The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Father Alexei's Story" (1877)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Father Alexei’s Story” (original: “Rasskaz ottsa Alekseia”) was written by Ivan Turgenev and appeared in NV (Apr 6-7, 1877). Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev (1818-1883) was a Russian novelist who is best-known for Fathers and Sons (1862) but who also wrote a large amount of supernatural fiction.
Father Alexei is a sad old Russian Orthodox priest who the nameless narrator of “Father Alexei’s Story” meets while inspecting his aunt’s estates. The narrator eventually gets Father Alexei to tell his story. As a young man Father Alexei had a good wife and good children. His first son became a bishop, and Alexei hoped that his other son, Yákoff, would become a priest. Yákoff was a meek, thoughtful, intelligent boy. But one day he meets an old man while walking in the forest. The man is small and green and gives Yákoff an assortment of nuts. The old man has a hump on his back, keeps shifting from foot to foot, and laughs, and he is green even in his hair and eyes. Alexei and his wife are inclined to disbelieve Yákoff’s story, but he produces one of the nuts, which doesn’t look like any ordinary nut. From that point forward Yákoff is changed. He starts well at the seminary, but then sends his father a letter saying that he wishes to leave it: “I am afraid of myself, for I have begun to think a great deal.”1 Yákoff prefers to go to the university in Moscow instead. Alexei’s wife dies, but Yákoff does not seem to mourn his mother. Yákoff goes off to school in Moscow. When he returns, on the first vacation, his personality has changed; he has become tiresome and surly, even to his father. Yákoff looks older and always scowls. When questioned he is either silent or snarls. Back in Moscow he twice writes his father and seems to be returning to his old personality, but six weeks later, during the Christmas holidays, he returns to Alexei’s house and says that he has left the university but will not explain why. Yákoff’s face has changed and become “dreadful, dark–not human, actually!–his cheeks were drawn, his cheek bones projected, he was mere skin and bone; his voice sounded as though it proceeded from a barrel.”2
Yákoff roams about his room at night, suddenly stopping and staring into corners. Alexei keeps questioning Yákoff about the changes, and Yákoff eventually admits that he is being visited by “the person...whom it is awkward to mention at night.”3 This person, who looks like a man, “only all black,” appears in the corner of the room and looks at Yákoff. Alexei can’t see him, but Yákoff can, and is tormented by him.
From that time forward Yákoff and Alexei fight for Yákoff’s soul. It is a losing battle, as, even with some temporary reverses, Yákoff becomes increasingly changed. He becomes frantic and his face takes on “the colour of red copper, he was foaming at the mouth, his voice was hoarse, exactly as though some one were choking him!”4 Yákoff and Alexei go on a pilgrimage, but during a church service Yákoff takes the communion wafer but not the water and wine, and it is only back at home that Yákoff will explain what happened. During the service the devil spoke to Yákoff for the first time, telling him to spit out the communion bread and grind it under foot. In doing so Yákoff committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only sin which will not be forgiven. The devil does not appear to Yákoff any more, but “he has ruined my soul and why should he come any more now?”5 Yákoff dies soon afterward. And that’s why Father Alexei is so sad. (But in his coffin Yákoff looked young and tranquil and pure, the way he used to, and Alexei is sure that the Lord did not judge him harshly).
One might say that “Father Alexei’s Story” has a typical Russian darkness. It is on the grim side, certainly. It lacks the assumptions and trappings of Western supernatural fiction, so that none of the characters are really surprised at the appearance of the green man or at the actions of the devil. It reads more like folklore than anything else, although the folklorish stories written by Western writers of the time were done with a greater skill. However, as critics have noted, the story can actually be read as the examination of a worsening pathology of mental illness rather than a supernatural struggle–which, if viewed in that light, makes “Father Alexei’s Story” substantially more horrifying.
Print: Ivan Turgenev, The Novels and Stories of Ivan Turgenev, volume 16. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903-1904.
1 Ivan Turgenev, “Father Alexyei’s Story,” A Reckless Character (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 89.
2 Turgenev, “Father Alexyei’s Story,” 94.
3 Turgenev, “Father Alexyei’s Story,” 95.
4 Turgenev, “Father Alexyei’s Story,” 101.
5 Turgenev, “Father Alexyei’s Story,” 109.