St. John’s Eve by Nikolai Gogol, 1830
The magic trick:
Incredibly vivid descriptions during the horror passages of the story
I’m not sure most people think Nikolai Gogol when they think Halloween scary storytime, but maybe they should. I challenge anyone to read “St. John’s Eve” and not find themselves at least a little haunted by the imagery in this story when you turn off the lights that night. Essentially, it’s your basic deal-with-the-devil type of story, but, wow, the writing here is the opposite of basic. It’s among the most vivid I’ve ever read. Guaranteed to thrill and chill. And that’s quite a trick on Gogol’s part.
The witch tore the flower from his hand, stooped and muttered over it for a long time, sprinkling it with some kind of water. Sparks flew from her mouth, and foam appeared on her lips.
“Throw it away,” she said, giving it back to Peter.
Peter threw it, but what wonder was this? The flower did not fall straight to the earth, but for a long while twinkled like a fiery ball through the darkness, and swam through the air like a boat. At last it began to sink lower and lower, and fell so far away that the little star, hardly larger than a poppy-seed, was barely visible. “There!” croaked the old woman, in a dull voice: and Basavriuk, giving him a spade, said, “Dig here, Peter: you will find more gold than you or Korzh ever dreamed of.”
Peter spat on his hands, seized the spade, pressed his foot on it, and turned up the earth, a second, a third, a fourth time. The spade clinked against something hard, and would go no further. Then his eyes began to distinguish a small, iron-bound coffer. He tried to seize it; but the chest began to sink into the earth, deeper, farther, and deeper still: whilst behind him he heard a laugh like a serpent’s hiss.
“No, you shall not have the gold until you shed human blood,” said the witch, and she led up to him a child of six, covered with a white sheet, and indicated by a sign that he was to cut off his head.
Peter was stunned. A trifle, indeed, to cut off a man’s, or even an innocent child’s, head for no reason whatever! In wrath he tore off the sheet enveloping the victim’s head, and behold! before him stood Ivas. The poor child crossed his little hands, and hung his head. Peter flew at the witch with the knife like a madman, and was on the point of laying hands on her.
“What did you promise for the girl?” thundered Basavriuk; and like a shot he was on his back. The witch stamped her foot: a blue flame flashed from the earth and illumined all within it. The earth became transparent as if moulded of crystal; and all that was within it became visible, as if in the palm of the hand. Ducats, precious stones in chests and pots, were piled in heaps beneath the very spot they stood on. Peter’s eyes flashed, his mind grew troubled. . . . He grasped the knife like a madman, and the innocent blood spurted into his eyes. Diabolical laughter resounded on all sides. Misshapen monsters flew past him in flocks. The witch, fastening her hands in the headless trunk, like a wolf, drank its blood. His head whirled. Collecting all his strength, he set out to run. Everything grew red before him. The trees seemed steeped in blood, and burned and groaned. The sky glowed and threatened. Burning points, like lightning, flickered before his eyes. Utterly exhausted, he rushed into his miserable hovel and fell to the ground like a log. A death-like sleep overpowered him.
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