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The Oceans of Cruelty

The Oceans of Cruelty

Twenty-Five Tales of a Corpse-Spirit

Retold by Douglas J. Penick

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The twenty-five tales included in The Oceans of Cruelty constitute one of the oldest collections of stories in the world, a book that offers both a set of uncanny, unsettling, and unforgettable narratives and a profound meditation on what weird thing it is that drives us to tell and to listen to stories. “Tales of the Vetala” is one of the names under which these stories have made their way from ancient India to the world at large, a Vetala being a corpse-spirit, and the frame story to the collection as a whole tells of a young king who bears the burden of a double spell. He has fallen under the power of a sorcerer, whose demand is that he fetch to him a Vetala to be his servant, and he has fallen under the power of the Vetala itself. Like a bat, the Vetala roosts upside down in the branches of a tree, and night after night the king is driven to take it down and bear it on his back to the burial ground where, once laid to rest, it will fall into the sorcerer's hands.

Night after night, king and spirit make their way from tree to burial ground, and as they do the spirit whispers a riddling story in the king's ear. If the king knows the answer to the riddle, he must tell it; as soon as he tells it, the spirit flies back to the tree. Thus story follows story, the king's labors continue, and neither he nor the spirit finds rest. Only when the king has no idea what the answer to the riddle may be, when he is unable at last to respond to the story at all, will his obligation to the sorcerer be fulfilled and will he be set free, though when that comes to pass—well, that's when the whole story takes a new turn.

Within this framework, The Oceans of Cruelty unfolds a suite of tales of suicidal passion, clever deceit, patriarchal oppression, obligatory self-sacrifice, changing bodies, and narrow escapes from death. Here are all the passions, and here is the play of appearance and desire from which stories are drawn and that make us come back hungry for story, wondering how will the story end and when at last will we be done with all those stories?

Douglas Penick's recreation of this ancient work brings out all its humor and horror and vitality, as well its unmistakeable relevance in a world of stories gone viral.

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681377667
Pages: 184
Publication Date:


The Oceans of Cruelty is a recursive spiral weaving tales from tales, combining ancient strands of horror and beauty, brutality and mercy, duty and desire. Penick's fleet and lyrical retelling draws us back irresistibly into the shimmering abyss of our collective pre-history.
—Daniil Leiderman

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