The Year in Review
by Christopher Barzak
The movie Kwaidan, which originally appeared in Japan in 1964. The title can be interpreted to mean either “ghost story” or sometimes as “strange story” in Japanese. I prefer the latter, only because it’s a more flexible terms, and because this film is actually a collection of short films rather than one whole, and while all of the short films collected in this compilation are ghostly in some way, some have more to do with spirits rather than ghosts. And from my experience of living in Japan and discussing old Japanese folktales with some of my Japanese friends, there is a clear difference in Japan between a ghost and a spirit. One is, of course, the soul of a human living on in non-corporeal form after earthly life has ceased; the other is an entity that might not even be human, and may have never had a corporeal form to begin with. The set pieces for these short films are all expressionist in nature, very obviously artificial, and yet ethereal and fairytale-like. They compliment the tales being told about lovers who abandon their wives and families in order to move up to higher status, or who promise to keep a secret but unwittingly tell it years later, bringing down upon them swift and cosmic punishment. These are what I always wished I would feel when I read European fairy and folk tales. For some reason, the old stories of Japan feel decidedly old and terrifying.
The novel, Island, by Jane Rogers, who this year won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (though with a different novel). Island is a novel told from the point of view of a young woman who has been abandoned by her mother as a child, fostered and adopted and then given back into foster homes for the rest of her life, until she turns 18 and decides to seek out her birth mother in order to kill her for setting her off into a world of loneliness and hard, exploitative people. The voice is electrifying and frightening in the levels of anger and madness it approaches, and Rogers makes use of fairy and folk tales as a way for the narrator to tell and retell her life story, which has been storyless, as her abandonment leaves her as cut off and drifting and alone as an island, without any connection to others. This is a high gothic novel in a more modern setting, and while it includes many of the typical set pieces of a gothic (remote island, lots of fog, incest, murder, etc.) it feels like it’s reinventing the gothic mode by the anger of its narrator, Nikki Black, alone.
One of the new books I read this year was a young adult novel called Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma. This is a dark supernatural novel also narrated by a young woman, whose mother, hippie-like and drifting, has left her in the care of her older sister. The small upstate New York town that they live in is experiencing weirdness, as a young local girl both sisters witnessed drown at a party of young adults a couple of years back reappears in town, seemingly alive, and no one but the sisters seem to remember she is supposed to be dead. What follows is a novel that unravels a mystery that will make or break the sisters’ deep and exclusive bond.
In music, I continued to go back and back again to listening to the late Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black. A self-destructive spirit that somehow invites sympathy rather than repulsion propels the lyrics of songs like “Back to Black” and “Tears Dry on Their Own”. The album as a whole is a breakdown from the terrors and loss of control of addiction to drugs, alcohol, and toxic love, but somehow winds its listener up in a voice that feels like it could be your own, only never, not you, and especially not that voice, which actually feels like it should be placed up alongside the voices of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, but littered with broken glass around the base of its trophy.
There’s a lot more that I read, watched and listened to this past year, but these were a few of the things that I’m still thinking about as the new year approaches.