The exciting 2012 internet novel Hidden Souls by Uncle Strange (怪叔叔的“藏魂”) continues with three more intriguing chapters. At this point in the novel, we can see why it defied genre conventions. The first two chapters I covered last time could be considered horror for “The Puppet” and detective style or mystery for “Yansheng,” but here the story mutates into an almost satirical, silly chapter with “The Book Bound With Human Skin,” a touching ghost story in “Shadow Play,” and an Indiana Jones-style tomb raid crossed with a Dungeons & Dragons adventure in “The Qinling Mountains.”
THE BOOK BOUND WITH HUMAN SKIN
The first of these chapters that we will look at this time is split into 5 subchapters that actually have individual titles. After more nights going out on the town together, Yueyan Gu and Xiaowu Luan get embroiled in another strange incident involving antiques. Xiaowu brings him a scholar who works with a private library of rare books that has had a few tomes go missing inexplicably. The story begins with a recap of the historical background of books bound with human skin, which were mostly created in the Middle Ages in Europe. The scholar explains that they usually were made from the skin of murderers and that about 100 have survived to modern times and can be found in European and North American museums. He says the books serve two purposes, as a warning of punishment and as a souvenir of abnormal psychology. The books were usually created by people in professions who had access to unclaimed corpses, corpses of criminals and the poor, but sometimes the deceased themselves requested it.
The scholar then brings up the strange things that have been happening in connection to his book. He kept it in an old box with two other books, and the two other books had gone missing somehow. He doesn’t know why. The CCTV cameras didn’t work at that time, midnight, and the books were stolen from a bullet-proof glass exhibition case. They discuss the different ways the camera could have malfunctioned. The guard posted in the locale had been napping on the job, so he didn’t see anything either. Xiaowu asks if the guard himself could have stolen them. The scholar says he can’t deny the possibility. They figure they could catch the thief by watching the smugglers’ market to see if the thief tries to sell it.
The scholar leads them to the location of the private library. When the man shows them the box holding the book bound with human skin, Yueyan notices the side of the box is labeled “Hitler’s Mein Kampf”! The story breaks to discuss a very different historical source of such books: World War II in Germany. The infamous Ilse Koch is mentioned, and here is the background on her:
Yueyan is given gloves to prevent the oils from his hands from ruining the book as the scholar allows him to examine its workmanship.
They pause in their investigation to go out to dinner with Xiaowu’s friend Big Ox, then they return to stake out the library after dark. Xiaowu falls asleep on a couch while Yueyan happily examines some of the collection’s other rare books, feeling lucky to have such an opportunity. Suddenly, a strange noise draws his attention. When he turns to look at Xiaowu, he is shocked by what he sees.
The glass of the exhibition case has been smashed open, but no thief was in sight, only the book bound with human skin itself. It was as if the skin had come alive again. It was standing and moving like a doll, seeming to be eating its containing box! It swallows two magazines. Xiaowu wakes up, and the two men watch it. The book then reaches toward Xiaowu, who screams in terror. The book doesn’t have a full range of movement, but the men discuss the possibility that the book could eat the library clean of its rare objects. Yueyan wonders if he is hallucinating. He thinks the book is speaking German, which Yueyan studied for a time when he was in England many years before. He wonders if it is reciting the contents of Mein Kampf. One minute after midnight, the book deflates like a balloon and returns to looking like a normal book. They conclude that the book is possessed by the spirit of the owner of the skin and is active at midnight of every full moon. But they can’t expel the spirit.
Having solved this mystery, they return home to get some sleep.
The book’s fourth chapter is split into eight numbered subsections and begins with Xiaowu again asking for Yueyan’s help. It’s clear by now that Xiaowu is the main instigator for Yueyan’s unorthodox side job investigating possessed antiques. This time, he drags Yueyan off to an old four story high building where a female friend lives. They walk up the dim stairs to the 3rd floor where Xiaowu rings the bell. Yueyan is dumbstruck when the door opens, revealing the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. The text goes into raptures here about her. Xiaowu introduces her as his second best friend after Yueyan, Keimiao Mo, called Amiao for short. In reality, she is his cousin. She speaks to Yueyan with a flat, cold voice, which disappoints him since he is smitten with her.
They go in to discuss her problem and sit in her predominantly white parlor. Contrary to traditional Asian ideas about white that connect the color with death, the text specifically notes this color represents cleanliness and elegance. Amiao complains about seeing shadows on the wall and not being able to sleep at night. She feels that someone is standing by her bed muttering in her ear. Yueyan mentions shadow play, and the text breaks here as Xiaowu explains its history in China. Amiao adds her knowledge of shadow play sets in various world museums, impressing Yueyan with her broad knowledge. Xiaowu explains that Amiao studied archaeology at Qinghua University and at Tainan Arts University’s historical relic preservation department, completing her Master’s Degree. She now works as an expert in historical relics. Amiao only moved into her flat two months earlier.
They go out to eat at a Japanese restaurant before spending the night staking out Amiao’s flat. Xiaowu watches a film while Yueyan gets some sleep on the couch. A noise gets their attention, and they see two shadows. They run down the stairs to the next danwei, the assigned living quarters for a work administrative unit, to knock on the door. Xiaowu is frantic, banging on the door. They decide to come back in the daylight since it is so dark and no one is answering.
When they return to the danwei’s front door in the morning with Amiao, an old man comes out to see what they want, startling them. The old man’s voice gives Yueyan the chills. When they finally stop beating around the bush, the old man tells them a story about Old Chen who died three months earlier and lived in the danwei. Old Chen had been in a shadow play troupe in his youth in Shandong. When Old Chen became seriously ill, he gave the old man a shadow play set made of carved leather, and the old man goes inside to bring it out to them. The text breaks to explain the origin of these sets and how they were made. This one seems to have been made after the Republican era (1912-1949). The old man explains that Old Chen had wanted this set to go to an old woman who lived in Keimiao’s apartment, but she had already moved. He gives the set to Amiao instead!
The three decide to find this old woman, and after getting the address to her nursing home from a local shop, they meet this still spry woman who is over eighty. She tells them about her life and eventually how she played shadow play in the very apartment Amiao now lived in every night for 5 years before her children put her in this nursing home. She recognizes the set Amiao has brought to her. Two weeks after they give the old woman the set, Xiaowu and Yueyan visit Amiao again, and her night troubles have stopped. Yueyan speculates that Old Chen was trying to get Amiao’s help to give his shadow play set to the old woman.
THE QINLING MOUNTAINS
The book’s fifth chapter is the first substantial chapter of the book, and it has thirty eight numbered subsections. This time it begins with Yueyan riding in a car with Xiaowu and Amiao with Big Ox as their driver. They are watching the scenery go by as their little group of three cars carries a total of eight people to some remote place in Lanzhou in Gansu Province. The others on their trip include Xiaozhang, another friend of Xiaowu’s; Old Li and Secretary Meijuan Hu, both from Lanzhou; and finally, Xiaohe, an employee of Old Li. The party consists of two women and six men.
This whole trip came about 10 days earlier when Yueyan discovered his grandfather was meeting with Xiaowu and his father about some expedition they want Yueyan to join them on. He protests, but he goes. Xiaowu mentions the many mineral and coal mines in Lanzhou and explains that his family owns two mines. His people found a stele with indecipherable writing while digging, and Amiao, an expert in ancient languages, thinks it’s from the Han Dynasty. They think this place is famous military leader Cao Cao’s tomb. Yueyan thinks Xiaowu’s plans are crazy, and they discuss the possibility of finding jadeite.
Xiaowu tries to calm Yueyan’s fears, saying that their group will appear to be just an archeological study expedition even though they are really tomb raiders. Yueyan chides him on his desire to steal national treasures, warning he’ll face the firing squad if he’s caught. They then discuss the possibility of meeting a zombie, highlighting Yueyan’s theories about such monsters. Xiaowu says he encountered one in a tomb in Shaanxi when he was 18.
The text returns to the traveling group who now has been working on digging into the tomb. They carry out three bags of grave goods before tackling the coffin. When they open the lid, they see that the corpse still has long white hair and long fingernails. Xiaozhang spies a golden goblet in the coffin, but suddenly the corpse, which I think is best considered a lich (殭屍) rather than a vampire or zombie based on the description, attacks the closest members of the group. Xiaozhang struggles with the vampire and gets cut with its razor-like fingernails. After a scuffle, they get Xiaozhang out of the tomb to a nearby doctor’s office. They shot the lich with bullets and cut off its head, but they worry it may still cause them trouble. Xiaowu laments that his father may ream him out for nearly getting a close family friend killed. I think this section has a typo of some kind, because it’s the only place where someone in the group named Xiaochen is mentioned; he probably means Xiaohe.
They drive to find a place to lodge for the night. There are a few chapter subsections where they just eat dinner and interrupt some racy activities between Xiaohe and Meijuan Hu that add to character development.
On the second day of excavation, they prepare to go into a cave in the grave mound, and they take actual weapons with them this time as well as handfuls of bullets. Near the cave entrance, they hear an ominous noise in the darkness, which is nearest Xiaozhang. Yueyan sees a six meter tall snake emerge, and Xiaozhang starts screaming. They recognize it as some famous Hong Kong monster. Xiaowu and Big Ox take out their military daggers to fight it. When the snake falls to the ground and stops moving, they attend to Xiaozhang. Xiaowu concludes the wounds aren’t serious, and they continue.
Inside the cave, they discover it is full of terracotta warriors. The grave mound is inside a huge mountain, so this cave looks like a city. They are briefly concerned about oxygen levels, but soon they discover an ancient stone. At this point, the group splits as Old Li and Xiaohe take out pistols and make demands. Old Li shoots Xiaozhang in the head as a warning. They take away everyone else’s weapons. Old Li tells Xiaohe to kill his girlfriend Meijuan, but Xiaohe shoots Old Li instead. Meijuan takes his gun and his position in the mutiny, promising to not harm anyone. She is described in rather demonic terms.
When they move the stone, they find it covers a pit of corpses that is in the process of reanimating due to the fresh blood from the corpses of Old Li and Xiaozhang in the chamber. One of the zombies tears Xiaohe to pieces right in front of Meijuan’s eyes. A number of chapters cover the fight with the ever-increasing army of zombies. At one point, they are saved when Yueyan’s family heirloom jade necklace releases a greenish rainbow, causing the remaining zombies to fall.
Ultimately, the chapter is resolved when Yueyan’s spirit leaves his body and meets a few royal personages in the tomb. He wakes from this to find himself back in the car. His grandfather and Xiaowu’s father suddenly appear and quickly take him to a waiting airplane. Amiao and Xiaowu are also with them, and they had worried that Yueyan had died during his dream.
Part two of a six part series.