The Pariahs by Erik Hofstatter
Two disfigured siblings are torn from their beds at night by The Government and transported into an isolated stronghold, hidden in the deepest and most hostile parts of Siberia.
Friendships will be formed and loyalties tested as the siblings struggle to locate one another, but tragedy lurks within the stronghold and blood relation does not always mean family.
Last year I read Moribund Tales by Erik Hofstatter, and there were a couple of standout stories in the collection. When the opportunity arose for me to read more of this author’s work, a novella in this case, I was more than happy to do so. I was particularly keen to see how this would compare with his short fiction.
Demyan and his sister, Akilina, have been different since birth. They were born victims of radiation and have had to live with their disfigurements for the whole of their short lives. Without warning, they are taken from their home and placed in a remote facility deep in the heart of Siberia. Their story is split into three separate parts and each part focuses on the perspective of a different character. The first part follows Demyan, the second on Akilina and the final part follows Taisiya, a person they meet while detained. Hofstatter plays around with the timeline in each of the three sections, but there is some overlap. Key scenes are revisited on a couple of occasions showing events play out from a differing perspective.
The Pariahs is that subtlest of things; it’s the horror of suggestion. Hofstatter sets the horrific scene and often lets the reader’s imagination fill in many of the gruesome blanks. There is an underlying sense of tension that pervades the entire novella. The threat of brutality, torture and violence feel like they are always there, bubbling away just under the surface of the narrative. The two children are ripped away from everything they know and forced into their own living hell. Hofstatter explores that primal fear of the unknown. Just imagine being locked up in single room, on your own, never knowing why you’ve been put there. I’m a great believer that the most effective horror tales are those stories that come across as believable and real.
There is also a nice feeling of ambiguity at the core of this novella. There are so many questions that Demyan and Akilina need to try and answer if they are going to survive. Can their new friend Taisiya be trusted? Is she a force for good or is she just playing her own twisted games? Who can the siblings trust? Where is their mother? And can something as fragile as hope really exist in such brutal surroundings? That uncertainty continues throughout the entire plot, right until the story’s end. There are a handful of questions left deliberately unanswered. No doubt some readers may find this a little infuriating, and I’ll even admit part of me wanted to know what happens next, but the rest of me was happy that things played out the way that did. If I’m honest I rather like it when writing makes me feel this way. I take it as a sign that I have connected with the text at some level.
At around only eighty pages this is a short, sharp shock of a tale. If you enjoy your horror fiction in the short form then you could do far worse than picking this up.
The Pariahs is published by the author and is available now.