‘The Bone Mother’ by David Demchuk

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Casey Plett

I should preface this review by saying I don’t like being scared and tend to avoid horror in both books and movies; every time I buck this and watch something good but scary, I enjoy it but end up regretting it. From various partners forcing me to watch movies like The Exorcist and 10 Cloverfield Lane (I always date people who like scary shit) to reading Henry James in college (all of this is scary shit to me), I’m the kid who then turns on all the lights at two in the morning and has nightmares.

I’m outlining this so you, potential horror-lover reader, can judge accordingly whether it’s a good thing when I say I loved David Demchuk’s eminently readable mosaic novel The Bone Mother: A suite of supernaturally-tinged interconnected horror stories set mostly—though not all—in small villages on the Ukrainian/Romanian border in the time of industrialization. They are creepy but not terrifying, so far prompting no nightmares from this reader. Demchuk’s narratives read quick and go down easily. The experience shares a lot in common with reading a collection of short folk tales, really.

The precise years of the Old World-era in which these stories take place are never given—more important is that Part One takes place before the wars and revolutions of the early 20th century, and Part Two during. The latter is accompanied by the Nichni Politsiyi (Night Police) and their own very natural horrors. But every story in the book employs the same effective formula: We are introduced to characters within the context of a family, then something uncanny and foreboding comes into play—from matters as innocuous as a child who does not physically age, to those brutal as a child being killed and eaten by his parents. The ending is sometimes fatal for the protagonist and always further violent. Very few stories go on longer than six or seven pages.

Example: In “Elena,” a woman whose husband has the gift of clairvoyance sets up shop as a fortune-teller. The husband hides behind a curtain and conveys the insights to his wife through telepathy. War draws closer and Elena’s moneyed clients become less concerned with advice on love and affairs and more with spies, conscription, and fleeing. One night the husband commands her to hide for the evening. When Elena returns, she finds the Nichni Politsiyi has murdered him. The wife of the police chief comes, apologizes, swears that they can protect her. She then gives Elena a presumably expensive necklace and asks for her services, wondering how she can survive the war. The husband’s disembodied voice appears in Elena’s head: “She will not live. She will be dead within the week, whatever she does.” And so Elena says, “You must kill [your husband].” The police chief. “Tonight.” And the wife leaves, never to be seen again.

This all takes place within four pages.

As Publisher’s Weekly aptly noted in their (starred) review: These stories “are made all the more terrifying by the history in which they’re grounded.” Indeed. Elevating and grounding these stories further is the series of black-and-white portraits from Roman photographer Costică Acsinte, taken between 1935 and 1945. A picture from the series is featured opposite the opening page of each story. The portraits generally feature one or two people staring directly into the camera, without much else in the background. It should go without saying that this is really awesomely spooky, though sometimes disarmingly lovely, as in “Lorincz,” whose accompanying photo is a smartly dressed schoolboy with a wreath of flowers on his head.

Four of the tales are set in modern times, signified by drawings to accompany the stories instead of photos. These tended to be longer, and showed the traumas and magic of the older stories reaching through time to ensnare modern-day characters. It works excellently, in the way that the final story (which attempts the same thing more explicitly) doesn’t quite.

Finally: Queerness plays a really wonderful, low-key role in this book. At times it’s solely in casual reference—such as in “Nadiya,” where a woman gives background to her single motherhood by explaining her husband was gay; she bore him no ill will and they parted amicably. And sometimes queerness is central to the story, as in the haunting, penultimate “Lena,” where a woman with a parasitic sprout feeding off her spine is both wary of and drawn to a new relationship with Alice, who is infatuated with her. (“Whatever you have, I’m good with it. Whatever it is, we have it together.” Alice insists this to Lena their first night together. Oh sweetie. #UHaul)

While the stories detail horrors mythic and realistic, the overall tone of this book is one of aching melancholy, of resignation and acceptance. I suppose it’s a dark book, but it’s by no means bleak or depressing. The moment that has stayed with me most is from the story “Marius” (barely three pages long): A boy, Marius, survives being shot in the lead-up to an army storming his village. His mother informs everybody that they must all leave except those who are old and weak, who will feed a being called the Naystarsha, an indeterminate being who lives in the floor of the church, seemingly made up only of “coarse bristly tongues.” One by one, the mother assures the damned they will feel no pain, and will wake up in a world of brightness and joy, and they all step into the Naystarsha’s mouth as tongues whirl around them “like razors.” Then, the mother grabs Marius, who up until this point has just been narrating.

“Is it true?” Marius asks. “Will we wake up in a world that’s bright and new and full of joy?”

“No,” she said. “Our heaven, such as it was, was here. We lived, we loved, we saw beautiful and terrible things, and now it ends.” She stepped forward, clutching me. “You will feel no pain,” she whispered—and together we fell into the abyss.

All just three pages and then these people are gone. And then on to the next.

ChiZine Publications │ 244 pages │ $19.99 │ paper │ ISBN #978-1771484213

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Casey Plett

Casey Plett wrote the short-story collection A Safe Girl To Love and has been published in The Walrus, The New York Times ArtsBeat, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Plenitude, Rookie and others. She is currently co-editing a forthcoming anthology of speculative fiction by trans writers with Cat Fitzpatrick. She is from the Canadian Prairies and the Pacific Northwest.