Monday, February 20, 2017

Helgadóttir, Asian Monsters (2016)

Margrét Helgadóttir (ed.), Asian Monsters. Fox Spirit Books, 2016. Pp. 167. ISBN 978-1-9093-4899-8. £10.00.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

The problem with being a horror fan since you were a small child is that you tend to get jaded pretty quickly. I first watched An American Werewolf in London when I was eight years old, but even before that I had been inundated with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and all other traditional “western” monsters. They were everywhere, from greeting cards to comics to Sesame Street. So by the time I was in my late teens, I felt as though I had seen it all in terms of monsters. It wasn’t until much later in my life, when I discovered the wonders of the internet, that I discovered there was a whole other world of monsters out there to discover. And some of the most bizarre, gruesome, and frightening come from Asia.

Asian monsters, I feel, are vastly underrepresented in horror media, considering their rich variety and disturbing nature. From the bloody Malaysian penanggalan to the zombie-like jiangshi, shape-shifting Indian bhuts and the rabbit-like al-mi’raj, Asian monsters are huge in variety and often incredibly terrifying, and I think it’s a shame that many in the western world haven’t had a chance to discover them. So it was with great delight that I received the third in Fox Spirit Books’ series of anthologies, this one centered around Asian monsters, and it is with great pleasure that I say that I do not regret my decision to pick this one up.

First of all, I am delighted with the diversity of stories and origins in this book. When most people think “Asian” horror, they assume that the tale must be Japanese or Chinese, perhaps Thai or Korean. But the monsters in this collection aren’t so limited; while China and Japan are certainly represented (in fact, five of the thirteen stories feature a Chinese monster; a bit too high a proportion, in my opinion, but that is perhaps my only complaint), but they are far from the only participants. There are Filipino monsters, Sri Lankan monsters, Indian and Malaysian and Pakistani monsters. In addition, I was pleased to notice that the number of stories written by women was about the same as that written by men, and this is reflected in the subject matter of the tales. Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Golden Lilies’ is about the challenges and choices faced by Chinese women in the days of foot-binding. The heroine of Fran Terminiello’s ‘Aswang’ deals with being a poor girl from the rural Philippines working as a nanny for a wealthy, sophisticated, Chinese family. Elisa Chan’s ‘Datsue-Ba’ tells of a Japanese student in an emotionally abusive relationship. The protagonist of Ken Liu’s ‘Good Hunting’ is a young demon hunter who loses his liveliehood with the advent of industrialisation and British colonisation. And one of my favourites, Yukimi Ogawa’s ‘Kokuri’s Palace’, details the tragic end of a lesbian couple from a small Japanese village. But not all of them have to be about complex social or cultural issues; Sunil Patel writes about a young woman learning to break free of her mother’s expectations and, at the same time, mourn the loss of her father in ‘The Vetala’s Query’. The issues around the monsters are as diverse and complex as the monsters themselves.

Nor are all the tales straightforward horror stories; ‘Good Hunting’, for example, is set in a bizarre steampunk version of British Hong Kong. And two of the thirteen stries are done in graphic novel format, which is a very nice bit of variety. On a final note, each of the stories features a dark, surreal illustration, which greatly adds to the book’s atmosphere. Not all of these illustrations are winners (to me, anyway), but I enjoyed the variety of them, with styles ranging from traditional Chinese brush-painting to abstract minimalism.

There aren’t many criticisms that I can lever at this book, aside from a statistical leaning towards Chinese monsters and authors. One of the few others, however, is with the comic stories, ‘Unrestful’ by Benjamin Chee and ‘Vikurthimagga’ by Vajira Chandrasekra and Dave Johnson. Neither of them is bad by any means, particularly in terms of the artwork, but neither of them is particularly special either. ‘Unrestful’ is a fairly typical adventure story without much in the way of character or depth. The story could have had real power to it had we had the chance to know and grow attached to the two heroes, but sadly, it never happens. ‘Vikurthimagga’ tries to tell a very compelling story about domestic violence and the monsters within the self, but it fails to do so in the space of its 19 pages. Johnson’s artwork is incredibly striking, but he makes the choice to turn many panels into full page spreads, greatly reducing the potential length of the story. There’s a small Dramatis Personae at the beginning which introduces the four main characters… such as they are… but the story is so short that some of these characters appear for only a single page. The result is that the entire tale feels like a small part of a larger piece. It’s still quite a striking story, but it doesn’t reach the heights or have the impact that it should.

All in all, however, Asian Monsters is a great collection of stories featuring a delicious bestiary of lesser known monsters. It takes us from the forests of ancient China to the streets of war-torn Pakistan, and its monsters are as old as the hill and as young as urban legends. They offer not just a glimpse at some exotic and unknown creatures, but insight into the lands and cultures that created them. I’ll be happily adding this to my shelf, and definitely will be seeking to add the other two books in this series to my collection.

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