This time as we continue to look at Uncle Strange’s novel Hidden Souls (怪叔叔的“藏魂”), we have a number of smaller chapters. At this point, each chapter feels to me like a short story involving the same group of characters. The novel obviously has no overarching plot yet but is a series of vignettes that are uneven in execution. The style is also clearly fairly experimental, and as the central character has shifted from Yueyan Gu to Xiaowu Luan with some stories centering on Amiao Mo, so has the perspective shifted from 1st person to 3rd person. So with this in mind, here are the summaries of the next run of chapters.
THE WHITE SNAKE
The eighth chapter runs twenty subchapters with chapter titles. I found it very hard to follow, but perhaps that’s because I don’t know that much about the traditional Chinese legend of Lady White Snake upon which it is based:
In this story, Amiao goes to help with a dig at the rebuilt ruins of Thunder Peak Tower, a major site in the legend of Lady White Snake that was originally built in 975 AD and that collapsed in 1924. A crew has already been digging, and it includes two women, Xueqing and Qing’er, and two men, Xugang and Fazhi Zhang. They have already removed the artefacts from their first level dig of the tower’s underground palace, used military instruments to determine than an unopened coffin they encountered was empty, and now are digging into a deeper level.
On a snowy night, Amiao witnesses a number of conversations between Xueqing, Fazhi Zhang and Xugang. These characters form a love triangle, and each one represents or is somehow possessed by the main characters in the Lady White Snake story. Uncle Strange uses an odd technique where one character will be referred to by names from either the current contemporary story or the traditional Lady White Snake story almost in the same sentence. I feel like if I really knew that story well, this would not be a problem, but with only a casual knowledge, this is extremely confusing. The perspective changes between modern and traditional storylines generally as well, depending on the subchapter.
Ultimately, they find a cave where they discover the corpse of Lady White Snake and others, and a tragedy plays out as Fazhi tries to kill Xugang and Xueqing in his rivalry for Xueqing’s love. He is very angry at her for wanting Xugang and not him. This is some sort of reenactment of the legend. But Lady White Snake/Xueqing helps Amiao escape the cave, so she is not hurt. Amiao returns to Hong Kong and instigates the government to return to the dig and retrieve the bodies. I will say this is my least favorite chapter so far in the novel.
THE WUTONG GOD
The ninth chapter runs twenty-two subchapters with chapter titles. The title of this chapter is hard to translate. It is the name of a traditional Taoist god that has many names, which forms the basis for this chapter’s more thrilling story. Similar to the god of wealth, this god had bestowed some sort of special wheat biscuit on a follower, and this event and its aftermath is traced in the first subsection. Here is the background on this god (Chinese only):
When the story turns to the present, Xiaowu and Big Ox go to do some business involving a Northern Song porcelain bowl and a gourd vase belonging to Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong. When the family there tells Xiaowu about their young daughter, at first he protests he is not ready for marriage yet, but they tell him she is sick, crying black tears. She turns out to be about 5-years-old, and her strange illness started not long after her father died. Xiaowu promises the little girl, Ling Cheng, that he will try to help. Zicheng, a friend of Xiaowu’s, is consulted, and he gets some peach tree leaves and boils them, putting them on her eyes to flush out the bacteria he believes is responsible for the problem. He speculates that the tears are somehow connected to this god because the father died near an important date for that god, a time when people burn incense and paper to it.
When Ling Cheng goes to sleep after dinner, Xiaowu and the others go outside. In the moonlight, they see shadowy human figures creeping around outside, weaving through the flower garden to the little girl’s room. They are carrying all sorts of modern and ancient weaponry as they enter the girl’s room, from swords to AK-47s! Ling Cheng hides deep in her bedclothes when they arrive. Xiaowu’s red sword emits a red glow as he takes it out and attacks one of the shadowy figures, which turns out to be a three-tailed yellow fox. The text breaks here to talk more about the Wutong God, who is somehow related to these shadowy figures. Xiaowu and the fox demon fight for a while, and the fox demon is wounded. The text breaks again to discuss how these magical fox demons grow a new tail every 100 years until they reach 1000 years old, hence the folklore about the nine-tailed fox. The men determine this fox is 300 years old. The fox demon loses the battle that night and flees. They then find Ling Cheng safely hidden, and Xiaowu declares they will certainly cure her.
The group of men later discovers a ruined temple, where Xiaowu sees there are four more animal demons who have the ability to turn into humans. These animal demons were likely the group that snuck into the child’s bedroom with the fox demon the night before. They include a mouse, a snake, a monkey and a pig. Here the story turns much more fanciful as Xiaowu overhears the animals talking amongst themselves. They discuss their strategy to get past Xiaowu next time, but he reveals himself, and they flee. The rest of this story details the battle between these animal demons and Xiaowu and friends. Not much more is said about Ling Cheng, but Xiaowu does want to cut off one of the fox demon’s tails to give to Amiao. The men end up burning the temple and killing the animal demons.
The tenth chapter runs 36 subchapters that are numbered only and continues with Xiaowu’s exploits. It starts out with a picturesque description of Hong Kong’s popular open-air food stalls and the kinds of people who patronize them, which includes Xiaowu. He hears his father is looking for him, however, and when he arrives at home, he is asked if he has ever heard of someone called “One-Eyed Hero.” The story then turns to a few subchapters detailing the geographical area connected with this person, Gudong Mountain in Taishan in the Qing Dynasty years, and the legend of “One-Eyed Hero,” a famous female bandit who led a group of bandits living on Gudong Mountain (Chinese only):
Her real name was apparently Jiuying Zeng, and she was a Chinese immigrant who learned to shoot guns. She damaged her left eye this way, and that was the basis for her nickname. Two men are mentioned in connection with her, Zhusan Chen and Lanchu Ye. They had hundreds of followers and ran wild for decades.
A confidential contact calls Xiaowu for a lunch meeting, but when they meet, it is unclear if this is really his contact or an imposter. The contact leaves Xiaowu with a document bag that Xiaowu thinks contains a map for a secret treasure once owned by One-Eyed Hero. Xiaowu calls for his friend Zicheng again and opens the bag. All he finds is a piece of leather with a sentence written on it directing him to the Slaughtered Man Rock on Gudong Mountain where this treasure is supposed to be buried. He and Zicheng plan to go to this rock to look for the treasure.
They assemble a party of six men for this expedition: Xiaowu himself, Zicheng, Xiaowu’s troubled cousin Shang Ma, Jing Li, Fei Lin, and a sixth man whose name I must have missed in the text. During their five hour car trip, Xiaowu fills them in on the whole story. They arrive on Gudong Mountain as it is getting dark, and when they try to get a room at a local hot spring, the hostess doesn’t seem to think it’s a great idea to be on the mountain after dark. The group goes deeper into the mountain area by car to look for the bandits’ cave. They get out on foot, and two of them get separated from the rest of the group. After some debate, the remaining group of four goes outside to look around with the flashlight and comes across scattered bones and skeletons. This reminds Xiaowu of an experience he had years ago with his uncle that made him deathly afraid of ghosts in such situations; he isn’t afraid of zombies or fox demons because they have physical bodies.
At this point, Xiaowu asks if any of the men are still virgins, which they all find to be an embarrassing question. It is determined that Jing Li is, and Xiaowu makes him take off his pants and get into the foul water around these bones. He figures a virgin is able to handle the spiritual side of such a place. Jing Li finds and rescues their missing members who had been chased into the pond of human waste by ferocious wild wolves. However, when they move on and find this Slaughtered Man Rock, discovering a tunnel hidden beneath it, Jing Li’s hand is seriously burned by an acid trap. They figure out a way to avoid the trap and pull out a small box, which they clean off and open. Much to Xiaowu’s irritation, all they find in it is another piece of leather with another cryptic verse about a West Yingpan location.
In desperation, they spend the night at the hot springs, where Xiaowu is nearly assassinated while soaking in the water. This was related to some drama with Shang Ma that I didn’t quite understand. They decide to return to Hong Kong to meet up with Big Ox, who is just returning from Europe. They explain the point of the expedition and show him the strange phrase on the latest piece of leather. Zicheng checks some records at the government office in Hong Kong and finds this ghost level where the artefact has been kept for safekeeping is located at the national hospital’s foreign nurse dormitory that was built in 1892 and then abandoned in 1941. This particular building was turned into a mental hospital during World War II. After many more related uses and periods of abandonment, it was turned into a community center in the 90s, which is what it still is.
Big Ox and Zicheng case the center and meet Xiaowu there later. After having a big dinner and getting really drunk, they leave at midnight for the center and find a way to break in without damaging the lock. However, instead of a demon, the drunken men run into a very angry Amiao! She is already there on government business with Xiaonizi and Yueyan tagging along. Xiaowu is particularly in awe of his cousin Amiao, respecting her on a level that the other men can’t appreciate. Amiao wants them to go home and sleep, but the men want to stay and continue with the expedition, which Xiaowu explains to her. When she demands to see the map, Xiaowu accidentally sets it on fire with his cigarette, revealing another design on the leather. They decide after studying it to rip open one of the walls.
Inside the hole, they find some coins, and Amiao scares the daylights out of Xiaowu when he gets confused and thinks she is the ghost of One-Eyed Hero. When he tries to hit her with his red sword, it is strangely deflected. She yells at him that if she gets wounded, she’ll kill the whole Luan family! It turns out that she made the foxtail Xiaowu brought back for her from his earlier adventure fighting the animal demons into some sort of leather bracelet which deflected the sword blade. They go down into the underground room while Big Ox, Zicheng, Yueyan and Xiaonizi (whose name is still an alias apparently) are outside and see ghostly Japanese soldiers. Xiaonizi has a peach wood nail that magically dispels the angry ghosts in a rather dramatic way.
When Amiao emerges from the hole with a box, Xiaonizi demands it be given to her. Amiao does. Zicheng asks if Xiaonizi is the client, and she says she is. She goes into a long explanation about One-Eyed Hero’s son and descendants in America. Before they leave, someone notices the four of them and pronounces them some sort of wondrous team.
THE HOSPITAL ELEVATOR
The eleventh chapter is only a few pages long with no subsections. It actually is fairly interesting, though I was unclear how the two halves of the story here are connected. The first half does seem to tie in with the previous chapter, which was partially set in a former mental hospital/nurses’ dormitory. This half describes a traditional tale that Yueyan heard as a middle school student about a hospital where the night nurse has to make her rounds around three floors under dim lights, ultimately encountering a walking corpse from the morgue! That part is very engrossing and well-paced.
Then the second half shifts to Amiao in an unknown location and a little boy who is a fox fairy. He mostly looks normal but has an evil cast to his face. When Amiao looks closely, she sees he has cat ears. Her foxtail bracelet provides her protection against him as she approaches him and someone named Lanzi. She thinks about an old legend she heard from her family elders about a woman, drunk all the time with her husband, whose child’s life was demanded by a fox demon in a dream. She brings him to the hospital when he seems to be near death, and he does die, having had all of the blood sucked out of him. Now the little boy wants Amiao to help him. He tells her not to be afraid of him and that he isn’t dangerous, mentioning a jade ring in passing. She feels happy, hugs him and lets him sit on her lap. He says something about using this jade ring to transform. Then Amiao is interrupted by a middle aged woman calling for her. This passage seems very out of place until you read the next chapter.
THE FOX FAIRY AND THE JADE RING
The twelfth chapter has only three subsections. This chapter definitely is a continuation of the last. Amiao meets her friend Lanzi at a coffee shop on Causeway Bay in Hong Kong where they shopped half the day. They overhear women talking about the appearance of a fox demon near a large building in the Windsor House district. The woman she is speaking with confirms she also heard this and talks about the appearance of fox heads on a cloud rock in 1980. Cloud rocks were then used for protection. Lanzi seems uncomfortable and asks Amiao to tell her about Yueyan.
Later, Lanzi goes off on her own while Amiao notices her foxtail belt is trembling violently. Another friend tries calling Lanzi, but she doesn’t answer her phone. Amiao offers to go look for her, holding on to her foxtail belt. The belt’s reaction is affecting her strongly, and it is almost as if it is alive. (I’m unclear on whether she has a belt and bracelet made from the tail or one or the other that is called the wrong thing in places.) She takes the staircase and gets the belt’s reaction more strongly with each level. After the last flight, she discovers a playground on the roof top, and her friend Lanzi is there sitting stupefied by a swing set, looking at a jade ring on her hand that she recently bought in Taiwan!
As Amiao approaches, she sees there is also a child sitting by Lanzi, and this is where the previous chapter’s second half fits chronologically. This is an interesting way to present the story, but maybe it should have been one long chapter instead. A woman comes over to her to apologize for causing trouble, and she takes her little boy and leaves. Lanzi snaps out of her trance and asks Amiao what she is doing there. It is a creepy but effective couple of short segments here and in the previous short chapter.
At this point, I will pause since the text breaks in a decent place. Our four main characters each now have a magical weapon: Xiaowu has his red sword, Yueyan has his jade pendant, Amiao has her foxtail bracelet or belt, and Xiaonizi has her peach wood nail. This could set the stage for some interesting adventures. Amiao in particular at this point seems to be drawn now to fox demons through her magical item. Lots more fun to come with the remaining chapters. We still have half of the novel to go.
Part four of a six part series