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The Heirloom or Zhai bian (2005)

The Heirloom or Zhai bian has one simple but elegant idea I can’t off-hand remember encountering before in a supernatural horror film. Allowing for my advancing years, this makes the film slightly more interesting. The rest of the film is relatively prosaic and, at times, a little obscure but, on balance, just about worth watching if you’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Let’s start with a little background about Taiwanese superstitions. Over the generations, a family may make agreements with ghosts (or spirits of ancestors, if you prefer). This particular version is called hsiao guei. In return for a sacrifice of some kind, the supernatural force delivers wealth, status and everything else an upwardly mobile family could desire including losses by those opposing the family. These faustian arrangements tend to work well for many years but, if anything should go wrong, the consequences can be terrible. Welcome to the world of the haunted house with fringe benefits.

Jason Chang

 

A part of the problem for films of this type is the need to provide a house that looks inherently threatening — for those directors who want to cheat, you can play against expectations and have a modern, well-decorated home. In this case, we have a house of size, apparently built during the Japanese occupation and now showing its age with peeling paint. Good to see the electricity still working. Anyway, with little or no reconstruction work, our happy couple move some furniture in and then all we have are a repeated set of camera angles of long, wide corridors upstairs and quite homey spaces downstairs. It just looks a little rundown and tired. It says a great deal about Taiwanese culture that such a large building can stand unoccupied for twenty years and not have any broken windows or squatters (other than the supernatural type, of course).

 

So James (Jason Chang) gets news while in England that he has inherited the family home. This apparently comes as a surprise. He claims not to have realised there was a family home to inherit. So, when he returns to Taiwan, he’s playing the innocent and, after some discussion, he invites a girl, Yo (Terri Kwan) whom he has been distantly courting for some time, to move into this house. This is all really weird (in the non-threatening sense of the word). She’s famous in modern dance and already has a ticket to fly off the island, but unexpectedly turns up at the house with her luggage and announces she doesn’t need a lift to the airport (big hint there). I hope she got a full refund on the ticket.

 

They have two friends, Ah-Tseng (Tender Huang) and Yi-Chen (Yu-chen Chang) who encourage the relationship, but have reservations about the house. As a journalist, Yi-Chen is interested in an upstairs room that the family apparently used for praying to their ancestors. She takes photographs and researches the history of the house. Curiously, she then finds herself waking up inside the house. It doesn’t seem to matter where she is when she falls asleep. It’s a “beam-me-up, Scotty” moment of relocation. Ah-Tseng sets the theme of hanging signalled in the film’s poster. While visiting another city, he’s having a bath in his hotel room when he finds himself suddenly elevated into the air without any apparent support. This is baffling to the police who cannot find a rope nor explain how he could have hung himself. An inspector therefore comes to discuss the death with James and Yo, suggesting a full-scale murder investigation is in progress.

Intrepid journalist (Yu-chen Chang) shows research skills to Terri Kwan

 

At this point, the relocation mechanisms becomes more clear. It seems that at midnight, the house can reach out to others who are connected to it or family members. These people can go to sleep and then wake inside the house. When this physically moves the police inspector, the next night he tries an experiment and handcuffs himself to his bed. Unfortunately, the force with which he’s transported rips off his hands and he bleeds to death on the ground floor of the house. After that, everyone accepts weird shit is going on but, despite the police surveillance equipment misbehaving every time James walks past, no-one takes serious action. Just imagine the likely reaction from the police in the West. One of their finest leaves hands and cuffs in his bedroom at home, and turns up dead in what everyone says is a haunted house miles away. Health and safety people from the government would close the house, CSI would be on the job, the couple would be arrested and thrown in jail, and the news media would park television cameras all round to catch the return of the couple from prison cells the next time the clocks strike midnight. I’m entertained by this idea and wish the script by Dorian Li, had explored it more effectively. As it is, we simply see the phenomenon several times and then the director, Leste Chen, moves on as, first Yi-Chen excavates old newspaper articles out of the archives, and then an unsuspected aunt of James is discovered in a mental institution. This old biddy is remarkably lucid and fills in the gaps in the ponderous backstory. Now we’re into the final reel which I understand, but think is a little weak. In any event, for it to work, there should be a formal marriage between James and Yo. Otherwise, without a will, Yo presumably could not inherit the house.

 

This all means The Heirloom or Zhai bian starts quite well but then runs out of steam as the script refuses to develop with any shred of credibility. This is a tragic failure. There was a wonderful story waiting to be told as the police and modern science grapple with an ancient superstition about bottled foetuses. With the couple just being left to fend for themselves, the director is allowing the idea of the house to exclude the real world’s natural reaction and producing an obviously silly ending as the indifferent police have no interest in probing who might be responsible the final deaths.

 

Sleight of Hand by Peter S Beagle

Sleight of Hand, another excellent collection from Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon Publications, 2011) sees us enter the world of love — not as portrayed on the pages of romantic fiction, you understand, for that would be a big turn-off for many readers. Without wanting to get into gender politics, the macho culture denies interest in the emotional side of the world, referring contemptuously to sentimentality in the more mawkish sense of the word. Even holding such a book in their hands has a tendency to make them feel nauseous. Allowing for this, Sleight of Hand is a book to help even the most prejudiced readers overcome their antipathies, being sincere in its desire to deal with every possible shade of love you could imagine, and then a few that never occurred to you. Here fantasy meets supernatural as gods debate with their children how many shades of love there are.

We start with “The Rock in the Park”, a pseudo-autobiographical story from Beagle’s youth, telling how he and a friend rescued three centaurs who had lost their way and ended up in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. Magic is magic whether you tell it as fiction or truth.

“Sleight of Hand” (first appearing in Eclipse Three) is a story of love. What would we give up for the ones we love? Assuming it to be true love, of course? There’s no knowing how deeply selfishness may penetrate even the most apparently loving person until we are tested. Death tests us. When someone we love is taken from us in an accident. . . At first comes the grief. Later, if we are lucky, acceptance follows. But there may come a moment when a choice could be offered. It would appear like magic, like one of those tricks we call sleight of hand. Suppose we could take the place of the one who died. . . Would we? Could we?

“Children of the Shark God” is also a story of love, this time between an absent father and his family. Some men are faithful. They put down roots and stay with the women they love, take pride in the children as they grow. Others never want the commitment. They love in the abstract, afraid that, if they care too much, they will be hurt when their wives die before them. And the children? Well, in a way, watching them die would be worse than watching the wives die. Once they have invested the time and effort in watching these insensible lumps of flesh grow into images of themselves, it’s too late to stop caring what happens to them.

“The Best Worst Monster” takes a Frankenstein theme to heart, wondering whether the monster you create comes with a soul. What is a soul anyway? Perhaps it’s only a sense of what’s right and wrong. Perhaps it’s only a guilty conscience when you do wrong. Perhaps it’s the love and friendship you find in other people. Such are the things monsters are thinking about when they walk about the town.

Peter S Beagle demonstrates the idea of a fantasy forest

“What Tune the Enchantress Plays” takes us back to the Innkeeper’s World, this time considering the price to be paid for following your heart when it comes to love. In many civilisations, marriages are arranged to hold wealth in a family or transmit a status to the children. Some children are brought up to be submissive, to follow in the tradition handed down from one generation to the next. Other children rebel, innocently at first, not realising how much they are stepping outside the boxes their parents have constructed for them. But once they face the reality of the opposition and the extent of the manipulations some families will engage in to prevent a marriage deemed unsuitable, then they face the hard choice of submission or finding the courage to follow their own hearts.

“La Lune T’Attend” shows how deep flows the love of grandparents when they see their children threatened. Sometimes they must make sacrifices but, if they do, it will always be the youngest who will hold their memories most clearly in mind. As always, the magic will come from the way they choose to go. “Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers” shows how the passion can disappear from a relationship to be replaced by the routine of the wife keeping the place tidy and her feckless husband fed. No matter how you try to deceive yourself, there comes a point when you just wish your husband would take a trip somewhere and leave you in peace.

“The Rabbi’s Hobby” (first appearing in Eclipse Two) wonders what happens to a family when a mother dies early. The tragedy might be worse than you know if a baby sister also dies but the father never tells the surviving daughter. To live in a house with such grief inevitably colours the rest of your life and, perhaps, leaves that life like a lock that has no key. Suppose such a daughter, now grown older, gets a telephone call from an unknown Rabbi with a bee in his bonnet about a photograph. By one of these fortuitous coincidences, perhaps that Rabbi also has a hobby of collecting keys. Bringing all the interested parties together as a young boy goes through his Bar Mitzvah could find the right place for the key to fit.

“Oakland Dragon Blues” is a simple and elegant metafictional piece about the unintended consequences of starting a story and then not finishing it. “The Bridge Partner” encourages us to think about the relationship between the hunter and the prey, a theme carried over into “Dirae” (first appearing in Warriors) that lets us watch our well-motivated, but bloodthirsty, heroine struggle with problems of identity and motivation. It’s classical mythology meets John 15:13 where a woman shows great love by laying down her life for unknown friends in danger. “Vanishing” is a kind of Twilight Zone episode in which the spirits of those traumatised by a death on the Berlin Wall gather together to find peace of mind if not redemption. And finally, “The Woman Who Married the Man In the Moon” is a bitter-sweet story of the magic in love. Two lost children may bring a man home with them, but their mother may not be prepared to lose her heart again if it means leaving the children behind. Such are the chains that bind us in our lonely roles.

As collections go, Sleight of Hand is one of the best by a master storyteller on top form. What makes Peter S Beagle so remarkable is the consistency of his work. Even when he fails to completely resolve everything to perfection, he’s still better than most other writers working in the fantasy field. The reason is easy to find. He always writes about people who feel real. Even when the context is a different world with supernatural creatures and magic that works, the characters are in the foreground, striving the best they can for their heart’s desire.

For reviews of other books by Peter S Beagle, see Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story, We Never Talk About My Brother, and Strange Roads.

For the record, Sleight of Hand was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Collection.

House of Windows by John Langan

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Having read my first draft of this post to the end, I realised that, instead of a postscript, I need an antescript. From this, you will understand this is not a standard review. When thinking about books, it’s customary to discuss them more directly, even when what you write is literary criticism. This piece is rather oblique and, for those of you who worry about such things, it contains no spoilers. Instead and, perhaps, somewhat patronisingly, I have described what the book made me think about and vaguely projected this as if I assume it to be what the author was thinking about while writing.

For those of you who prefer reading posts on sites like this just to find out whether the reviewer thinks the book is any good, you can save yourself the trouble of reading the the end. As first novels go, this is very good. For those who want to know why, read on

The frame is a old-fashioned “club story” — in which one member of a club of adventurers pulls another to one side, offers a brandy and a cigar, and tells a story. This is very Victorian or Edwardian in approach and, in a perverse way, sets the tone of what can only be thought of as a postmodernist ghost story. This requires some explanation. Abandoning strict theory, let’s call the twentieth century a “modern” age in which we rejected the Victorian era that went before it and sought to progress to a new set of cultural ideas through our literature, art, theatre and music. As technology improved, we diversified away from the printing press, and into the new distribution systems of radio, television and now the internet. In the ways we have tried to use these different methods of communication, we were searching for new meanings. Early in the century, we had the harrowing experience of WWI. Millions of lives were thrown away in sterile conflict. We hoped there was a better way of communicating with each other to prevent such a catastrophe from repeating itself. Yet, no matter what political stance we took — whether the appeasement of the British or the isolationism of the US — future war was not to be denied.

This disturbed our certainties. The Victorians had prided themselves on the strength of their beliefs. They were invincible in trade and combat. After two world wars, we recognised that too high a price was paid for such certainty. We moved away from omniscience, and embraced relativism and subjectivism. Whereas the Victorian ghost was a practical manifestation of evil, intent upon causing harm and, even, threatening the Empire, the modernist ghost was a symptom of our own psychological insecurities. We were haunted as much by ourselves as by spirits or creatures from another dimension.

In a new century, we now move beyond modernism and look for a more coherent view of ourselves in the world. To do this, we use a kind of archaeology of the past, interweaving the fiction and ideas from earlier generations into our current discourse, allowing the past to illuminate the present. In writing this, I am borrowing the ideas of Michel Foucault and others who have helped crystalise the process, enriching our understanding of what we now think and believe by reinterpreting what we know, or do not know, of the past.

What’s so particularly fascinating about House of Windows (published by Night Shade Books, 2009) is that it becomes a form of postmodernist parable in which the two key characters mine the past for information in the hope it will explain what is happening to them. In this archaeological endeavour, they come equipped with the right skills. They are both academics, specialising in literature and, by implication, the postmodernist theories of literary interpretation and semiotics. So when they wish to explore the history of the house, they will search all records, look for contemporary witnesses from whom to collect impressions, and so on. They will interrogate the past. If they wish to know more about how the husband’s son died, they will reconstruct the past through maps, witness statements and physical re-enactment with models. There’s no tool or metaphorical device they will not use to progress their understanding of what happened and is happening.

There are supernatural events. As hopefully objective observers, they do not doubt the evidence of their senses, but this triggers anxiety about how their mental state will be perceived. It’s easy to predict how others will respond should they discuss their experiences. So they remain largely silent until the disclosures made through this novel. That they are willing to suspend disbelief is a sign of their scholarship. They become energised, determined to analyse, and so take control of events. They believe they will resolve matters satisfactorily once they have applied the scientific method, postulating a hypothesis, seeking evidence, interpreting it and reasoning to a conclusion. Such is the hubris of the postmodernist. That this may be genuinely supernatural and so not explicable in human terms, is not something they consider a barrier to eventual understanding.

Thematically, the main interest is in parental relationships. In theory, each generation socialises the next and fashions a new set of people capable of carrying the family fortune and the nation’s wealth to higher levels of prosperity. Except, of course, parental relationships can be seriously dysfunctional and the values that are handed down prove rather different from those intended. So we are invited to judge parents as they relate to their children. Where the focus is on a father, we are asked whether the behaviour of the natural mother and, in one case, the younger stepmother and wife, is a positive force. This is not to say that children are always the victims of their parents. A father may project his own dreams on to his son, hoping he will take up the torch and run further with it. Within reasonable limits, this is a constructive approach to parenting. But a more obsessional academic father may not to see his son’s dyslexia for what it is. When you want so desperately for your son to become a scholar, you are more likely predisposed to see the son’s difficulty in reading as defiance.

So when, for a host of sins, both real and imagined, the father curses the son and casts him out, what effect does this have? Remember, we are dealing with the supernatural here, so we are not restricting effect to physical separation or psychological torment. When the son dies without ever reconciling with the father, there will be guilt for the father to deal with and what from the spirit of the son? Indeed, the real question is what a dead son could do from beyond the grave. As a spirit, could he even find his way home without a map?

This is not a Victorian style of ghost story as in “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, nor do we meet a ghost such as Hodgson’s Carnacki might have found. This is not M. R. James nor anything cosmic with tentacles along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft (although there’s a hint the house might be a little like the Witch House). Instead, the house is a metaphor for memories and how we see them. If we were standing inside our heads, think of the eyes as like windows through which we can look out across our memories. At any moment, we might “see” a memory of our children, or a place we visited as a child, or something we imagine. Because we are fallible, memories are rearranged, we reinterpret them and some we forget. So the house might seem to be confusing, perhaps generating the suggestion of different rooms or doors, or being able to access different spaces. If you prefer not to accept this metaphor, think of the “slow glass” stories by Bob Shaw through which we might perceive the past. Why the past? Because that’s the source of the emotions of loss and grief and guilt (although not necessarily in that order).

House of Windows is not a horror story in the traditional sense. It’s far too cerebral and dispassionate for that. Rather it’s a story about relationships which has a supernatural dimension. As first novels go, it succeeds in provoking considerable thought. This is a good thing. I believe this is a harbinger of future greatness. In terms of style, I was reminded of Peter Straub. Langan is not yet that good but, if he strikes a better balance between the ideas and the narrative, I think he might get to that level.

For a review of John Langan’s first collection of short stories, see Mr Gaunt and other uneasy encounters.

Strange Roads by Peter S. Beagle

April 28, 2010 1 comment

First a word in support of Greg Ketter at DreamHaven. Greg has been running an independent and specialist bookstore for some thirty-three years. More importantly, he also puts his money where his bookseller’s mouth is and publishes books by the authors he likes. We are currently running through a chapbook series with stories from Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Larry Niven and Strange Roads by Peter S. Beagle based on the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. Everyone who values knowledge, expertise and high-quality service should support DreamHaven in all its incarnations.

I am also a life-long fan of Peter Beagle. There is a magical simplicity about his writing. When you start, the premise can look inauspicious, but he always seems to come up with stories of such humanity that you end up beguiled. In this instance, we have three short stories inspired by the work of Lisa Snellings-Clark. I confess to having a strong preference for representational art, finding more abstract forms less engaging. In this instance, it’s actually quite interesting to see how Beagle reacted to the three pieces.

The first represents the game jacks and a kind of obviously childish but perhaps slightly militaristic rocking horse. The result is called “King Pelles The Sure”, another example of the fairy story as a morality tale. It’s when, “boring is good” meets, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you are a citizen in a small state where you have peace and stability, the chance to earn your living and a loving family, you live in a good place. There are times when predictability is to be embraced even though, once the routines are in place, life just runs itself, i.e. this may not be a place for the ambitious or greedy who always want more. As the King of such a country, you might feel almost completely redundant. Looking out of your castle windows, all you see are contented folk. Where’s the challenge in that. Kings are remembered because they rule. History may not be kind if you garnered the reputation as the hands-off king. So in this story, the King selfishly elects to introduce a little uncertainty. This proves a catastrophic misjudgement and then we are into the question of accountability. Can a King ever atone for the losses he causes?

The second piece of art appears on the wrapper and looks not unlike three sea cucumbers at play. Beagle prefers to see one “Spook” bent on asserting his right to revenge. This  is the least successful of the three. It’s on the edge of failure because Beagle wants to showcase bad writing rather than produce his own high-quality prose throughout. Which brings us to the sculpture of the angel. In “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, we are into semi-autobiographical territory with a young boy spending significant amounts of his time watching his Uncle paint. The resulting story is an interesting variation on the dybbuk theme. In the past, I have tended to associate the dybbuk with possession of the living. This story enables redemption and a rise to Heaven through sacrifice. Young boys can acknowledge and confront their fears. Artists can grow obsessive when they cannot quite capture what they see on canvas, and angels are there to help relieve our fears. This is an elegant story in which all the characters are actually trying to do the right things and, for the most part, succeeding albeit not quite in the way we might have thought.

If you enjoy Peter Beagle’s writing, these three stories will make a satisfying addition to your collection. Obviously, as a chapbook, it’s slightly more expensive than the conventional “book” but, for me, it’s good value.

As an added note, this slim volume was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2009 for Best Collection.

For reviews of other collections by Peter S. Beagle, see Sleight of Hand and We Never Talk About My Brother. There’s also Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story.

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Instead of starting with an autobiographical note, I thought I’d kick this review off with a number of definitions. Let’s start with “original”. This is a word we routinely see applied to the latest offerings in all media. Whether you’re talking about the latest blockbuster down at the multiplex, the next bestseller in bookshops or the newest release from the top group, the prime virtue is that the work is something fresh. Rather than recycle or derive ideas from another source, the creator has produced something sufficiently unique that it will be copied by others. Yet when you look at the millions of words and images that are hyped for our attention, and then multiply that across several centuries of effort, you realise how difficult it is to produce something that is not to some degree derivative of, or copied from, the works of others.

So this brings us to “derivative” which, in principle, is the adaptation of someone else’s work. It applies most frequently in the shared universes where, with the permission or consent of the original copyright holders, new creators are allowed to continue the development of the storyline. These major franchises cover a multitude of sins from the Lovecraftian to the Star WarsStar Trek industries that churn out new works for the delight of their fans (most recently seeing the latest and most brilliant contribution to the Batman canon to hit the big screen as The Dark Knight). But there are more authors who quietly borrow concepts and ideas from their peers, modifying them sufficiently to avoid plagiarism. After all, the dynamics of plot are basically rooted in human relationships and, unless you come up with new ways for people to interact, you can only cover the same ground as everyone else — simply changing the factual context to avoid copyright infringement actions.

And then there are the “parodies” — the works that satirise or mock the work of others. In such works, the author clearly identifies the sources and then makes fun of them. At least that is the usual intention. Yet as cultures diversify, so it becomes more difficult for humour to cross boundaries. Thus, works that are intended to amuse often anger or annoy different groups. Such works avoid liability as copyright infringements because the creators invest enough of their own imagination and labour to justify separate copyright protection.

Which all neatly brings us to The Bone Key by Sarah Monette. This collection of linked short stories pays homage to the work of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft (although the latter’s contribution is more tangential than direct). Well, that proves me an unreliable narrator qua critic because I have immediately stepped outside the three definitions. But that is the word used by Monette in her introduction. In essence, a homage is a work that shows respect for the individual(s) named. It reflects the spirit of the original in very recognisable ways, but adds a contemporary commentary or gloss. To that extent, it is close to being a derivative work, but it does not need the express consent of the copyright holders because the author avoids any direct quotations or other borrowings. The work is original but deliberately reflects the spirit of the originals.

So does this collection (close to being a fix-up novel but avoiding it) genuinely show respect for her two nominated sources of inspiration? The style is very definitely Jamesean. It has the same dry, slightly deadpan tone. But it avoids the rather more hyperbolic excesses of Lovecraft. You will not find any of the Elder Gods wandering around the museum where her protagonist works, although we do have a parade of revenants and other supernatural beings which borrow something from the Lovecraftian canon. To that extent, she succeeds in creating a genuine sense of period writing. Is this a good thing? Well, being of an age to have read these works more than fifty years ago, I immediately recognise the understated quality of James whom I continue to think is a master of the genre. However, I am not sure how well this style travels in time. Modern readers are used to a more explicit approach to the horror and supernatural content. Retaining some of the sensibilities of writers working so long ago is a dangerous ploy.

To leaven the mix, Monette takes the slightly radical decision to make her male hero gay. As an aside, I note that the magic employed in the Doctrine of Labyrinths has a homoerotic side with Felix overtly gay. Thematically, Monette seems to find it easier to write about gay rather than straight male characters. In this instance, the homosexuality is a reasonably good fit because the hero, Kyle Murchison Booth, comes from a wealthy background, goes through private schooling and therefore fits the stereotype of the slightly effete, intellectually obsessed individuals who closeted themselves away in museums in the early part of the last century.

In this context, it certainly does bring the characterisation into the modern era. Too often, the writers of the last century focused on the plot and said little about the interior lives of their characters. It also poses all kinds of interesting questions as: does an incubus also sleep with men or is it the succubus that swings both ways? Nomenclature is always important to us critics.

The stories are of a reasonably even standard with The Wall of Clouds the most interesting and the new Listening to Bone the weakest. The stories are divided into two camps. The first, to a greater or lesser extent, illuminates our understanding of Booth by reviewing his early life and schooling. This helps to explain how and why he has become the man he is in the second group of stories representing the mid-period of his life.

Overall, I think Monette has avoided the dangers of pastiche (in the more pejorative sense of the word) and has created an interesting blend of older and modern sensibilities. Thus, accepting the derivative nature of the work, there is a sufficient overlay of original contemporary feelings and emotions to make the fusion work.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men (jointly with Elizabeth Bear), a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

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