On a whim I picked up a collection of Russian short stories called ‘There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya not long ago and was pleasantly and unexpectedly catapulted into a strange and macabre world. One of the nicest things about reading is stumbling on a new writer or a new story that opens new worlds to you – worlds that are at once unfamiliar and yet seem to give voice to things you always felt existed in the background. The stories in this collection are bizarre and surreal, vividly, horrifically nightmarish and dreamlike in equal measure. Gritty realism collides with a gnarly magic and the vague echoes of established fairy tale tropes are given a startling and twisted new slant. It was one of the few times in recent books where I felt on genuinely new terrain – a feeling that was well served by the short story format where the twists and turns within each tale were mirrored by the sudden changes from story to story and there was no time to settle into any kind of complacency over what was to happen next. Post-apocalyptic stories of survival mixed with ghost stories and Gothic parables and featured a host of characters from monks, circus freaks and magical babies to mysterious strangers, stoic mothers and evil wizards. If you like your fairy tales pitch black, creepily unsettling and deeply affecting you could do a lot worse than seek these out.
Below is a picture I did from the story ‘Hygiene,’ one of the stand-out tales of the collection.
“One time the doorbell rang at the apartment of the R. family, and the little girl ran to answer it. A young man stood before her. In the hallway light he appeared to be ill, with extremely delicate, pink, shiny skin. He said he’d come to warn the family of an immediate danger: there was an epidemic in the town, an illness that killed in three days… The girl’s grandparents listened to the man, as did her father and the girl herself. Her mother was in the bath.
‘I survived the disease,’ the young man said simply, and removed his hat to reveal a bald scalp covered with the thinnest layer of pink skin, like the foam atop boiling milk. ‘I survived,’ he went on, ‘and because if this I’m now immune. I’m going door to door to deliver bread and other supplies to people who need them.Do you need anything?’”