The Bone Mother: David Demchuk creates a magical horrific world 01 October 2017.
by Drew Rowsome-
The ChiZine imprint and several rave reviews were enough to make me pick up a copy of David Demchuk's The Bone Mother. It joined the shelf of books that I planned to get to as soon as possible. And then it was longlisted for the Giller Prize, the first horror novel ever to receive that honour. The Bone Mother moved to front of the shelf and I dove in. And I'm very glad I did.
The Bone Mother is not so much a horror novel as it is a mood piece, the creation of an entire and very unsettling world. The book consists of numerous short sections that are self-contained but that echo evocatively. They are mostly styled as folk tales or fairy tales but with matter-of-fact supernatural elements that are eerily effective at sliding under one's skin. The setting is unnamed though Prague and other Eastern European cities are mentioned. And many of the legends are based on classic Eastern European figures like strigoi (vampires), the rusalka (water spirits), a golem, and the titular witch in the woods.
Time moves forwards and back, emphasizing the permanence of evil and the crush of fate but the three villages live in a perpetual period of war and domination. There are family curses, foundlings and doomed couplings in a world of such horror. That the world seems so real, and that it has many direct parallels to our contemporary existence, gives The Bone Mother a heft and verisimilitude that adds to the enticing dread it creates.
The first section details the marriage of two brothers and throughout Demchuk weaves same-sex attraction into a genre that is usually emphatic about heterosexual happy endings. Not that anyone gets to be happy in the end, except possibly a pair of lesbians, one of whom carries a parasitical monster and the other who is fascinated by monsters. Similarly the sections do not assign right or wrong, some sections are told from the point of view of the human victims, some by the persecuted otherworldly creatures. Most of the sections, even the ones set in a contemporary time, have a flavour of nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia making the comparisons to pink triangles and yellow stars unmistakable.
Many of the stories reference a thimble factory, bone china is after all made from ground bones, where terrible secret things have, and are, happening. Though we learn the history of the thimble factory and some of its horrors, it never becomes the connecting narrative device it appears intended to be. The ending of The Bone Mother is as enigmatic and open-ended as some of the sections, though Demchuk does indict us in our own horrors and asks, as does the book, are we the haunted or the haunters? While no resolution, The Bone Mother is deeply disturbing and oddly cathartic if it is possible for catharsis to leave one with lingering nightmares.
The Bone Mother is peppered, in the style of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine trilogy but to much different effect, with vintage photographs that purport to be portraits of the characters. The photos are taken from the archives of Romanian photographer Costica Acsinte who recorded Romanian life through the world wars and a little beyond. His catalogue of film negatives on glass plates was deteriorating and feared irreparably damaged but is now in the process of being digitzed. They are haunting and mysterious, speaking of a reality that is almost lost, broken and obscured, vaguely remembered and deeply feared. Just like folk tales, freedom and The Bone Mother.
The Bone Mother is available at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St. chizinepub.com