ihor to Severyn” appeared, it is a sure sign: this character will soon suffer a cruel death. But only if that noble wolfling turned out to be a serial killer!

Hanna Uliura

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