#CBR6 Review #6 – Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo

Apparitions Ghosts of Old EdoTarget: Miyabe Miyuki’s Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo.  Translated by Daniel Huddleston

Profile: Horror, Ghost Stories

After Action Report:

Japanese horror ranges pretty heavily from mild ghost stories to some incredibly creepy and dehumanizing body horror.  Apparitions fortunately falls into the former citatory, chronicling a series of stories that walk a fine line between scary and sentimental.  These tales capitalize on the cornerstone of Japanese spirituality: that every object and creature is imbued with a sprit.  At their core, these stories are more cautionary tales, advising the listener to act with honor and respect or risk the wrath of the Kami.

Apparitions consists of nine stories, all of which take place what would be ‘middle-class’ households in Edo-period Japan.  The stories are as much historical as they are fantasy or horror, and these historical elements set the tone for the whole collection.  The book is steeped in nostalgia, and a longing for simpler times when people were held accountable, not only for their actions, but for their attitude and personal honor.  It’s through this sepia colored lens that these ayakashi, or spirits, emerge into view.

One of the things I really like about classic Japanese ghost stories is the sense of justice to them.  It goes back to that Shinto spiritualism, demanding respect of nature and your relationships with those around you.  When you are out of balance, bad things happen to you.  One story in particular, ‘The Futon Storeroom,’ is a very touching tale of two sisters’ love for each other transcending death and protecting each other from a malicious spirit.  Which is not to say that good behavior is a guarantee of safety, but that is a sort of supernatural logic behind the hauntings.

In spite of the Japanese setting and origins, Apparitions actually shares a lot of storytelling tropes with classic western horror.  The aura of suspense and palpable fear of the unknown are both felt through many of the vignettes.  Miyabe also borrows directly from western classics, evoking the imagery of Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” and J.D. Beresford’s “The Misanthrope.”  On a totally unrelated note, a big ‘thank you’ to my cousin Alex, whose book recommendations and random ramblings have given me all my current knowledge about western horror and gothic fiction.

At the same time, Miyabe’s style is clearly Japanese.  The light characterization of many of the characters, and their seeming interchangeability are hallmarks of Japanese fiction.  How you act is more important that who you are.  The ‘horror’ aspects are also very light.  While there are some visceral thrills in the later stories, the first few focus more on atmosphere and storytelling than single scary moment.  The first story, ‘A Drowsing Dream of Shinju,’ in particular takes a long time to set up without a big payoff.

This Japanese style extends to some odd quirks of Japanese language that haven’t quite been translated out in this version of the book.  Huddleston’s translation is excessively liberal, leaving place names untranslated and leaving in suffixes that denote location or feature.  As an example, on the first page, he uses the word ‘Abura-cho’ which would have been better translated as either “Abura Town,” or “the town of Abura.”  At no point are these suffixes clarified or explained, leaving readers unfamiliar with Japanese syntax out in the cold.  This kind of sloppy translation is simply not sufficient for a mass-market release.  It works against the quality of the original writing and undermines comprehension in the process.

For better or for worse, Apparitions doesn’t get a full recommendation from me.  Part of that is due to the shoddy translation, but another minor problem is that many of the stories feel overly similar.  The bland protagonists and the somewhat universal setting detract from the detailed enjoyment of the individual stories.  Still, if you’re a fan of gothic fiction and want to try something a little different, Miyabe has a subtle touch and a skilled eye for detail that can make Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Posted on March 7, 2014, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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