The Hell Screens

The Hell Screens

by Alvin Lu

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Overview

Cheng-Ming, a Taiwanese American, rummages through the used-book stalls and market bins of Taipei. His object is no ordinary one; he's searching obsessively for accounts of ghosts and spirits, suicides and murders in a city plagued by a rapist-killer and less tangible forces. Cheng-Ming is an outsider trying to unmask both the fugitive criminal and the otherworld of spiritual forces that are inexorably taking control of the city. Things get complicated when the fetid island atmosphere begins to melt his contact lenses and his worsening sight paradoxically opens up the teeming world of ghosts and chimeras that surround him. Vengeful and anonymous spirits commandeer Cheng-Ming's sight, so that he cannot distinguish past from present, himself from another. Images from modern and colonial Taiwan – an island of restless spirits – assail Cheng-Ming even as they captivate the reader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781788691741
Publisher: Camphor Press Ltd
Publication date: 08/01/2019
Pages: 194
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.45(d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

Through a mutual acquaintance, I heard of her liaisons with K. I arranged to interview her on tape. She hadn't seen K in over a year, she said during a preliminary phone talk, and only recognized the identity of her former lover when his face appeared on the wanted posters. Asked for any hard proof of their affair, she demurred. All she could offer were a few fragmentary memories. Did she take money from him? I indelicately asked. No, she said, but she provided no further details. I doubted her. She hardly seemed the type K would consort with and I had an intuition that she was one of those high school girls prone to fantasy and may have deliberately confused the man responsible for deflowering her with the killer at-large. But I was curious how a young woman's imagination had been fueled by recent events reported in the news.

    We met in a teahouse on the west side. She brought my attention to a newspaper article, about a highway construction crew's accidental unearthing of sacred ground. "The disturbance of the Dragon King's territory bodes ill. With a city this size, if spirits become restless, who knows what trouble they might cause? Today, ghosts are no longer like those in the days of Liao Chai, sometimes murderous, but mostly eccentric and close to home. No, today, they're more—this may sound absurd—materialistic, and mobile."

    As the sun began to set and the teahouse's red lights took over, dark half-moons grew visible under her eyes. Studying hard? I asked. She had also been having terrifying dreams. One of her classmates had recently committed suicide fromthe stress, by hanging herself with a belt. She herself was deep in preparation, not holding high hopes for testing into a respectable school. She had already taken the examinations once and now was trapped in limbo. I made the connection—the neighborhood around us was "cram school central." She could see her anxiety manifest in the lines on her palms and in her irises when she looked in the mirror. Having possessed a sixth sense from a young age, she had prefigured her friend's death, yet was helpless to prevent it.

    "Fortune-telling started as a hobby and became a means to pay for cram school," she said. When I asked her to describe her practice, she replied, with a surprising touch of scholarship, "'The sage did not like to speak of gods and spirits.'"

    "Fortune-telling is the thing to do nowadays," I said.

    "Sure it's fashionable. Suddenly everybody wants to be a Buddhist priest or geomancer or trigram diviner or palm reader or face reader or physiognomy reader or date-time astrological reader or whatever, right? All the better to pick stocks by. But if you mess around with this stuff, without discrimination, you're asking for trouble." She mulled over the menu. "Want to try this camel tea?"

    "Camel tea? What's that?"

    "The leaves are picked from all over western China. The name comes from the fact that they're transported from remote regions by camel. I read about it in a magazine. It's supposed to be very mysterious and put you in touch with your yin side." Her round eyes glistened. She turned the menu around and showed me the characters.

    "Is that how camel is written? I don't think so ... That's ..." I struggled to read the stylized print.

    "No. That's camel. Are you illiterate?" She closed the pages in my face and ordered the tea by number from the waitress. "I'm pulling your leg," she said. Only the slightest smile crept across her face. "Just testing you—not bad!"

    "Is it my accent?"

    "No ... your accent isn't terrible. It's something in your demeanor. I might have taken you for ... Japanese? Not American. But definitely not local."

    "Hmm."

    "Don't take it as a compliment." She was playing me for the fool. It was a role I'd learned to accommodate on this island and, to a certain extent, use to my advantage. Still, inside I was irritated—when we conversed in English, I was in control, but here I was playing catch-up with her funny games—but I consoled myself: at least she was trying to break the ice, cultural and national, between us.

    I put the tape recorder on the table. "Are you ready?"

    "Whenever you are."

    "Have you gone to anyone else with this information?"

    "No. Why would I?"

    "The police would be interested."

    "So what? It's none of their business." She leaned back in her seat and sipped slowly from the still hot tea, before she began to settle into her story.

    "Beneath my reserved demeanor, I was a reckless youth. I believed that, since I had possessed an unerring sixth sense since childhood, I could sense danger before it ever arrived, so I developed a predilection to push my luck.

    "I started taking taxis home from the library, even though we were warned against it: this city used to be safe, but now we had people like the Taxi Driver Killer. A single maniac like this one, the drivers said, smeared everyone in the business. But for me, taking late-night cabs was a thrill precisely for the threat, to see if I could ever draw that driver.

    "The night it finally happened, I sensed the danger even before the library closed. I had been memorizing a map of a China that had been frozen in pre-revolutionary time, when the convoluted paths of nonexistent railways and roads I had been staring at transformed into written warnings. Anxiously, I waited for the library to close, for my encounter with fate at the end of the hour. I resolved to get a glimpse of his face, perhaps exchange a word or two, but not to get in the car. I'd tell him I changed my mind. He'd be put off, but so what. But when the time came, I panicked. I peered through the smudged passenger-side window. The driver's face was veiled behind the grimy glass and he didn't open the door, inviting me only through his nonaction. I hesitated and suddenly found myself trembling. I had been cool until now. Now I was thinking, Was this all some fantasy I'd concocted to amuse myself? I thought that I might be getting myself worked up over nothing. I opened the door, but didn't get in. It was difficult to see inside. He shouted at me, 'Are you getting in or not? Make up your mind! Don't waste my time!' Intimidated, confused, unable to assert myself, I entered the car. Before I could change my mind, he drove off."

    "That was your first encounter, then?" I asked.

    She nodded. "He sat stiffly in his seat, a Japanese baseball cap pulled low and tight over his eyes, and tried to go about everything with a simulated calm, cool professionalism that no one expected from a cabdriver. I wanted to tell him, there's no need to impress me, I'm just a student, no one of any relevance in this world. Later on, he told me that he had been recently discharged from the army, for medical or disciplinary reasons, I wasn't sure. He spent some time in Japan looking for work and then, not finding any, returned. His hobbies included looking at photographs and going to the movies.

    "We saw each other intermittently, meeting in front of a rendezvous, so my parents wouldn't find out our relationship. Then, after a few weeks, he disappeared for months. This was during the time that, in the newspapers, I was reading about how the police were closing in on the Taxi Driver Killer. For months to follow, they would still be closing in, never quite able to catch him. When I saw him again, one afternoon, his cab parked in front of the convenience store that was our usual meeting place—who knew how long he'd waited? all night?—he looked like a fugitive, unshaven. He kept the baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. And I already knew what he was going to propose.

    "I remember hearing the lapping of water against the shore. Moonlight flitted elegantly over the river. Gravel cracked under the wheels. I knew the water was polluted and poisonous, but tonight it looked clear enough to drink.

    "Sitting in his cab, both of us swallowed pills.

    "When I woke, the sun was rising to the east, its red streaks across the sky. I felt as if the blood had rushed out of my veins and my mouth had been stuffed with cotton. Gathering myself, I peered over the dashboard. It wasn't the River of Hell, but just the familiar river of my youth. So I didn't leap into it. Beside me, he was unmoving. His face resembled a drawing. I opened the car door and walked home. It was the most pleasant weather in recent memory, just before the typhoon season.

    "Weeks later, I saw his photograph on the front page of every newspaper. I never knew if he was the Taxi Driver Killer, but he had become K. His face just as I had last seen it, like a tattoo."

    That was all. I wondered if she had borrowed the story: failed double suicides were a common aspect of girls' comic books.

    "There was something that I forgot to mention," she said. "When I left his car that night, I took something with me. An old Japanese army bayonet. It was under his seat. I saw it gleaming in the sunlight. What do you suppose it was doing there?"

    When I asked her if she had it, she said no, it was lost. The missing weapon. The teahouse was closing. She had studies to return to and, later that night, a client. I thanked her for providing me with her story. Our transaction completed, I left the teahouse, not expecting to see her again.


THIS MORNING, AT USED BOOK STALLS AROUND THE university, I was compelled to browse, and finally buy, compilations of ghost stories, traditional and new. One discovery, so far: the more recent and localized the account—one was published this year and cited events that took place in my neighborhood only a few months ago—the more impoverished the writing, yet still, I admit, the mere mention of familiar landmarks brought tawdry chills; while the more distant, the more evocative the style, the less instantaneous the impact. Only after putting down the book did one hear the author and the echo of the tale.

    I spent the rest of the afternoon in idleness, reading. Tea coaxed the spirits illustrated and described in the pages. Like the scholars in the stories, I indulged the fantasy of the steam rising from my cup turning into a wispy ghost-maiden who could hold forth cultivated conversation or play chess. To acquire the leaves, I go to a certain store in Hsimenting. Unlike green tea, I can drink great quantities of this without developing abdominal gas.

    These stories were the lifeblood of the streets. Official historians wrote records, blind minstrels made songs, artisans recited admonitions, ministers gave advice, gentlemen discoursed, and the common people gossiped. Clappers sounded in early spring as a search was made for folk songs, while officers on tours of inspection understood local customs from the popular songs. All the talk of the streets and highways was recorded. Officers at court took charge of local records and prohibitions, while the officers in charge of civil affairs reported local sayings and customs. Thus Confucius said: "Even byways are worth exploring. But if we go too far we may become bogged down."

    I cast myself as a collector of false reports, a scholar of the strange, someone obviously going too far. Such a role constitutes a digression from my earnest pursuit of the news, but perhaps circuitous side routes are required in a place where direct thoroughfares circumvent the town's most vital neighborhoods.

    One book I bought today is decorated by disturbing drawings. A monkey dangles from a hook piercing its upper jaw. A giant rat chases a cat. A demon draws with a brush a human face on a cloth. What I have heard, I committed to paper, and so this collection came about. After some time, like-minded men from the four directions dispatched stories to me by post, and because "things accrue to those who love them," what I had amassed grew even more plentiful. Outside my bleak studio the wind is sighing. Inside my desk is cold as ice. Out the window, a view of rooftops, antennae, and hanging laundry, as ever. The orange sun sets. "Things accrue to those who love them."

    I closed the book and rubbed my eyes. My soft contact lenses wrinkled, folding my view. The ghost-images of characters that I had been staring at faded against the screen of my eyelids, ink black to red to yellow. I've been having problems with my lenses lately. Despite the humid weather, they dry out not long after I put them in.


HERE IS AN ADDITION TO MY ACCOUNTS OF THE STRANGE. I begin with my place of residence, the only home that I'm concerned with, rumors pieced together from what I've heard whispered in the halls, furtively alluded to in conversation with neighbors.

    Built as a university dorm for boys, the building hadn't been inhabited long before developing a reputation for harboring female ghosts. According to legend, a literature student woke one night to discover a woman sitting at his desk, reading one of his books. Aroused, he approached her, only to have her try to strangle him. A hand shaped bruise on his neck remained from the encounter as evidence for the authorities. Following this incident, probably apocryphal, students shunned the place. Distressed school officials called in a priestess to study the case. Following a walk through the corridors and sensitive corners of the structure, she announced that the dormitory's problem was that it had been built on a pit where the corpses of disreputable women and prostitutes had been unceremoniously buried. Now, why hadn't there been a background cheek? The ghost women who inhabited the site wanted the building as a bordello to entertain their spectral clientele. They were after new customers. The university acted: following negotiations between the school's board of directors and a spokeswoman for the dead, the building temporarily closed; an exchange was arranged, to burn hell notes in the building's foyer for forty-nine days.

    Despite the fumigation, rumors of spirits continued to circulate and eventually, to finance the property, the university rented the building. Over time, as rents dropped to generate demand, the building's residents unfortunately came to include some of the more undesirable elements of society, those without family who could afford little else in a central location in the city.

    The majority of tenants are men—refugees, transients, those laying low—for the female ghosts here are particularly hostile to women. Current tenants, who tend to be uneducated, are terribly superstitious, but at the same time they're the ones accustomed to living amongst, negotiating with, and placating ghosts. The scent of incense curls through the halls. My neighbors don't keep the same hours as I do. I hear them opening and shutting their doors when I stay up to write my journal. Night's sounds are different from day's sounds. The page and the ink are colder and slower moving.


WOKE, TROUBLED BY A DREAM. K ENTERED MY apartment, sliding through the half-open window, as he's reported to do, his stocky, muscular shape compressing like a python's through the space. (A journalistic question: since reports of K's break-ins, has the city resorted to widespread window locking during the muggy summer months, even in residences without air-conditioning?) He examined my bookshelves, removing a tome here and there: The Peony Pavilion, The Golden Lotus, The Carnal Prayer Mat. As his shirtless back faced me (I lay still on the bed), I saw a tattoo gleaming under moonlight in clean lines and detail. When I woke, I reached for my notebook to copy down the impression of the tattoo, but by the time I opened to a blank page, the memory of it had faded.

    It was still night. A warm breeze came through the window. Remembering the dream, I shut it.

(Continues...)

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