Russian author of dystopian horror and apocalyptic fantasy novels Anna Starobinets talks about her terrifyingly successful writing career.
The writing of Anna Starobinets has been compared with that of a host of literary greats, including Edgar Allan Poe and George Orwell. Yet the young Russian author is still only 33.
Her literary career was launched with a horror anthology called An Awkward Age. The title story features a little boy who was so fat and awful that he repulsed even his own mother. She finds a diary in the boy’s handwriting which reveals that a queen ant residing in his mind is laying bare her insidious plan: to capture the boy’s body and then conquer all humanity. The readers are left guessing as to whether the boy will bend to his new nature like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
The horror genre came natuarally to Starobinets. “I didn’t consciously choose horror fiction in the sense that I never sat at my desk musing on which genre to choose for my writing,” she explains. “Horror, mysticism, surreal thrillers and so on just seemed to be a way of packaging thoughts, feelings, sensations, and possibly even fears, that intuitively work for me.”
After An Awkward Age was published, critics labelled Starobinets the Russian Stephen King or Philip K Dick. Despite the flattering comparisons, Starobinets is not totally comfortable with this attempt at pigeon-holing : “I believe no serious writer can ever be defined by the genre he or she technically works in or even by another writer. I’m not Stephen King, Philip K Dick, Gogol or any other writer that I have been compared with.”
Indeed, Starobinets’ horror manifests itself in a variety of forms, way beyond the devices used by Poe, Ray Bradbury or HG Wells. They range from the mystical Asylum 3/9 (based partly on Slavic folklore) to the fantasy novel The First Squad: The Truth, 2010 (named after the Russian-Japanese animation project of the same name) to futuristic dystopia The Living One, which was shortlisted for the National Bestseller Award in literature in 2011.
“The Living One is a pure genre piece, ” says literary critic Lev Danilkin, “a classic anti-utopia, imbued with Zamyatin’s seriousness and Orwell’s acrimony, loaded with the author’s sombre expectations regarding mankind’s future, masterfully conveying a sense of repulsion towards worship of the wisdom of the crowds”.
In some of Starobinets’ stories, horror infiltrates man’s unfathomable irrational depths devouring his consciousness. In The Rules (one of the short stories in An Awkward Age), a silent voice is constantly setting rigid rules for the main character: how to walk, how to arrange things on a shelf, and how to live. Here, Starobinets manages to penetrate an altered consciousness to deliver a compelling account of schizoid behaviour from within.
While such experiments have proved detrimental to the health of some writers, Starobinets has no fears for her own mental state.
She says: “I think a comparison with [Boris and Arkady] Strugatskys’ “zone” [from Roadside Picnic] is appropriate here: a dangerous area filled with strange, unpredictable and evil magical items that you can, nevertheless, sometimes drag out and put to some use – although definitely not for their intended purpose. Inside every person there exists such a zone and some “stalkers” – people of art – venture into it on expeditions. I would not overestimate the danger of such trips.”
As well as English-speaking readers, Bulgarian, Polish, Italian, Swedish and Spanish readers can now shiver at the horrors provided by Anna Starobinets.