This time as we continue to look at Uncle Strange’s novel Hidden Souls (怪叔叔的“藏魂”), there seems to be a new twist in the storyline. We left off with two short chapters showing Amiao having some strange, spiritual experiences relating to her foxtail belt. This time more of our four intrepid main characters are having these ghostly encounters, and the subchapters are getting to be about a half a page longer. At any rate, it is very intriguing and makes the novel very hard to put down.
THE TELEPHONE CALL
The thirteenth chapter only has three subsections, however like the last two short chapters, it really packs a wallop with its creepiness. I think this is my favorite chapter along with the last two so far. Uncle Strange’s short ones are really good. Xiaowu drives his jeep up to the mountains at 2AM. Because he hasn’t slept in two days, he keeps closing his eyes long enough to miss two green lights at the intersection he is stopped at. Feeling he can no longer fight his grogginess, he decides to nap in his jeep at the side of the road.
Two hours later, he wakes to the sound of a rainstorm. He notices a young girl standing out in the rain nearby and asks if she wants to sit in his jeep. She asks if she can make a phone call instead, and he hands her his phone and an umbrella. He doesn’t hear who she calls and goes back to sleep. When he wakes up, he is startled to find her staring at him. She gives back his phone, and he tells her to keep the umbrella. He offers to give her money to get a car home. She suddenly seems angry and says her family is coming to get her. He closes the window as she goes back into the rain. Still feeling groggy, he goes back to sleep.
The next time he wakes up, he is very clear headed. His car is surrounded by an angry mob. Someone wants to talk to him, and he opens the window. They ask him why he is there, and he mentions giving the girl the phone. They tell him he is a good fellow, then they proceed to the taxi stand nearby, breaking the windows on one of the cars and assaulting the driver. Xiaowu is very disturbed by this, gets out of the car, and tells them to stop. One of the young men in the group pulls him aside to explain that the man was a murderer. A few months earlier, a young girl was raped and murdered, no one knew who did it, and the police never found the killer. Xiaowu suddenly remembers seeing the girl’s photo in the paper. Everyone in the group received calls from the girl last night saying a taxi driver was her killer. Xiaowu checks his phone log and sees the girl made a lot of calls. She told them a kind man let her use his phone. Clearly, this was the dead girl’s ghost, and recall that last post we saw that Xiaowu is deathly afraid of ghosts!
The killer suddenly gets up and attacks Xiaowu, stabbing him. Xiaowu kills him in self-defense then flees before the cops can arrive. The crowd who witnessed this protects Xiaowu since he was kind to the dead girl.
The fourteenth chapter runs ten subsections with no chapter titles, and it provides an interesting parallel storyline to the previous chapter, though I think it isn’t as well executed. This chapter centers on Xiaonizi, who is standing in front of a mirror looking at the red bite marks on her neck in dismay. She thinks about her activities as a spy the night before, meeting with top American military brass that came in on an aircraft carrier, sleeping with a drunken major general who roughed her up. Before leaving him on the floor unconscious, she takes semen samples for DNA, scans his fingerprints and scans his pupils. She expects to make a huge sum of money for her work, but she ponders how she is really that different from the prostitutes who give the soldiers a good time.
As she now looks at her neck in the mirror, she thinks she sees a young woman wearing green standing next to her out of the corner of her eye. When she turns, the woman isn’t there. She sees her again when she looks back at the mirror. When the young woman starts crying tears of blood, the light bulb in the bathroom goes out, turning the mirror into a stage that Xiaonizi is watching as if sitting in a darkened theater. She sees a young woman washing her face with cold water to force herself to wake up from her drunken haze. Someone walks into the public ladies room where this is taking place with their head covered, but Xiaonizi can tell it is a man from his clothes. The man puts out a sign and locks the main door quietly. He grabs the girl, one hand over her mouth, and drags her into one of the stalls, shutting the door behind them. After some alarming sounds and agonizing moments of silence, he finally emerges and goes to a basin to wash his bitten face. The girl is dead in the stall, sitting on the toilet, strange marks on her neck.
Xiaonizi seems momentarily able to enter the mirror illusion and tries to stop him, but to no avail. When the vision ends, she talks to the bar’s manager about the ladies room. He admits there was a rape and murder case six months earlier, but the killer left no evidence or fingerprints, so the police couldn’t catch him. She asks if he is afraid of the spirit of the dead girl. He says he is afraid and that they had a Taoist priest come in to do a ritual so the ghost wouldn’t be angry. Xiaonizi reveals that the dead woman is still angry, and the manager’s appearance transforms. He is furious and asks her if she’s accusing him of killing the girl. He advances toward Xiaonizi. She points out that the pattern of the ring on his finger matches the odd marks on the dead girl’s neck. He asks if she saw the body. He is obviously very afraid, but he relaxes when she explains what the ghost showed her. This isn’t evidence the police would believe. He says something about he could rape her now and leave no evidence. Xiaonizi only laughs.
The manager attacks her, but she slaps him. One of her fake nails catches his neck and supernaturally cuts a big gash in his flesh, which he sees in the mirror. The text pauses to contrast Xiaonizi’s less sympathetic personality with the warmer personalities of Yueyan, Xiaowu and Amiao. She tells the ghostly woman she has avenged her and walks out, leaving the ghost to stand over the manager’s corpse.
The fifteenth chapter runs twenty seven subchapters with titles. Xiaowu is meeting with the sons and grandsons of the Liu family, specifically Longjing Liu, an old blind man who approached Yueyan and Xiaonizi in the Secret Treasure chapter, an event I didn’t mention in my summary. In that chapter, he freaks out Xiaonizi by telling her she can’t fool him and that her family name is really Tang! Xiaowu doesn’t know about that meeting, he only knows this guy from the underworld as a fortune-telling Feng Shui master.
This family wants Xiaowu’s help in finding some sort of spirit-returning incense which was discussed in various Chinese historical documents going back as far as the Han Dynasty as a sort of aromatherapy to restore the dying to life. Apparently there were only three of these sticks of life reviving incense they are supposed to find, and two were certainly used by well-known historical figures of the Han Dynasty, but the third was saved from burning in a palace fire and was then hidden for safekeeping. The text traces its history a little further in the first few subchapters. Xiaowu is excited about the expedition until he hears a familiar voice speaking and sees a woman come to the front of the group. It’s Xiaonizi Hu. The blind old man introduces them, but Xiaonizi says they are already acquainted. Xiaowu is furious at this turn of events, but he’s even more surprised when the old man tells them the Chinese military is coordinating with them in their search!
The story then jumps in the next subchapter to Amiao and her friend Han Yang kicking around Thailand. Yueyan has come along, happy to be vacationing with two beautiful women. When they go sightseeing in Pattaya, they meet Xiaowu, Xiaonizi and Longjing Liu in one of the Buddhist temples and go along with them on the expedition. Since Longjing’s intelligence sources told him the incense they seek is in Thailand due to the movements of a particular family there, their destination is an old temple in Ayutthaya. The train ride to Ayutthaya is not uneventful; they are attacked by a man-eating monster. Or so it seems. The driver is terrified that it is the angry mountain god. A small part of the text is in Thai here, and Xiaonizi steps in to interpret for the man who doesn’t seem to speak Chinese. After some confusion, they discover the attacking monster is actually a monkey that has some sort of magical centipede infestation. Longjing Liu uses some magic on it to remove the parasite, which nearly infects Yueyan because he is standing too close, but Yueyan’s jade necklace activates and defends him.
When they get to Ayutthaya, they end up walking to this temple because their driver can’t take the car into a holy place. Something sinister starts to happen around them as four black figures appear in the crowd. Amiao uses her foxtail belt, and a Buddha statue shifts, opening a secret room where a golden statute of a boy is located. It is a holy object to the Thai and is related to Gu Man Tong, a guardian which controls the spirits of aborted or dead babies. Here are details on this guardian 古曼童 (Chinese only):
Some magician called the Jiangtou master is there too. The hidden room in this temple is a place of great evil, and it is described in pretty lurid terms. Xiaonizi incites the baby spirits by sprinkling the golden statue with black dog’s blood. Yueyan starts to become faint as the battle heats up. Xiaonizi’s acupuncture and Yueyan’s jade necklace help him rally from his sudden sickness, which has Amiao nearly in tears. Xiaowu, Xiaonizi and Longjing go outside of the temple with a few black-clad bodyguards. They find a road and bridge made of the bones of the dead, then they get ambushed by one of the bodyguards who has a gun. After dealing with him, they return to the temple and the Jiangtou master, who doesn’t seem to be a normal human since there is a discussion about whether he needs to drink fresh blood or not, which must be why the temple is full of skin, hair, animal bones and herbs in addition to its sea of candles.
Xiaowu and the others discuss the legendary incense with the Jiangtou master and get into an argument about it with him. It is in the Jiangtou master’s family, considered a priceless treasure. Longjing Liu tells him they must leave with the incense and are willing to pay him a huge sum of money. Xiaowu takes out his sword, and the Jiantou master takes out a long sword that may somehow channel the spirits of the dead children. Xiaowu is unwilling to harm the child spirits because he pities them so much. They battle the Jiangtou master and ultimately burn his sword. At the end of the chapter, Yueyan is recovering, but Amiao and Han Yang take him to the hospital as Longjing Liu returns to China with the incense, flying on a private plane with Xiaowu and Xiaonizi.
The sixteenth chapter runs eleven subchapters with titles. The story continues with Yueyan at the hospital with Amiao and Han Yang. Originally, they planned on vacationing in Thailand for two weeks, and now that Longjing Liu interrupted that plan, they still have a week to fill. Han Yang suggests they go to her hometown in Malaysia. Yueyan is surprised to hear Han Yang is a Malaysian Chinese, and he flatters her beauty outrageously using a really good Chinese four character saying, 花容月貌 (hua rong yue miao, “appearance of a flower, face like the moon”). Amiao coldly protests his excess. They decide to take Han Yang’s suggestion and go to Malaysia.
So they arrive in the city of Malacca. When they go out to eat, the place is robbed by bandits with blue cloth wrapped around their heads and hands. The police arrive to investigate and take their statements, and Yueyan notices one of the police women strongly resembles Han Yang – it is her sister, Shi’er. Spending the night at the Yang household, they discover that Shi’er was adopted at a very young age. The text also briefly goes into the history of Malacca as an important port city under Portuguese, Dutch and British control, as well as a little of the history of the Peranakan Chinese immigrants to Malaysia during the Ming era, which is explained here:
Amiao and Yueyan go out walking at night in the seedy area of Jonker Street and get embroiled in another police matter. This time they are looking for a suspected rapist, and the police bring their dog to help in the nighttime search. They trace the rapist to a small noodle shop, but the rapist seems to have some kind of magical ability to make himself invisible. When Shi’er takes the police dog into the noodle shop, there are only five people there, the owner, the cook, and three patrons. Somehow, the police dog gets sliced across the neck, and they use the blood tracks to try to find the rapist. Shi’er investigates and decides that the cook must be the rapist. After a scuffle, a pot of hot soup lands on both of Yueyan’s legs. Amiao is livid when she sees Yueyan is injured. She takes out her foxtail belt, and it changes into a whip. She lashes the cook’s legs in her fury. At this point, the police handle the rest of the affair.
Later that night, Amiao and Shi’er are waiting in the emergency room for Yueyan, and Han Yang joins them with coffee. Shi’er wonders about Amiao’s relationship with Yueyan after seeing how out of control Amiao got when he was hurt. Amiao blushingly protests they are just good friends. But Shi’er is very perceptive about people. She tells her a story about Puteri Gunung Ledang from the 15th century, though I’m not sure what she is trying to say by mentioning this figure.
The doctor comes out to report on Yueyan’s condition, and while it is serious, he will be just fine. He recommends Yueyan use a wheelchair for a while then tells the women they can go in to see him. After some time visiting, Shi’er and Han Yang leave. Amiao approaches Yueyan’s bed and kisses him deeply. They hold hands all night.
THE TERRIBLE MANSION
The seventeenth chapter runs 36 subchapters that each has a title in English. This time, we’re back with Xiaonizi, who is laying in a dark room on a cold floor. Her head hurts, and she examines her wounds, which are not serious. After the Lost Souls chapter, she spent a month in sunny California for another assignment, then went on a secret mission elsewhere. Now she has a bit of amnesia. She isn’t sure where she is now or whether the people who put her there are friend or foe. The room has no lighting or ventilation. After checking out the room as well as she could, she finds she is not alone there. Talking with the woman a little, she realizes it is Amiao, which jogs her memory. She asks Amiao if she still has the foxtail, and Amiao decides to try it. She turns it into a dagger. At that moment, the bald man they were aware was walking around outside comes to their door, and he opens the door and explains where they are. They have been locked in a cell at the Old Melbourne Gaol, a historically important jail in Australia that is now a tourist attraction, after a night at the pub!
The chapter begins with more suspense than actual plot, and here the text breaks with a long chapter discussing the history of the jail and death masks that were popular for centuries in Europe because there are some in this jail museum the girls find themselves in. This chapter as a whole spends many subchapters explaining the history of famous Australian bandit Ned Kelly:
This chapter has a much higher percentage of historical rehashing than any of the others so far, perhaps because it would be less familiar to Chinese readers. I found the chapter a bit tedious to read compared to the others because of this – I wasn’t really that interested in Ned Kelly to start with. The historical rehash constantly interrupted the pacing and action of the story at this point and made everything rather confusing. Compared to the construction of the similar Golden Apple chapter, it was less effective.
The girls end up flying to Sydney to meet museum worker Norah Beckingsale to look for the skull of Ned Kelly. Tests have been run on this skull, and Xiaonizi, masquerading as Harvard University history doctoral candidate Jennifer Lee, and Amiao, who is going by the alias Holly, meet a group of men, including coroner Daniel Smith, historian Sam Johnson, and his brother Old Melbourne Gaol manager Tom Johnson. They decide to go together to the small town of Glenrowan, an important settlement associated with Ned Kelly and Tom and Sam’s hometown. They go to a mansion managed by Ned Kelly’s descendants, Thomas and Fiona Kelly, an elderly couple, but instead of finding them waiting, the find the house reeks of blood. After searching a bit, they find Fiona dead in a pool of blood in the bathtub of the master bathroom, while Thomas Kelly is missing. The police come to investigate, and Xiaonizi sees odd indentations in the carpeting that seem unexplained. The police find nothing has been stolen.
Later when the group goes out for dinner and discusses the case, a little boy overhears them. Xiaonizi confronts him after she is annoyed by his staring, and he admits he saw something at the time of the murder. The boy says he saw the murderer out in the garden, dressed like Ned Kelly, while a light was on in a second floor window. After they retire to bed, Xiaonizi and Amiao are wakened by a sound and go to investigate. They happen upon Dan and Tom in a sexual encounter and overhear their questions as to whether Ned Kelly’s gold was the real reason for the murder. Then the whole hotel is wakened by the attack of a giant sized corpse dressed as Ned Kelly, wielding an axe! The corpse beheads two of the hotel workers, and everyone scrambles to jump out of the windows, but the police find no trace of this giant when they arrive.
The group continues their search, which has shifted from finding the skull to finding Ned Kelly’s gold, and they stop to investigate a mine in an area associated with the bandit. Afterward, back in Melbourne, Xiaonizi and Amiao are interrupted by an email in blood-red letters suggesting something is happening at the Old Melbourne Gaol. Again, when they arrive, there’s a strong smell of blood, and they find victims of the giant’s attack, four injured and one dead. Consistent with the pattern so far in the novel when characters engage in a graphic sexual encounter, one of the participants ends up brutally killed, and in this chapter Dan is injured in the neck beyond saving. Xiaonizi surmises that Norah was using some sort of witchcraft on Ned Kelly’s skull to create the monstrous corpse giant. There is more discussion of Ned Kelly’s associates, and the reader is reminded that Ben Johnson is the ancestor of Tom and Sam Johnson.
While they sit around and talk about what is going on and Xiaonizi confronts Norah about various things that happened, the four victims are still injured and dying, and the giant corpse is just standing around with the axe, which seems rather unbelievable. However, at the end, Xiaonizi has to do battle with the corpse. It ends abruptly but dramatically.
In sum, the revelation that Xiaonizi is a spy who entraps men makes sense of her blackmailing Yueyan at the beginning of the Golden Apple chapter. But we still don’t know who she works for. The fact that she and Xiaowu have such similar ghostly experiences in this section is intriguing and among the best chapters of the novel. It’s good to see Amiao warming to Yueyan even if most of their relationship has been developing off screen. The mystery of what sort of item Amiao’s foxtail was made into is solved: it can change from one long, thin item to another, so it must have started as a bracelet, changed for a time into a belt, and this time became a whip in Ashamed and a dagger and a rifle in the Terrible Mansion. It seems it normally is a belt, however.
We still have four more chapters to cover before we finish this book, so stay tuned for more adventures!
Part five of a six part series