This book is not for the optimist or seeker of light-hearted fiction. These Russian stories and poems are extremely bleak and at times disturbing. The back cover states that "the writers explore the darkest depths of the unconscious, which lead their characters to sadism, masochism, rape, murder, suicide, and... even passionate love for the dead." Actually, some of those vile things are subtle or non-existent. For example, in no story did I come across any overt sadism or masochism. Only one story describes torture and three stories suggest rape, but never with graphic or sordid descriptions - no de Sade here. Murder and suicide abound for sure. And death is celebrated. A number of poems treat death as a lover and in one story, a heroine develops romantic yearnings for a deceased young man. But there is no sexual necrophilia as the "passionate love for the dead" phrase might imply.
While the stories and poetry are predominantly despondent and sick, they are often profound and utterly fascinating. They should appeal to readers with a gloomy disposition or those interested in the Russian Silver Age (1890-1917), symbolism, and decadent literature. Whether it's due to the excellent translations or the unpretentious writing styles of each author, I found the prose very contemporary and easy-to-read. I should note that I know virtually nothing about these Russian authors, but many of their stories strike me as being timeless.
Some brief commentary on the best stories in this anthology:
Valery Briusov's "Now That I'm Awake... The Diary of a Psychopath" (1902) is a first-person account of the narrator's twisted fascination with dreams. He loves nightmares, especially when he controls them and participates in the torture of women and children. However, the distinction between his nightmares and reality blur and the overall atmosphere and climax of the story reads like Poe - think The Black Cat and Tell Tale Heart on steroids.
Briusov's "The Republic of the Southern Cross" (1905) is written in the manner of an objective news report about the downfall of a great city via a disease that transforms human beings into insane creatures. "It was a city of madmen, a gigantic madhouse, the greatest and most disgusting Bedlam the earth had ever seen. And these madmen stabbed each other with daggers and sank their teeth into each other's throats." While Briusov is alluding to the infecting madness of revolution, the graphic descriptions and apocalyptic events at times remind me of the zombie movie of today.
Fyodor Sologub's "The Sting of Death" (1903) starts out reminiscent of a Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer adventure: two young boys temporarily fleeing from their homes and meeting in the woods to fish or play games. However, this story quickly becomes unsettling as one boy who is the epitome of evil corrupts the other innocent boy into obsessing about and desiring death. It's perhaps the most disturbingly realistic and tragic short story here.
Zinaida Gippius's "The Living and the Dead" (1897) is another wonderfully dark tale about a young woman who prefers strolling through the cemetery rather than the park. She develops an obsession with the grave of an unknown deceased man. Her obsession ultimately intensifies to madness as she tends the grave with flowers and wreaths, becomes jealous of the deceased man's fiance, rejects male suitors, and romantically yearns to unite with the dead man. The premise might sound like the fantasies of a stereotypical goth girl, but the protagonist's psychosis is intriguing and strangely moving. Gippius's "Moon Ants" (1910) is perhaps the most upbeat story of them all, even though its central theme is about suicide. Written like a diary, the protagonist discusses his day-to-day research into the reasons for suicide. In one instance, he concludes that suicide can be brought on by "a stolen jacket--that's one reason. The way life is--another reason. No reason--that's a reason too." The diary has a bleak end, but it manages to eschew oppressive gloom for a bit of sardonic and black humor.
Leonid Andreyev's "The Abyss" (1902) is deeply perverted and somber with explicit physical violence thrown in. It's a doomed story of a young couple walking through the countryside at night and encountering shady characters. The plot seems real, the climax is shocking, and the situation is generally appalling - no wonder it caused a scandal when first published. Andreyev's "The Story of Sergei Petrovich" (1900) is less intense, but no less pessimistic. The story surrounds a mediocre man with a less-than-average intelligence who seeks comfort in Nietzsche. He goes from searching for happiness and believing he is the ubermensch to preparing for suicide.
I'm no poetry connoisseur, but I loved the poems interspersed between the short stories. In addition to works from the aforementioned authors, there are also some exceptional gems from Alexander Blok and Dmitry Merezhkovsky. Almost all of the poetry can be characterized as bitter, despairing, and longing for death. Case in point are Sologub's poems. Apparently, Sologub was given the appellation "Bard of Death" due to his glorification of death. Here are some excerpts of his poetry: "O death! I am yours. Everywhere I see / Only you, and I hate / The charms of the earth. / Human pleasures I disdain-- / Battles, festivities and haggling, / The din and dust of the mundane..." Another: "...But those fatigued by life / The sister [death] comforts soon / She saves them from despair / With the silence of the tomb."
Bottom line: This book is not for the cheerful or the reader looking for lightweight fantasy escapism. These stories and poems are full of palpable dreariness and the macabre, but it can be a morbid pleasure digesting their dark and hypnotic writings.