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The Hunted and the Haunted in ‘King Stakh’s Wild Hunt’

Deeply baroque and shamelessly foreboding, Uladzimir Karatkevich’s King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a crowning achievement of Belarusian gothic.

Deeply baroque and shamelessly foreboding, Uladzimir Karatkevich’s King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, in the years since its publication, earns its title as the crowning achievement of Belarusian gothic. It’s a simple enough statement, but Karatkevich’s reworking of the Ann Radcliffe blueprint seems to be the very means in which the long-time (and long-passed) struggles of Belarus are deployed on the page with indispensable information. King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is at once a story so contained within its own history, it threatens to alienate any reader outside of its cultural design. And yet, the experiments in narrative fiction and the heightened sense of gothic drama seem perfectly accessible to a Western audience brought up on the brooding belletristic tragedies of Greek myth.

It may be imperative to first bring to light the nature in which such a novel came to existence. Based on an ancient Slavic legend, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is, at heart, an examination on the political struggles taking place between Eastern European and Eurasian countries in the 19th centuries. Every bit a historical text on the uprising of a forgotten people as it is a ghostly horror-romance, Karatkevich’s novel imparts Westerners a strange lesson in spiritual reclamation.

It begins with an ethnographer named Andrey Belaratsky, traveling the countryside of Belarus on an expedition. On a stormy night, his carriage breaks down in the middle of a bog. Forced to take refuge inside a dilapidated castle in the countryside, Belaratsky meets Nadzeya Yanovsky, the young, timid, superstitious matron. Naïve to the outside world, Nadzeya, having lived in seclusion her entire life, believes her castle to be haunted by strange apparitions and creatures.

There’s also the bloody ancestry of her family, which Belaratsky soon learns has been cursed by King Stakh and his once reigning army generations back. Nadzeya’s ancestors had once betrayed the King, delivering him viciously to death. King Stakh and his men, in their demise, vowed revenged upon the Yanovsky’s family line. Their reputed hauntings throughout the centuries, known as the Wild Hunt, has Nedzeya fearing for her life.

Belaratsky, no believer in ghosts, agrees to help the young woman of the castle whom he’s fallen for. But he’s just about to have his rigidly scientific convictions challenged when he comes face to face with some disturbing supernatural occurrences.

Rooted firmly in the gothic tradition of fated love affairs and the evils lodged in familial bloodlines, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is a circumspective narrative of long-standing cultural grudges. In its native land, the novel may be regarded as a somewhat nationalistic reading on the troubles of establishing ethnic and cultural identity. With the story comes an admirable sense of patriotic pride. Karatkevich avoids hero-worship (a most offending trope in the dramatic epic). Rather, he imbues Belaratsky with an objectivity that detaches him from the swelling bravura of swashbuckling designs.

Belaratsky is an atheist, perhaps impartial to the religious ideals that sometimes back a nationalist ideology of the political parties in power. In fact, Belaratsky employs an almost deductive reasoning in his methods of assistance, an understandable approach as he is, after all, a scientist. In this way, Karatkevich views the historical struggles of Belarus not with the impassioned pride of ethnocentricity or the jaundiced eye of a historian, but with the curious and probing tactics employed by those of a mystery novelist.

Outsiders, namely Westerners with little to no knowledge of Belarusian history, may receive the work inversely; its strength, to the those unfamiliar with Slavic political struggles lies, surprisingly, in its very alienation of the Western reader. King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is strangely claustrophobic in its construction of character drama. There are discussions of deep-rooted histories, battles between national and cultural factions that are detailed sensitively. They may mean little or nothing to an outsider of the chronicles of Slavic peoples. But Karatkevich renders the descriptions and conversational entanglements as a poetic quandary; Belaratsky’s discoveries of the supernatural world he has become enmeshed in are dizzying, oppressive exploits which force readers, foreign to an Eastern European consciousness, into an enclosed and disaffected space.

This isn’t intentional, as Karatkevich’s novel had a specific audience, which most likely didn’t include those beyond the Belarusian borders. But it’s a peculiar by-product that gives credence to transformative fiction, one that allows a narrative written with an idea (and ideal) in mind to become something else entirely when introduced to an audience unwitting of its initial thematic deployments. In this way, the novel’s underlying theme of alienation — embodied in the lonely and isolated Nadzeya — is the pulsing heart of the story, which attempts to bring to focus the plights of those living under despotic monarchies.

Elena Dimitrova in Savage Hunt of King Stakh (1980)

Its film adaptation does nothing to remove that sense of cultural alienation. Full of purple emotion and gothic trappings, Valeri Rubinchik’s 1979 rendition hollows out the pained romance of its literary source for pure cinematic horror. Its choppy narrative (due in part to the omission of the novel’s many narrative sequences) relates a similar tale of a young man who happens upon a secluded castle during a rainstorm. Retitled (in English) as The Savage Hunt of King Stakh, Rubinchik mines Karatkevich’s more pointedly melodramatic stretches to create an airless and imposingly gorgeous retelling of the King Stakh legend. As a result, Rubinchik manages, in this respect, a wider accessibility that the original source somewhat lacked. But he excises the urgency (namely the historical plight of the Belarusian people), which drove Karatkevich’s story forward.

In place is an exponentially atmospheric tale of Poe-influenced horror. Beneath its band of Soviet esteem is the bedding of genre-trapping; the common mystery-narrative trope of the red herring here smacks a little of the Scooby-Doo ruse (the unveiling of the supernatural activities squarely shift the story away from its original point of departure as a horror film). Yet there’s still the stunning backdrop of a certain type of costume drama that was surveyed by much of Soviet cinema during its heyday. Antiquated, baroque and belonging to an era now imprinted in the texts of history books, The Savage Hunt of King Stakh makes more of a case for films in the wake of Soviet Thaw (known, as well, as Soviet New Wave).

Divorced from its political contexts, Rubinchik’s film restructures Karatkevich’s hunting grounds of Slavic struggle as a gothic wasteland of former Soviet cinematic glories. Decadent, regal and flushed with the muted, imperial colours that refer to the days of the Cossacks in the Seven Years’ War, the film is at once a curious misstep and a winsome declaration of Belarusian pride, an anomaly within the constructs of genre-specific filmmaking. It is, at the very least, an estimable attempt to establish a most unfamiliar and obscured culture amongst an uninitiated movie-going public.