by Cecilia Ekbäck
I heard of the novel Wolf Winter when I was looking for inspiration for a campaign of the Swedish horror RPG, Vaesen. I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of Swedish suspense and horror fiction, albeit in English translations.
Wolf Winter takes place in Sweden in 1717, in a region known as Lapland, spanning parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Sweden is busy with internal nation-building and provides strong incentives for people to colonize the Lapland (land already used by the Sami people, referred to as Lapps in the novel).
The primary viewpoint characters hail from Finland, a family fleeing from their past lives—a trait they share with many of the characters in the novel. The father, Paavo, had been a fisherman in Finland. Many in Paavo’s family were “prone to fear,” and Paavo came to be terrified of boats and water. His relationship with his wife, Maija, is strained as a result. Maija is an earth-woman—a midwife who was primarily raised by her grandmother. Often both women were considered to have dealings with the supernatural as a result. As the novel begins, Paavo has traded his boat to his uncle; in return, he takes his uncle’s homestead in Lapland, near a small settlement at the foot of Blackåsen Mountain. They travel with their two daughters, Frederika, 14, and Dorotea, 6.
The priest of the settlement, Olaus Arosander, had been part of the king’s retinue but has fallen out of favor, much to his chagrin, for reasons he does not understand. This is an era where the clergy have great power over the people—they can mete out temporal punishments and pass judgment on how well children learn their catechisms.
The two girls almost immediately find a dead body – a settler who has apparently been murdered. This introduces the plot thread carried throughout the novel—who killed the settler and why, which leads to her meeting many of the other settlers and native Lapps. We come to learn everyone is fleeing from something—painful pasts, crimes they’ve committed, old shames, rumors of witchcraft, and the like.
While the novel features several characters, perhaps the most crucial character is the land itself. Maija and her family arrive during the spring, a time when they must prepare for the brutal winter. Early in the novel, we glimpse just how severe the winters can be, meeting characters maimed from past winters. Paavo is absent for much of the story as it becomes apparent he will need to leave the settlement to find outside work during the winter. Maija and their daughters face the winter themselves, suffering greatly as the seemingly never-ending winter progresses.
Blackåsen Mountain felt very real. I felt the challenges of the strange seasons—sunlit summer nights and winter days of darkness. Swarms of insects in the summer, the risk of starvation, and frostbite in the winter. The horror of an early frost ruining the harvest.
Underneath all of this is a supernatural element. Fredrika is haunted by a literal ghost—while other characters insist on rejecting the supernatural. Fredrika herself has to decide if she will embrace the magical world she has been discovering, despite the warnings of others who have experienced it.
However, as frightening as the supernatural aspects can get, there are plenty of instances of the regular cruelty humans can inflict upon fellow humans (and it is important to warn that while not explicitly depicted, there is the suggestion of sexual assault on minors).
How did it work as an inspiration for Vaesen? Reasonably well. It is set a good 150 years before Vaesen, but it provides excellent inspirations for a region of Sweden in an era I was unfamiliar with. It also provides insight and inspiration for the dangers of life on the frontier, whether on our own Earth, on a fantasy world, or a planet light-years away.
The writing style was both engaging and haunting. I felt the challenges regular people dealt with when faced with the supernatural—or trying to find other explanations for events they cannot understand.
~ Daniel Stack
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