Wednesday, 19 March 2014


Miyuki Miyabe, 2000 [Daniel Huddleston, 2013]
(March 2014)

I might maybe, tentatively, suggest the Haikasoru are raising their game, and not before time. Following The Melancholy of Mechagirl this is the second recent book of theirs where the writing is actually readable. I realise that ‘not actively awful’ is a pretty low bar, but previous efforts contained prose that, while well-intentioned, was clumsy and frequently bordered on the violent; prose that really wanted to help you carry your shopping but somehow tripped on its own shoelaces, broke all your eggs, then smashed you in the face with a half-brick.

This is much better; while Apparitions doesn’t reach the high lyricism of Valente at her best, few do, and this is still very clean writing. ‘Efficient’ is too cold a word, but it’s language that has a job to do and gets it done with a minimum of fuss or clutter; ‘elegantly precise’ is probably closer to the mark. The stories, too, aren’t particularly showy. This is a collection of ghostly tales set in Edo at the turn of the 19th century, meaning we get lots of venal merchants, jealous mistresses, and wronged housemaids, and the focus is very much on the working and emerging middle classes. If nothing else it certainly drives home the point that modern Tokyo is a city with fundamentally mercantile roots (the pageantry and ceremony were of course confined to Kyoto until relatively recently).

All nine short stories, then, are very much variations on a theme, and that cuts both ways. It can on occasion become a touch repetitive – especially in the opening stages of each story as you becoming increasingly concerned that you’ve heard this not so very long before – but Miyabe generally pulls it off, nudging things just enough to spin a new tale every time, and after a while you start to realise that maybe the repetition isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. These are notionally ghost stories, and that slow accumulation of everyday indignities and hardships is every much as part of the horror as the more supernatural aspects.

What’s slightly surprising then is just how hopeful some of these stories are, at least initially. The first four or five all see the wronged get avenged and the innocent redeemed, and then, just as you’re thinking that this is all going to be a set of rather traditional morality tales, it turns through some very uncomfortable ambiguity in The Oni in the Autumn Rain (which is perhaps my favourite story when considered in isolation) into outright darkness. The final story, The Mussel Mound, is a very tricksy tale. Not so much for its plot as the way it ties the themes of the whole book together to such chilling effect: a son inherits his dead fathers employment agency and hears tell from a dying man about certain characters who keep reappearing every decade, with the same faces but different names, and having not aged at all. The nagging sense of repetition you feel throughout the book – similar businesses, professional roles, and personal circumstances recurring in every story– suddenly becomes not mundane but terrifying.

As individual short stories these are good. As a unified collection it’s excellent; an adroitly paced descent through hope, uncertainty, and misfortune with a supremely well-crafted sting in its tail. More like this please.


  1. Hmm. Very interested in this. I haven't read Miyabi at all, as the local library only has her mystery/thriller set, rather than the more fantastical stuff she produces.

    I'm wondering if Haikasoru made the necessary money with their anime-ish, pedestrian stuff and has finally been given a longer leash by the bean counters.

    1. I've read another of hers (All She Was Worth, which is knocking around in the archives somewhere here) and it was a well done if fairly traditional police procedural. My wife really likes her, so any more of her more fantastical stuff that gets into English is a good thing. Here's hoping you're right about the cash cow providing enough milk...