The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"A Terrible Vengeance" (1832)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“A Terrible Vengeance” (original: “Strashnaya mest’”) was written by Nikolai Gogol and first appeared in Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1832). Nikolai Vasil'evich Gogol (1809-1852) was one of the giants of nineteenth century Russian literature, the father of Russian prose realism, and the author of Dead Souls, which is often called Russia's first great novel. “A Terrible Vengeance” was one of Gogol’s earliest stories. It is in the same vein as Gogol’s Taras Bulba, nominally about noble Cossacks, but far darker.
In Kiev Captain Gorobets is celebrating his son’s wedding. Among those attending are Gorobets’ brother-in-arms Danilo Burulbash, Danilo’s young wife, Katerina, and their one-year-old son. Many at the wedding wonder why Katerina’s father is not attending. He disappeared when she was young and returned twenty-one years later when she was married and had borne a son. During the feast one of the Cossacks is dancing and making the crowd laugh, but when Gorobets raises the icons given to him from an honorable monk, the Cossack changes appearance and becomes an ugly old man, the sorcerer who has troubled the people for a generation. After the wedding Katerina complains to Danilo about how much the sorcerer bothers her. Danilo is not so frightened by him. As they row their boat across the Dnieper they see dead men rising from their graves to briefly complain that they can’t breathe, which Danilo feels is just a scare tactic on the sorcerer’s part. Danilo also mentions how he does not like Katerina’s father, who Danilo feels he does not have a Cossack’s heart. The following day, when Katerina’s father enters Danilo’s house, the pair pick a fight with each other and duel, first with sabers and then with guns. Katerina urges a reconciliation between the two, but Katerina’s father is grudging about it. Shortly after this Katerina begins having awful dreams in which her father demands that she marry him. Danilo follows Katerina’s father and discovers that he is the sorcerer and that he is magically summoning his daughter’s soul and force her to marry him. Danilo has his Cossacks capture Katerina’s father, but the night before his execution he manages to persuade Katerina to free him. Then, during a fight with some Poles, Danilo is shot and killed by Katerina’s father. Katerina’s father returns to his home, but his next magical summoning goes wrong, and a face he does not know appears, staring implacably at him and filling him with horror. Already horrified at everything that has happened, Katerina is forced to endure a dream in which her father tells her that he is going to kill her son, followed by the murder taking place as her father threatened.
Meanwhile, in the Carpathian mountains between Galicia and Hungary, a ghostly knight comes riding out of the dark, riding for the Dnieper. Katerina goes insane, wandering about her home in a daze. A handsome visitor arrives, claiming to be an old friend of Danilo’s, but Katerina comes out of her daze and recognizes him as her father. She attacks him, but he manages to kill her and rides away before the other Cossacks can kill him. But something goes wrong during his ride: he is gripped with fear, he sees the ghostly knight from far away, and the trees of forest seem to be reaching out to him. He seeks refuge and forgiveness at the hands of a holy hermit, but the hermit will not forgive a cursed sinner or pray for his forgiveness, and Katerina’s father, angered, kills the hermit. Katerina’s father then tries to ride to the Crimea, but he is somehow forced to toward Hungary and the Carpathians. When he arrives at the mountains the ghostly knight is waiting for him, and the knight kills him and throws him into a ravine, where all those he killed gnaw on him. And then, back in Glukhov, a blind bandore player tells the story of evil Petro, a Cossack who was so jealous of his brother Ivan that he killed Ivan. When Ivan reached Heaven God promised him vengeance on Petro, and Ivan responded by asking that Petro be tormented under the ground, that every one of his descendants know no peace on earth, and that “the last one of the family be such an evildoer as the world has never seen.” God responds by granting this request but also by making Ivan sit on his horse and watch Petro’s torment and “as long as you sit there on your horse, there will be no Kingdom of Heaven for you!”
In “A Terrible Vengeance” Gogol was trying to write a typical Cossack epic, as he did in Taras Bulba. Gogol includes the same rich imagery, occasionally epic prose, and the same action-filled story. As in Taras Bulba the Cossacks are the story’s heroes, and their ethos of fighting, aggression, and hatred are privileged and praised, and the opposing traits of mercy and tolerance being despised. But unlike Taras Bulba, “A Terrible Vengeance” ultimately shows kindness to no one. Everyone is victimized, and although Danilo is the hero of the story he is helpless to stop Katerina’s father from haunting Katerina. Even Katerina’s father, Petro’s final descendant, is tormented, in the end, by the ghost of Ivan and by the zombies of those he had killed. Moreover, Katerina’s father is forced to operate under God’s curse from birth—he had no choice in the matter of whether or not to be good or evil. Gogol’s famous comic touch is completely missing from the story.
“A Terrible Vengeance” is about hatred and incest and bigotry–Gogol shows the Poles as much kindness in “A Terrible Vengeance” as he did to non-Cossacks in Taras Bulba–and bad things happening to innocents and sinners alike. “A Terrible Vengeance” is a dark, merciless story with a curse as awful as anything in classical Greek tragedy, which affects everyone in the story. Taken in combination with Taras Bulba, “A Terrible Vengeance” reveals that the moral universe of Gogol is strikingly negative, bleak, and cruel. Gogol himself was an atheist, but a childhood exposure to the story of Doomsday by his mother “shook” him1 and left an indelible impact on the formation of his ethos. However, in “A Terrible Vengeance” Gogol’s moral universe, while unspeakably savage, nonetheless has room for the Church:
On one side stands the unclean power—devils both small and mighty, witches and sorcerers¼on the other side stands the church in all its historical completeness, up to and including the rules prescribing the foods that are pleasing to God. The very least of its rituals is sufficient to ensure miraculous victory over the unclean powers.2
Gogol tries to have it both ways: a Church that is powerful worshiping a God who is mighty—but God is also unbearably cruel towards those He disapproves of. The reader is likely to be left with the impression that Gogol the ostensible atheist actually believed in God—but hated Him.
Although Gogol intended to write a medieval-style epic, “A Terrible Vengeance” is as much a horror story as anything else—morally and in its effect on the reader—and the story has a few memorably horrific moments. When Katerina’s father tries to summon Katerina’s soul, and instead gets Ivan, who stares at him even after the enchantment ends, the reader will likely feel a chill. Frightening, also, is the final ride of Katerina’s father, a ride out of a nightmare, where he tries to ride one way and yet is physically compelled to ride in the opposite direction, with the world freezing, motionless, and the only moving thing being the ghostly knight, riding inexorably toward him, and the knight’s laughter hammering inside his brain.
Vasilli Gippius wrote that “A Terrible Vengeance” comes “closest of all to Romanticism of the Tieck variety.”3 Certainly “A Terrible Vengeance” is close in approach to Tieck’s kunstmärchen (for example, “The Elves”), but Tieck had what Gogol lacked: a moral compass.
Print: Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
For Further Research
Andrew Swensen, “Vampirism in Gogol’s Short Fiction,” The Slavic and East European Journal 37.4 (Winter, 1993): 490-509.
1 Richard Peace, The Enigma of Gogol: An Examination of the Writings of N.V. Gogol and Their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 287.
2 Vasilli Gippius, Gogol, trans. Robert Maguire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 1989), 35.
3 Gippius, Gogol, 35.