I think it’s safe to say that many of us first encounter scary stories through fairy tales and folklore. Whether it be the wolves, ghosts, or trolls of the Brothers Grimm or banshees, werewolves, and vengeful witches of folklore, many of us have been kept awake at night worrying that one or more of these creatures might be prowling nearby. Even the relatively safe Disney versions can scare very young children. As we grow older, these terrors stay with us and still form the foundation of the things that scare us as adults. Because of this, I’ve long had a fascination with fairy tales and folklore.
Recently, I was invited to pitch stories to an editor who was collecting stories for a series of books a reviewer had described as “the Universal Monsters meet James Bond.” I was handed a story bible that described the monsters as they exist in this universe. As I browsed through the story bible, one character stood out for me: Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga is a famous witch from Slavic folklore. She’s often described as living in a hut on chicken legs deep in the woods. She’s also been known to lure unsuspecting travelers and cook them for dinner.
Retelling folktales has practically become a genre in its own right. Often these retellings emphasize the scarier elements of stories and seek out new insights. What I liked about the invitation I received, is that it wasn’t a mere retelling. I was invited to update Baba Yaga and imagine what she would be like in a world closer to our own. The story bible suggested that Baba Yaga eventually took charge of the Soviet Night Witch squadron. The Night Witches really existed, but in this world, they’re not just amazing women fighter pilots, but literal witches under the command of the most famous Slavic witch of them all.
To my mind, this is was a Baba Yaga looking to increase her power and she worked for a country that neighbored lands described in another source of folktales, The One Thousand and One Nights. What if Baba Yaga discovered an artifact from The One Thousand and One Nights was real and it was within her grasp? In my story, Baba Yaga sends a member of her Night Witch squadron after just such an artifact. That woman, Yekaterina Savitskaya, is one member of a three-woman bomber crew and she’s been charged with keeping the mission’s objective secret.
Through Baba Yaga and the Night Witches, I took the opportunity to update a scary legend and explore more modern fears. How exactly did Baba Yaga rise to command of the Night Witches? I doubt she just joined the Soviet Air Force. Did she have a few high ranking men for dinner? Will Savatskaya’s fear of Baba Yaga lead her to betray the women under her command? Are there more frightening forces in the world than ancient witches living deep in the woods? My story tends to eschew the normal jump scares of a modern horror film for the more existential dread that you might not even be able to trust your closest friends when they have their own hidden agendas. And, to me, that’s one of the real powers of horror. It allows us to peer into the dark places and reflect on what we would do if we found ourselves there.
My Baba Yaga story is called “Horsefeathers” and it appears in the brand new anthology Staring Into the Abyss edited by Patrick Thomas and John L. French. You can find copies at https://www.amazon.com/Staring-Into-Abyss-Agents-book-ebook/dp/B0BFPN1R6L/