Gogol’s Horror Story ‘The Viy’

In his unique style Gogol wrote down the story of The Viy. It’s a horror story in the style of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but Gogol infused it with humour and irony: horses that out of habit stop at every inn; drunken Little-Russians* that kiss each other noisily when drunk; an old woman trying to seduce a student. Never a dull moment!

The King of the Gnomes

Gogol wrote several horror stories, partly inspired by old folk legends and partly springing from his own rich imagination. This is a folk legend according to Gogol, who describes Viy as a colossal being, with eyelids that hang down to the floor, he’s the king of the gnomes. But since no evidence was ever found of a legend starring a certain “Viy”, we have to assume that he was a figment of Gogol’s imagination. His name he most likely deduced from the Ukrainian word for eyelid: poviko.

A short summary:

The protagonist Khoma spends the night in the stables of an old woman. She turns out to be a witch, leaps on his back and makes him fly through the night. Luckily Khoma remembers his prayers and spells and manages to reach the ground again. Once landed, he takes a piece of wood and beats the witch. She collapses and turns into a beautiful girl. Frightened, Khoma flees back to Kiev. There he soon forgets his scary adventure, until one day he is summoned to the village of a rich Cossack, whose daughter came home one morning more dead than alive. On her deathbed she has requested that Khoma reads the prayers for her soul three nights in a row. Khoma doesn’t want to and tries to escape several times, but the Cossacks who came to get him manage to get him to the village anyway. There he sees the father and the by now deceased girl, who he recognises as the witch. Again he tries to escape, but can’t. He is locked into the church with the corpse for the first night. He reads the prayers, but suddenly the dead girl gets up from her coffin and starts to wander around with outstretched arms. Khoma draws a circle around himself and the girl can’t get to him. When the first rooster crows she retreats to her coffin. The second night is even scarier: the girl summons demons. They fly around the church flapping their wings and screech on the windows with their claws. The third night they even come inside the church and the girl summons Viy. Viy arrives, requests his eyelids to be lifted and sees Khoma. Khoma looks back at Viy, ignoring his inner voice. Once he does, all the demons throw themselves at him and he dies of fear.

Romanticism and Realism

Gogol crosses the boundaries between Romanticism and Realism. The Viy contains elements of both literary movements. The witch and the demons; the flight with the witch; the three nights in the church, they are romantic components that are described in a realistic manner. Gogol repeatedly alternates between the supernatural and the ordinary. This creates contrasts between day and night, ordinary people and supernatural beings, Christianity and magic, and idyllic and horror scenes.

A real Cossack isn’t afraid

Khoma is a Cossack, and Cossacks aren’t easily scared. When the old woman rides on his shoulders, he isn’t scared, he just thinks “aha, so you’re a witch!” and does what one does in such cases: say prayers and spells. To punish her for taking him for a ride, he beats her. It’s only when she turns into a beautiful girl that he gets scared. But even that doesn’t last long: he just needs a good meal to get over it. When he is asked to say prayers for the Cossack’s daughter’s soul, he doesn’t even connect her story with his. But the witch has trapped him, he can’t escape because suddenly his legs feel like they’re made of wood, or his long coat appears to be nailed to the ground. The witch doesn’t want prayers, she wants revenge.

The moral conclusion

Evil was able to conquer because the faith of the people wasn’t firm enough. Khoma doesn’t always follow the rules of the church, and swears a lot. He has a rather fatalistic disposition. And then there’s his name, Khoma, the Ukrainian equivalent of Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. The church of the rich Cossack has been seriously neglected and it is placed on a remote edge of the village. It’s literally a god forsaken place, where evil was able to reign freely.

*****

*In Gogol’s time the Ukraine was called Little Russia, and the story is set there.

The Viy is one of the Mirgorod stories and I read the Dutch translation by Aai Prins. You can read it in English online and/or watch the fantastic 1967 Russian film version, links below.

https://youtu.be/1OhQMVvgENM

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61v/

More Russian horror stories here

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

35 thoughts on “Gogol’s Horror Story ‘The Viy’

  1. An excellent post – one that sent me to Kindle to look for stories by Gogol. Looking forward to reading his work. If I recall correctly, Taras Bulba was made into a movie. I find it interesting of the appearance of the number 3. It seems that there is a universal interest in this number. Looking forward to your next post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Such a great story—thanks for sharing! Really enjoyed reading your take on it.

    There’s a pretty recent Russian film adaptation of “Viy” as well, which I found sort of interesting but not very good. It had an English character who ends up in the village sort of like in Dracula, if I remember correctly. It really highlighted how difficult it is to translate Gogol onto the screen.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Terrific post, Elisabeth! And the link to “Viy” is greatly appreciated; because of your vivid description of the story, I plan to read it as soon as I get a chance. So far, the only Gogol work I’ve gotten to is his memorable novel “Dead Souls.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post as usual, Elisabeth. So interesting and informative on many levels.

    I have got to check out that film and am glad you thought to mention it.

    Two insights of yours, comments which intrigued me and seemed provocative were as follows:

    “Gogol crosses the boundaries between Romanticism and Realism. … Gogol repeatedly alternates between the supernatural and the ordinary.”

    “Evil was able to conquer because the faith of the people wasn’t firm enough.”

    Thanks again for keeping us engaged and stimulated as well as for the unique insights you provide.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you, Rebecca. Gogol is one of a kind. Yes, Taras Bulba was made into a movie, as was The Viy. But I think that they’re all in Russian. I’m not very knowledgable about numbers, but there could well be an extra meaning attached to the number three. Enjoy reading Gogol!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Elena, thanks for reading. I found three film adaptations, one from 1967, quite good. I saw another one from 2018 called Гоголь – Вий, not so good, and there’s the one you mention, haven’t seen it yet. It’s really difficult to get books right on the screen, probably the only real successful film adaptation was of Harry Potter 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent post! I love witches in fiction, and must schedule a personal Gogol revival because I have no recollection of having read this story!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I mean, and you know that, that I’m not really in russian literature…. ….I started Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’… …but didn’t make it to the end.. …yes, true, shame on me. 🙂 🙂 ….but this story sounds great. I try to get it in german or english. Thanks for that wonderful advice!

    best wishes from Bochum

    Markus

    Liked by 2 people

  9. “…and not very long” 🙂 🙂 🙂 …that’s encouraging! 🙂 honestly, in former times when I didn’t read that much, I loved books with large fonts (..at least size 16 or so..) and many illustrations. …but nowadays I even dare to struggle with book with font size 10… …1000 pages… …and no illustrations. Thats progress, huh?!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Like

  10. Excellent post, Elisabeth! I love, love Gogol! Love his horror stories, his intelligent sense of humor. Your article brought back memories, and sure it is the time to re-read his books 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I saw the movie, black and white, maybe 50 years ago, it was very scary, and I have returned to the main subject in my thoughts later in life. I used chalk when I was living in an ancient haunted mansion in Latvia, I drew lines and cross on the door, and I did so because of how they prevented the evil spirits in the Gogol’s story. It helped me a few times.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow! Your story sounds just as scary as Gogol’s!
    Yes, the movie is very scary, not one to watch when you’re all alone in a haunted old mansion, but at least it helped you as well. Fascinating!
    Thanks for stopping by, Inese.

    Like

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