Thursday, October 1, 2009

Spookey Month: The Literary Ghost Story

It's October, that haunted month. Here in Japan, we've greeted it this year with a splash of rain. This will soon give way to dry sunny days and cooler temperatures. Today's dreary weather is just perfect for kicking off Spookey Month with a ghost story...

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers and has been since I read Kitchen a few years ago. Her spare prose may sometimes seem overly subtle but that only gives it more emotional resonance. The meaning is not only in the text, it's also in what's left unsaid. Hardboiled Hard Luck is my favorite Banana Yoshimoto book, two novellas joined by their similar titles. Hardboiled tells the story of a woman who decides to take a hike in the mountains on her way to a small countryside hotel. At first, the woman is caught up in her observations, rendered by Yoshimoto in delicately understated prose...

And then the story takes an unexpected Lovecraftian turn, complete with an adverb that the old horror master would no doubt find very familiar. The narrator finds herself in a "slightly more remote part of the mountain, beyond the reach of the streetlights" and reports:

I was overcome by an extremely unpleasant sensation. I had the illusion that space had bent itself gelatinously out of shape, so that no matter how long I walked, I would never make any progress.

At this point, Yoshimoto chooses to have the narrator reveal a past, failed relationship with another woman, one who could "see things other people couldn't." She wonders if somehow this supernatural bent has colored her perceptions and describes how their friendship became more intimate and their ultimate break-up. Almost immediately at the conclusion of this expository a passage, she encounters a small mountain shrine, but one lacking Jizo statue, or "any one of the other figures one might expect to find in this place." Despite the flowers and chains of origami cranes, the woman thinks:

Something incredibly evil is resting here -- something that used to live in the vicinity. I'm sure of it.

She feels something heavy and strange in the air, finds a strange grouping of black stones nearby, arranged in a circle and walks away to escape. She thinks of other places she's been where she's felt similar dark or foreboding emotions drifting in the air. She decides:

There are, without doubt, places in this world where something has settled, and it's best for us little humans not to get involved.

Yes, I'm sure H.P. Lovecraft or even Stephen King could tell us a thing or two about such places. I just finished reading King's 'Salem's Lot, where the Marsten House symbolizes just such a place-- a citadel of pure evil brooding over the more banal kind of the small American town below. Yoshimoto's tiny mountain shrine seems connected in space and time with all of these sinister places, but in a more indefinite way. What does it mean?

The woman finally makes it to her hotel and that's where the fun really begins. There's a fire in the local udon shop where she has an unsatisfying dinner. She finds herself feeling empathy with ghosts and after a hot bath, finds herself in their company.

It starts with a series of dreams about that past lover, now named Chizuru. Chizuru prays in a shrine, Chizuru seems more beautiful than in life, but less substantial. After the dreams, the narrator wakes to a knock at her door and meets a naked woman who claims to have been shut out of her room. This leads to an extended flashback where the narrator describes her childhood, and offers more details of her relationship with Chizuru, including the strange detail that Chizuru "always went to bed wearing an array of objects that glowed or lit up," in order to ward of ghosts. During lovemaking, where Chizuru always topped, these objects frequently poked the narrator and hurt her.

After their break-up, she has a final phone conversation with Chizuru and later learns Chizuru died in a fire. You know-- the day before they talked on the phone.

Back in the hotel, the narrator talks with the strange woman, then decides to call the staff and help her. She learns her visitor is actually the ghost of a woman who came to the hotel with her lover to commit suicide together. It's a long, fitful night full of more dreams of Chizuru, hot tea and sympathy from the hotel staff woman. In the morning, the narrator regains some sense of normalcy and closure with Chizuru.

This is a story of deeper emotions hidden just under the surface of Banana Yoshimoto's nuanced prose. I enjoyed especially the narrator's matter-of-fact approach to these strange events, and the way they're intertwined with her unresolved feelings about leaving Chizuru and her guilt at what happened afterwards, paralleled by her unfinished udon and the fire at the restaurant. It's interesting, too, how Yoshimoto involves the hotel staff woman. The narrator hardly has to convince her. The unreal is evidently always close at hand in this rural place with its sinister shrine nearby. Ghosts are real. The ghosts in our lives definitely are.

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