Summoning Baba Yaga
SUMMONING BABA YAGA
By Lindy Ryan
My stepmother immigrated to the United States shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and along with my stepsister and step-babushka, she brough borscht, matryoshka dolls, and Baba Yaga. I was seven years old, and my mother—an Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King enthusiast—had already conditioned me with a love for darker stories. Sparkly, sanitized Disney-version fairy tales didn’t appeal to me as much as the original Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen tales, where even the happiest of “happy endings” often involved bloodshed, mutilation, and—as in the case of “The Little Mermaid”—death by suicide. By the time my stepmother arrived on the Texan soil of my childhood home, the closest I’d come to a true dark fairytale were all twenty-seven episodes of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre (of which twenty-six were retellings and the final episode a cast and crew “Grimm Party”), but even these shied away from the true dark depths of the original source material.
A remarkably sweet woman, my stepmother wasn’t the storybook caricature I had come to expect. She didn’t lead with heavy applications of household chores or peddle poisoned apples. She didn’t even punish me with cautionary tales of Baba Yaga—but I found her, nonetheless.
I still remember the first time I saw an illustration of Baba: leering out from the bowl of her mortar, pestle clutched in her talon-like claws. She was a black and white blur, a demonic shadow that came across as more monster than woman. This depiction of Baba Yaga came from Tales of the Russian People, a Moscow-published text from 1894. The age of the book and the fact it was published on the other side of the world should have made the image foreign, but it felt familiar. In fact, it reminded me of a bedtime story my father favored reading at night when I was young—Marilyn Hirsh’s Rabbi and the Twenty-Nine Witches. Originally published in 1977, in Hirsch’s story a group of witches had settled into a cave with the goal of terrorizing neighboring villages. Eager to drive them away, a clever rabbi told the witches (who are often easily conquered by water) that they could dance between raindrops and offered to teach them how. There are no moral lessons on lying to be found in this story: the witches succumb to the rabbi’s promise and indeed are melted away by the rain.
Maybe it was the moral haziness of Hirsch’s witch-melting story that primed me for Baba Yaga. Maybe it was the coarse black and white illustrations that were so strikingly similar and so adamant that wild women should be reduced to hazy blurs of inconsequence. I became enchanted by Baba, seeking out stories about her chicken-legged hut, her control of tempests, her hunger for children, her curious approach to home decor.
Baba Yaga commanded fear and respect, and simultaneously awe and desire. She was neither good nor bad, or rather she was both good and bad, and her “striking ambiguity” was magical in a world of children’s literature adamant on coloring everything in shades of white and black and never gray. I loved Baba’s long, pointed nose, envied her iron teeth. I admired her freedom, her carelessness, her independence.
And yet I’m sorry to say that, like so many childhood tales, my fascination with Baba Yaga waned as I grew up. I stopped searching for her in the woods, stopped thinking of her when storms blew through. She became a memory, a tickle in the back of mind every time I heard my nephew call my stepmother Babi or warned my son from wandering too far off, lest he be lured into a candy-covered house and turned into a witch’s supper. Gone was Baba’s magic, lost in the daily minutiae of bills and work and domestication—the very trappings she herself had escaped.
When the idea first came to put together a women-in-horror anthology, Baba Yaga didn’t immediately spring to mind. I wanted the anthology to feature the voices of women around the world who were unafraid to tell their stories, to tap into their own wildness and wickedness. The world has grown dark around us, and I found myself missing that magic of my youth—that freedom and carelessness and independence.
Baba Yaga is all of those and more. Thus, she became our muse and our subject.
I found Baba Yaga again. Not in her chicken-legged hut deep in the woods. Not in her mortar and pestle, flying through the sky. Instead, I found her in the stories in INTO THE FOREST, in the hundreds of women who responded to the call to write with imagination and with power, who tapped into the fiercest, most feral parts of their femininity and crafted stories of spells and witches and romance and revenge.
With mortar and pestle in hand, we set out to create an anthology. Instead, we found a sisterhood of wild women—women who may not lie in wait in the wood, but women with voices demanding to be heard. Women who retain the spirit of Baba Yaga.
It’s my hope that this anthology will touch readers like that old 19th-century depiction of Baba Yaga touched me. That you will come with us on a trip—whether it’s the first or one of many but certainly not the last—to meet the witch who waits deep in the forest and read her tales. Many will find Baba Yaga warm, while others will pronounce her wicked. All will find her unpredictable.
Deep in the dark forest, in a cottage that spins on birds’ legs behind a fence topped with human skulls, lives the Baba Yaga. A guardian of the water of life, she lives with her sisters and takes to the skies in a giant mortar and pestle, creating tempests as she goes. Those who come across the Baba Yaga may find help, or hinderance, or horror.
She is wild, she is woman, she is witch—and these are her tales.
Edited by Lindy Ryan (Under Her Skin), this collection brings together some of today’s leading voices of women-in-horror as they pay tribute to the baba yaga, and go Into the Forest. Each story reflects the wild and temperamental nature of the Baba Yaga, ranging from dark fantasy and folklore to horror as each go deep in the dark forest, and the diverse and inclusive experiences of women as they look to Baba Yaga as their muse.
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Lindy Ryan is a bestselling and multi-award-winning author-editor-director with numerous titles in development for film/television adaptation. An award-winning professor, Lindy has published two textbooks on visual data analytics as well as numerous papers and chapters. She also writes seasonal romance as Lindy Miller and is the author of the forthcoming books-to-film Renovate My Heart and The Magic Ingredient. Lindy currently serves as a board member for the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and was named a 2020 Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. She is an active member and staff volunteer for the Horror Writers Association.