Review: Wailing Ghosts by Pu Songling

To celebrate their 80th birthday in 2015, Penguin Books began publishing ‘Little Black Classics’ – affordable excerpts of great literature taken from their flagship Classics imprint. Amongst the initial 80 titles in the series was Wailing Ghosts: a short collection of “macabre hauntings, monsters and magic tricks” from Chinese storyteller Pu Songling (1640–1715). These miniature stories are taken from the longer collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, and feature ghosts, fox-spirits, re-animated corpses, trolls, magicians, mysterious visitors and relics from the underworld. Strange Tales was a posthumous collection when first printed in c.1740, though it was circulated in hand-copied manuscripts during Pu Songling’s lifetime. With roots in the oral traditions of Chinese folklore, this is magic realism committed to the page over 200 years before Franz Roh coined the phrase. However, Penguin’s decision to call this condensed version ‘Wailing Ghosts’ and swap words such as ‘strange’ and ‘amusing’ for the weightier ‘macabre’ in the accompanying marketing material may leave some readers frustrated. Pu is no Poe. He’s not even an R. L. Stine.

The problem with marketing Pu Songling as ‘macabre’ to modern readers is that it suggests his tales will be disturbing. They aren’t. In ‘The Troll’ – the story that opens Wailing Ghosts – a student returns to his temple accommodation after a brief trip to his family home, only to find that the temple has been deserted. He decides to stay anyway, and retires to his bed. Suspense is built fleetingly by the employment of a technique that has become a well-worn horror trope:

“His room filled with the roaring of the wind, and he heard the sound of clomping boots gradually approaching the alcove in which his bed was situated. By now he was utterly terrified.”

But then, with the very next sentence, all suspense is stripped away:

“Then the door of the alcove itself flew open, and there it was, a great troll…”

Of course, it’s grossly unfair to measure the ghost stories of the past against the current standard for the macabre. As Lisa so perceptively responds to Bart’s dismissal of ‘The Raven’ in a Simpsons Halloween episode: “It was written in 1845. Maybe people were easier to scare back then.” I don’t think it’s too condescending to imagine that just the idea of a troll would probably have chilled 17th-century readers, and so simply having that troll appear would be enough of a payoff. As what scares us has changed over the centuries, so has the need for our literary apparitions and monsters to work harder. As a subject of entertainment, the macabre has always needed to evolve – to become grimmer and ghastlier – and this often leaves previous representations looking pretty tame by comparison (though there are inevitably brilliant exceptions). It’s something that Pu Songling tackled himself – his stories reinvigorating the zhiguai xiaoshuo branch of Chinese literature, which had seen its widely-reprinted existing tales of the strange grow stale and clichéd over time.

That Pu Songling is an important figure in literature isn’t up for debate, and he rightly takes his place within the Penguin Classics canon. However, when judged on their entertainment value alone, the fourteen stories included in Wailing Ghosts too often fall flat, or end so abruptly that you wonder if you’ve missed something. Of course, it’s possible that Pu Songling’s original tales have become muddied by bad translation, though John Minford’s record as a translator and sinologist suggests otherwise. What’s interesting about ‘The Troll’, though, is what it shares with much later works by the likes of M. R. James, Shirley Jackson and Susan Hill. There is moonlight, an abandoned building, footsteps in the hallway. It’s a precursor to so much of what chills us modern readers of the macabre. That’s not to say that Pu Songling was the first storyteller to employ these devices, but his published tales offer an intriguing insight into the evolution of what scares us. If you are interested in the macabre’s place within folkloric tradition, then these Wailing Ghosts are worth your time – just don’t expect to be haunted by them.

Wailing Ghosts is available from Penguin.

Rhys Owain Williams is assistant editor of The Ghastling.

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