Łukasz Orbitowski is one of Poland's most important horror authors, writer of Horror Show and Święty Wrocław (Saint Wrocław) as well as a fable cycle about cats. He received a nomination for the 2014 Polityka Passport award for his latest novel Szczęśliwa ziemia (Land of Happiness).
A writer, one of the most important horror authors.
He debuted in 2001 with the remarkable short story Diabeł na Jabol Hill (The Devil at Plonk Hill). His career can be described as starting as a fantasy writer, publishing stories in magazines like Science Fiction, Nowa Fantastyka and Sfera, to an author of mainstream literature, mixing urban realism with pop culture horror, the result of which is ambitious and popular at the same time. Meanwhile, he was (and still is) an active columnist (for the national Przekrój and Gazeta Wyborcza). Recently, he wrote the script for Tomasz Bagiński’s newest film – Hardkor 44 (Hardcore 44), which was released in 2015.
The Polish King?
Just because he writes horror, Orbitowski is often named the ‘Polish Stephen King’. Orbitowski said in an interview:
My personal attitude towards King is peculiar. On one hand I treat him as a midrange author who writes books for teenagers. On the other he co-created my imagination. When I was 12, I used to devour Salem’s Lot, the Shining and because of that I read everything that he writes (Gildia.pl).
He regards himself as a ‘slice of life’ author, which again brings comparisons to Stephen King, as Orbitowski said during the same interview:
However you put it, I drew on King’s method of using slice of life elements in my novels. It is his original idea and I owe it to him.
How does it work in practice? Describing Orbitowski’s beginnings, Piotr Mirecki from Dwutygodnik (Biweekly) wrote:
The author of the Shining traced back the Gothic castle’s horror into cosy American suburbs and surrounded all of his macabre with a firm social background; the author of Tracę ciepło (I Am Losing My Warmth) (i.e. Orbitowski) opened Polish housing estates for creepiness. From the world of teenage subcultures, petty crooks, and a lack of perspective drowning in vodka, he evoked magic. Magic and evil.
This scheme applies to each of Orbitowski’s novels, as Mirecki wrote in his review of Widma (Phantoms)
In Lombard (Pawnshop) the eponymous place played the role of purgatory; in Zmierch rycerzy światła (The Dusk of the Knights of Light), the devil himself, corrupted people via a fortune-telling website; in Święty Wrocław a regular district changes into a metropolis of dark towers, which could have been a nightmare of H.P. Lovecraft.
History, often alternative history, plays an important role in Orbitowski’s work. He has proved several times that he is perfectly capable of reforging national myths and traumas into fantasy literature. This is what he did in Nadchodzi (It Arrives), where a story about the murder of Polish soldiers during World War II becomes a thriller; in Pies i Klecha (The Dog and The Clergyman), which he wrote together with Jarosław Urbaniuk, they turned the Polish Round Table Agreement (negotiations which took part in 1989 and are one of the symbol of abolishment of communism) into a satanic conspiracy. In Widma, he created an imaginary image of a Poland where the Warsaw Uprising never happened, for example, sketching out Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński’s possible further life (a celebrated and gifted poet who fought and was killed at the age of 23 in the Uprising).
The first part of the story, which blends romance with thriller, resembles Zły (The Man With White Eyes) by Leopold Tyrmand, the second part comes across as the sum of the ideas of science fiction. What we have: communist archives X, Warsaw's walking dead, heroes lost in time. Instead of cold speculation we are served a postmodernist roller-coaster: Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (appearing as Krzyś) survives the war and writes novels such as Fear of the Dark, the Number of the Beast and Powerslave. These are the titles of albums by Iron Maiden – an iconic heavy metal group.
Land of happiness
His next book, however, brought a slight change in aesthetics. In Szczęśliwa Ziemia (Land of Happiness, 2013) there are fewer fantasy elements than in Orbitowski’s previous novels. The poetry of a fable or a thriller becomes only a support for the story, revealed after many years by a group of friends, who are bound together by a shared childhood in the same town and an unexplained, tragic event. Szczęśliwa Ziemia was acclaimed as one of the most important Polish novels about growing up and the maturity of present-day thirty-something-year-olds.
The soul of another
The author finally gained the Polityka Passport in 2015 for the novel Inna Dusza (The Soul of Another). In the justification of the verdict, we read: "The book is a perfect combination of initiation novel with psychological and dramatic inclinations. It is awarded for a precise, touching and memorable study of evil".
Despite Inna Dusza being based on facts, it is a full-blooded novel. It is not only the story of a murderer but also – what critics from the Polityka Passport noticed – a story about the Poland of the 1990s. Marcin Sendecki of The Book Institute wrote:
If I were to write that Łukasz Orbitowski's superlative The Soul of Another has opened a fresh chapter in his oeuvre I would very much need to qualify this statement. For things are somewhat more complex. We ought to begin with the genesis of the book: the ‘Na F/Aktach’ (On F/Acts) series, of which The Soul of Another is one of the first titles. According to the publishers, the series publishes "fictionalized stories of highly publicized crimes committed over the course of the past decades (...) based on documents, judicial reports, and press articles." We are not far here from using blood to shock the audience in a rather questionable fashion, but Orbitowski has taken this premise as an artistic challenge – and has come out on top (Marcin Sendecki, www.bookinstitute.pl).
The Soul of Another is a story about a juvenile murderer, a boy of good breeding, a would-be baker who in the middle of the 1990s in gloomy Bydgoszcz killed his cousin and (a few years later) a young female neighbour. The boy committed the murders without any serious motives – Orbitowski claims it was the reason he decided to choose the case. The real murderer, called Jędrek in the novel, was quoted as saying in an interview that he was possessed by ‘the soul of another’ and that he had no choice but to do what he did. As Sendecki affirmed:
The action of Orbitowski's novel stretches over several years, but is entirely written in the present tense – a brilliant stylistic manoeuvre that makes the tale dynamic and saturates it with suspense. This is no easy feat, as there is no criminal investigation, we know who the killer is, and the culprit has been sitting a jail cell for many long years. Because the motives of Jędrek's actions are a mystery, Orbitowski reconstructs their circumstances, background, topography, the presumed family life of the killer, and the mental landscape of those years in a grim neighbourhood of a grim town. He does this, I believe, in a masterful way, rendering a picture of an ordinary hopeless life out of which a crime is born, for no conceivable reason. Reading Orbitowski we wonder – this too adds suspense to the book – which events are based on fact, and which the author invented. One of the book's narrators, Krzysiek, is probably a creation; he is Jędrek's close friend, who puts the pieces together to figure out who committed the crime. Another invention is probably his revolting family, in which the father, an alcoholic and a pathological liar, rendered in life-like detail, plays first fiddle. Once again Orbitowski takes on his major theme: this is a story of young boys growing up, coming of age in early capitalist Poland. And – we repeat – he does it in superlative fashion (Marcin Sendecki, www.bookinstitute.pl).
The essence of Inne Rzeczy (Lost Things – trans. by AP) published in 2017 is included in the subtitle: "Notes of a Post-Sociable Man”. In an interview during the broadcast "Between the Dots" on Polish Radio 24, Orbitowski said "I used to be extremely sociable, but now everyone has deserted to the net or to parties. As a writer I give sadness, but as a man, I try to give joy.” In his collection of blog entries, the writer shares his thoughts on inspiring people and episodes in his life and publishes his short literary forms.
The novel Exodus, published in 2017, reflects Orbitowski's fascination with those on the periphery of society. Although this time the writer did not saturate the plot with elements of urban fantasy, the story of the main character, who decides to escape from the banal big city life in Warsaw and finds himself far away from the country, is a story about ourselves and about how we make decisions and where our place in the world is. As Justyna Sobolewska wrote:
The title sounds biblical and indeed the new novel is probably Orbitowski's most biblical book, telling the story of guilt and punishment. Exodus has a great panache - it arches from Berlin to Greece, through the displaced persons' camp in the Alps and Ljubljana. The protagonist is a fugitive, at first we do not know why he escapes or who he really is. Slowly his Warsaw story from before his escape is revealed to us. Orbitowski can tell the story in such a way that it is not clear who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. We go through new places, new hellish circles ("Polityka", 21.11.2017).
Published in 2019, Kult (Cult – trans. by AP) is a fact-based novel about the Marian apparitions that took place in Oława near Wrocław in 1983. The story is told by Henryk, a God-fearing retiree with a great sense of mission. Orbitowski does not resort to the cheap satire of the Polish faith, and in a captivating way depicts true people who, even when exalted, remain fragile in their weaknesses.
- Wigilijne psy, 2005,
- Horror show, 2006,
- Tracę ciepło, 2007,
- Pies i klecha, vol. 1 Przeciwko wszystkim, (with Jarosław Urbaniuk), 2007,
- Prezes i Kreska. Jak koty tłumaczą sobie świat, 2008,
- Pies i klecha, vol. 2 Tancerz (with Jarosław Urbaniuk), 2008,
- Święty Wrocław, 2009,
- Nadchodzi, 2010,
- Widma, Wydawnictwo Literackie 2012,
- Ogień, Narodowe Centrum Kultury 2012,
- Szczęśliwa ziemia, Wydawnictwo SQN 2013,
- Rękopis znaleziony w gardle – collection of short stories, BookRage, Warsaw 2014,
- Zapiski Nosorożca. Moja podróż po drogach, bezdrożach i legendach Afryki, Sine Qua Non, Kraków 2014,
- Inna Dusza, Od Deski Do Deski, Warsaw 2015,
- Rzeczy utracone, Zwierciadło 2017,
- Exodus, Wydawnictwo SQN 2017,
- Kult, Świat Książki 2019.
Selected Short Stories:
- Diabeł na Jabol Hill, Science Fiction 01/2001,
- Ballada o Czerwonym Tomku, Science Fiction 09/2002,
- Droga do modlichy, Nowa Fantastyka 11/2002,
- Opowieść taksówkarska, Science Fiction 10/2003,
- Pacześniak, Nowa Fantastyka 1/2004,
- Pan Śnieg i Pan Wiatr, Nowa Fantastyka 12/2004,
- Rysunek Anioła, Fahrenheit 38/2004,
- Angelus, Science Fiction 1/2004,
- Objawienia, Science Fiction 9/2004,
- Zmierzch rycerzy światła, Nowa Fantastyka 4/2005,
- Lombard, Science Fiction 04/2005,
- Horror Show!, Science Fiction 06/2005,
- Wielka ciemność, SFFiH 02/2005,
- Pies i klecha: Hipoteza śladu, SFFiH 07/2006,
- Nie umieraj przede mną, Nowa Fantastyka 6/2006,
- Pies i klecha: Żertwa, SFFiH 02/2006,
- Święty Wrocław, SFFiH 11/2006,
- Stachu, Wizje alternatywne 5,
- Władca Deszczu, PL+5,
- Pies i klecha: Ogień i blask, SFFiH 13/2006,
- Zatoka Tęczy, SFFiH 20/2007,
- Pies i klecha: Głodomór, SFFiH 9/2007,
- Popiel Armeńczyk, Nowa Fantastyka 9/2007,
- Równik, Nowa Fantastyka 7/2008,
- Szklana skóra, Playboy Polska 11/2008,
- Imp, Fantastyka – Wydanie Specjalne 02/2009,
- Głowa węża, Nowa Fantastyka 10/2009,
- Ludzie jak motyle, SFFiH 02/2010,
- Stachu, Wizje alternatywne 5,
- Władca Deszczu, PL+50,
- Noc sobowtórów, Nowa Fantastyka 11/2010,
- Koszmar w Providence (Jedenaście pazurów – collection of short stories, SuperNowa, Warszawa 2010),
- Oddana (the anthology Miłość we Wrocławiu, Wydawnictwo EMG, Kraków 2011),
- Kanał (the anthology Księga wojny, Agencja Wydawnicza Runa, Warszawa 2011),
- Skóry (the anthology Pożądanie, Powergraph, Warszawa 2013).
Translated by W.O., March 2014, updated by AP, November 2019.