Friday, June 26, 2015

Tales of Moonlight and Rain (雨月物語) -- Ugetsu Monogatari -- by Ueda Akinari

Columbia University Press, 2007
235 pp

Anthony Chambers, who is a professor of Japanese literature and literary translation at Arizona State, has brought together these little tales of ghosts, spirits and other things in this slim little volume. The title "alludes to the belief that mysterious beings appear on cloudy, rainy nights and in mornings with the lingering moon," and if you look at the kanji characters, they literally read "rain moon tale."  To me, it's a great book to read on a dark night when all is quiet  -- rain is a definite plus -- and it goes well beyond just the stories.

There are a couple of different ways a reader might approach this book.  Chambers offers information about each story just prior to its beginning, offering information and history on Title, Characters, Places, Time, Background and Affinities.  If you're not at all interested in literary, cultural, political or other areas of Japanese/Chinese history (i.e., the scholarly approach)  you might want to skip directly to the story itself. The downside of that approach is that in footnotes, annotations, etc., there are references to other literary works, so just watch out.  If the reverse is true and you're into discovering the history of these works and their forebears, there are several wonderful little gems of information under each of these headings, very much worth the time it takes to read them. I would skip the intro and return to it after you've read the entire book, but of course, that's my own preference (I do that in every book I read) -- but it is also very interesting in terms of historical background so do not miss it.

As for the stories themselves, there are nine.  I have to say that I've recently discovered Hulu's 900+ collection of Criterion films, and watched one called "Ugetsu."  I fell instantly in love with this movie, so I did a bit of research on it.  It turns out that the movie is a combination of two stories in this book -- "The Reed-Choked House" and "A Serpent's Lust", and I was elated to discover that I actually had this collection in my home library.

Machiko Kyō as Lady Wakasa
[These eyebrows for some reason totally creep out my husband; I'm not sure why]
The story list is as follows:
"The Chrysanthemum Vow"
"The Reed-Choked House"
"The Carp of My Dreams"
"The Owl of the Three Jewels"
"The Kibitsu Cauldron"
"A Serpent's Lust"
"The Blue Hood"
"On Poverty and Wealth"

The collection itself dates back to the 18th century; it is a classic in the world of Japanese literature.  A number of these tales have been borrowed by Ueda from Chinese literature; he changed them to Japanese settings and adapted them to fit into Japanese culture.  Samurai abound, for example; Buddhism and Shinto also play major roles in these tales.  All of these little stories are quite good (with the exception of "On Poverty and Wealth," which I did not particularly care for),  but my favorites were "The Reed-Choked House" and "A Serpent's Lust," followed by "The Kibitsu Cauldron" (the tale of a very faithful wife), "The Chrysanthemum Vow" (two men whose love conquers death) and "The Carp of My Dreams," the greatness of which is in the author's ability to  blur the line between dreams and reality to an extreme.

While not exactly the mainstream fodder of modern readers of supernatural tales, this collection is beyond outstanding. Anyone who is one-hundred percent serious about literary horror/dark fiction should have this book in his or her library; for me it's a beautiful blending of works from two cultures I love and it perfectly suits my need for reading something different every time I pick up a work of dark fiction.  Just so I feel like I'm being honest here, it is not always an easy read -- you have to read, think, and do both slowly.

It is an absolutely stunning collection I can highly, highly recommend.  Even if you want to bypass the scholarly approach, the stories themselves are amazing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

today's double feature: The Moorstone Sickness, by Bernard Taylor and Day of the Arrow, by Philip Lorraine

I'm so behind in posting in this reading journal that it feels as if I'll never catch up. I'm posting on books I read in May -- that's just how far behind I am. On the other hand, I have to remind myself that there's no one sitting here with a gun to my head making me do this, so I shouldn't complain.

I really ought to buy stock in Valancourt Books because since I've discovered them, they've become a regular staple in my horror shelves. Every time the newsletter comes out with new titles, I'm both ecstatic and freaked at the same time -- ecstatic at the thought of another undiscovered author or title, and freaked because I know I'm going to buy them, adding to my already impossible-to-manage tbr pile. But enough of that.  Time to get down to business.

One very big thing that I came to realize after having finished The Moorstone Sickness is just how very
jaded modern horror readers have become.  When I got to the end of the novel, I realized that here is a case where you really have to consider just what it is that constitutes one's personal idea of horror.  If it's blood, guts and gore splattered everywhere you're after, forget it. Not in this novel. If you need every single detail of what's going on explained to you, you won't find that, either.   But if you stop to consider the implications of this story, then it becomes one of the most horrific stories I've ever read.  But to tell is to ruin, so I can't really give away any details.  I will say, though, that the author of this edition's Introduction, Mark Morris, is spot on when he says that
"To maintain the tension it is important that readers care about the fate of the story's potential victims..."
and this is where Taylor's writing really shines.  This is one of those books where the idea of "sinister" creeps up slowly on the reader, since basically you're reading about two people (Rowan and Hal) who find a great house in a small country village, move there, and discover that everything about the place (Moorstone) is pretty much ideal. That's when, I think, I started worrying about this couple -- I mean, if you've read enough horror fiction, you just know that something is off and that things are just too perfect to be of any good to anyone! As it turns out,  I read this in one sitting because despite the slow pace and the neighborly goodwill of Moorstone's residents, I just knew something awful was going to happen and I was right to be concerned.  The Moorstone Sickness is definitely one worth checking out -- I thought about this one for a long, long while after it was all over.


"'s our belief in a thing, mine or yours, which makes that thing -- forever, or for a moment -- divine." 

Moving right along, we come to Philip Loraine's Day of the Arrow, which although written in 1964, still packs a hell of a gut punch that I won't soon forget.  Do yourself a HUGE favor though and read the novel before you watch the 1966 movie that was based on it, "Eye of the Devil." While the movie is very good (especially the creep factor of Sharon Tate's indescribable stare), and would be just super for a Deborah Kerr Halloween night creepfest along with "The Innocents",  it leaves out so much of what makes this book an incredible read.

Very much Gothic in tone with atmosphere that doesn't quit, Day of the Arrow begins when James Lindsay spies his former lover coming out of a Paris where she'd evidently been for a tryst.  That makes him wonder ... after all, he knew she was married to Philipe de Montfaucon for six years.   They eventually meet, and Françoise reveals that for the last three years, something's been a bit off with Philipe. It's not another woman -- it's that Philipe is certain that he is going to die.  Lindsay agrees to come to the Montfaucon country estate, Bellac, to see what he can make of things, and while he's there he uncovers a secret in some old tomes of family history that is rooted in traditions going back before the Christians ever set foot in the place.  Something is very much amiss at Bellac, as James discovers, and to his horror, he also comes to understand that whatever is going to happen cannot and absolutely will not be stopped, no matter how hard he tries.

Day of the Arrow is one of those novels that just gets under your skin from the beginning.  Once the scene moves to Bellac, there is no shaking off the atmosphere that Loraine has so expertly crafted. It is  a horror novel with an intense mystery at its center, it goes deeply back into time, and it's a very hard book to put down once it's opened. And while it may not appeal to gore/splatter/swimming in guts sorts of readers, I'd put this old book up against anything coming out today.  It is, in two words, beyond excellent.  It's another one worthy of absolute shrieks of delight once I turned that final page.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

playing catch up here: Benighted, by J.B. Priestley

 Valancourt Books, 2015
originally published 1927

 152 pp -- paperback

"I've taken this old bag into some damned odd places, but I have a feeling this is going to be about the oddest." 

When I picked up Benighted, by J.B. Priestley, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to read. As it turns out, it is one of the most claustrophobic novels I've ever read.  In a good way, of course.

The back cover blurb says it's a "classic 'old dark house' novel of psychological terror." And indeed, director James Whale in 1932 would adapt Priestley's story and create a movie called "The Old Dark House," which I watched directly after reading this novel. Whale is good at  creepiness and atmosphere, but he also plays parts of his adaptation for laughs, so the movie becomes a very mixed bag, sadly without the whole existential feel created by Priestley. Truth be told, the book is SO much better than the film.

  Indeed, the first several pages into the book,  I was ecstatic to find all of the trappings of the 'old dark house' story: a horrific storm complete with blinding, torrential rain, flooded roads, mudslides and a completely impassable road that brings three people to the literal old dark house. This one happens to be in the Welsh countryside, a perfect setting, a house with some rather strange inhabitants. This wave of ahhhh just settled right over me.

The Wavertons, Margaret and Philip,  along with their friend Penderel, find themselves stuck in their car during this storm on their way to Shrewsbury, and conditions are so bad that they are forced to seek shelter. As Penderel says, they're
"Benighted! -- that's the word..."
When the door is answered in response to his knock, "A huge lump of a man stood there...a shapeless man with a full black beard and matted over a low forehead,"  the travelers' introduction to Morgan, the manservant. On entering the house the three are met by Horace Femm and his sister Rebecca; their elder brother, Sir Roderick Femm, is "confined to his bed,...very old, very weak..."  They are welcome to stay, according to Horace, but Rebecca literally screeches at them that "They can't have beds."  They're not at chez Femm very long before another set of stranded travelers is "benighted;" enter Sir William Porterhouse and his companion, Miss Gladys Du Cane.

The story then changes from what I was expecting and takes much more of an existential turn once all of the travelers are in the house.  Since they're all there for the night at least, they start a game of Truth, which turns their time together into some deep philosophizing as they reveal secrets and stories about their pasts and what they hope for their futures.  There's only one rule to the game, and as Philip notes,
"the very existence of this pastime, with its one rule about answering truthfully, is an awful comment on society."
Indeed, this entire book could be looked at as a comment on society, especially during the postwar period where things are changing very quickly,  and it examines in part, as noted in the introduction, the people who "are clinging to their manners against an uncaring and chaotic universe."

There are some moments of mild terror and creepiness that come into this novel, but if you're expecting Whale's  "The Old Dark House," forget about it.  Much of Benighted had a sort of semi-Gothic, rather than horror-ish feel to it, and it seems to me that if you take the story as a whole, it works very nicely on an allegorical level.  The house, with its locked doors, its secrets,  its creepiness and its strange inhabitants provides a great setting for understanding how some people work up the resolve to confront their fears, while others choose to stay locked away from the rest of the world.

As the introduction to this novel notes, there is a sense of "existential dread" that permeates this entire story. I'll leave it to the reader to discover exactly what this means, but it's not a book that allows you to rest easy while you're reading it. I got so caught up in these lives that I could not put the book down until I saw how everything turned out.  Let me just say that this book has a shocker of an ending, one I never saw coming and one that hit me like a sledgehammer. It's also so dark that when day finally dawned, like the 'benighted' travelers,  I was so very happy to get out of that house and back into the sunlight again.

Awesome job once again, Valancourt!