An excellent anthology of psych-and-spook mischief from behind the Iron Curtain, where a literature rich in such things held sway during the Soviet era.
If you create a Frankenstein monster—a blend of Marxist idealism and Asian despotism, say—then you are going to have problems. The same is true if you allow generations of inbred mediocrities to occupy your throne. Gathering nine hitherto untranslated tales, Maguire (Russian Literature and Culture/Oxford Univ.) observes that the early practitioners of Soviet gothic, among them Ivan Bunin, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov, “used supernatural imagery and settings to convey the internal decay of imperial Russia and the chaotic Communist society that replaced it.” Their followers—Perov, Chayanov, Peskov, etc.—elaborated on themes such as mortality, the nature of the soul and, creepily but effectively, the pesky habit of mannequins of coming to life and giving people frights: “In spite of the somewhat crude craftsmanship, the mannequin radiated the impression of a portrait drawn from life. It was quite clear that this wax sculpture had had a living original, an astonishing, miraculous original.” The ghostliness of most of the stories isn’t quite up to the standards of an M.R. James—or, for that matter, a Henry James—but the Russians aren’t far behind the Brits on that front, and there are plenty of fine, spooky moments (“I’ve figured it out rationally: if he’s wearing the crown, he’s been killed, and if a dead man comes and speaks to me, I must be mad”). About the only flaw in this brilliant and, within the bounds of the gothic genre, wide-ranging collection is that it simply isn’t big enough.
Students of Soviet-era Russian culture will enjoy reading between the lines. Readers who love a good ghost story will enjoy it, period.