Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas began a series of coffee-table books on short stories about monsters from across the world. After traveling to Europe in 2014 and Africa in 2015, Jo Thomas had to step out, and Helgadóttir put forward a wonderful edition on Asian Monsters in 2016. Helgadóttir’s “nervousness” in the preface is unwarranted. The readers of the book can only be delighted at the range of monsters and the skill and deftness of the authors included in the volume.
The sepia-toned artwork of the book’s cover is inviting and the illustrations that accompany the stories aptly capture the texts. Helgadóttir tells us that the monsters of the Monsters series “don’t sparkle or have any desire to be a human or part of the human society” and that these “monsters have no interest in you except tearing you apart or putting terror in your heart” (pg. 7). This is true only to some extent. The ghosts and beings in the stories leave readers with a deep sense of horror.
However, what is haunting in stories like Isabel Yap’s ‘Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby’ and Eeleen Lee’s ‘Let Her In,’ where monsters and the humans are tied in deeply twisted emotive bonds, is the tragic outcomes of these relationships. Isabel Yap’s beautifully structured narrative is about the love of a young human mother raising an adopted monster baby. The story, as the narrator of the story says of another human-monster tale, “isn’t a ghost story… It’s a story about love… The most powerful kind of love – a love stronger than death” (pg. 66). The tragedy of ‘Grass Cradle,’ stems precisely from the inevitability and finality of death in the face of love.
Themes of love and loss thread the stories together. In ‘Let Her In,’ the lonely dead daughter, who was forced into an abusive marriage, injects herself back into her mother’s life. Her vengeance is tinged with the tragedy of the broken bond between a mother and a daughter. The moment of the mother’s death in ‘Let Her In’ is a moment both of a horrific encounter between a monster and a human, also a moment of reunification of a mother and daughter. A sense of restoration of fairness to an unjust situation animates the mother’s horrific death in the story.
A portion of Mark Bould’s blurb on the back of the cover of Asian Monsters reads, “The scariest of them all? The normalcy through which they [the monsters] shuffle and swoop: our monstrous world of patriarchy and privilege, of disenchantment and drone warfare and terror.” This aptly captures the spirit of the stories. Each tale is an incisive portrayal of the overwhelming changes in the lives of monsters against social and material changes in the larger world. Each tale is also a sensitive portrayal of an Asian folkloric creature.
Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Golden Lilies’ brings the dead spirit and the young woman who propitiates her together through the experience of foot binding. The monster becomes less of a monster and more of a human as she relives the life of a young Chinese woman following her awakening. As the story unfolds we begin to understand how women negotiate the complex problems and restraints that patriarchy creates for them.
In Ken Liu’s short story, ‘Good Hunting,’ a Hulijing (a Chinese folkloric creature) and a demon hunter together witness and encounter colonial modernity. In a changing China where factories “belch smoke” and “wires carry speech,” the old magic slowly fades (pg. 26). The wonders of the modern world are in themselves like magic. Liu narrates a spectacular story of how the monster and its hunter cope with these changing times.
If Liu’s story takes us back to the dawn of the 20th century, Usman T Malik’s tale of a child’s confrontation with horror takes us to contemporary Pakistan. In ‘Blood Women,’ we face the wives of the dead as they roam a war-torn country ravaged by drones and suicide bombers. The monsters in this story add a different kind of terror in the already terrorized hearts of children.
While the graphic stories mostly add to the volume, these stories perhaps do not match the stylistic sophistication of the textual narratives. That being said, the theme in Vajra Chandrasekera and Dave Johnson’s ‘Vikurthimagga,’ about how self-understanding entails the encounter with layers and levels of monstrosity within our selves, is deeply provocative.
Eliza Chan’s ‘Datsue-Ba,’ which appears in this issue of Mithila Review, encapsulates some of the major themes in the volume – love, loss and ageing. The story is a complex and nuanced narrative where the narrator, a young woman in a relationship with an older man, is trying come to terms with an older heartbreak. Her encounter with the monster in the story brings some of her anxieties and concerns out into the fore. The protagonist’s honest self-narration of her past juxtaposes her growing ambivalence towards her current partner and calmness in the face of his ultimate death.
Without giving too much away, we ask that you read this story and enjoy Kieran Walsh’s illustration to get a feel of the wonderful volume of Asian Monsters that the editor has so beautifully put together. As each story follows quite smoothly from the other, we hope that the story will inspire you to read the book in its entirety.
Asian Monsters is available here at Amazon.com.