A Ghost Story for Summer

2009-07-13_20-38

2009-07-13_20-38

               Days of the Dark Lantern

 

                by Zoe Drake

 

 

              The story goes like this:
              At the end of the school day, the kids are coming out of elementary school, ready for the journey home. They’ve got everything packed up in their big randoseru satchels and they’re shouting, running, all on a high because now the play can go right on till bedtime. It’s late afternoon, but it’s already threatening to get dark – that smoky, sultry dusk that comes only in the Japanese midsummer.
              A couple of kids catch sight of a woman standing alone near the school gate. Nobody else seems to notice her. She’s wearing one of those white gauze masks over the lower part of her face that people have when they’ve got colds or hay fever. The kids can only see the woman’s eyes. Wide open. Staring.
              The woman walks closer to the kids and says hello. They return the greeting nervously.
              The woman points to her face and says, “Do you think I’m beautiful?” The kids are too scared to answer so the woman says again, “Under this mask … do you think I’m beautiful?” There’s still no answer, so the woman says, “Well, why don’t you find out?”
              She takes off her mask. Underneath, her face is split from ear to ear. Her mouth is a wide red gash that opens wetly, widens as the children begin to scream, it opens in a grin to reveal rows of sharpened teeth receding into her skull …
              “Do you want to be beautiful, like me?”
Whack! The fat guy sitting on the train seat over to the left, and diagonally opposite Trisha, had just dropped his comic for the third time. Every few moments his actions repeated themselves. He flicked open a manga comic magazine the size of the New Jersey phonebook and started to read it, but after a few seconds his eyes rolled back, his jaw slackened, and he dozed until the comic slipped from numb fingers and hit the floor of the railway carriage. Whack! Like that. And then the guy would wake up, reach down and pick it up, and instead of putting it away and grabbing some shut-eye he opened it again and tried to carry on reading until he flaked out again, and the comic followed the line of least resistance once more.
              Trisha lifted her paperback (trashy, but it was second-hand and in English) higher, trying to screen out the fat guy’s face and by, association, the sound of the comic. The Chuo line train, carrying Trisha back to her apartment in Koenji, wasn’t crowded at this time of the early evening; there were even some empty seats. Trying to concentrate on the novel, she noticed – over the barrier of the open pages – the eyes of the middle-aged guy in the navy blue suit and obvious under-shirt sitting opposite. Jeez, she thought sourly, why do they have to stare all the time? After all, this is Tokyo, not some hick town in the mountains. Foreigners are everywhere here, just open your window and throw out a rice ball in uptown Aoyama, you’re bound to hit some gaijin. They’re on the TV every few minutes in some trendy commercial; Tommy Lee Jones selling canned coffee or Brad Pitt driving a Toyota or whatever, what’s the problem? Okay, she thought, I don’t look bad … I’m kinda good-looking but I’m no model, no way.
              She stopped reading, and locked eyes with the guy opposite. He looked away. He could be a pervert, Trisha thought. He was certainly old enough to be one, although you had to watch out for even young guys these days. Yeah, he had perverted little eyes.
              “You know what happened to me on the train last week?” This was her friend Sue, from Ohio, talking to her in the student cafeteria yesterday. “I was on the local train one afternoon, and this guy was sitting opposite, right? Quite a young guy, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that screamed ‘I am a fruitcake’. There weren’t that many people around because it was just after lunch. So I was kind of tired and I was zoning out, you know? I must have dozed off for a couple of minutes.”
Trisha nodded, beginning to realize what was coming.
“So like, I open my eyes and there’s the guy opposite, and his fly’s open and he’s got his dick in his hands.”
              Trisha was appropriately shocked in her reaction.
              Sue continued. “He was holding his briefcase by his side so the people on his right couldn’t see what he was doing, yeah? And there was nobody sitting on his left so it was just him and me, and I was like, well, excuse me!”
              Sue paused and took a fast drag from her Salem Lite, then carried on talking, the smoke leaking out of her mouth behind her words. Trisha could see why Sue would be the centre of attention. She was short but was packing a lot of weight, with stocky hips and a big bust, a real magnet for the chubby-chasers. Added to that she had very long, straight, white hair – not blonde, but almost pure white. Even Trisha found herself staring at it in class sometimes.
              “So you know what I did, don’t you? I mean, I can’t let something like that pass by. So I close my book, stand up, walk over to him, and say –
              “If it’s that small, I don’t recommend taking it out in public,” the two girls chorused in heavily accented Japanese.
              “I mean, Jeez.” She stubbed out her Salem Lite, warming to her theme. “I wish I knew how to say, ‘I’ll help you get it out, if I could find my eyebrow tweezers’.”
              Back to the present moment. The train had arrived at Koenji, and Trisha was relieved to find that the pervert guy didn’t try to follow her when she got off.
              Outside the station, the night was hot, wet and still, like a warm towel across the brow. The lights of streetlamps, convenience store signs, and vending machines glowed softly in the enveloping warmness. Red lanterns hung outside the yakitori and ramen shops. Trisha started the ten-minute walk to her apartment.
              “Japan is still a very safety country,” her students at the part-time English classes would mispronounce, whenever talk turned to relationships between Japan and the US.
              Not any more, she thought. There are all kinds of freaks creeping out of the woodwork. Something’s been stewing in this pressure-cooker ever since the War and a few years ago, someone took the lid off.

 

Mussum-as-Kuchisake-onna

 
Notes from the dissertation of Patricia Holly:
              Japanese culture – from the earliest folk tales, to the Kabuki, Noh and Ukiyo-e paintings of the feudal Edo period, to the modern film genre of J-Horror – has always been saturated with the supernatural.
Japanese ghost stories, known as “kaidan” and sometimes mistakenly pronounced as “kwaidan”, are in cultural terms very different from what we understand to be ghost stories in the West. Western ghost stories are very often associated with the winter, partly due to the ancient festival of Samhain (now known as Halloween), which associates the beginning of the winter with the return of spirits to this world. In more recent times, the popularity of the British writers Charles Dickens and M. R. James established a tradition of enjoying the vicarious chill of the unknown on or around Christmas Eve, accompanied by a mature cheese and a glass of vintage port. We were used to our ghosts stalking the snow-covered woods, rattling the door handles and tapping at the windows, while we retreat to the warmth and light of the hearth.
              In Japan, however, ghost stories are a product of the summer. They are part of the social and cultural activities that the whole community participates in at that time. The Japanese summer is often cruel in its sub-tropical heat and humidity, and from the feudal Edo period ways to escape its heat included the eating of watermelons, the liberal use of ornate fans, and the hanging of wind-chimes, whose clear, crystal tones brought visions of snow-laden mountain streams into the listener’s mind.
              More than a social thermostat, however, kaidan were part of the festivities surrounding the summer festival of O-Bon. This festival takes places in either July or August, depending on the locality. Over a period of three days, the spirits of the ancestors return to the world of the living, and the occasion is marked by offerings, visits to family grave plots and the Bon-Odori ritual dance. I have personally attended several of these, and considering that most people complain here how traditional Japanese culture is on the decline, I have always been impressed at how well-attended these open-air summer festivals are. Young adults in their summer yukata robes, the cloth holding a soft phosphorescence in the night. Children buying cheap plastic masks of demons and goblins along with those of their favorite anime characters. Dozens joining in with the slow, dreamlike dance of Bon-Odori, raising their hands to the stars. They dance around a special platform in the center of the festival field, holding the musicians who dictate the dance’s rhythms with their huge ceremonial Taiko drums.
              In the Japanese summer, the gates between this world and the others swing open, and in this dissertation, I will attempt to show how this belief is perpetuated by the spread of urban myth.
             
              Trisha’s senses, suddenly alerted, grabbed the sound and tried to comprehend it. She was suddenly aware of her body, tensed, tangled in the sheets of the futon, and she lay still in the darkened bedroom, listening for whatever had woken her up.
              Her roommate, Tim. The door slammed shut, and she heard footsteps and the rustling of clothes as he moved through the kitchen, past the door of her room, to his own room, right alongside hers.
              Sweat beaded her brow and her upper lip, as she became more attentive, feeling the humid darkness that oozed around her. She really hoped that was all. The only sounds disturbing her tonight, she hoped, would be Tim shucking off his clothes, and hunkering down in his futon with a few sighs and coughs.
              No way. She heard Tim speak in a low monotone. She entertained the stupid notion that he might be talking to himself, but a few seconds later she heard someone give a whispered reply.
              Tim had picked up a new girlfriend, or one-night-stand, or whatever. The apartment – like most Japanese “manshon” buildings, as they euphemistically called them – was basically a large studio room divided up by thin partitions rolled back whenever necessary. Both Tim and Trisha had tried to soundproof the partitions by pinning up flattened cardboard boxes disguised by blankets. Even so, whenever Tim got laid, Trisha was still an unwilling audience.
              Trisha had thought many times about moving out, but the apartment was so damn convenient. Close to Koenji railway station, and a fairly cheap taxi-ride away from the central Tokyo metropolis if she ever missed the last train back. No, the best thing would be for Tim to move out, to shack up at last with one of his girlfriends. Then she could get one of her friends from College to move in. A girl this time. A sister.
              The two roommates had begun to argue, recently, on the subject of Tim’s girlfriends. “But Japanese girls are so cool,” he’d simpered the day before yesterday, when neither of them had classes and they’d found themselves in the shared kitchen at the same time. “They’re more refined, more elegant. And they’re so considerate about other people’s feelings.”
              “Oh, come on!” Trisha had mocked, “What you mean is, they live in a culture where they’re forced to be subservient to men. For hundreds of years – and that’s one fuck of a long time, Tim – they’ve been conditioned to think the main role of the woman is to satisfy the man. Father, husband, boss, whatever, be a good little girl and don’t rock the boat.”
              “But I’m not like that,” Tim had protested. “I’m not a Japanese male, and I’m not a husband. Anyway, I’m not a permanent resident here either. What right have I got to criticize this culture?”
              “That’s just an excuse, Tim. You’re taking advantage of this culture. Most white men here treat Tokyo like one big playground. Some of these girls, you know, they find they’ve got a nice young gaijin on their hands, but they behave the same as they would if the boyfriend was Japanese. They say or do whatever they think will please him.” Trisha had slammed down her coffee in indignation, a wave breaking against the lip of the cup, and casting its backwash messily over the side. “Some guys here are the biggest nerds and geeks out, you know? They can’t get laid back home, but over here, the girls are falling over them, just because they come from a ‘freedom country’. Big fucking deal.”
              “Are you calling me a geek?” Tim said in a carefully measured tone.
              “Don’t be stupid, Tim. No. I’m not. I’m just saying that I thought things would be different here from back in the States. Well, they are, but – aw, you know, not in the way I expected.”
              A tremulous moan wormed its way through the inadequate barrier of chipboard, cardboard and wool, and Trisha tried to curb the rage gradually making her more and more awake. Or if she couldn’t stop it, if she wasn’t going to get any sleep again, perhaps she could at least analyze it. Study it. Use it to understand and empower herself, like in the self-improvement books.
              It wasn’t just the guys; Trisha had found herself becoming increasingly frustrated with her Japanese sisters. Sometimes it felt like living in a country of Stepford Wives. The schoolgirls everywhere had fake tans, micro-mini-skirts and walked around tapping on a cell-phone with stuffed Mickey Mouse mascots hanging from their satchels. The adult women were mostly Chanel-Gucci-Vuitton clones who were proving themselves very faithful to their great Sugar-Daddy God of Shopping. The so-called female celebrities on TV were little better than twelve-year-olds; women who shouted and screamed and jumped up and down, and cheerfully trained themselves to have voices that had the same effect on Trisha as the sound balloons make when you rub them.
Tarentos? Fucking retards, all of them.
              It was only in some nightclubs and parties that Trisha had found some Japanese sisters who had anything to say. Even so, she found their unreserved admiration a little suspicious. How they wanted so much to live in the States. How they wanted to know so much about American culture.
              Maybe they were all wearing masks, Trisha thought. Maybe this childish crap was an act to deceive the guys into thinking Japanese girls were their eternal handmaidens, so the girls themselves could twist them around into getting the things they wanted. But if that was true, who benefits? It just ended up perpetuating the whole shitty sexist culture. And still nobody knew what Japanese girls really wanted.
              Seems like what the silly bitch in Tim’s room wants is just a good poke, Trisha thought sourly, as she heard the girl on the futon moaning to let her lord and master in.
              Wind-chimes tinkled outside in the night, from the jumble of apartment buildings pushed together by meticulous but dispassionate hands. Trisha tried to focus on the sound, to screen out everything else, as the squeals of the nameless girl got louder and louder.

 

 

NOTES FROM THE DISSERTATION OF PATRICIA HOLLY:

 

Most Japanese visit the temples and shrines only on special occasions, such as the big festivals in the summer and winter. Their funerals are Buddhist and their weddings are Shinto – but these are just customs, they say. The Japanese believe that they themselves are not especially religious.
              It is my contention that belief in the supernatural has survived, despite all the advances of modern life, in the form of urban legends. Some of these contemporary myths appear realistic; they survive because they have a degree of plausibility that permits suspension of disbelief.
              In North American culture there are the ubiquitous tales of the Kentucky Fried Rat and the spider’s eggs in the banana bunch. In Japan, their equivalents are such as the department store that showed its ignorance of Christmas customs by putting Santa Claus on a cross; the popular belief that Love Hotels have concealed cameras to videotape their customers’ activities and sell them in the Kabukicho porno stores; and the rumors of the secret tunnels under Marunouchi leading away from the Imperial Palace, to ensure the Japanese Royal Family can quickly make their honorable getaway in times of disaster.    
              Naturally, the urban legends told and spread by children contain the strongest elements of the supernatural, and so contain a primal sense of terror. One case in point is the Kuchisake-Onna mentioned in the introduction to this dissertation. Although the character originated in the illustrated scrolls of the Edo period, she made a notable appearance in the greater Tokyo area in the early Eighties. One Tokyo newspaper went so far as to publish a special editorial stating that the Kuchisake-Onna was not real, and appealed for calm. I have interviewed one subject – a female private student of mine – who personally witnessed an outbreak of hysteria at her elementary school, where the children refused to leave school because they actually believed the Kuchisake-Onna waited for them outside the gates.
Then there is Hanako-chan, the ghost in the toilet. Japanese children usually encounter this story during elementary school. Hanako-chan is a spirit that hides in school toilets and engages the girls in games of suspense and humiliation. The child is told by her peers to knock on the toilet door a certain number of times. If the number is the same number that Hanako-chan is thinking of, the child can enter the toilet unmolested. If the number is wrong, then the ghost throws open the toilet door, terrifying the unlucky child with her hideous face, and pushing the child’s head down the toilet. Here we can see the childhood obsession with bodily functions cross over with the fear of the supernatural.
              Perhaps the most fascinating (relic?) atavism from the Edo period is the anthropomorphic representation of fear itself. This is the creature known as the Buruburu. Strangely, there is no known artistic representation of the Buruburu; but whatever it looks like, if you meet it, a chill will run up and down your back. The Buruburu will follow you, driving you insane with fear, until one of two things happen;
  1. The spirit erases your personality and takes over your body completely.
  2. You die of fright.

 

hanako_san

Trisha stopped writing and leaned back in her chair, stretching her arms. She clicked ‘stop’ on her iTunes and took off her headphones. Nearly midnight.
She couldn’t afford satellite or cable in student digs like this. The best she could do was a portable color Toshiba TV. Flicking it on now, she thought she’d have some mindless entertainment to wind down with, and hopefully she’d be asleep by the time Tim got home.
She stopped at one channel and frowned at the grainy black-and-white image she saw on the screen. Oh, Jeez. Of course. Because it was O-Bon, the TV channels had wheeled out their annual ghost specials. Reports of paranormal activity. Photographs with curious shadows and lights, the images of dead relatives glimpsed in vacation snapshots. The scene switched to the studio, where the host breathlessly explained one such photograph, taken by Mrs. Tanaka of Chiba. It was of a gathering at the time of the O-Higan, he said, the vernal equinox, when Mrs. Tanaka’s family had attended a ceremony at the local temple. She had taken a picture of her husband, her sister and her daughter in the temple parking lot, and at first glance it just seemed like a normal photograph.
“But we have specially magnified part of the image for this program. If you look here, at this patch of shadow in the background – just inside the temple gate …”
              Trisha gasped, and looked away.
              She went into the kitchen, started rearranging things in the cupboards, to calm herself down. To stop her heart from racing away from her. To take away that image she’d seen in the picture.
             Why do I do this, she thought. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I have to scare myself stupid? It was a TV special on summer ghosts, for Chrissakes. She shouldn’t have watched any of it.
              She went back into her section of the apartment and hastily changed channels, looking for some mindless variety show, with the tarento retards screaming with laughter. Brain Bleach. Anything to calm her down, take away the image.
              The image of that … face in the shadows.
              Trisha often joked to her friends that she was schizophrenic. Occasionally, she wondered if that were true – because she had been born in Black Hawk, Colorado, just down the highway from Central City.
Central City had been rich and snooty back in the day, complete with an opera house and beautiful old Victorian homes built with the riches from the Glory Hole gold mine. Black Hawk was the working-class town at the bottom of the heap, with its mining families choking on the fumes of puffing ore smelters. The trees had been cut down to feed the sawmills, and a great sulfur cloud hung over the bare hillsides.
Then the mines closed and casinos were opened in the Nineties. A fluke in highway engineering meant that gamblers from Denver reached Black Hawk first – and went no further. Black Hawk got rich on the rubes from all over Colorado, and Central City fumed as it watched its visitors and fortunes decline.
Growing up in high school, Trisha had realized what a crazy place it was. Two tiny communities, sometimes fighting with each other but mostly ignoring each other. It felt like a metaphor for what was going on inside her head.
              Trisha had her first encounter with urban legends at her Catholic elementary school. A painting of the Pope hung opposite the door to the rest rooms, where the girls would gather after school to whisper ghost stories to each other. In her mind, the face of the Pope, the smell of urine and disinfectant, and the numbing sense of fear were all mixed together. Fear of the two girls who’d died in the service elevator, which was why it wasn’t used any more. Fear of the ghost of the girl who jumped off the roof because of the bullying that never stopped. Fear of the school founder’s portrait in the library – the eyes turned black when the founder’s ghost went walking through the school, they said.
              And then there was Bloody Mary, of course. Bloody Mary got everywhere. Just about every childhood friend of hers had stood in front of the mirror and said “Bloody Mary” three times. Nothing evil had happened to them, but …
              Trisha had been too scared to ever do it herself.
When Trisha was fourteen years old, she had told her grandmother about the weird scary thoughts and bad dreams she kept having, and Grandma had got quite angry. “You don’t want crazy thoughts like that getting inside your head,” she had said. “That’s how the Devil tries to lead you off the path. You take this, my girl. You take this, and keep it.” And she had given her one of the family Bibles, a volume small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, filled with crinkly cream paper and tiny black print. Trisha had kept it, all through her school days – but she had given it to her parents when she left to take up studying in Japan. It was in storage, along with most of her books and clothes, in her old bedroom.
She sometimes wondered if that had been a mistake.

 

NOTES FROM THE DISSERTATION OF PATRICIA HOLLY:
              In urban myths, things happen not because the world is a magical place full of wonder, as in folk tales, but because of the world is a place filled with terror. Gabler (1996) states that nothing is reliable, and normal morality is suspended. The alligators in the sewers remind us of a Hell below, populated by wild beasts. The baby-sitter and the phone calls from the upstairs room remind us that we are not safe in our own homes. The man who wakes up in a Mexican hotel room with a kidney missing reminds us of primal body horror.
              The same is true in Japan; urban myths do not give us obstacles to test our character and ‘ganbaru’ (do our best). The child who has his face mutilated by the Kuchisake-Onna or is tortured in the rest-room by Hanako-chan has not done anything wrong; the whole process is, by its very nature, random. Like so much else in life – tabloids, celebrity gossip, reality shows – urban myths remind us that we are basically impotent. There are no lessons to be learned – there is just the overwhelming presence of fear. Fear of global warming, of environmental disaster, of a random school shooting, of terrorist attack, of financial collapse.
              This fear is like a paper lantern of Japanese custom, but not a jolly red lantern like you find outside a izakaya pub-restaurant. Imagine a lantern of black, ripped paper, and instead of light, it spreads darkness, it spreads horror, blackening the night, seeping into your dreams and turning them into nightmares.
              In Japanese childhood, there is the tradition of the ‘ghost walk’. The child is dared (or sometimes bullied) by his or her friends to walk through a local cemetery at night. The friends lie in wait behind the incense holders and prayer sticks, waiting to ambush the child and scare him into giving up, and turning back. This is the child’s initiation into adult society and the constant, low-level fear that fuels it.
              The constant, nagging fear that whatever you do, it will never be good enough.

 

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              Trisha walked out of the thick, liquid night and into the cool haven of the manshon lobby, fishing in her handbag for the key, turning her head – as she habitually did – to see if anyone had entered the building behind her. The sound hit her as soon as she opened the door. The girl’s screams as she worked up to the climax, and just beneath it, Tim’s voice. It was pitched too low for Trisha to hear any words. She couldn’t even tell if he was speaking in English or Japanese, but she had a pretty good idea of the meaning. Dirty talk; his hot little mouth pressed against her sweaty skin.
              Trisha stood in the parlor, not taking off her shoes, not putting down her bag or her key, just … standing there. She had an overwhelming urge to turn around and walk back out. I will not, she thought. I will not be forced out of my own home.
              She turned her head, and saw her reflection in the mirror next to the door, her pale, bland-looking face beneath her blond hair, tired and unsmiling, the gasping and panting from inside an unfunny counterpoint to her sour expression.
              “Bloody …” she began, then caught herself, the words sticking in her throat. She turned away from the mirror, and remembered Grandma’s Bible. You don’t want thoughts like that getting inside your head.
              Then she turned back, lifted up her face, and stared into her own eyes. “Bloody Mary,” she said clearly. “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.”
              She waited, as the animal sounds ebbed and flowed. Well, she thought, picking up her bag again. That proves one –
              The sensation hit her so fast she had no time to cry out. It was cold, it was intense, and it paralyzed her, freezing her arms and legs, but twisting her head back round to stare again into the mirror.
              Bloody Mary’s eyes were livid and shining, glaring through her tangled mane of hair, spittle hissing from between her lips.
Trisha’s head moved slowly, slowly, as if ice-cold hands had gripped it and were moving it as they wanted. She saw the door to Tim’s room was open. The young man and the anonymous girl lay on the futon, unmoving, their hacked and ripped limbs splayed in awkward positions, the futon sheets and walls around them stained and splattered with thick, dark liquid. By the futon lay the sushi knife Trisha had bought last month, its blade clotted with blood.
              Trisha didn’t know if what she was looking at was real. She didn’t know if it was a vision thrown up by madness.
              But she did know it would be a good start.

 

Like to read more ghost stories by Zoe Drake? Go HERE.
NOVELS BY ZOE DRAKE:
A serial killer stalks Tokyo’s sleazy nightlife in “DEAD HAND CLAPPING”.
Go HERE. 
Occult investigator Professor Benjamin Weiss pursues an ancient evil from London, to Venice, and the remote Japanese countryside in  “THE MISTS OF OSOREZAN”.
Go HERE. 

 

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About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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