Monday, January 03, 2011

The Summer of the Ubume, or crime writing and ghosts

This novel crosses two borders for me, one to Japan, the other to horror.

The publisher, Vertical, calls Natsuhiko Kyogoku's The Summer of the Ubume, mystery/horror. The author loves Japanese folklore, Vertical says, especially that of the paranormal and preturnatural, with special interest in the supernatural entities called yokai . This book, Kyogoku's 1994 debut, "gives birth to a new form of Japanese fiction," according to the publisher. Vertical also calls Kyogoku "the Neil Gaiman of Japanese mystery fiction."

Now, horror is not generally my cup of reading tea, but I do like the wry humor and sense of dislocation in The Summer of the Ubume's opening chapter. The opening perches on the verge of excess without going over:

"At the very top of the hill, where the lackadaisical, interminable slope petered out at last, sat my destination: Kyogokudo."
Want to know what Kyogokudo is? You'll have to wait til the bottom of the page. I've met no yokai yet, as far as I know, but Kyogoku knows how to build suspense from the beginning.

This will be a rare excursion in the world of ghosts for me. How about you? What are your thoughts on ghosts, spirits, and other other-worldly matteres in crime witing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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41 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

If this is a question based on subjective views on this, I would say that I don't like books, mysteries or otherwise, with supernatural elements--ghosts, etc.

Logic, reasoning, science to me are the bedrock of mysteries. Everything must be explained in the material world.

In fact, I did not like a book nominated for a big mystery prize last year because of the old-world, other-worldly element.

It takes away from appreciation of a book for me.

January 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked Stuart Neville's "Ghosts of Belfast," though they are ghosts with an asterisk. A complete skeptic can comfortably read them for that they are: extreme manifestations of the protagonist's tortured memories.

Colin Cotterill makes interesting use of the spirit world in his crime novels set in Laos, though in one or two of them the spirit world is a tease: The protagonist professes his belief in spirits as a key to understanding -- until it comes time to solve the mystery. But Cotterill's portrayal of how the spirit world can play a vital role in people's lives and beliefs is convincing.

But I'm with you on ghosts. I'll keep you posted on this book.

January 04, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Most crime writers seem to use those elements as red herrings. The gigantic hound turns out to be a phosphorus-daubed mastiff. The Woman in White turns out to be a real woman after all.

I don't mind ghosts in small doses, though. Certainly Dickens made good use of them.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Solea said...

I guess i'm the odd woman out as I like spirits in crime fiction. I grew up with indigenous family on both sides of the border so I relate to spirits easily, not in a hokey Disney way, but in a natural everything-is-interconnected way. I love Native fiction (particularly by women authors) and "Almanac of the Dead" comes to mind. It's certainly not traditional mystery, but noir isn't mystery to me anyhow. That book really fu*k'd with my head and the bad spirits stay with you. Even though it's one of my favorites I keep it tucked away in the closet.
**Now I have an urge to watch The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

The Japanese spirit world is so different from the Western one that I'm sure it would be interesting just for its exotic qualities. I went to an art show in Berkeley a long time ago called I believe Japanese Ghosts and Demons, which was excellent. I don't think I'd mind at all reading a mystery that contained someone from the supernatural realm. Of course, it would have to be a good story.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, Colin Cotterill does something like that in the book I alluded to. I don't remember which novel it was, but I recall feeling a bit cheated when his Dr, Siri concludes, in essence, that the spirit stuff is all right, but good, old Western rationalism rides in to save the day when it's time to solve the mystery. He usually blends the two better than that.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solea: You know, I have only the vaguest memories of the old Ghost and Mrs. Muir television series, and I've never seen the movie on which it was based. Nothing I remember about it would bring the words native or indigenous to mind.

But natural and interconnected are what I like about how the spirit world works in Colin Cotterill's books. I'm not sure they'll *uck with anyone's head, but they will leave a reader with an understanding of how spirits might work in people's lives and why people might believe in them. I think he's said that one simply must take a belief in spirits into account when writing in and about Laos.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the author opens a nice path into the story for skeptics like us. The first chapter consists largely of an argument between two friends about the nature of memory and consciousness and the function of religion as a mediator between the brain and the mind. I'm sure I'm being set up for something unbelievable that will nonetheless cause me to rub my chin thoughtfully.

January 04, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I can understand spirits in a story if this is part of the Indigenous belief system and/or the culture.

Of course, reading books about cultures in which spirits play a large part is fine with me, if it's part of a character or community or country's way of thinking. Or part of the dialogue, too.

If it's part of the solution to the mystery, that would bother me. And I don't like books going back 100 years to an earlier story, implying ghosts from that time are involved in the story or mystery. Not my thing.

But, yes, I respect people's cultures, and enjoy learning about different ways of thinking about the world and its phenomena.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

What are your thoughts on ghosts, spirits, and other other-worldly matteres in crime witing?

I'm for it and genre intermingling in general. Kyogoku also brings in the mind/brain dichotomy? Let me add another to my reading list.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Solea said...

Isn't there a Montalbano story that includes spirits helping him solve a case? I can't remember which one, perhaps Voice of the Violin? I recall he solves the case in kind of trance, or perhaps with the help of a dream. Or am I dreaming?
The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a helluva good black and white, not to be missed, starring Gene Tierney & Rex Harrison.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you might like Colin Cotterill, then. Eliot Pattison, too.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, you'd probably like the book's opening chapter, then. The idea of the brain and the mind being at odds and religion functioning as a mediator is interesting.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solea, Montalbano has been helped by his dreams, notably in The Track of Sand, the most recent of the books translated into English. I don't remember any spirits in the books, except for the occasional whiskey he shares with Ingrid, so you could be dreaming. Or inhabited by demons.

And thanks for the heads-up on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and its stellar leads.

January 04, 2011  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

I'm pretty much opposed to ghosts. Even as a kid I felt that that's when Scooby Doo started to go downhill when they decided to start have real ghosts.

I like Stanley Kubrick's comment that every ghost story is basically optimistic because it assumes that there's something - anything - after death.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How about stories that propose, implicitly or explicitly, explanations for what we call ghosts? The Ghosts of Belfast is an example of the former, this current novel of the latter.

January 04, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Mrs. Radcliffe was the first during the 18th c. craze for Gothic tales of ghosts to explode the supernatural as humbug.

Detective fiction cannot but rely on fact. Otherwise, the author cheats. That is why I don't like Cotterill (even given the charming protagonist). Van Gulik's Judge Dee encounters a few ghosts, but they are introduced as an afterthought, causing the judge a small shiver of awe after he has solved the crime with the application of pure reason.

The Japanese are extremely fond of the supernatural and the bizarre. In my view, this works in short stories but not in mysteries.

Needless to say, my protagonist is not quite in sync with his culture when it comes to a mind-boggling array of superstitions common in the Heian age.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Needless to say, my protagonist is not quite in sync with his culture when it comes to a mind-boggling array of superstitions common in the Heian age.

Now, that's interesting. I would think that any author of fiction set in the past faces the dilemma of accurately portraying mental attitudes for readers for whom such attitudes may be completely alien. That old stand-by the maverick detective acquires the additional function of being a gateway or guide for readers because his attitudes are closer to the reader's.

January 04, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think Kubrick might be wrong though, because they might just be some sort of energetic projections from the past. Kind of like film images.

I'm not a great believer in ghosts, but then again, I haven't been visited by any supernatural manifestations, either. There was a house in my dad's family, though certainly had a lot of ghost stories attached to it. My grandfather was apparently not all that scared of them, but definitely felt that they had their place and were not to be meddled with. He must have been a good storyteller, though, because my father was very reluctant to tell us the stories when we were little.

I doubt that most ghosts would be very interested in helping solve crimes, unless it was the crime of their own death. And still, what good would it do?

January 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What can I tell you? I'm a rational guy, and I believe, insofar as my lazy imaginings deserve such a word, in rational explanations even for the irrational.

Yes, what good would it do? Any right-minded ghost would have to think: "I stick my insubstantial neck out for nobody."

January 04, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well as you know I really liked Stuart's book but I'm still not completely buying into the premise. There are better examples...I can't really read John Connolly at all anymore and have stopped reviewing him because I feel that he writes in a fantasy/crime genre that I just dont get.

January 05, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

As for "portraying mental attitudes for readers for whom such attitudes may be completely alien", the author only needs to acknowledge that such attitudes existed at the time. There is no need for every character to portray them. My assumption is that every age and every culture has had its sceptics.
As for modern readers: they seem to prefer the supernatural to reality at the moment. No doubt that is another form of escape, but it isn't my own preference.

January 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: I know there are better examples of ghost stories than The Ghosts of Belfast. In fact that's no more a ghost story than a story about a man haunted by his demons is a supernatural story. But the ghosts are an effective way of reinvigorating that old chestnut of a man haunted by his past. Stuart picked an effective means to tell his story. So ghosts can be of utilitarian use.

January 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., but doesn't an author of historical fiction -- at least one who just starting out in the genre -- have to avoid the temptation of fill the book with modern attitudes?

Ariana Franklin manages this well. Her "Mistress of the Art of Death" is set in the twelfth century but the opening pages contain observations surprisingly congenial to modern readers. This is no doubt made easier by Franklin's choice of an outsider as protagonist (she's not just a woman, not just a Jew, but a traveller from abroad). I don't suggest Franklin chose such a protagonist merely as a mouthpiece, but an outsider is an effective vehicle for commentary on unfamiliar territory for the reader might well want a guide.

You mentioned Robert van Gulik above. His Judge Dee stories are excellent grist for such a discussion. As much as he loved the eighteenth-century Judge Dee story he translated, he writes in great detail about the differences between old Chinese crime stories and Western readers' expectations, and about the radical alterations he made when he wrote his own stories about Judge Dee. An active role for the supernatural was one of those features of the old tales that he pared back radically when he wrote new ones.

January 05, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Exactly!

And I do not fill my books with modern attitudes. Akitada is in most ways a man of his time. Note for example that his wife does not help him detect. Women did not do such things. Akitada also has the typical class-conscious attitudes of his time and struggles how to balance them with his sense of justice. It just so happens that he does not believe in ghosts (his sidekick does) and prefers the Shinto religion to Buddhism (but that has more to do with respect for the native religion than with any of it's practices). Shinto taboos seriously handicap a detective. :)
(I can't read Ariana Franklin who strikes me as very modern).
In general, a protagonist must be an individual and not a projection of what we imagine the man of the time was like.

January 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your suggestion that Ariana Franklin is too modern does not strike me as outlandish, though I did not quite find her that way for reasons I suggested in a previous comment. She's also careful not to let the modernity get out of hand. Her protagonist, Adelia, is constrained by her sex from examining the body of a dead male, for example, having to make her diagnosis from another room via observations relayed to her by a man.

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, yes. The struggles of the unliberated female.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I know.

It's been a few years since I read the book, but I don't recall excessive chafing at the restrictions placed upon Adelia. So, yes, maybe the scene was calculated to get under contemporary female skin in out century, but such a scene could plausibly have happened in the twelfth. Don't forget: Where the protagonist comes from, women could practice medicine at the time.

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Not being a huge fan of historical fiction, I haven't searched out this book.

This discussion, however, is causing me to be intrigued by it. And a friend of mine, who was a nurse-practitioner for years and likes historical fiction would be very interested in this.

So, it looks like I'll check this out.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I read the book when I was briefly a member of a crime-fiction reading group. It's not the kind of book I would normally read, but I'm glad I read it. There was much of interest in it, and it taught me something about Henry II of England.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

My friends likes historical novels, especially about England, and she likes medical themes, so this would be up her alley. She likes Anne Perry's historical mysteries.

So this would interest her.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Mistress of the Art of Death" has a short, informative end note, principally about Henry, that I liked, so this book may indeed be up your friend's alley.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I'm Irish.... I take them as they come.

In reality, the whole Celtic scene is so out of kilter with my pragmatic sensibility that I often have cause to wonder why I was born into a culture with so many vampires, real and imaginary.

I have to admit I do like Bram Stoker's narrative techniques, while finding his work so grisly.

Japanese and Chinese stories are often haunted, and it is worth reading François Cheng.

January 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The current vogue for vampires and zombies has passed me by entirely, though I did like parts of Sean of the Dead.

January 16, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I don't think you are missing much.

I find ghost stories less interesting these days, and vampires are so ugly.

January 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My only idle curiosity about vampire and zombie stories -- and it's highly idle -- is why vampires? Why zombies? Why now?

January 18, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't wonder so much about the vampires, but I do wonder about the zombies.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, why do you wonder about one and not the other? After all, you're in a better position than most to know about vampires and zombies -- books about them, I mean.

By the way, one of the leading zombie authors, Jonathan Maberry, is Philadelphia's own.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Why?

Metaphors of corruption, loss of innocence and contagion, perhaps?

Markman Ellis has written in "The History of Gothic Fiction" that vampire imagery was common currency during the French Revolution and he throws in references to Marx and economics.

Once bitten, you become one of them.

Sounds like the average workplace...

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, the reading public craves a good, meaty metaphor, and sometimes they all crave the same one at the same time. It's a mystery, really.

January 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As it someoen bit them on the neck and said, "Buy books."

January 18, 2011  

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