cover image The Oceans of Cruelty

The Oceans of Cruelty

Douglas J. Penick. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-68137-766-7

Penick (Journey of the North Star) offers an elegant retelling of the Vetala Panchavimshati, or 25 tales of betrayal, an eerie 11th-century Sanskrit collection. The stories feature brutal King Vikramaditya and a demon spirit known as a vetala, whom Penick calls Corpse-Spirit. Like Scheherazade, the corpse-spirit ensnares the king with his stories, which he relates in a whisper and which have the flavor of fairy tales seasoned with horror. Most involve kings, who come across as thinly veiled cautionary examples for Vikramaditya to follow. In “Wise Birds,” kindly King Rupasena walls in his city only to find that doing so doesn’t protect him from thieves. In “Transposed Heads,” King Dharmasila’s plan for securing an heir takes a tragic turn. In “Beauty,” the lovely Unmadini fulfills her spousal duty by walking into a burning pyre after her husband betrays her king. An extra layer of creepiness is provided by the story’s setting, a dark forest haunted by unsettling sounds and fierce winds. Penick’s introduction illuminates the collection’s history and his creative process for the project, which he likens to “painting a mural, moving from large underpainted volumes to ever smaller details.” The highlight is the memorable corpse-spirit, which materializes at will like a nightmare to bedevil the king. This is worth seeking out. (Sept.)