chinese-ghost-storiesTranslated and adapted a century ago by Lafcadio Hearn (a “thief of myth”), this is a collection of six traditional Chinese folk tales.

In simple, unaffected writing, we are presented with ghosts and spirits that are benign and helpful. These are stories about loyalty: to kin, to the gods, to the Emperor, even to mundane things like one’s craft or profession. Western ghost stories frighten, Eastern ghost stories inspire.

“The Soul of the Great Bell” tells of a mighty bell, commissioned by the Emperor, designed to be so loud that it could be heard 30 miles away. Its construction is plagued with difficulties. Each time it is cast, the metals crack and fissure, and the lips slag and split asunder. With the project failing, and the Emperor’s anger mounting, the chief bellmaker’s daughter Ge-Ai sacrifices herself to the foundry furnace, for only through the flesh of a maiden can the bell be made. It is said that the tolling bell had the sound of Ge-Ai’s voice. People live such short lives, and I wonder if that’s the reason long-lasting things like buildings and bells are sometimes considered halfway-houses to the supernatural.

“The Return of Yan Zhenjing” is a violent, warlike piece, set during the Tang Dynasty. Li Xilie, “a soldier mighty for evil“, is tearing the realm apart, and Supreme Judge Yan Zhenjing is sent to bring the rebel back to the Emperor’s side. Xilie first tries to break Zhenjing (and fails), tries to woo him (and fails), and tries to kill him (and succeeds), but Zhenjing’s defiance and courage sucks the sweetness from the act. War against Xilie is rejoined, but Zhenjing’s ghost finds a way to return to the Emperor. “Son of Heaven, the mission confided to me I have performed; and thy command hath been accomplished to the extent of thy humble servant’s feeble power. But even now must I depart, that I may enter the service of another Master.”

All the stories entertain, but Lafcadio’s most powerful find is “The Tale of the Porcelain God.”

It is superficially similar to “The Soul of the Great Bell”, but with a disturbing and neurotic edge. Master porcelain maker Bu is given the task of creating porcelain with the texture of flesh. His job consumes him to an extent that is terrible to witness even through the pages of a book. He works tirelessly, but failure piles up on failure. Soon, he realises that the ultimate sacrifice may be required, and he makes this sacrifice without a look back. The ending is not triumphant but understated and maybe even a bit mocking, the Emperor’s porcelain does not seem worth the price Bu paid. An afterword by Hearn makes the story even more troubling.

“The Emperors of China are, during their lifetime, the most redoubted of divinities, and they believe that nothing should ever stand in the way of their desires. It is so related that once upon a time a certain Emperor insisted that some porcelains should be made for him according to a model which he gave. It was answered that the thing was simply impossible: but all such remonstrances only served to excite his desire more and more…The officer charged by the demigod to supervise and hasten the work treated the workmen with great harshness. The poor wretches spent all their money, took exceeding pains, and received only blows in return. One of them, in a fit of despair, leaped into the blazing furnace, and was instantly burnt to ashes. But the porcelain that was being baked there at the time came out, they say, perfectly beautiful and to the satisfaction of the Emperor. From that time, the unfortunate workman was regarded as a hero; and his image was made the idol which presides over the manufacture of porcelain.”

This is a powerful and interesting collection. My only comment is that I wish these tales had a Chinese teller. We see them the way the author wants us to see them, and there’s always the question: is this is a story from China…or a story from Lafcadio?

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vacuumhorrorIf you are a weird comic junkie, comic artist Aaron $hunga is your connection. With Vacuum Horror, he has released not just a weird thing, but perhaps THE weird thing. The Ur-Weird Thing.

Vacuum Horror (originally a webcomic, now in print) is a unique tale of the end of the world, with humanity going down in a way so ridiculous that it crosses hemispheres and becomes disturbing again.

The story opens with a news announcement. The President has declared that all laws are repealed; America is now an anarchy. The nation immediately collapses into a shitheap of murder, rape, depredation, and fist-pumping Ayn Rand fans. As Lily and her family stock up on guns to protect themselves from marauders (and each other), a discovery is made: their vacuum cleaner can talk.

Vacuum cleaners are not just handy household cleaning devices: They are a race of super-advanced aliens. For years, they have watched us grow strong…and now, we’re too strong. Soon we will be waging genocidal wars throughout the galaxy. There is only one solution: we must be destroyed. We are the dirt of Planet Earth, and the vacuum cleaners must perform their duty.

Lily’s vacuum cleaner, however, has fallen in love with her, and wishes to save her from her fate. Time is running out. Even now, a giant vacuum cleaner is flying through space, and when it arrives, it will suck up every human on Earth.

This sets off an absurd road trip through a Mad Max-esque version of America, as Lily and her vacuum cleaner attempt to meet the vacuum high command to plead for her life. Aaron wimps out on drawing a human/vacuum cleaner sex scene but there’s lots of other funny and grotesque events in his book.

Aaron’s style is nice and very memorable, reminding of Terry Gilliams, Klasky Csupo, Shintaro Kago, and Superjail. It’s rough and abstract, but pernickety and full of details. He loves symbolism, and is fascinated by things, not as they are, but by what they represent.

As an example, when it is necessary for the President of the United States to appear, it is not Bush/Obama but Abe Lincoln, who, of course, is America’s definitive President. Aaron says he used Lincoln because he’s “a letter in a nationalistic alphabet.” In other words, when you need a president, you use Abe Lincoln.

Very odd and amusing, Vacuum Horror is both a weird piece of art and a cohesive and well-thought out comic. Even though Vacuum Horror’s influences are clear, as a product there’s not much you can compare it to.

The story ends the way all great literature should end: with Lincoln’s decapitated head floating through space. Please acquire Vacuum Horror by any means necessary.

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bob2Poor marksmen have the option of firing lots of bullets and letting probability hit the target for them. This was Clive Barker’s approach in his Books of Blood series, and in volume 2 he scored a massive hit.

“Dread” is Clive Barker’s all-time best anything and one of the scariest horror stories I’ve read so far. A young college student called Steve comes under the aegis of an older man called Quaid, who seems to worship fear as a religion, albeit one that admits no salvation. Quaid is curious about the nature of his god, and wants to use Steve’s brain as a testing ground. The result is a shocking and fascinating story that puts King’s “Apt Pupil” on notice for the most disturbing mentor/student relationship in fiction, despite its short length.

It could have stood to be a bit shorter. The ending of “Dread” disappoints the same way “The Hellbound Heart”‘s did. Clive Barker’s endings are usually too cheap and too camp, and out of phase with the rest of the story. After scenes of powerful existential dread, it’s boring to end with horror movie gore. Welcome to Le Restaurant De Barker, where we serve world-class cordon bleu with pop tarts for dessert.

The other four stories are another day at the office. “Hell’s Event” is about a demon who enters a footrace. Barker does the best he can with an uninspired idea. “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will And Testament” is nice and gory, and evokes more flavours of Stephen King. A woman with psychic powers reshapes her life using the power of her mind, and not in a way endorsed by Oprah or Tony Robbins.

“The Skins of the Fathers” gets silly in places, reminding of Barker’s most annoying creation (Mister B Gone), but keeps lots of action and excitement in the mix and ends up being the most accessible story of the volume. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a stat-flipped “Hell’s Event”, featuring a great idea (C. Auguste Dupin was a real person, Poe’s stories about him weren’t fictional, there’s been a coverup, etc…) but the story is just not that exciting. It seems perpetually ready to kick into high gear…and then you turn the last page and wonder what happened.

The Books of Blood contain about thirty stories in all. None of them reach the high water mark of “Dread” (“How Spoilers Bleed” is close), but there’s a lot of good material spread throughout. But Clive Barker’s inconsistency wears on you. You get good stories, and bad stories. Even worse, you get semi-good stories weighed down by cancerous tumors: poorly-attempted comedy, bad horror movie cliches, incomprehensible “what?” moments that disrupt the atmosphere and jerk you out of story, and stories that seem promising but just can’t get off the runway.

Unreliability is a sin that only artists can get away with this. Imagine being a plumber and only knowing how to replace an S-bend every second day on the job. In a way, the shakiness of the Books is emphasised by their own pull-quote: “Every body is a book of blood; Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” Crazy, world-bending horror, and they’re heralded by that dumb joke we got tired of in middle school.

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