Friday, March 1, 2019

Kaiki: Uncanny Tales From Japan (ed.) Higashi Masao, Volumes 1, 2, and 3.

Kurodahan Press, 2009
paperback - 271 pp

Back in 2015, I bought the first volume of these three books of kaiki, Tales of Old Edo,  promptly shelved it, and as with so many other books that I own, left it sitting there unread all of this time.   So when I was prowling through my translated fiction shelves a while ago, I'd forgotten I had it, and a) it was like Christmas finding it again, and b) I decided I needed to give it a go.  It didn't take too long to find myself absolutely loving this book, and I hadn't even finished the first one before buying the other two, which did not disappoint.  

The term "kaiki shōsetsu," as explained by the editor in the introduction to this volume is used to describe "uncanny/strange/fantastic fiction," and traces back to the mid-seventeenth century.  Just briefly, because the introduction is quite lengthy (but well worth taking time to read), Masao Higashi reveals that until the second world war, the more familiar term "kaidan" was used to reference "strange tales or ghost stories" that was applied to not just fiction but also folklore and storytelling.  Afterwards, as he writes, new "genre names" began to take hold -- 
"kai'i shōsetsu (tales of the strange,) kyōfu shōsetsu (horror stories), kaiki shōsetsu (uncanny fiction) and gensō to kaiki (the fantastic and the strange) also appeared as its equivalent, and in the mid-eighties, horā (horror) came to represent the entire field." 
[As a brief aside, the little macron over the vowels means that you hold that sound for an extra tick when speaking or reading.]   There's much more to the history of Japanese strange fiction, of course, but for now this tiny little bit should suffice to explain the title.  Just one more thing: one important "characteristic" of kaiki is a "blurring of the boundary between fiction and nonfiction," which among other sources, may have its "foundation" in the "Skin-Thin Falsehood and Truth" theory of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, which said that "art abides in a realm that is neither truth nor fiction."

2011, 286 pp, paperback
Volume one encompasses stories that are set in or are connected in some way to "Old Edo," hence the title and begins with the well-known story "In a Cup of Tea" written by Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo.  Interesting factoid: this story is part of a bookend, because another more modern take (1981) on this tale finishes out the three volumes.   Here there are a mix of old and new with stories ranging from 1776 ("The Chrysanthemum Pledge" by Ueda Akinari -- whose Tales of Moonlight and Rain is a definite must read) to 2005 ("Three Old Tales of Terror" by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko), whose bizarre novel  Summer of the Ubume is also one of my favorites.    Miyabe Miyuki's  delightfully creepy "The Futon Room" makes an appearance, and as another brief aside, I recently read her collection, Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013) which I liked but didn't love.   But by a huge margin, my favorite story in this volume is "The Inō Residence," by Inagaki Taruho (1972),  novella length in size and a tale that takes place over a thirty-day span of time. 

Volume Two takes us into the realm of "Country Delights,"  getting us out of the city and its neighborhoods into more rural and especially more isolated spaces, where anything can and does happen.  Once again, it's the longer story here that I absolutely loved, "Midnight Encounters," by Hirai Tei'ichi , written in 1960  It has all the creepiness of fine gothic blended with slowly-darkening subtle horror and strangeness, and I won't say why but it also reminded me of the legends of Pan in a different form.  There was only one story I didn't really care for, "Reunion," by Takahashi Katsuhiko (1993) because it was just too weird for me, but I can honestly say that this volume was even better than the first.  Another highlight of this book is the story called "Sea Daemons," by Izumi Kyōka (1906), another excellent  mix of horror and gothic that plays out on a cliff overhanging the sea during a raging storm and also offers a huge dose of supernatural terror on the seas.     Now that I'm thinking about these stories again, I can honestly say that with the exception of "Reunion" (which quite a few readers raved about so it's probably me),  I quite enjoyed them all and have nothing negative to say about any of them.

Now to Volume Three, Tales of the Metropolis, where the action moves back into the city streets.   In his introductory chapter, Higashi Masao notes that the stories found here are set in the "Tokyo Megalopolis,"  which sits at the juncture of the North American, Eurasian, Pacific and Phillipine tectonic plates." It is a city that has been through a number of disasters over its four hundred year history,  "earthquakes, fires, and air raids during World War II."  It is a city that has been "reduced to rubble," only to be "reborn like the phoenix," and these catastrophic events, he says, have "influenced the evolution of modern weird tales and ghost stories."  And while this idea comes across clearly in some of these stories, there's much more to be found here.

302 pp

In Yamakawa Masao's "The Talisman" (1960) for example, you clearly sense the existential angst of the young company man who fears that he's lost himself and decides to do something about it, while in "Ghosts of the Metropolis," by Toyoshima Yoshio (1924), the throngs who populate the  crowded city streets  provide the perfect prey for those who came before.  One of my favorite stories in this book was by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, "The Face," which was written in 1918 and contains a certain trope that by now seems sort of old hat especially in Japanese horror, but I do believe this may be the earliest use of it that I'm aware of.  The added bonus to this story, that of the face itself, is delightfully eerie. I had a sense of déjà vu  reading "Doctor Mera's Mysterious Crimes," by Edogawa Rampo (1932), which I swear I've read before but in a more updated and quite possibly in a European setting.  They're all very, very good, and like writers of horror or weird/strange fiction worth their salt, these writers explore anxieties of all types which are writ large here. 

 In Endō Shusaku's terrifying tale "Spider" (1959, Volume 3) the main character feels obligated by his uncle to go to a meeting where a group of people have gathered to tell ghost stories.   He doesn't really want to be there, and he's so bored at one point that inside his head he's thinking
"Country hotel room -- the middle of the night -- the ghost of an old woman who'd hanged herself in the same room appears.  Heard it before."
That is definitely not the case across these three lovely volumes of kaiki.  There is so much variety here of the highest quality, and the editor has done a great job creating frameworks that help to put these stories into appropriate context as well as providing a detailed history of kaiki and other forms of strange fiction throughout Japan's literary and storytelling tradition.   I will say that if you go into these books solely with the expectations of a good scare, you might want to think again.  Many of these tales are open ended and demand participation and thought from the reader, so it is by no means an average horror collection.  At the same time, these books both individually and taken together will provide hours and hours of entertainment for the interested reader who wants something altogether different from same old same old.  

I leave you with a photo from Tales of Old Edo, page 23, showing pages from the 1809 edition of The Image of Asama Ravine by Ryūtei Tanahiko.  Seriously, someone needs to translate more of these works of kaiki and bring them to English-speaking readers to be savored and loved. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

taking a walk down Obscurity Lane: Leslie's Fate; and Hilda, or the Ghost of Erminstein, by Andrew Haggard

asin: M0D1002837898
British Library Historical Collection, 2010
originally published 1892
212 pp


This book comes just after three darker ones in a row, so it's labeled "fluff" in my head.  First was the book by Zelenyj  I talked about in my previous post here, followed by Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, both of which seriously messed with my head.  I decided I needed something on the lighter side before embarking on my next novel, presumably another head messer-upper, Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State, and voilà, here we are. 

I first read about this book in L.W. Currey's catalogue one morning, something I do now and then which I probably shouldn't since it tends to make me want to find reprints of these old tomes, which adds to the already groaning bookshelves and my husband's serious eyerolls when new books arrive at my doorstep.  He's already convinced that when the Library of Congress needs a copy of a book they'll phone here, but that's another story for later.

from LW Currey, original 1892 edition

Anyway, for fluff reading you can't beat this little volume of two short novels in one.    Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Haggard was not as well known as his brother Sir Henry Rider Haggard, and as a writer at Fine Books Magazine reveals,
"The larger part of Haggard's canon of work comprised French histories, poetry, historical fiction, and roving accounts of his military exploits and sporting excursions."
 Leslie's Fate doesn't really fall into any of these categories; for that matter, neither does  Hilda (subtitled "the Ghost of Ermenstein)."   The first of these two tales is set in the Scottish Highlands, where the Lord of Dumbarton and Duncaid falls victim to his family's curse.  It seems that anyone born in the the north wing of Castle Duncaid will
"not only have the power to view beings from another world, but be absolutely unable to avoid doing so from time to time; and no matter how painful or awful such manifestations of the hidden world might be to a sensitive mind, they will have to be endured." 
Naturally, the pregnant women of the castle have taken great pains to avoid the North Wing, but Charles Leslie's mother was looking for something there, "tripped and fell," and before she could be moved  elsewhere, went into labor, bringing young Charles into the world right then and there.  The ghosts young Charles saw as a boy were ancestral and meant no physical harm; they gave what Charles refers to as  "ghostly performances" where they were
"cutting each other's throats, or throwing each other out of the window, down the cliff, into the rushing Arrow."
Sometimes the "performances" varied and the ghosts took turns putting each other on the rack, but young Charles took it all in stride and actually took a weird sort of pride in the fact that "no one but a Leslie was ever thus honoured."   But it's not these "beings from another world" that Charles needs to worry about, as he discovers on a hike while looking for the source of a "considerable affluent" of the River Arrow, and wanders on into an area known as the Fairy Burn,  which has the reputation of being "bewitched."  However, despite the name of the place,  it's not fairies on the program for our young Lord, but something completely unexpected; all I'll say is that if ever a promise made in the past had consequences for the future, it's the one Leslie makes during his strange encounter.   Truth be told, this is one of the silliest and most bizarre tales I've ever had the pleasure to have read, but as I said, I was looking for fluff so in that sense it worked.  [If anyone else ever reads this story, was it me, or was the timeline way off here?]  The seriously pulpy vibe in this one, along with spectral encounters made it fun, and it also set off a few rounds of the giggles here and there.

from page 141, original illustration by Evelyn Stuart Hardy (my photo)

Even more spectral (and not as silly as Leslie's Fate) is Hilda; or, the Ghost of Ermenstein, which takes place in an ancient castle in the forests of Hungary.   After reading about the location, my ahhh reading sensors were put on alert, but really, outside of a wolf pack which one sort of associates with that area, it might have taken place anywhere.  "Hilda" is the story of a love triangle -- two women who love the same man -- gone very, very wrong.   The Schloss Ermenstein in 1876 is the setting for this one, the abode of the Graf von Ermenstein, whose niece, Hilda von Schrieden, is making her first visit as this story opens.  At age nineteen, she is "everybody's pet," the total opposite of her cousin Frederica von Ermenstein, another niece of the Graf.  Frederica loves "admiration," is a bit jealous of Hilda, and the man they both love is Louis de Fontach, a lieutenant in the Austrian Hussars and "protégé" of the Graf, who is also at the castle.  Louis, however, only has eyes for Hilda.  Left alone one day, while the rest of the inhabitants are all out, Hilda decides to go and do some exploring in the castle, which leads her to a particular gallery which she'd seen but had never really got a look at,  one that the old housekeeper  had only quickly led her through but had never stopped at, saying there were "better things" just beyond this gallery.  While exploring the tapestries there, Hilda sees one that catches her eye because it was something altogether different than the others on either side.  Those depicted "gloomy battle scenes" but this one was striking;
"It was a representation of the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mother kneeling at the foot of the cross. Everything was carefully depicted, even to the blood gushing from the wound of the Saviour's side."
Curious now, she moves the tapestry only to find a locked door, but events make her forget the gallery until much later, when she mentions her find to Frederica, who reveals that the tapestry is located in the "ghost gallery," somewhere Hilda should completely avoid.  That warning, plus that of the old housekeeper only furthers her curiosity, and she goes back, Louis in tow,  which sets off a chain of unforeseen tragic events having to do with (dare I say it?) a family curse.

It's not great by any stretch, but this book is  a fun little volume for whiling away a few hours, if family curses  are your thing, since this is pretty much what ties together these two tales outside of the ghostly visitations.  While Leslie's Fate is certainly a bit giggleworthy at times because it is soooo out there (L.W. Currey's catalogue refers to it as a "mass of absurdities," a description with which I concur),  and Hilda is at its heart a tale of tragic tale of romance, both should be read by true-blue, Victorian ghost-story aficionados who might wonder what else is out there.    I didn't love it, but then again, I'm happy I read it because I  had a good time with it.  Sometimes that's all I really want from a book, especially when I'm on brain detox.  And then, of course, there's the obscurity factor, which in and of itself also brought joy.

Read at your own risk, really, but as I said, if you're a diehard fan of ghost stories, you won't want to miss it.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

this man well and truly gets it: Blacker Against the Deep Dark, by Alexander Zelenyj

Eibonvale Press, 2019
375 pp


"It was the world that got inside me. I want to be cured of the world."   

Reading the work of Alexander Zelenyj is not only a personal pleasure, but it is an experience never to be forgotten.  While immersed in this author's newest book, Blacker Against the Deep Dark, as was the case with his previous collections, Experiments at 3 Billion A.M.  and Songs for the Lost,  time collapsed and the outer world just melted away.   Like the "indelible mark upon the future" left by "the horrors of the past" in the title story of this collection (as noted by Trevor Denyer in the introduction to this book),  Blacker Against the Deep Dark leaves an "indelible mark" on the souls of its readers, one that never goes away long after the last page is turned and the book goes back on its shelf.  This man well and truly gets it.  

The blurb offers the barest of clues as to what will be found here,
"From a man having a conversation with the shadow of a human being blasted into a wall by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, to a pastor giving shelter to the most bizarre individual to ever walk the Earth; from a secret group at war with the physical manifestations of disease that have run rampant for ages, to a pair of detectives trying to solve the mystery of a deadly otherworldly drug that legend says holds the power to open the gates to Paradise. These, and other dark and weird tales..." 
 but at the same time, it doesn't tell you that once you start reading you are undeniably in the hands of a master of his craft. These stories are dark indeed, weird yes, but at the same they are  beautiful, raw, and overwhelmingly powerful; they also hit the deepest (and sometimes bottomless) depths of unsettling, as they should.   There's a method to this author's madness here, as the stories reflect a particular theme that continues throughout the course of this book which I'll leave for others to discover, just briefly hinting at it in the quotation from one of the ultimate best stories in this book, "Journey to the End of a Burning Girl," with which I opened this post.

from the cover

Speaking of the stories in this book, I won't go into any of them, but they all take place in worlds not unlike our own, in which people live with loneliness and isolation, pain, depravity, gut-punching cruelty that takes many of them to the outer boundaries of extreme, some looking for cures and others looking for their own means of escape. It is a book that drives you into the darkest zones of humanity, but at the same time, the author recognizes that there is good in people, leaving just the tiniest opening of hope that all may not be lost.

Another highly, highly, highly recommended book that should be on the shelves of anyone who reads modern dark fiction/weird/strange tales; it's also a lesson for aspiring writers as to how it should be done.  I seriously don't know what can possibly top this book over the next eleven months.
Anyone who has read Mr. Zelenyj's previous books will find much that is familiar here, but in Blacker Against the Deep Dark, he takes contemporary concerns, anxieties and worldly ills to their absolute edge, and then goes even further.  I'm not a reviewer by any stretch, so in real-world reader speak, I'll end here by saying that  it's a thought-provoking, tough book to read on an emotional level at times (and I admit that the tears flowed more than once), but Jesus H., it's damn good.

 Then again, I knew it would be. 

My many, many thanks to Alice at Eibonvale, for reasons only she knows. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Exemplary Departures, by Gabrielle Wittkop, to close out 2018

Wakefield Press, 2015
originally published 1995
translated by Annette David
157 pp

paperback, read in December.

In the translator's postscript, Annette David says of this book that here
"we have at least five spectacular -- contingent or planned -- ways to make one's exit from the world of the living."  
It sounds bizarre to say this, but Exemplary Departures, even with its focus on death, is a beautiful book, one that should not be missed by readers of dark fiction, especially in the macabre zone,  who appreciate superb writing.  Wittkop, again quoting from the translator, was
"drawn to the realm of a decadent romantisme noir of previous centuries, and to writers of a scandalous reputation," 
including Poe, de Sade, Lautréamont, Mandiargues and Huysmans.  The back-cover blurb also reveals that she
 "spins these tales with her trademark macabre elegance and chilling humor, maneuvering in an uncertain space between dark Romanticism, Gothic Expressionism, and Sadistic cruelty." 
While most of these stories carry a streak of cruelty, there is a touch of dark humor to be found in them, as well as a sadness that permeates each one to the point where it's difficult not to engage in a certain amount of empathy for her subjects, four of which were real people who met with strange, untimely ends.  One of these, while never named, will be clearly and instantly recognizable once the story starts and the literary and biographical references start flying. I won't spoil it for you, but it is one of the best stories in this book although I truly enjoyed them all.

Five "exemplary departures" are found here, and so as not to spoil things and leave the pleasure of discovery to other readers, I won't say too much about them.  First up is "Mr. T's Last Secrets," based on the real-life Jim Thompson (not the author), once known as "the most famous American in Asia,"
"ex-architect, retired army officer, one-time spy, designer, silk merchant, and renowned collector of antiques"
also known as the "Thai Silk King," who simply vanished in 1967, leaving behind "his cigarettes and above all his pillbox..."   In the search for Thompson,  "soothsayers, clairvoyants, bomohs, Buddist Ascetics, sorcerers, and charlatans" all had an opinion as to where he might be, but I will say that none of them could have ever guessed what had happened to him in Wittkop's reimagining of his disappearance.   A much more stunning story is told in "Idalia on the Tower," set in the Rhineland of Germany in 1851.   I knew this one was going to be great right away since it started with an old legend involving an invocation made by Scots "when caught up in a catastrophe," before proceeding to whet the appetite with a hint of the
"catastrophic situation that  that Miss Idalia Dubb at the age of seventeen finds herself in, her agony and her death, would also be self-provoked, by her little foot in its fine ankle boot as well as by tacit betrayal."
"Idalia on the Tower" is just sheer writing excellence, in my humble opinion.  It also led me to buy another book, which purports to be based on the diaries left behind by the real life Idilia (not a typo) supposedly cobbled together while she awaited her fate: The Diary of Miss Idilia by Genevieve Hill, one of the real Idalia/Idilia's best friends.    Next comes "Baltimore Nights," concerning the unnamed main character of this tale.  Not only is it another piece of outstanding writing,  but Wittkop prolongs this person's suffering as she reveals his slide into complete, utter, hallucinatory madness.  Oh my god. It's like I wanted it to stop but couldn't help but turn the pages.

the author, from Alchetron

A bit of a reader jolt occurs  in the next story as we're taken from nineteenth-century Baltimore to a modern-day New York City in "The Descent."  The title is sort of a double entendre, although I won't explain why here.  Knowing that four of these tales were based on real-life people, prior to reading this story I spent way too much time online looking for the name Seymour M. Kenneth; it was only after I'd finished the book and read the translator's postscript that I discovered the following:
"Whether there is a precise actual basis to this story remains obscure. One can only guess that Wittkop perhaps came upon Seymour Kenneth's name on some missing persons list."
What a great idea (if true) to go along with a truly great story  This may just be the most cruel story in the entire collection, another one where when you think it can't possibly get any worse it actually does.  If you've read Hoffman, you'll catch the reference here, as Seymour makes his way from a "distraught" mama's boy to willing partner (read slave) of a woman, Emily,  he refers to as "Mammily," to a place where
"eternal Mothers who rumble in the lava, of jealous fairies who, like the one in Falun, live at the bottom of mines."
The cruelty at the heart of this story is just heartbreaking, but it exemplifies that old cliché about knowing you're about to witness a trainwreck but you can't look away.  I actually had to put the book down at this point because I was afraid of what Wittkop would next pull out of her hat, although  the fnal story, "Claude and Hippolyte or The Inadmissible Tale of the Turquoise Fire," while strange (in a good way) was not thankfully nearly as gut wrenching.  The Countess Marguerite de Saint-Effory gives birth to twins in 1724, of whom
"No single sex dominated the other and herein resided the unique phenomenon of this perfect completeness, the one that according to Gnostic legends and the science of alchemy represents the hermaphrodite."
She revels in the fact that they are "freaks of nature," filling her with a "pride she was at pains to keep secret."  Inseparable, with a life that might have been envied by other children at the time,
"Handsome in the way of statues, the twins would nevertheless rejoin the dark subterreanean world of roots and blind larvae in the alluvial soil"
 with their journey to their departure the subject of this tale.

The literary references at work here range from Goethe to Hoffman to Poe to Kubin (and much more) on down to Somerset Maugham, so as you might imagine, there is great depth in Wittkop's writing.  Exemplary Departures  not only encompasses a macabre, often surrealistic look at death but also offers a look at human minds spiraling down into the darkest depths possible.  This is my first book by this author, but I have two others on the shelf,  The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene, that I'm now eagerly looking forward to reading.   If it's excellence in writing you're looking for, you will most certainly find it here.

so very highly recommended that it's not even on the scale of highly recommended.