This time we continue our look at the horror novel by Ru Wan, Red Wedding Dress, (如宛的《紅嫁衣》). Before I dig into the section this installment covers, I want to make a few observations about the book in general. I really like the subtle style of the scarier scenes, which we’ll see more of in this portion. I’m not one for big, in your face shocks in horror novels, and this really hits that sweet spot. The other thing of note is that the novel within the novel that Xiaofei is writing is not a horror novel like her grandmother’s original story but is rather perhaps a historical romance with some tragic aspects. A portion of this interior novel is presented in every chapter, and it often provides a parallel for Xiaofei’s current situation with the main characters around her, if perhaps giving them a more benign spin.
Chapter five begins with Xiaofei noticing her wig is gone. She wonders if someone else has been in her room. Looking all over her room, she thinks she sees black hair moving across the floor, but it turns out to be a black cat. It jumps up to the window and disappears into the night. She laughs and goes to bed.
Back at work, Xiaofei’s editor calls her in his office to meet Dan Dan, an employee’s daughter that Xiaofei knew when they were young. She’s a waitress around 20 years old, and she’s coming to stay with Xiaofei and her grandmother in order to look for a better job. She drives Dan Dan to Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way home. I thought that was an interesting detail that was unexpectedly specific, but I think it’s a little important as a contrast to what comes up in the next scene.
When they get home, Xiaofei’s grandmother startles Dan Dan, coming up behind her soundlessly in her cloth slippers. Xiaofei didn’t mention to her grandmother that she was bringing Dan Dan home. When Xiaofei goes to work the next morning, she instructs Dan Dan that she can watch TV, that they have a lot of movies. Dan Dan sleeps in before going downstairs to talk with grandmother, who reheats noodles for Dan Dan. Dan Dan eats it while watching TV, and when she sees there’s a small chicken in it half formed in a shell, she nearly throws up! Grandmother likes to make it for Xiaofei, but she promises not to make it for Dan Dan again since she can’t stand it. The dish in question is balut:
Xiaofei isn’t due to come home until late, but grandmother wakes Dan Dan up after dark, frightening her with the candle, which makes grandmother look like a creepy corpse. Dan Dan asks if the electricity is off, and grandmother says no, which makes Dan Dan think old people are thrifty and don’t change.
Meanwhile, Xiaofei is out on a date with Gaotian and Yan Mo at the movies. They take a walk afterward, chatting about Gaotian’s hobbies when Dan Dan calls in a panic, saying she is afraid because the house is big and she can’t turn on the lights. Xiaofei promises to come home right away, but when she arrives, she is startled by Dan Dan walking around with a candle, thinking for a minute that Dan Dan is the demon-faced bride. A gust of wind blows out the candle, and the black cat appears again, making the situation and Xiaofei’s perceptions even more chaotic. The cat disappears out of the window again, and Xiaofei plans on talking to grandmother about letting Dan Dan turn on the lights, but Dan Dan says it’s okay if she just can use them when grandmother isn’t home.
When Xiaofei returns home from work the next night, she finds grandmother preparing a fish, and the text lingers over the sinister details of the fish guts and blood. Grandmother asks how long Dan Dan will be staying with them, but Xiaofei doesn’t know. Grandmother says she doesn’t object to Dan Dan staying per se, just that Dan Dan is an adult who just sleeps and watches TV all day without helping out. Xiaofei points out she’s older than Dan Dan and doesn’t help out, yet grandmother doesn’t complain. Grandmother says it isn’t the same since Xiaofei goes to work. Later Xiaofei asks Dan Dan about her job search, but Dan Dan is defensive, saying it’s really difficult. They agree she should start helping out grandmother.
The next night, Xiaofei brings home Gaotian and introduces him. He is the first boyfriend Xiaofei has ever brought home. Dan Dan is very impressed with Xiaofei’s life. Later when Xiaofei goes to Dan Dan’s room, she discovers Dan Dan wearing the antique red wedding dress! When Xiaofei was out, Dan Dan got bored and went through her wardrobe. Xiaofei swears Dan Dan to secrecy. They talk about Gaotian, and Dan Dan warns her against trusting him too completely or else she’ll risk losing him. Xiaofei dismisses her concerns.
When Xiaofei is driving home on a different day, she notices someone is following her, and she tests out her theory. It does turn out that she is being tailed, and she wonders why since she really isn’t that famous. She figures out how to lose them and tells Dan Dan about it when she gets home. Back in her room, Dan Dan worries about Xiaofei’s story, wondering if it has anything to do with a man who has been harassing her, San Ge. She worries he has found her, and her cell phone rings. She had been avoiding answering it because it was him. He threatens her when she takes the call, and she hurriedly hangs up. Grandmother interrupts to bring her another blanket , scaring Dan Dan again a little.
In the middle of the night, Dan Dan is awoken by the sound of a man’s footsteps outside of her door. Her door opens, and a man calls her name. It’s San Ge. She apologizes to him, acknowledging she owes him money but stating that she can’t pay him yet. He says if she doesn’t pay him, her life is his, then he raises an axe and hits her. She wakes up from the dream, screaming.
As the days pass, Xiaofei sees Dan Dan wearing the red wedding dress late at night, looking as if she were transformed into someone else and talking to herself about killing someone and cutting up their face. Xiaofei finds her behavior a bit frightening, and she and Gaotian decide they need to get her out of the house, so they plan an outing together. Dan Dan hasn’t left the house in a month, and she hasn’t been looking for work. They have a good time, and when they return home, they have tea. Dan Dan spills the tea on Gaotian, while Xiaofei prepares fruit for the group. She overhears Dan Dan talking to Gaotian in a way that she doesn’t like. Does Dan Dan like Xiaofei’s boyfriend?
At work the next day, Xiaofei’s editor changes his instructions, forcing Xiaofei into a heavy writing schedule that leaves no time for socializing, therefore Gaotian resorts to stopping over at Xiaofei’s house all of the time, waiting downstairs with Dan Dan until Xiaofei completes that night’s writing assignment. Xiaofei catches them together in the kitchen cooking dinner at an awkward moment. Dan Dan starts going out at night without explanation, which makes Xiaofei suspicious that Dan Dan is having an affair with Gaotian. She resents how much time Dan Dan spends with Gaotian when he comes over to see Xiaofei. Meanwhile, her fans are calling in requesting a happy ending for her novel.
After one of her nighttime outings, Dan Dan returns home to find Xiaofei sharpening a knife in the kitchen, saying she’s going to kill the feral cat that keeps coming into the house. Dan Dan is both relieved and afraid by this declaration, and she rushes to bed but can still hear the sound of the blade being sharpened. Dan Dan dreams of the cat coming on her bed and licking her. She frets, remembering Xiaofei’s threat, and she tries to get the cat out of there. Suddenly, Xiaofei appears in her nightclothes, crazy and disheveled, the knife in her hand. The cat jumps around the room until it gets tired, and Xiaofei pounces on it, stabbing it, blood spurting everywhere.
Xiaofei grills Dan Dan the next morning on where she went the night before, but she doesn’t believe her excuse. Then when Gaotian comes over, he tries to explain he couldn’t meet with her the night before because he was on a police case. They go for a walk and reconcile, but Xiaofei notices with some consternation that Dan Dan is in bed early only on the night Gaotian is at their house. Her suspicions grow.
In the sections where Xiaofei’s novel resumes, we see Yanran riding in a carriage to the city. Bright shops are on both sides of the street, and an ad has a woman wearing a short-sleeved qipao, setting the novel firmly in China’s Republican Era (1920s to 1949), an era of women’s liberation, which is fitting for the novel’s setup of the forced marriage with multiple wives:
A patrolman thinks Yanran is a beggar. She is hungry but has enough money to buy a steamed bun. She asks about how to get to the address that she has for Sheng Jun, but it’s a little far to reach on foot. She tries to hire a rickshaw, but it at first appears to be too expensive. The driver tries to bargain with her, and they reach an agreeable price. He asks how she is related to the rich family whose address she is looking for. She tells him it’s an older male cousin. She develops a bit of a relationship with the rickshaw driver and his kindly, blind mother when Sheng Jun isn’t home and she’s too poor to stay at a hotel.
When Sheng Jun finally returns home, it’s dusk. She is wearing a veil to conceal her mangled face, but when she pulls it back, he doesn’t recognize her. Taking pity on her, he invites her into his house and takes her as a servant to his family. Everyone knows her as Qingtong, an orphan who was injured in a fire. She is happy now that she is able to stay near him. In another scene, Yanran pulls out her wedding dress and tries it on, but another servant catches her and threatens to tell everyone that she stole it so she would be thrown out of the house. Sheng Jun walks in and says he trusts that she didn’t steal it.
Sheng Jun graduates from school and intends to go back to the village to find Yanran. He returns dispirited, discovering she has died in a fire after her marriage to Old Su. Everyone blames Sheng Jun for her death because he didn’t come back to get her earlier. Yanran wonders if she should reveal to him her true identity. She doesn’t, and at Mid Autumn Festival, a guest comes who may be a potential bride for Sheng Jun. Once he is engaged, he sees that Yanran is unhappy. She hints that Yanran isn’t dead and makes some remarks about a childhood friend. She even sneaks into his room often at night to watch him sleep, and this time he wakes up while she’s there. Later she tells the rickshaw driver that she decided not to tell him because she is afraid he still won’t choose to be with her even if he knew.
Part two of a three part series.