born in 1977; prose writer, columnist; author of short stories collections Złe Wybrzeża (Bad Coasts, 1999) Szeroki, głęboki, wymalować wszystko (Wide, Deep, Paint Everything, 2002), Wigilijne psy (Christmas Eve Dogs, 2005) and Nadchodzi (It’s Coming, 2010), novels Horror Show (2006), Tracę ciepło (Losing Heat, 2007) and Święty Wrocław (Saint Wrocław, 2009) and the book Prezes i Kreska. Jak koty tłumaczą sobie świat (Prezes and Kreska. How Cats Explain the World to Themselves 2008); together with Jarosław Urbaniak he wrote a two-volume cycle Pies i klecha (The Dog and the Priest, 2007 and 2008).
Łukasz Orbitowski is considered one of the – or even the best – contemporary horror authors in Poland. He developed his own formula of popular fiction, in which typical horror tropes are mixed, in various proportions, with elements of contemporary fiction and thriller. He started with short stories, some of which were included in collections like Szeroki, głęboki, wymalować wszystko, Wigilijne psy. Orbitowski’s early writing’s characteristic feature was a mixture of horror and contemporary fiction. In the short stories, mostly taking place in Krakow, he interestingly weaves together accurate observations about reality (including the socio-economic problems that young people in Poland faced at the beginning of the 21st century) with otherworldly eeriness, the urban life reality with the world of ghouls. In other words: he achieved horror by juxtaposing palpable elements of everyday life with strangeness, the ordinary and familiar – with the odd and inexplicable. With time Orbitowski started writing novels and gradually reinvented his writing formula, even though he did not abandon short stories. In the stories such as Tracę ciepło and Święty Wrocław or in a short stories collection Nadchodzi the writer seems much more occupied with the “twilight zone”, the world of specters and ghouls, mysterious, ancient powers that hides under the lining of reality, influencing the fate of humans. At the same time, in his writing Orbitowski strongly emphasizes ambiguity, ontological uncertainty of “textual worlds”. In many of them it is not absolutely clear if the parades of specters and grotesque, often terrifying creatures appear as a result of the heroes’ mental problems, or if they actually exist on the fringes of human perception. That is the situation in the titular story from Nadchodzi, in which it is never certain if a demonic house, in which a crime has been committed and which literally chases the narrator’s father for decades, really exists, or if it’s a form of trauma internalization through a fantastical story. The writer also adds numerous cultural references, mixing popular culture tropes with traditional references, particularly to Polish Romantic literature, in an interesting way.
2017 – Janusz A. Zajdel Award for the short story Wywiad z Borutą
2016 – „Polityka” Passport for the novel „Inna dusza” (The Other Soul)
[from the novel Worship]
Heniek drove straight from the community garden to Zamkowy Square, to SS Peter and Paul. He found Romek in the parish hall, trying to hook up a video player to the television. Romek was a modern sort of priest. On pilgrimages he played guitar and gave the impression of being happy to talk about any subject. He’d be just as willing to go to a pigsty as to prenuptial lessons. Heniek stopped in the doorway of the parish hall, stammering out ‘Praise be’ a few times. Romek was so absorbed in the battle with the cables and switching channels that he only heard him after a few repetitions. At last, he invited Heniek in and offered him some tea. Heniek greatly respected the priest, but was too proud to ever accept even a glass of water from anyone.
‘I’ve been setting up a VCR,’ Romek told him. ‘I want the young people to come here more often. Do you know how to hook it up? No, I’m sure you don’t. I’ve got a couple movies too. You want to watch something? You sure you won’t have anything to drink?’ He kept on jabbering like that, while Heniek stood there, his ears red as beets.
‘The Blessed Virgin appeared to me,’ Heniek finally declared.
That was enough to get Romek to crawl out from under the table with the TV on it and put the cord down.
‘What are you talking about, Heniek? You mean in a dream?’
‘It happened just now in the community garden. I was tying up my tomatoes, I went back to the shed for some string and Our Lady was already waiting there, on a little cloud.’
‘A little cloud?’ our priest said, making sure. Romek was exactly the type who had to hear everything twice.
‘Yes. And she was incredibly beautiful. She was wearing this light beige dress, a brown robe on top of it, and a crown just like the one in the painting from Licheń. And I also have to add she had this gentle little face and sad eyes. And such delicate hands, I mean, you could tell right away she was a real queen. I thought she seemed so fragile and when I was driving to see you it occurred to me that she lifts up all our sins to God. If I see her again I’ll try to apologise. But what would she get from me apologising?’
‘Well, not that much,’ agreed Romek. ‘This happened here, in our community garden?’
‘Yes! Please father, you have to tell people about this as quickly as possible!’
Romek pulled Heniek toward the door and, if I know him, he glanced once more at the video player and the cassettes in their cardboard boxes.
‘I will, sure, of course I will. These are great things, dear Heniek, the most marvellous things. We’ve got to be careful with things like this, because they’re fragile, delicate. It’s best if we talk tomorrow. Absolutely come see me, even first thing in the morning, but before you do, make sure you get a good night’s sleep. And I’ll think everything through. We’ll make sure it’s done right. Well now, why should it be wrong?’
He closed the door behind him and plunged back among the cables. He plugged a few things in here, fiddled with the remote there, until he finally got it working, the screen turned blue and there, reflected on the screen sure enough, was my Heniek, with his knapsack and hands joined together as if in prayer.
‘I forgot to tell you, Father, that Our Lady healed me. She put her hands on my head and said there was nothing wrong with me. I mean, she didn’t say that, but that’s how I understood her words. “You’re healed,” that’s what I heard. Father, would you come with me to the garden now? Maybe Our Lady will appear there again. She said she would.’
‘What did she say exactly, Heniek?’ asked Romek.
‘Well, that she’d visit again. In a month, I mean, but maybe if you’re there, Father, she’ll come sooner.’
Romek thought for a moment and said:
‘If the Blessed Virgin promised to come in a month, then she probably won’t appear today, especially since she was already here. Why don’t you go, Heniek. We’ll chat tomorrow.’
Excerpt translated by Sean Gasper Bye
How would you encourage foreign readers to reach for your books?
You’ll read about things that will blow your mind. You’ll get to know worlds you didn’t know they existed.
Do you think that there’s something about them that a foreign reader hasn’t had a chance to come across?
It depends on what kind of foreign country it is. Readers from the Czech Republic or Dresden can recognise my world as their own. My novels – in most cases, at least the best-known ones – are set either like Kult (“Cult”) at the end of communism or represent the period of political transformation, i.e. the 1990s, and here we have Tracę ciepło (“Losing Heat”), Inna dusza (“The Other Soul”) and again Cult. These are experiences specific to the countries of our region. A reader from Los Angeles or Rio de Janeiro has no such experience – neither of them have experienced it themselves, nor is there any such thing in the memory of their family. It’s somehow special.
Why are you most interested in this period?
I’ll answer this with a question: Why does it happen to me? I find a subject first, and then follows the period. Cult and the apparitions of Oława are very strongly rooted in their times. A prophet of the kind of Kazimierz Domański vel Henryk Hausner would not function in this way if he had been active a decade earlier or a decade later. For better or worse, he was a child of his time, and that’s how I got it. Speaking of future projects, I can assure you that I am planning to consistently avoid the 1980s and 1990s, because I don’t want to be limited to being a portraitist of one part of history.
I think you’re generally trying to avoid being pigeonholed.
Of course, I was a “horror author”, and I was very happy about it at that time. But note that being a horror author a decade ago had something rebellious in it, it was fierce, brattish, riotous. Horror was something poorly accepted socially. Now it’s changed, because we’re delighted with films like Midsommar or monstrous trash like Get out or Us – they’re terrible films, but people are psyched about them all of a sudden.
What would a literary rebel be writing about today?
I have no idea – I am a full representative of the middle class. At best, I can look at the little brat I was, with a hint of sentiment. At some kind of rebellion that I’ve been involved in. However, if at this moment, I would seek for myself a path of rebellion, it would be terrible opportunism. Much more serious than this place and the attitude I’ve adopted now – because it’s at least honest.
What do you want to give the reader?
Here, we have to go back to the first question. I want to move them, I want them to experience complex emotions, I want the book to live in them long after reading it, I want them to think about it. I would compare it to a song that resonates in your head, that you’re thinking about, and that you’re starting to hum long after it’s been silent.
It is mostly bad songs that drill into one’s head.
Well, you know, maybe my books aren’t that good after all [laughs]. Why don’t we compare this book to a good alcoholic beverage then? You look, you smell, you drink, you discover new layers of taste. First of all, I would like to give the reader a meeting with something they have not yet encountered. With something that is communicative, yet new, at the same time. I am not obsessed with originality at any cost, but I am obsessed with providing the reader with something that is unique. Maybe it’s a better term than the word “original.”
I was very impressed with the empathy with which you approach your characters in Cult. Is this a necessary starting point for a writer?
Oh, no, a writer can hate people. I personally know such writers [laughs]. I read biographies of writers; no one will tell me that Bertold Brecht was a friend of his fellowman. Not at all, a writer can be a psychopath. They can be a monster, because writing comes from different sources, and there is no rule here. I don’t even know if empathy is a value that does the writer good. It did me good, but it wouldn’t necessarily do good for anyone else, because someone else could excuse their protagonists too much or feel sorry for them, and so on. I don’t do that, because I’m a resigned and disappointed empathic man. But my empathy is not based on any kind of manipulation, I am not deceiving myself on the question of rather poor human nature. I didn’t like people very much in the past, because it irritated me that they were stupid and bad. Years later, I learned to think of them with a hint of warmth that they are bad, because they are stupid. I used to laugh very much at the ancient idea that evil comes from ignorance of good – but the longer I live, the more I think there is some wisdom in it. The greatest evil is done by fools.
How do you get the attention of the reader, what is the most important thing for you in your story?
To make it not boring, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lot going on there. There’s not much going on in my last books. We have to give the reader two things: the world that they will want to know and the hero that will show them this world, that is, the man who will wander through the reality that I have to propose. It sounds very simple, but it’s very difficult to render.
You started with horror and genre literature – how did it affect your technique, the way you tell stories?
I think it worked out great, because writing genre literature – not only horror, but also science-fiction, crime stories, maybe romance, but I don’t know anything about it – is a very good school of technique. I learned a lot of things that are probably basic, but people who didn’t go through genre schooling may not come across them or forget about them. It’s as simple as communicating. My books can be wise – I’m not saying they are – it can evoke very complicated emotions, it can make the reader confused, it can turn his psyche inside out, but it can’t be muddled. Even weak genre books aren’t muddled. Next – a simple lesson of entailment. Like with Chekhov’s gun – if I start a thread, I can’t forget about it. If a protagonist shows up, I can’t lose him along the way. Which leads to another important lesson in genre literature, namely that everything is for something. Each character introduced, each event serves something. This can be best noticed in classic crime stories, where something happens, the characters have different adventures, and at the end, Sherlock Holmes or someone like him, in a twenty-page monologue, evokes millions of events that connect together, and allow him to point out who killed. A novel or a story turns out to be a very precise construction. That’s also true of horror – that’s what I’ve learned. Sometimes you write things that are weaker, you don’t always hit the nail on the head, but it’s always about making sure there’s no mess. The point is that chance can be an inspiration, but there is no room for it in the performance.