Horror Stories Written by Polish Women
#language & literature
default, Aleksandra Waliszewska, untitled, gouache on paper, 25 x 35 cm, 2012-2014, photo: courtesy of the artist, center, #000000, Aleksandra Waliszewska, untitled, gouache on paper, 25 x 35 cm, 2012-2014, photo courtesy of the artist
Halloween is fast approaching, so why not discover Polish women horror writers while you scare yourself silly. Check out this list of writers of unnerving and dark tales to find yourself an eerie read.
As many of us will readily admit, sometimes fictional terror can be a nice break from real life, and October is an ideal moment to brush up on horror literature. While horror writing is mostly associated with male writers, it's crucial not to overlook the immersive and frightening stories written by women. If you are not sure where to start, here are few recommendations to get you hooked on Polish horror lit.
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Anna Mostowska, the Gothic progenitor
With the staunch prominence of men writers in the horror genre, it is easy to forget that the first Polish Gothic novel author was a woman: Anna Barbara Olimpia Mostowska. We don't know much about her life, even the dates of her birth are still speculated over. What we do know is that the elusive author spent her youth in France, where she became fond of Gothic novels. She wanted to gain material independence, and she started writing to achieve this goal. As soon as she came back to Lithuania, she struck a book deal, and her stories Matylda i Daniło (Matylda and Daniło) and Strach w Zameczku (Fear in Zameczek) were published in 1806. In 1807, she published the historical novel Astolda. Mostowska is perceived as a precursor of both Gothic and Romantic stories. Her books signify her knowledge of literature trends that she later adapted to the specifications of Polish readers.
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Three of Mostowska's novels can be deemed as Gothic – Zamek Koniecpolskich (Koniecpolski's Castle), Matylda i Daniło and Nie Zawsze Tak Się Czyni Jak Się Mówi (You Don't Always Do As You Say). Other novels also contain traces of Gothic fiction, as Mostowska was definitely keen on the genre, and just like English Gothic pioneer Ann Radcliffe she knew that many seemingly uncanny sightings have a rational explanation. There is also another approach to the eerie in Mostowska's novels more akin to the Romantic one, more open and interested. Yet, the spooky repertoire of her stories is classically Gothic, with all the trappings of monks, dungeons, crimes and murders. For every crime in her novels, there is a punishment. The importance of atonement is also stressed upon.
Matylda i Daniło is an excellent example of this. Matylda is paying the price for her murderous grandmother Edgwarda's crimes. Even though compassionate and kind Matylda, aside from their physical similarity, is nothing like her grandmother, she has to break the family curse and repent for the evil deeds of her relative by going to a convent. With tales like this, full of crimes, mysteries, gushing blood and murderous ancestors, as well as infamous properties haunted by a dark past, Mostowska offers many satisfying old-fashioned spooky reads.
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Narcyza Żmichowska's subversive horror
Narcyza Żmichowska is often thought of as one of the creators of the Polish feminist movement. Tadeusz Boy Żeleński even deemed her as queen bee of the 19th century feminists (then called ‘enthusiasts’). She enjoyed smoking cigars, horse riding and going to the library alone. While it doesn't seem unusual now, in the 19th century her behaviour sparked a lot of controversies, and likewise her critically-acclaimed novel The Heathen, which was a controversial, yet thrilling read.
In The Heathen, Narcyza Żmichowska found many terrifying ways to keep the reader engaged. The novel starts almost like a ghost story told in front of a fireplace:
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How beautiful that fireside in Emilka's house where we, our company of good friends, used to gather years ago almost every day, throughout the long autumn and winter evenings. Low-set, inlaid with black marble, it had a small bronze fender to prevent the burning wood from slipping out, and two iron stands where the logs were stacked—alder logs, so brittle they scarcely left any char or ash, so clean, bright, flaming red that even though sadness weighed on the heart, trouble on the conscience, our thoughts would shine in their blazing light and point the way to salvation.
'The Heathen', trans. Ursula Phillips
The novel then quickly turns into a dark, twisting and psychologically-thrilling vampire tale. It depicts the doomed romance between Aspazja, a worldly, sexually-liberated femme fatale, and her younger paramour Beniamin, a Polish patriot from a rural family. It is unclear what Aspazja is – a ghost, a vampire, a malevolent spectre, a witch or even a symbol of a disease. Despite everything, she seems beautiful, amoral and eternal. Entering the family life of Beniamin and his brother Cyprian, she curses them forever; both of the brothers change due to contact with her, both physically and mentally. The Heathen is a richly symbolical novel, as it revises moral imperatives through the vampire-like character – Aspazja perhaps could be a manifestation of a desire to be free of worldly constraints.
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Joanna Bator's creativity of violence
Joanna Bator is a writer, journalist and scholar. Her novels focus on her hometown – Wałbrzych, a former coalmining town, close to the German and Czech Republic borders, passed back and forth between different countries. It means Wałbrzych is a town of lack, with people living there amid an absentee population. Perhaps, due to this sense of otherness, Bator’s books are disquiet; examining the claustrophobia of dislocation, nationalism and homophobia.
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Dark, Almost Night (in Polish, ‘Ciemno, Prawie Noc’), is set in a shadowy, spooky and maliciously rendered Wałbrzych. A journalist called Alicja Tabor investigates the mysterious disappearance of three children but also the disturbing secrets of her family and childhood.
I didn't understand how close the danger really was, not even when my sister stopped eating and sleeping, when she stood naked in the open window of our bedroom, saying over and over: ‘In this black black house was a black black table in the black black coffin was a white white corpse on the corpse a string of pearls Caramel dummy pray to the Virgin Mary rather hairy black house black coffin white corpse.’ She repeated it so fast that I started to cry, helpless and terrified, and she begged: ‘Take me to the vet and put me to sleep, dear sister.’
‘Dark, Almost Night’, trans. Maggie Zebracka
In Wałbrzych she confronts her own gloomy history, as well as bizarre and terrifying events that originate in Wałbrzych’s pre- war story. During Alicja’s private investigation, she manages to uncover a trail of dramatic events that began years earlier. As the story progresses, a dark criminal plot ties everything together: the children’s disappearance, the war-tainted past, the legend of a lost treasure, and even Alicja’s fate, who during her journey faces pure evil. As the reader links murky areas of viciousness with the novel’s protagonist, alongside her we learn that violence can be endlessly creative and twisted, particularly when enacted by shunned men.
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Still from 'Dark, Almost Night' by Borys Lankosz, 2019, photo: Adam Golec / Aurum Film / Kino Świat
polish women writers
19th century literature
In Dark, Almost Night, Bator merges different literary conventions like horror and detective stories with the language of Internet forums, yet it is always a seamless mashup. The author investigates and questions the mechanisms of evil and historical traumas, she earnestly explores the means of a world saturated with evil in which the demons of history can awaken at any moment. Yet, there are also hair raising moments when characters are subjected to the monstrosity and banality of evil. This novel is never superficial nor uncomplicated, but it consistently is goose-bump inducing.
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