Review of Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler

This book, a collection of tales deftly edited and translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, is a delight to read, and is guaranteed to provide many hours of entertainment for those who possess a taste for folklore and fairy tale. The Russian folkloric tradition is a particularly rich and captivating one, and this sizeable volume manages to introduce English-speaking readers to many stories that they may not previously have encountered, although one of the recurrent characters – Baba Yaga – will be well known by name if nothing else.

It brings together a selection of stories written by a number of the most gifted Russian writers to have put their own personal spin on traditional themes and stories, as well as oral tales collected by the Russian equivalent of the Grimm brothers – nineteenth-century folklorist Aleksandr Afanasyev. Amongst the more well-known examples provided by Afanasyev are Vasilisa the Fair, and The Frog Princess, both of which you may be aware of through illustrations rather than having read the stories themselves. Talking of which, many of you will doubtless have happened upon the enchanting folktale illustrations created by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, who also provides a contribution to this book in the form of his interpretation of Ivan Tsarevich, the Grey Wolf and the Firebird. As the book also provides some biographical details relating to the featured authors, it was sad to learn that Bilibin died in the Siege of Leningrad in 1942 after having returned to Soviet Russia in 1936 after a long period of exile. A personal tragedy amidst millions of others.

A particular favourite of mine in this selection is Pushkin’s A Tale about a Fisherman and a Fish, which raised a wry smile. A nice little morality tale if ever there was one, and just as apt today as ever it has been.

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov can be previewed and purchased from Amazon by clicking on the image above, or here.

 

Review of ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown

There are few episodes in English history that rival the notoriety of Matthew Hopkins’s reign of terror as Witchfinder General in East Anglia, nurtured by the social turmoil of the Civil War. During the relatively short period of 1644-47, he, and his associates, are estimated to have been responsible for the hanging of around 300 women for witchcraft, approximately 60% of the total executed for this crime between the end of the fifteenth and the early eighteenth centuries when the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books. The woodcut image from the frontispiece of his book The Discovery Witches is a familiar and chilling one, showing Hopkins himself observing two witches naming their pictured familiars. Although Hopkins died at the age of 27 in 1647, he has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in the popular imagination, spawning verse, a number of books, and, perhaps most famously, the film Witchfinder General in which Vincent Price played the eponymous role.  

In her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown has approached Hopkins and his deeds through the eyes of a fictitious sister, Alice, which allows her to present the reader with the domestic Hopkins, as well as the public figure. She has taken the fragments of what is known about his life, and imaginatively fashioned a plausible Hopkins, who plays upon biblically-rooted popular fears and prejudices about women to unleash a wave of persecution that brings some solace to his damaged self.  

Written as a first-person memoir, the style is detailed and intimate, with a great deal of atmospheric description that is at once one of its strengths, as well as one of its weaknesses, for if I have any criticism of this novel it is with respect to its pace, which is as sluggish as the waters of an East Anglian river. That said, this novel manages to produce an appropriate sense of suffocating entrapment, paranoia, and fatalism, and delivers an ending with a suitably satisfying twist.

Review of Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

A light appetiser of a tale to be read in a single sitting, that will produce neither upset, nor any great sense of satisfaction in the reader. Although the writing is competent and not without atmosphere, and its Mary Shelleyesque theme diverting enough, Printer’s Devil Court possesses all the hallmarks of a story that should either have been shorter, or longer, but not the length that it is. It reads like a first draft for something meant to be more substantial, but which, for whatever reason, was left in its embryonic form and served up to the public. Either the author lacked the requisite motivation and energy to work it up into anything longer, or the demands of the publisher led to its seeing the light of day, semi-formed, in the autumn run-up to the Christmas book-buying extravaganza. A number of obvious typographic errors, as well as a certain peculiarity relating to its illustration, suggest that it was the latter. If this story had been written by anyone with a lesser public profile than Susan Hill, it strikes me that it would not have found a publisher.  

The illustrator, it would seem, had read no further than the first sentence, and given it a cursory glance at that, before setting about producing the engravings for this sumptuously bound little volume. Why would I say this? Well, the opening lines make reference to ‘the days of Dickens’, although if we set these four words within the context of a slightly longer sentence fragment we learn that the tale was set quite some time later, for it refers to ‘an area which could not at the time have changed greatly since the days of Dickens.’ The illustrator has therefore diligently produced a set of charming illustrations from the age of Cruikshank, that punctuate the text here and there with figures sporting the fashions of the 1840s/1850s, and a paddle steamer alongside a fully rigged man-o’-war at rest on the Thames at Greenwich. All very Dickensian, which is something of a problem, for the story itself is not, despite its vague and murky setting amidst London’s fog and frost. The sole concrete temporal reference is a mention of the protagonist’s visit to London at the bidding of his stepson, which takes place after the Blitz had wrought its destruction. This is said to have been approximately forty years after he, then in his mid-twenties, had left London for a life in the country. This would suggest that the setting for the pivotal scene was most likely Edwardian London, or possibly at a push, the capital during the fin de siècle. The illustrations therefore, constitute a most peculiar, and glaring, anachronism.  

The story, in many respects, is as vague and ephemeral as an ectoplasmic materialisation, its form and setting lightly sketched in an impressionistic manner, its characters written with suggestive strokes that impress themselves upon the reader’s imagination no more than the phantom, that lends the tale its spectral element, imposed its form upon the air that it occupied.  

To preview or purchase Printer’s Devil Court, either click here, or upon the picture above.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s comic ghostly novella Old Crotchet’s Return – a sequel to Old Crotchet – will be published shortly. To find out when, please sign up to his mailing list by clicking here.