The Breathtaking Horror Fiction in Latvian Literature

Bārbala Simsone

Bārbala Simsone

Considering the relatively short history of Latvian literature as such, Latvian genre literature seems like a granddaughter in relation to its European grandmother, and horror literature seems ludicrously young, even in the context of Latvian genre literature. To date, only a handful of Latvian authors have turned to writing horror stories and novels, and their contribution in this field has been quite limited.

In his afterword to the collection of stories ‘Visu rožu roze’ (‘Rose of Roses’), published in 1987, Andris Jakubāns seeks to explain the absence of this genre in Latvian literature: “It may well be that Latvian writers have made virtually no use of this poetics of ghosts and stories as a source of inspiration because many periods in our people’s history have been so grim, so marked by slavery — not only of the legally constituted, but also of the spiritual kind — that the author simply was not capable of writing anything of that kind.

Lyricism is so triumphant in all of Latvian literature, and conflict mainly has a moral and ethnic character, because one has to be very strong to look at oneself in situations even more terrifying than real life.”

It is difficult to say whether this is indeed the true reason because the horror genre does exist among other peoples with a similar history.

Ghost stories and stories of terrifying occurrences, abundant in the folklore of other peoples, may also be found in the Latvian oral heritage, mainly in the form of legends. In most cases they are stories concerning the unfortunate demise of a certain individual, followed by the haunting of a particular location (for example, different versions of the legend of the Green Lady of Dundaga Castle, the bloodstain on the wall of a chamber in Ēdole Castle, the evil Baron Von der Recke of Jaunpils etcetera).

However, since most of these legends relate to specific settlements and buildings, they may be regarded as relatively young, and the horror elements are usually not particularly detailed, placing more emphasis on the moral aspect.

For example, the maiden of Dundaga Castle is punished for her curiosity, spying on the dwarves’ wedding through the keyhole, but there is no description of the appearance of the maiden when she roamed the castle after death or why she was to be feared.

There are also stories about apparitions of the dead (“veļu māžošanās”), guardians of hidden treasure, werewolves, witches, the strangler demon lietuvēns, the ‘black book’ used to summon the dead, etcetera.

Even though there are few horror motifs in this stratum of folklore, it would indeed constitute a useful resource for writers, but few have so far applied it. Such ghost stories appear only as legends once heard and retold in full or partially in the stories based on childhood memories by classic Latvian authors: ‘Baltā Grāmata’ (‘The White Book’) by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš (1927) and the cycle ‘Dievs. Daba. Darbs’ (God. Nature. Work.’) by Anna Brigadere (1926 – 1933). The writers recall the “old wives’ tales” they once heard as children by the light of a splint: “But when the telling has turned to horrific occurrences, it can go on and on. One person knows of robbers living in lonely huts in the depth of the forest, who search out farms where there happen to be few men present; another knows of ghosts waiting at the crossroads near a cemetery or other mysterious places, a third knows of terrifying spirits of the dead who can find no rest, having spent their lives in evildoing.”

The oldest motifs in Latvian original literature that we might classify as belonging indisputably to the genre of horror appear only at the beginning of the twentieth-century and are initially found in poetry rather than prose.

These are the ballads ‘Baigi’ (‘The Apparitions’, 1903) and ‘Rēgi’ (‘The Ghosts’, 1908). As described by literary critic Guntis Berelis in his ‘History of Latvian Literature’, “these are nocturnal visions or apparitions (possibly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’), in which, it seems, Latvian literature for the first time encounters imaginings and nightmarish images from the spheres beyond consciousness”.

(On ‘Dark Nights’, Vilis Plūdons’ lyrical protagonists are visited by horrifying figures: the Devil himself (in the ballad ‘The Ghosts’) or a demon of the night (in the ballad ‘The Apparitions’), which seek to stifle his joy of living and suffocate his soul through incomprehensible, gloomy visions.

The influence of the poetry of the American horror classic Edgar Allan Poe really can be discerned in the rhythm and the structure of the plot, where an atmosphere of fear develops gradually and inevitably, while the nameless narrator can only submit blindly to the course of events.

Elements of horror can also be observed in Vilis Plūdons’ ballads ‘Jumis – atriebējs’ (‘Jumis – the avenger’) and ‘Salgales Mada loms’ (‘Salgales Madis’ catch’, 1913), where the suspense of the plot is increased masterfully, culminating in a mystical and horrifying dénouement.

Elements of horror appear in a drama for the first and so far the only time in Jānis Rainis’ play ‘Spēlēju, dancoju’ (‘I played and I danced’, 1915). The play is traditionally explained in symbolic terms, but at least in a broader sense it can be seen as an interpretation of the ancient vampire myth: the main antagonist is the deceased Lord, who, rather than sleep peacefully in his coffin, rises up to suck the blood of the living; in order to bring back to life a victim of the Lord — the maiden Lelde — the musician Tots must descend into a vividly depicted kingdom of devils and other evil spirits, and outdo them in cunning.

The atmosphere of horror is created not so much through the characters’ text, but through the detailed stage directions inserted by the poet, especially in the cemetery scenes described in Act 2: “A light dust rises from the graves and paths, and rolls towards Tots, ascending. Arms and legs stretch out towards him from the graves; torn and scattered limbs appear in the uncertain light. […] One of the dead rushes from the cemetery and darts past, followed by several others; graves begin to open; the dead raise their heads; moans are heard.”

The text of the play might be full of symbolism, echoing the rhythms of folklore, but the setting is unmistakably Gothic.

The period of the 1920s and 1930s might in a sense be termed the early period of Latvian horror literature. Elements of this genre that have a specific role first appear in prose in the stories of Augusts Saulietis: ‘Veļu tiesa’ (‘Trial of the Spirits’, 1925), ‘Ģindenis’ (‘The Skeleton’), ‘Ragana’ (‘The Witch’) etcetera, in which the traditional, realistic storyline is interrupted by inexplicable and incomprehensible phenomena from the world beyond the grave.

For example, in the story ‘Neaizberamā aka’ (‘The well that cannot be filled’, 1927) the main character, Līču Dāvis, is tormented by the spirit of his dead neighbour, whose bride Dāvis has stolen many years ago; the ghost is not the immediate cause of Līču Dāvis’ death, but its presence and active role in the story is undeniable, so that it must be interpreted as more than just a dream, a vision or a symbol.

Here it should be added that figures representing the Devil, spirits of the dead and demons do occur earlier in Latvian prose, but the presence of a supernatural being in itself does not classify a work as belonging to the genre of horror, because such figures can also be interpreted in a symbolic, allegorical or even psychological sense (as is often the case with the demons referred to by the Decadents), or else they can be folkloristic or mythical, not being at all frightening (as with the devils in the novella ‘Don-Žuana pēdējā mīlestība’ (‘The Last Love of Don Juan’, 1922) by Jānis Akuraters or in the novel ‘Jaunsaimnieks un velns’ (‘The New Farmer and the Devil’, 1933) by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš).

The influence of the horror classic Edgar Allan Poe is observable in works by several masters of Latvian short prose from this period, such as Jānis Ezeriņš and Kārlis Zariņš, but this influence does not always relate to the elements of horror and mystery; more commonly it appears in the melancholic, self- analytical mood, the inner tension of the story and the form of expression. However, Jānis Ezeriņš story ‘Joču pirts’ (‘Joči Bath-House’, 1923), along with Kārlis Zariņš’ ‘Mūžība’ (‘Eternity’, 1927) and ‘Piemini nāvi, Heidenkranc!’ (‘Remember you Will Die, Heidenkranc!’, 1927) were influenced quite perceptibly by Edgar Allan Poe’s stories ‘The Black Cat’ (1843) and ‘The Facts in the Case of Mr Waldemar’ (1845). ‘Joči Bath-House’ is a seemingly traditional story about rural life and love in the “style of itinerant farm hands”, but the climax of the story develops from a fateful coincidence: an accident caused by a black cat, resulting in the death of the child of maidservant Ieva and her own descent into madness.

The motto of Kārlis Zariņš’ story ‘Remember You Will Die, Heidenkranc!’ is based on a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1842): “An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell fainting into the abyss,” and the whole story is pervaded by an atmosphere of inescapable death that is characteristic of the works of the horror classic, even though the hero’s suffering and fear, when hanging by the edge of his coat at the top of a three-hundred-metre tower, results not from some kind of supernatural intervention, but simply from the cruelty of his fellow human beings, just as in Edgar Allan Poe’s story.

The stories by Mirdza Bendrupe commonly also include mystical motifs. For example, the story ‘Helēna’ (1939) is based on the popular urban legend concerning a beautiful woman met in the cemetery, about which the enamoured protagonist subsequently learns that she has died ten years previously.

In general, however, Latvian short prose of this period (and later), although full of mystical moods, fatalism, foreboding and unmotivated fear, rarely goes as far as to include truly horrific images that are not explained in terms of references to reality, such as dreams, symbols or the protagonists’ changing state of mind.

Elements of horror obtain a fully-developed, independent role not only in short prose but also in epic literature, through the works of Aleksandrs Grīns, who presents authentic horror through a combination of mystical themes and historically-based scenes of cruelty.

Aleksandrs Grīns is attracted by the figure of the witch, the torture chambers of the Inquisition (often with detailed accounts of torture methods), spirits and ghosts of the dead. Aleksandrs Grīns never consciously set out to write a horror novel or a volume of horror stories, but these elements do have a significant role in his novels ‘Nameja gredzens’ (‘The Ring of Namejs’, 1932) and ‘Dvēseļu putenis’ (‘The Storm of Souls’, 1933–1934), and especially in his volumes of short stories.

In the story ‘Nameja atgriešanās’ (‘The Return of Namejs’, 1921) the dead chieftain Namejs visits the crusaders, bringing the black death, and the curse is lifted only through Christian ritual and the burning of the chieftain’s body.

The character of Namejs might be seen in this case as playing a kind of vampire role. In the story ‘Klaucānu brīvzemnieka testaments’ (‘The Will of the Free Peasant of Klaucāni’) a peasant marries the daughter of a witch, who goes off one night to join the witches; following his wife, the husband becomes witness to a colourfully described witches’ sabbath.

In the story ‘Septiņi un viens’ (‘Seven and One’, 1926) a reckless student in Tartu requests the aid of the Devil himself in a duel, and, as a Faust-like figure of his time, receives assistance for the price of his soul.

Heroes often encounter witches, spirits of the dead, succubi, riders of the plague etcetera, which are partly folkloristic and partly horror figures. In the story ‘Klusie ciemiņi’ (‘Silent Guests’, 1935) the spirit of a fallen Latvian rifleman visits his comrades-in-arms, although he does not instil horror, only respect.

(A similar figure may be found in Aleksandrs Čaks’ long poem ‘Mūžības skartie’ (‘Marked by Eternity’, 1940)).

These stories, overflowing with passion, often include as elements of horror quite modern, medical factors, such as venereal disease and its outward signs, often physically repulsive.

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Ted Reilly
Ted Reilly
June 13, 2018 18:26

Now, I would like to find published English translations of some of these tales … AABS (Australasia) is organising a Baltic Studies conference in Geelong, mid-October 2018, and we are looking for papers & contributions to the journal ‘Azuria’: any takers?

Tanur Zakahia
Tanur Zakahia
Reply to  Ted Reilly
February 13, 2019 16:09

Hello Ted,

We will do our very best to find such translations; meanwhile, I am grieved for ricocheting your comment, but we would like to know how we can collaborate with the Azuria Journal mostly because we did some research and noticed you are always looking for collaborations. It would be our pleasure to get to hear from you soon, and perhaps establish some kind of interaction.

Thank you for your comment.



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