The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Viy" (1835)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Viy” was written by Nikolai Gogol and first appeared in Mirgorod (1835). 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.

Gogol describes the viy as “a monstrous creation of popular fancy. It is the name which the inhabitants of Little Russia give to the king of the gnomes, whose eyelashes reach to the ground.”1 “Viy” is about a young seminary student and philosopher, Khoma Brut, who with two of his fellow students takes a wrong turn while walking home during the holidays. The trio end up in a cottage far out in the country, where the old woman who owns the farmstead lets them in only reluctantly. Khoma wakes up in the middle of the night to find the old woman walking toward him with her arms outstretched. He tries to run away from her, but his arms and legs won’t work. She hops on to his back and makes him carry her like a horse. He races across the landscape at superhuman speeds, feeling horrible but also experiencing a strange combination of emotions and feelings surging through him. He eventually begins to remember some of the exorcisms against spirits he knows, and they bring him some relief and enable him to free himself of her. Khoma begins beating the old woman and thrashes her almost to death, but when the dawn breaks she turns into a young beauty, and he, unnerved, runs back to Kiev and promptly forgets about the whole thing. Then he begins to hear about a rich Cossack chief’s daughter who was found beaten almost to death. This makes him feel uneasy, although he can’t explain why. Then he is told by the rector of the seminary that the dying daughter is asking for the prayers at her deathbed and for three days after her death to be read by Khoma Brut himself. He waffles but eventually accepts, arriving after the daughter has died. When he meets the chief, the Cossack quizzes Khoma about why the daughter sent for him; Khoma’s answers, which boil down to “You got me,” do not satisfy him, but the Cossack wants to obey his daughter’s last wishes and has Khoma perform the prayers.

When Khoma sees the daughter, he realizes that she is the witch he encountered. He says the prayers for her and then watches the burial. He talks with the local Cossacks, all of whom tell him about the evil acts she performed when she was alive. During the first night’s vigil she rises from her coffin and walks toward him, but he draws a protective circle around himself and reads various prayers and incantations, which prevent her from reaching him, even though her coffin itself flies through the air around him. But, like the witch, the coffin can’t break through the circle, and when the cock crows the dawn in, Khoma is safe. The next evening the same thing happens, but worse: the witch growls dreadful words at him and nameless, monstrous things try to break through into the church. The cock crows again, and he is safe, although he is exhausted and his hair has gone white. Khoma tries to flee but is caught by one of the Cossack chief’s men and escorted back to the church. The final night is a repetition of the previous two nights, but the monsters break through into the church, and they summon the horrible Viy, who sets the monsters on Khoma. They kill Khoma.

“Viy” is less objectionable than Taras Bulba or “A Terrible Vengeance.” “Viy” has less of the bigotry (though the same amount of misogyny) that poisoned Taras Bulba and a less nihilistic worldview than “A Terrible Vengeance.” “Viy” is not as dark as “A Terrible Vengeance,” either; although, it is hardly a light and jocular story. “Viy” is Gogol’s attempt at a Russian “folk legend.” It is competently told, with a faithful recreation of the language of Russian folktales. Of particular note are the erotically charged ride of the witch on top of Khoma and the story’s finale, which fulfills the horror that the previous two nights have implied while also upping the scale of the forces of evil Khoma faces. On the whole, though, “Viy” is an interesting but not exceptional story, although the Cossack chief’s daughter’s status as a supernatural femme fatale (see: The Fatal Woman), similar to Théophile Gautier’s characters (see: “Arria Marcella. Memory of Pompeii,” “One of Cleopatra’s Nights”), is a notable example of the extent of the influence of that motif.

In both Carmilla and “Viy,” the horrid creatures of destruction engage in a complex interplay of appearances, shifting identities, past and present, and superstition and reality. The creation of the monstrous feminine through the dark and macabre imagery of the return of the dead signifies the disruption of categories and the elimination of boundaries as it consistently exceeds any coherent system of identification. Suggesting numerous societal and identitarian splits and fissures, it reveals, all over again, the archetypal terror of the alien and the unknown, of spaces where disturbingly ambivalent blood-sucking revenants foster compelling challenges by questioning representations of the transparent and the communicable experience....

The appearance of the Gothic vampire trope in Le Fanu’s and Gogol’s works, being evoked by myth and providing a metaphor to express the unresolved conflict between the imperial power and the colony, is symptomatic, culturally and politically, of a long struggle against the powerful historical dysfunctions of Irish and Ukrainian societies and of manifest as well as repressed evidence of their abusive character. Here Gothic becomes almost an ideal mode of representing the paranoiac colonial psyche, with its lurking fears and buried desires, and the disjunctive, fragmented, dislocated, and diasporic agency of those who have suffered the sentence of history – subjugation and displacement in the supplementary spaces of the colonial world; the «missing people», to use Deleuze’s expression [11, p. 4], who did not get to parade in the imperial progressive march of history and whose own history was erased, but not completely, only to haunt them as ghostly apparitions from the pasts.2 

Recommended Edition

Print: Carl R. Proffer, ed. Russian Romantic Prose: An Anthology. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2012.



1 Nikolai Gogol, “Author’s Note,” in The Mantle and Other Stories, transl. Claud Field (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1916), 187.

2 Maryna Romanets, “Daughters of Darkness: Intertextuality in Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Gogol’s “Viy,” Гоголезнавчі студії (2009): 274.