Viy is the colossal creation of the common folk’s imagination. The Little Russians (Ukrainians) use this name for the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids on his eyes reach all the way to the ground. This whole story is a folk legend. I did not want to change anything about it, so I am narrating it in almost the same simple form which I heard it.
Nikolai Gogol, footnote to “Viy“
None of that is true. There are no Slavic folkloric sources, Ukrainian or otherwise, describing a gnome king, let alone one with great, drooping eyelashes (The name Viy appears derived from the Ukrainian word for eyelash). Some have claimed a Serbian connection, but that appears to be false, as well. Nonetheless, Gogol’s story of a monk, a witch, and Viy has become so deeply embedded in Russian and Ukrainian culture that many people believe the terrible creature is a real part of those countries’ folklore.
Nikolai Gogol was one of the greatest Russian writers and simultaneously the greatest Ukrainian writer (though, he didn’t write in Ukrainian and both nations have fought over his legacy). Born in Sorochyntsi in 1809, a Cossack town between Kyiv and Kharkiv and over a hundred miles from each. He died in 1852 by starving himself to death during a period of extreme religious asceticism. Before he became famous for absurdist stories like “The Nose” or sharp-eyed satires like his play The Inspector General, he wrote a series of stories that drew on his youth in the Ukraine and its customs and legends. From St. Petersburg where he had moved and gained the friendship of such luminaries as Alexander Pushkin, he would write to his mother asking for descriptions and details about all manner of information on the Ukraine. “Viy” is one of those early stories, first appearing in his 1835 collection, Migorod, alongside the Cossack epic, “Taras Bulba.”
While ultimately a tale of the supernatural, “Viy” begins quite comically. It opens on the streets of Kyiv with a description of the gluttonous, squabbling, and sometimes larcenous, students of the Brotherhood Seminary that serves to present them as not particularly serious or respectable. Gogol, almost lovingly, describes how on mornings they arrived to class early, the students would battle each other under the direction of the most senior students. When discovered, as they always were, the ringleaders are beaten in different ways depending on their age. We also read of how they raid the fields of larger farms for pumpkins and melons to satiate their endless hunger, none of the students being especially well-off or well-fed. At the end of each school year in June, like a swarm of locusts, they spread out across the countryside headed for their homes.
Three students, Khalyava (which means “boot top” and implies a freeloader), Khoma Brut, and Tiberius Gorobets, become lost one night on their way home. While searching for a village where they can literally sing for their supper and a bed, they get turned around and wander off the road. Eventually, they find a farmstead, but the old woman who greets them at the door wants nothing to do with them.
Eventually, though, the trio wears her down and she relents, though not without separating them from each other, Khalyava in a pantry, Tiberius in a hut, and Khoma in an old sheep pen. It is quickly revealed that she has nothing to fear from the students, but it is they who have to fear her.
When the old woman suddenly comes into the sheep pen with her arms outstretched, Khoma assumes she’s looking to sleep with him. He immediately rejects her as too old. Unfortunately for him, that’s not what she wants from him.
The Philosopher wanted to push her away, but to his amazement he noticed that he couldn’t raise his arms, and his legs would not move, and he saw with horror that even his voice made no sound from his mouth. The words stirred soundlessly on his lips. He heard nothing but his heart beating; he saw the old woman come up to him, fold his arms, bend his head down, and jump onto his back with the swiftness of a cat. She struck his side with a broom, and prancing like a saddle horse, he carried her away on his shoulders. This all happened so fast that the Philosopher could hardly come to his senses and grab his own knees, trying to hold his legs back, but to his great amazement, they lifted against his will and galloped faster than a Circassian trotter. Only when they had already left the farmstead and a flat valley opened before them, and woods as black as coal stretched out to the side, did he say to himself: “Aha! She’s a witch.”
By strength of prayer and incantations against evil spirits, Khoma frees himself and turns the tables on the witch. At his first opportunity, he picks up a log and beats her with it. As she lies wounded and bloody on the ground she transforms into a beautiful young woman.
Filled with an inchoate sense of dread, Khoma returns to the monastery and attempts to distract himself, first with a young widow, later with drink and tobacco. Later, after he begins to hear rumors that the daughter of a wealthy Cossack lieutenant returned home beaten, he is summoned by the seminary’s rector and told he has been personally summoned by the lieutenant himself. On his way to meet him, accompanied by a band of Cossacks, he learns the daughter has died and dread begins to overcome him.
The lieutenant tells him that his daughter insisted, that should she die, he must send for the student Khoma in Kyiv to pray over her “sinful soul,” and no one else. Declaring he’s far from holy and has never met the lieutenant’s daughter, Khoma tries to beg off. The distraught father makes clear that he must. The only choice he has is to do it and walk away wealthy or don’t do it and never walk anywhere again. When he finally sees the daughter’s face, his fears are confirmed.
Once the daughter’s remains are settled in the old dilapidated church, Khoma hears all manner of stories and allegations about her from the villagers. She’d ridden the master of hounds just like the student, leaving him drained and he burned up into a pile of ashes, and she drank the blood of an infant. Needless to say, this only leaves Khoma even more scared.
As soon as Khoma is set to his task of prayer, alone in the church with the daughter’s corpse, strange feelings begin to take hold of him. He becomes convinced she is still alive and is looking at him through her closed eyes.
He fills the church with candles and declaims his psalms and prayers in his loudest voice and almost convinces himself that all is well. Still….
Raising his voice, he started to sing in different voices, wishing to muffle the remains of his fear. But every moment he kept turning his eyes to the coffin, as if involuntarily asking the question: “What if she gets up, if she rises?”
But the coffin did not stir. If only there had been some sound, some living creature, even a cricket making an answering sound in the corner! All that could be heard was the slight crackling of a distant candle or the faint plopping sound of a drop of wax falling to the floor.
“What if she gets up?…”
She lifted her head.
So begins the first of Khoma’s three planned nights in the church alongside the Cossack lieutenant’s dead daughter. Each night’s terrors increase until he must finally face the awful Viy and all the terrors that entails.
Gogol isn’t considered one of the greatest writers for nothing. “Viy” is a legitimately spooky story, filled with demons and devils and he knew how to build tension and atmosphere. That last line I quoted, “She lifted her head.” is delivered with absolute horror story perfection. Khoma’s night flight under the witch is a sequence that intermingles terror and beauty and the atmosphere of decay that surrounds the Cossack village and the church is perfectly oppressive.
But it also succeeds at conveying just how someone like Khoma might really feel facing a witch. Standard fairy tale characters are rarely more than a trope or two; the secret prince, the brave tailor, the clever maiden, etc. Gogol weaves a good bit of real life into the unfortunate student and his growing discomfiture and ensuing dread thread through the story and unnerving the reader along the way. Still, what could someone want more for Friday the 13th during the Halloween season than a beautiful witch, demons, devils, and the king of the gnomes?
One of the things that struck me about “Viy” was its similarity to “The Pitch Princess,” a story in a collection of Polish fairytales my dad bought me when I was little. I wasn’t surprised when I discovered that a German folklorist stated Gogol’s story is inspired by a number of similar tales that mostly occur in Eastern Europe called “The Princess in the Coffin.” In each of these, a dead princess comes up out of her coffin each night and kills those set to watch over her until finally, one man discovers how to overcome her. So, Gogol might have created Viy, but he clearly could have heard, or read in one of the letters from his mother, about a princess in a coffin.
Even the Soviets couldn’t deny Gogol’s talents and they readily recognized them. So much, so that the first Soviet horror movie is Viy (1967). It stars the comic actor Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma. It’s a beautiful-looking and well-acted movie, but it’s the nights in the church and Khoma’s confrontation with the witch and her minions that make the movie a great addition to one’s Halloween season viewing. If you’re curious, there’s a link to watch the entire movie down below.
Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column on the first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.