How David Demchuk's horror novel The Bone Mother taps into our fears and superstitions

David Demchuk on his horror novel The Bone Mother, a book of interconnected stories where myth and reality intersect.
David Demchuk's horror novel was on the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. (David Demchuk)

It's only his first novel, but right out of the gate it made the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. David Demchuk's The Bone Mother is also the first horror novel to ever appear on the Giller longlist. Demchuk has created a collection of inter-connected supernatural stories set mostly in small villages in the Ukrainian-Romanian border in the time of industrialization.

The stories read like old folk tales, even the ones in the present. There are monsters, mysterious night police and the bone mother herself, a withered crone with iron teeth, but perhaps most frightening of all is how Demchuk makes us consider the monster in all of us.

Cautionary fairy tales

"I've always been a horror fan from my earliest youth and of course horror and fairy tales have an enormous overlap. Horror tales tend to be cautionary in nature. They tend to steer you toward the proper path and warn you of the dangers alongside. And I think they're really interesting outlets, both fairy tales and ultimately horror tales, for us to confront the darkness within ourselves — the fears, and anxieties that we have about the world around us in the present and also those classic timeless fears." 

Old world inspiration

"I tried to create in my mind a sort of a magical place where the rules could be transgressed without too much interaction with a larger world. I wanted that to be sort of the fertile ground for for an exploration of magical creatures and their relationships, good and bad with human beings. I wrote each of the stories prompted by photographs and so I saw this photograph of these two men sitting very sternly, holding these flowers between them. And I thought 'Wouldn't it be amazing if it was a couple? Wouldn't it be amazing if in the 1930s you had these two men who had been married?' And then from there I sort of extrapolated to well why and how that would happen." 

The value of superstition

"I think that they give people a feeling that there are there are rules in the world that if you obey them all will go well, that there is a kind of an order even if it's not immediately discernible. Some superstitions I think probably have a certain root in truth, at least when they first developed. There are lots of good reasons not to eat fallen apples, there are lots of good reasons not to do a whole bunch of stuff. But for most of us now with science and technology having replaced those superstitions, perhaps they've created superstitions of their own. I think that we value those things even if they're arbitrary, even if they're mysterious to us. It's almost like we need something that will work in a world where things don't necessarily work in our advantage all the time." 

David Demchuk's comments have been edited and condensed.