This time as we continue to look at Uncle Strange’s novel Hidden Souls (怪叔叔的“藏魂”), we get into some really dark material. The next two chapters get into seriously evil Western historical personages in the most graphically violent and sexual way, so take heed.
The sixth chapter of the book has 20 subsections. I’m not happy with my translation of the chapter title, but since it is part of a recurring quote in this chapter, it really doesn’t stand alone as a title that well. One of the contexts makes it clearer: 兵解飛升成仙. I would translate this as “departing soldiers fly to heaven to become immortals.” This is a Taoist idea generally for any living person, or perhaps a Shinto idea more specifically with soldiers in mind, and Uncle Strange links the idea to this chapter’s very evil theme using the distorted extreme of murder and cannibalism.
The structure of this chapter is quite unusual. All but two of the subchapters has a time and date reference. Much of the action takes place between December 22nd and 25th of 2010, but the time jumps back and forth so rapidly that it’s easy for the reader to become disoriented as to the order of events or even if the order makes sense. This is in keeping with the main villian’s problems. However, two historical dates are also mentioned, September of 1888 and December of 1937, the Whitechapel murders in London and the “Rape of Nanking” respectively. This gives the reader a clue as to what the main premise is here. Also, the perspective changes many times from 3rd person to 1st person, sometimes 1st person of the murderer, sometimes 1st person of Yueyan. This is unusual because in Western writing, typically a writer will choose either 1st person, 3rd person omnipotent or 3rd person following one character and use it consistently. I’m not sure what is typical in Chinese novels, however. Either way, the time shifts and perspective shifts perhaps reflect the strange, confused consciousness of the murderer.
The chapter starts out with a bang:
溢出的不止有燭液。還有血液。[p.99, Uncle Strange]
In gloomy surroundings, a slender burning white candle is the sole light source on the floor.
As the low, flickering flame melts it from solid to liquid, white wax flows over the top of the candle, slowly moving vertically down its side.
But it wasn’t only candle wax spilling over. There was also blood. [My translation]
You can almost hear the maniacal laughter following these three short paragraphs, and indeed, the next section is the most gruesome in the book so far: someone is cutting up a body with a razor. The killer likes to kill people slowly, and he cries to his mother to save him from monsters.
Then we see Yueyan going to a meeting where Xiaowu and his lawyer are fighting a murder charge. We discover that the day before Xiaowu went to some famous Hong Kong event for collectors held by the Liu clan, perhaps related to the black market – I was a little unclear on this section – and later went along with Big Ox to some business meeting at 11PM. Xiaowu sees this danwei has some problem, and he and Big Ox end up in a warehouse where the air smells like blood. Hearing a strange sound, they find a dying man ripped open. There is lots of blood, exposed bone and a deep cross cut in his stomach. This doesn’t seem like a normal murder. In a corner of that warehouse, they find Jacky, who apparently ate some of the corpse. Xiaowu recognizes Jacky as a contact he was using to do business with the Liu clan, and he sees the man has an antique razor. Jacky rushes at Xiaowu.
The perspective changes to 1st person where Jacky is sort of rambling about his razor, his victim, hallucinations of people with multicolored hair, and a little demon. The 1st person perspective changes again to Yueyan’s. He is riding in a black Audi where a man in a black suit and sunglasses tells him that Jacky is a migrant worker, that he can save Xiaowu, and not to worry. Yueyan goes with a short-haired man and a bald man to a nearby hospital to search the streets for Jacky. Suddenly, they realize the bald man has gone missing….Jacky has committed another murder in the trash room. He talks about this little demon and becoming immortal, sees the body of the young man he killed has been discovered on the morning news, then he walks around in the crowd of people outside. The razor is in his pocket. He encounters the bald man from Yueyan’s search party. Later Yueyan and the short-haired man come upon Jacky and the body of the bald man in a stairwell. It is another bloody scene with hints of cannibalism. Yueyan notes that some such cannibals believe they are gaining the strength and spirit of the dead. Jacky fights with the short-haired man, cutting his suit and flesh. Yueyan wonders if the razor is poisoned, but Jacky tells him no and promises to kill him.
The time shifts back to the murders of Jack the Ripper at Whitechapel in 1888. The murderer has this same razor. When the time shifts again, Jacky is going on and on to himself about what power he is getting when he kills and eats these people. Then the scene goes back to the moment that Jacky is about to attack Yueyan. Xiaowu arrives from the police station with a legendary red sword he picked up in the tomb raid in the Qinling Mountains and fights with Jacky. There is an indication that the police have been called, so they leave Jacky to them and discuss Jacky’s comments about a demon. Fifteen minutes later, Xiaowu gets a call about Jacky.
The scene shifts again to two days later as Jacky is seriously injured and on the run. Xiaowu cut him with the red sword, and his wound is starting to become inflamed and is rotting. He thinks about the razor’s evil spirit as the time shifts again to the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China in 1937. There is a general list of atrocities of that event, but the evil spirit takes center stage with this departing soldiers idea. The spirit is looking for someone’s body to possess. It joins up with a division of the Japanese army, filling them with the spirit of anger and rape and driving a contest to see who could kill a hundred people. Finally, the spirit and the razor lay dormant for decades until Jacky takes it up with his careless handling of the antique. This is the most fascinating section of the chapter and maybe the most insightful in the way it handles the politically difficult issue of Nanking. Uncle Strange did a good job with this otherwise gruesome chapter.
Jacky has lost the razor and is being pursued by the police, while the public is on the alert for the killer. Meanwhile as Yueyan and Xiaowu plan to visit Big Ox in the hospital, Yueyan realizes there is something dripping down on him from the upper floor. Seeing that it is blood, they rush upstairs to the next danwei only to find the razor has fallen into the hands of a man there and possessed him. He has already murdered three more people in that apartment. Yueyan’s jade necklace is activated again, glowing green. Xiaowu breaks the razor, and the evil spirit releases the man as the police arrive.
THE GOLDEN APPLE
The seventh chapter of the book has 44 subsections that are set up like real chapters complete with titles, and it starts at chapter zero. There is a fair amount of English, mainly names, and even a few Greek words. This time, it is a full-blown mini-detective story explicitly citing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as a parallel text, and it feels much longer than the text here actually is.
I grabbed the title of this post from an interesting poem that appears in the first subchapter, which is very similar to a poem in that Christie novel. These poems guide the murders in both. In chapter zero here, a shadowy figure is sitting at a desk writing by moonlight in red ink, creating the poem I translated a line from above. Then this person prepares an envelope. The next subsection shows Xiaowu, Amiao and Yueyan celebrating New Year’s in a VIP room somewhere. Yueyan is happy that his crush Amiao seems to be warming to him with a sweeter attitude. He returns home to his 18th floor digs where he finds an envelope addressed to him in red ink with no return address delivered somehow when there is no postal service for the holidays. Glancing at it, he sees it is an invitation to Castle Csejthe regarding a golden apple appreciation party.
Once he reads it, he is startled to find a mysterious woman in his bed – he recognizes from her voice as she awakes that it is Meijuan Hu! I should mention that we last saw Meijuan Hu in the Qinling Mountains chapter, where she was established as a promiscuous, dangerous character who escaped from the group through a hidden room in the tomb. A word typically used to describe her in both places in the novel is 淫 (yin), which means loose or lewd. She seems to be drunk and is seductively dressed. He questions her and accuses her of using a fake name. She agrees somewhat, saying Hu really is her last name, but to call her Xiaonizi from now on! She briefly tries to seduce Yueyan, and when she gets him in a compromising position, a flash of light brightens the room, and she walks over to the corner where a camera has been set up. She blackmails him to come with her to a waiting plane or else she will give the pictures to the media and his precious Amiao.
Ten hours later, they arrive in Hungary as they review the history of their destination, Castle Csejthe, the scene of 16th century serial killer Elizabeth Bathory who was said to have murdered more than six hundred girls and bathe in their blood to retain her beauty:
They take a car from Budapest Airport to the castle, where they are met by Emma McLachlan. Others who have gathered for this party include doctor Claire Habsburg, magazine editor Elizabeth Pochoda, archaeology department graduate Sarah Thewell, and museum staff member Hope Peterson. There appears to be a typo when two more guests arrive describing them as men, but the only men at this gathering are Yueyan and William Bathory. I assume these two guests are the two with East Asian names that appear later in the room assignment chart, Chinese Jiaying Chen and Japanese Eri Sakei. There are a total of eight women and two men who stay at the castle. No one knows who invited them or what that person meant by having some golden apple appreciation party, but they talk about the news that a collector in Europe has acquired this golden apple, an ancient Greek artefact which belonged to the goddess Eris that was carved with the words “To the Fairest.” This apple reportedly caused the start of the Trojan War. They trace it to Cleopatra in Egypt and claim it disappeared with the Roman army, never to resurface.
It looks like a heavy snow is about to hit the area, which will strand them at the castle for days. The entire party is taken through a dark forest reported to short-circuit most devices with its magnetic field as they make their way across the border to Slovakia where a replica of the original castle has been built. They meet their hosts, the beautiful Elle Clarkson and elderly, wheelchair bound William Bathory. They lead the group to the Tower of Death where they have assigned everyone rooms to lodge in on its three floors.
Then the guests gather in the parlor, and two items have been delivered: an envelope addressed in red ink and a box. They think the letter is a joke. Inside the box is the golden apple! Yueyan notices strange writing inside the box written in red ink as William takes the golden apple out; the word is Pandora in Greek letters! The inscription To the Fairest is what the Greek on the apple was likely to mean. Emma wishes they could carbon date it. William isn’t happy to have received the apple and replaces it in the box.
At dinner that first night, Elizabeth dies, but they can’t pinpoint the reason, and they have no way to contact the police about the death other than the weekend mail or William’s wireless radio. William uses his radio to notify the police, but they respond that nothing can be done for a few days due to the incoming snowstorm. The guests decide to place her body in the cold storage room in the castle’s prison as a makeshift morgue. At this point, there is a steady body count, each victim cleverly dispatched according to a line of the poem, and the bodies pile up in black burlap sacks in this castle morgue. The deaths include Jiaying Chen suffocating in a secret room, Sarah Thewell burning to death in a tanning bed in the castle beauty parlor, and the most gruesome death, that of Eri Sakei in the castle prison’s iron maiden!
This last death is particularly notable since Eri helps Yueyan take Jiaying Chen’s body down to the cold storage room alone. In the prison, they scare themselves when Eri’s flashlight accidentally shines on the iron maiden’s face. They run to the elevator in terror, but almost like a strange premonition, Eri stops the elevator and practically rapes Yueyan in a very graphic sex scene, which has interesting implications for Yueyan since this section is titled “Deflowering”. Like a slasher-movie trope, this character Eri has transgressed the sexual boundaries to such a degree that she is punished accordingly: she is found pierced to death in the iron maiden, also known in the text as “the Virgin of Nuremberg”, in a subsection of the novel titled “Virgin and Whore.” So Uncle Strange knows what he’s evoking here. It’s a nice touch even if it’s a bit disturbing.
When the truth is finally revealed, this time it is clear that the antiques such as the golden apple and the iron maiden were nothing but red herrings, though I think their influence would have been far more interesting than where the story actually does end. There’s nothing supernatural going on here. After the revelations that the murders were committed by Elizabeth Bathory’s descendants, father and daughter William Bathory and Claire Habsburg, Yueyan is left to reflect on whether their strange murder plot was something in their blood or if they just had evil hearts. One interesting detail is the rationale for luring the victims to the castle, something about how all of the women had “panda blood”, which is an RH negative factor that is very rare, particularly blood type O negative. This had something to do with the secret magic Elizabeth Bathory passed down to her descendants according to Claire. For more on panda blood, here is an explanation:
I’ve hardly even made a dent in this novel, but I want to stop here for now since these two chapters are quite intense and should stand on their own. It feels like I read about 300 pages in only 100. From a language study point of view, it is a very interesting read, which is important if you want to make progress reading in a foreign language. Motivation is the key, and sometimes lurid, vivid vocabulary is much easier than reading subtle, philosophical writing. Obviously, this novel is suitable for adult learners rather than children given the content. Hopefully, the next few shorter chapters will be lighter fare.
Part three of a six part series