Margrét Helgadóttir (ed.) – Asian Monsters

They lurk and crawl and fly in the shadows of our mind. We know them from ancient legends and tales whispered by the campfire. They hide under the dark bridge, in the deep woods or out on the great plains, in the drizzling rain forest or out on the foggy moor, beneath the surface, under your bed. They don’t sparkle or have any interest in us except to tear us apart. They are the monsters! Forgotten, unknown, misunderstood, overused, watered down. We adore them still. We want to give them a renaissance, to reestablish their dark reputation, to give them a comeback, let the world know of their real terror.

Asian Monsters is the third in a coffee table book series from Fox Spirit Books with dark fiction and art about monsters from around the world.

If myths and monster stories are universal and timeless, they are separated by place. Even if almost any civilisation has an overlap in the core nature of their monsters, each is rich in their variety often influenced by their environment. You can find dozens of iterations of vampiric entities and shape shifters, of the fey and the possessive. The one creature that appears across the globe in the same guise is the ghost. Be it a revenant, haunt, poltergeist or lingering spirit, be they malevolent or benign—ghosts are of all times and places. As such I found it striking that so many of the stories in Asian Monsters, edited by Margrét Helgadóttir, focused on these apparitions. If the monsters in African Monsters were largely bound by place, the monsters in this volume were bound by people. 

I wonder at this difference. Is it an inherent difference in storytelling tradition between these regions, is it an accident due to the selection of stories submitted to this volume, or was it editorial choices made? I thought that perhaps Asia’s widely prevalent practice of ancestor worship might be an influence here, but a quick online search proved that is an unlikely deciding factor between the two as ancestor worship is a religious tradition on the African continent too. In the (short) fiction I’ve read from other Asian and Asian-descended authors I’ve noticed that spirits often play a part, even if set in an SF setting. Then again this might also be due to a limited sample size or a preference of the authors I read.

With the large number of ghost stories in this collection — some of them by some of my favourite authors too, such as Aliette de Bodard and Xia Jia — it is surprising that none of my four favourite stories from the book actually contain ghosts. Instead they feature more corporeal beings and ones that I hadn’t encountered before. The first, set on Java, was Eve Shi’s Blood Like Water. I loved this story and its small village setting. I loved the twist and the desperate love of Wiya’s parents. It also felt comfortable and familiar, perhaps due to the honourifics used and the food Shi described, which reminded me of my own grandmother, who was born on Java. There is also an element of judgement and justice to the story, that is also present in my second favourite, Eliza Chan’s Datsue-Ba. The monster in this story wasn’t so much a monster as a spirit of judgement. And I really enjoyed the way the plot unfolded between the protagonist, her partner and Datsue-Ba, how she appeared to both of them differently and the eventual decision she makes.

The other two stories do not have the same elements of judgement, but are more to do with love— love of family, love of place, love of a person, friendship. Fran Terminiello’s Aswang featured the titular monster, but the monster was more a conduit for the story’s themes than its main focus. This story had so much interesting elements: how a chance encounter with a fellow ex-pat from home can alleviate and exacerbate homesickness at the same time, how torn you can feel between your current life and the need to be home, and the actually positive relationship between Baby and her employer. There was an understated humour to the dialogue between them that lightened the most tense moments of the story in such a way that it enhanced it rather than broke it. And finally, Yukimi Ozawa’s Kokuri’s Palace. This story is difficult to describe. It is completely creepy, but also rather hauntingly beautiful, in a way that is tough to explain. It is a strange sort of love story that captured my imagination and stayed with me a while.

I really enjoyed this collection, not just for the stories, but also for the lovely art included in Asian Monsters. I love getting these glimpses of the myths and monsters of places other than Western Europe and I’m looking forward to travelling to a new location. There are at least four more entries in this series and so many more monsters to discover. I can’t wait!

This anthology was provided for review by the author.

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