Russian banyas, the worst of academia, tasty snacks, and the monsters who love them. How did this story first come to you?
The seed of this story was its setting. The banya holds a hugely important place in Russian culture, and it offers such a rich and interesting landscape, full of centuries-old rituals, special objects, and mythical spirits. It’s significant in its role as a community center, too, as the point where people from all walks of life will come together, however unlikely their meeting may otherwise be. Lately, I’m thinking more deeply about health, wellness, self-care, and community care—as many others probably are as well. I wondered what would happen if I started with this place rooted in traditions of well-being, relaxation, and vitality, and within its walls explored the opposing topics of danger, suffering, and deterioration. In this place of ease, who experiences hardship? In this place of community, who is left to fend for themselves alone?
Could you tell me a bit about the vedma? Which legends did you draw from, and how did you make her your own?
Vedma translates to “witch,” but for this vedma I drew from the myth of the bannik more than any specific witch folklore. The bannik is one of my favorite figures in Slavic mythology, and I think one of the lesser-known. He’s a guardian spirit of the bathhouse and has connections to the domovoy, a spirit or deity of the household. Like other “baddies” I find myself fascinated by (e.g., Baba Yaga), the bannik is morally ambiguous. On the one hand, he’s known to invite demons into his bath, spy on the banya’s human guests, and throw boiling water on those who annoy him—or worse. On the other hand, he has the ability to predict the future and will consult with humans on their personal fortunes, and ultimately his aim is to protect the banya’s customs and keep it clean and (generally) safe. In exchange for this protection, he is shown good manners and respect. The relationship between the vedma and the Kornelievs reflects this agreement. The rest—the vedma’s appearance, her distaste for the vegan lifestyle, and her subsequent resourcefulness—was a series of inventions, largely borne of the circumstances of an ancient spirit clashing with the modern day.
Last time we talked about setting stories in real or metaphorical homes. At the time, you hinted at this tale and what ultimately became Witness Magazine’s “Two Hundred Ways to Disappear”. Setting not-quite-human characters in shops seemed to move the dynamic from a private, interior space to a public one. How did that change the stakes of the story compared to your other pieces?
It becomes a question of privacy and safety, I think, or the impression of safety—and also of possession and intrusion, this sense of entitlement toward others’ space. In “Two Hundred Ways to Disappear”, the primary setting is the magic shop, which is owned by the magician but which, like you say, is open to the public. So when Mal steps inside, she’s entering his domain, but she’s also entering a public space in which the coming and going of others implies some measure of witness and safety. It’s the story’s other setting—Mal’s mind, her dreams—where things get more complicated. Because here is this realm that is meant to be the most private, the most safe, hers and hers alone, and yet the magician enters and claims ownership. Which is to say, monsters aren’t just in our heads; they’re living among us. But, yes, if we’re very unlucky, they’re also inside our heads.
“Bones in It”, too, deals with private places made public and safe places made dangerous. The banya itself transforms what is, for some, a private ritual into one that is communal. Then the vedma’s presence puts the apparent safety of the banya into question, but it’s worth noting that it hasn’t felt safe to her since the time of the Kornelievs. This place of supposed pleasure and leisure, for her, has been anything but. It’s been a struggle to survive. The other setting here, I’d say, is the sphere of academia, which can be an incredibly insulated, mystifying space, and certainly one that has protected this particular professor, at the expense of providing safety to others. So, there’s an inside and an outside again, the safe, reassuring face and the sinister interior. A covering up and an exposure.
There’s an interesting tension here between two monsters, and the way they embody hunger, richness, deprivation, and cleanliness. Is this a hopeful story, or a just one? Something else? What do you hope readers will come away with?
This is a revenge story. And also a cathartic story and a just story and a hopeful one (I hope). The bannik is canonically concerned with cleanliness, and the vedma has an eye for it as well. She too is a guardian, and she too gets rid of the filth.
Some monsters are covered in fur and bare mouthfuls of scary teeth, and it’s easy to recognize them as monsters. Other monsters wear nice jackets and airs of authority; they have impressive awards and loyal followings and teeth that look just like yours or mine. So they’re harder to recognize as monsters, but they’re every bit as real, and doubly monstrous in their deceit.
In terms of hopefulness, well. I hope we can believe people when they tell us they’ve met a monster. And I hope we can be vedmas for one another.
What can we look forward to next from you?
I’ll have a story in Diabolical Plots soon about erosion and ephemerality, and this question of: In a world so focused on “forever,” how do we learn to love the fleeting things too? It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to write, and probably one of the most honest too. Besides that, I have a story upcoming in Split Lip about a man who speaks only in product names (and all the ways language fails us), and another in Weird Horror about misunderstood Russian monsters (because I just can’t seem to get enough of them!).
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