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A.J. ON TOUR: Slavic Myths & Legends Behind "The Hollow Gods" + Kai's Interview

A guest post by The Hollow Gods author, A.J. Vrana, plus, Betwixt the Sheets' interview with Kai


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People in North America and Western Europe are familiar with Germanic, Nordic, and some

Celtic folklore. So much of what we consider to be fairy tale is rooted in the tradition started by

the Grimm brothers, who we typically think of as the fathers of European folk traditions.

However, the Grimm brothers didn’t develop folklore studies in a vacuum and were in contact

with other folklorists and literary scholars around Europe. In fact, Jacob Grimm got some of his

most influential ideas from Serbian folklorist Vuk Karadzic, who spent his adult life travelling

throughout the Balkans to collect oral folk tales from rural villages. It shouldn’t come as a

surprise that we live in a highly interconnected world, and this has been the case since

globalization began in the 19 th century. In truth, folklorists from around the globe were sharing

and borrowing ideas from one another long before Disney began turning fairy tales into film.

Recently, publishing has seen an explosion of Slavic folklore-based fantasy, including

Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, Emily Duncan’s Something Dark and Holy Trilogy, and

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. However, most of these books focus on Eastern Slavic

folklore—that is, from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Slavs are actually the largest group of

people in Europe who share a common linguistic heritage, and with language comes the

transmission of folklore and cosmological beliefs. However, there are always regional

differences, and the South Slavic world has its own unique folktales—some of which have

spawned some of the world’s most famous fantastical figures.


Did you know the word ‘vampire’ is actually South Slavic (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian,

Montenegrin, and Bulgarian), and that the first historical records of vampires are from Serbia and

Bosnia? The word vampir first spread to the German lexicon, and subsequently other Western


European languages, thanks to reports by Austrian military physicians investigating cases of

vampiricism in Serbia, Bosnia, and Wallachia. The word ‘vampir’ is mostly commonly

associated with the South Slavic tongues and was then passed on to the rest of the Slavic world

and Western Europe. By the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, the vampire had already been

stalking the South Slavic world for centuries, and records from Austrian military physicians date

back to about 1725, over 150 years before Dracula. Unfortunately, Bram Stoker’s mythos is

mostly informed by his own colonial imagination, and not by the actual folklore found in the

Balkans.


But okay, that’s not the only weird folklore from that region. Another that inspired me

personally when writing The Hollow Gods, and even more so its sequel, The Echoed Realm, can

be found in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and some parts of Serbia: the Kukeri dancers. These

shamanistic figures were responsible for chasing away evil spirits with magical bells, and every

year, Bulgaria holds a festival in their honour. The Kukeri dancers dress up in animal fur and

animal-themed masks, dance through the streets, and ring their bells to scare off the bad juju.

Sometimes, seeing is believing, so check out the link here and feast your eyes:

Last but not least, there’s a particular folk tale recorded by Vuk Karadzic that is near and

dear to my heart. The name ‘Vuk’ is actually very popular throughout the South Slavic world,

and its meaning is very simple: wolf. While the wolf has historically been a villain in most

Western folk traditions, the South Slavs revered wolves for their courage, their ferocity, and their

dedication to their kin. This made them a popular totem animal, and at some points in history, it

was illegal to kill wolves. Vuk Karadzic recorded one oral folk tale that went like this:


It was said that when a woman lost her children to stillbirth or miscarriage, it was

because the child’s soul had been taken by witches or evil spirits. To prevent this from

happening again, the woman would name her next unborn child Vuk (aka wolf), because it was

thought that wolves were the only creature witches and evil spirits feared. Believing the unborn

child to be a literal wolf, the menaces would leave the baby unharmed.


For those of you who’ve read The Hollow Gods (or plan on reading it!), this story might

be a useful one to keep in mind! A lot of the book is loosely inspired by South Slavic folklore,

and there are a ton of little Easter eggs for my Slavic readers—names, like Gavran, that mean

“raven,” and blurry boundaries between human/animal and physical/spiritual worlds, harkening

back to these strange tales of creatures that straddle multiple realms.

An Interview With Betwixt the Sheets, originally posted here!



Kai, why don’t you clean your damn cabin?

Are you fucking kidding me? Have you tried keeping a deserted cabin in the ass-crack

of the woods clean? It doesn’t even have all its windows! I’ve got raccoons raiding the

pantry for peanut butter and squirrels shitting on the kitchen table. Besides, have you

looked at any cleaning supplies lately? That chemical shit’s expensive, and I’m going to

need some high-grade bleach to get the bloodstains out.


Do you feel remorse for literally murdering people, because frankly in your shoes, I

would not. And do you ever feel remorse for literally murdering BUNNIES, because

frankly in your shoes, I STILL WOULD.

I couldn’t give less of a diarrheic shit about killing bunnies. Have you seen those fuckers

reproduce? They will literally destroy ecosystems. Consider me nature’s equalizer. As

for the humans…come to think of it—same rules apply.


On the subject of busses—I’ve been told that the reason I hate them so much has to do

with the cleaning solution used on the fabric bits of bus seats. I think this is BS and

busses are actually just evil. What’s your take?

If you think my cabin’s dirty, what do you think they’re trying to cover up on buses with

those cleaning solutions? Those tubular monstrosities with their satanic flatulence and

bug-eyed faces (what the fuck are those headlights?!) can die in a goddamn fire.

There’s no such thing as a smooth bus ride. Every bump in the road feels like a two-by-

four paddling my ass, and my brain feels like a scrambled egg on a hot skillet from the

rumbling and chattering. Being trapped on a moving, closed-off hellscape with no air

circulation and a dozen other mouth-breathers is hard no, thanks. Definitely evil.


What would your DREAM Starbucks order be, if you could have unlimited modifiers and

it was free?

Listen, I’ve never been to a Starbucks. That’s where busy people with money go when

they don’t have the brain cells to function, so they can guzzle black bean juice and

pretend to be sentient again. Do they have whisky? Wait—you said unlimited modifiers,

right? Can I get black bean juice with whisky? Ah, fuck it, just give me the whisky.

…Also, what the fuck is a S’mores Frappuccino? Asking for a friend…


If you were going to get a tattoo, what would it be?

My hunting knife, on the inside of my forearm. That way, every time I punch someone, I

can feel like I’m hitting them with my favourite pointy object.


Who does your haircut, Kai?

Half the assholes in America can’t deal with quarantine hair, but I’ve been in “cabin

quarantine” since I was sixteen. After giving yourself a few bald spots with an electric

shaver (stolen, of course), you get the hang of it. That, or you find a drunk barber at

your nearest dive bar and dare them to give you a haircut after seven shots of tequila.

Results may vary.


Kai, what did trees ever do to you? There’s no need for bodily violence against them.

And please, leave the squirrels alone.

I am literally being stalked by a tree. STALKED. It’s almost like you’re blaming the victim

here. Are you going to ask what I was wearing next? Tell me the trees can’t help

themselves? And fuck the squirrels. Bastards shit on my table all the time.


Workout routine, because damn.

Tip one: Don’t have any money. Anything you want, you gotta fight someone for it.

Tip two: Don’t live in town. That way you gotta walk a long way to get to everyone you

beat up every day.

Tip three: Get really drunk on an empty stomach, then try to find your way home. If any

trees get in your way, crush ‘em with your abs.

Tip four: Get possessed by a malicious spirit. Keeps you on your toes. Nothing firms up

the glutes like a bus barreling at your hallucinating ass at 40 miles an hour.


What’s a physical scar you have with the funniest backstory?

Clipped my ass on a bent nail during a back-alley hookup. 2/10. Would not recommend.


What’s your favourite band?

Something loud and screamy. Think Deftones or Chevelle.


What did you do to get that nasty cut on his hand?

Refer to workout question. I think his name was Fred. Or Jake. No—Clint? Some

dumbass with unimaginative parents.


If my Kai (from Marrow Charm) and you got into a battle royale arena match, what

random item would you turn into an unconventional weapon.

A raccoon. Fuckers know how to scrap, especially when there’s bologna on the line.


Boxers or briefs?

Commando.


If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?

Buses.


Sir, do you think you are more dummy or thicc?

Hey—I’m a complex individual, thanks. I can be equal parts both.


What’s your guilty pleasure? Like, what would you never tell anyone about that brings

you true joy?

Wait—if I wouldn’t tell anyone about it, then by definition I can’t answer this question. I

promise my guilty pleasure is not being covered in hamsters, though. I’m a man of

simple tastes.


What’s your spirit animal?

*squints* Did Cosmopolitan send you?


What’s your ideal date?

Split a bottle of whisky. Use the empty bottle to start a bar brawl. Make out atop the

comatose bodies. Grabs some ice cream after.


What do you hate most about yourself?

You mean besides the demonic possession? I don’t know, I’m a little emotionally

constipated, but I can’t really afford a therapist. Maybe that’s why I keep waking up next

to all those—wait, what are we talking about? Yeah, demonic possession. Next

question.


What is something you appreciate about yourself?

What’s there not to appreciate?


What’s your take on the following examples of Cosmo’s weirdest sex tips?

1."34 percent of guys say they wish a girl would surprise them with oral when they

walk in the door."


You’ve got to be careful, or that door’s going to hit you when I open it. Also,

haven’t we already established my cabin is filthy? You really shouldn’t be on your

knees.


2. "To achieve sex-goddess status, you have to truly master his man bits."


Bits? What happened to the whole package? Did the “goddess” smite it?


3. "Feed each other ice cream [in the dark]. Not being able to see means more

spilling, which means more licking up the mess."


I know I said we’d get ice cream after the bar brawl, but my face has five orifices

and only one is suitable for tongues and ice cream, thanks.


4. "Wear a cinnamony lotion or perfume. The smell of cinnamon buns increases

men's blood flow "down there.'"


For…digestion…right? Look, if the goal is to make me think you’re food, just rub

on some steak juice.


5. "As you're eating dinner together, say something X-rated like, "See how I'm

devouring this piece of meat? That's how I'm going to devour you."


Easy there, Hannibal Lector.


About the Author:

I write fantasy, magical realism, supernatural horror inspired by fable and lore.


While the setting of my work is often modern, I incorporate elements of the surreal, the forgotten, and the fantastical. My work tends towards the gritty and explores that which is hidden beneath the surface. I enjoy playing with time, perception, and imbuing my stories with multiple layers of reality.


A lifelong resident of Toronto, Canada, I am the product of the Yugoslavian diaspora that fled during the country’s violent collapse. Growing up between two cultures has always given me a sense of liminality, of being neither here nor there. This has given me a unique perspective that has served as inspiration in both my professional life and my creative endeavors. I hope to make a meaningful impact on others through storytelling.


I hold a BA in Psychology and a Masters in Humanities from York University. I am currently working on my doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto, exploring the supernatural in modern Japanese and Balkan fiction and its relationship to violence. In January 2019, I also began a Masters degree in Public Health, with the hope of one day influencing policy pertaining to mental healthcare for individuals living with chronic illnesses. In both my research and my creative writing, I have always been captivated by the unseen.


In my spare time, I am an amateur jeweler and a lukewarm gamer. My favourite videogame franchise will always be Zelda, with Majora’s Mask capturing my heart like no other game. I have a soft spot for Capcom’s Okami and the Devil May Cryseries, but I will rabidly defend Ninja Theory’s horrendously underrated DmC: Devil May Cry reboot. I live with my snow-white rescue cat, Moonstone, and deeply miss my Alaskan Malamute, Navi.


Prior to writing The Hollow Gods, I completed several fiction projects that will never see the light of the day. I like to think of them as my teachers; they provided me with the skill, patience, and determination to complete my debut novel, which I am proud to finally present to the world. The Hollow Gods is a creative exploration of my passions and a love letter to the unseen.


Some of my inspirations include Murakami Haruki, Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, Katherine Arden, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Kyōka Izumi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and Andrew Davidson.


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