Japanese Ghost Stories

This fall, I’m teaching a new class called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” Here’s the course description…

This course offers a survey of the numinous and supernatural through Japanese fiction, drama, comics, animation, and video games from the Heian period to the present day. Students will assemble a foundational knowledge of Japanese religion and folklore while studying popular narrative traditions representative of their historical eras.

By peering into the liminal spaces connecting the living with the dead, students will develop critical thinking and media literacy through careful investigation into the matters that people of different times and places have perceived as monstrous, alien, and unspeakable. Issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnic minority status will receive special attention as we navigate theories relating to the cultural role and social relevance of ghosts. By the end of the semester, students will possess a broad perspective on Japanese narrative traditions and popular culture, as well as an understanding of how fantastic stories of the dead reflect the tangible experiences of the living.  

You can download a copy of the syllabus (here).
I’ve collected PDF files of the course readings on Dropbox (here).
If you’re interested, a copy of the course assignments handout is (here).
You can check out the work of artist who drew the banner image (here).

I’d like to acknowledge that this course was inspired by Professor Naomi Fukumori’s class “The Monstrous in Japanese Literature and Culture,” and I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the course syllabus (here).

Gothic Horror Story Elements

In order for a story to be considered “Gothic,” I think it needs to include…

– A house. This “house” can be a castle or a space station or an abandoned medical research facility or what have you, but it needs to be a place where people live and eat and sleep.

– It has to be a big house. In addition to being big on the outside, it should be larger than it appears. The house should have something along the lines of a secret sub-basement, hidden rooms, tunnels in the walls, a House of Leaves style portal to another dimension, or something along those lines. The house needs to be large enough to be considered a labyrinth.

– The house has to be old and in a state of decay or disrepair. In addition, the house needs to be isolated and surrounded by wilderness. Over the course of the story, the natural environment should intrude on the interior of the house. This should still be the case even if the environment is not technically “natural,” as in the case of Suburban Gothic.

– The house needs to be associated with and occupied by a family.

– The family needs to have a dark secret, preferably one hidden within the house.

– At least one member of the family should still live in the house. “Family” can be loosely defined, but the concept of “family” as such is key.

– If there’s no family living in the house, then the story is a “haunted house” story, not a “Gothic” story. This is also the case if the people living in the house aren’t alive or aren’t human (or whatever passes for “a normative person” in the world of the story). This is important, as “Gothic” is just as much of a narrative structure as it is a collection of tropes. For example…

– The point-of-view character should be a member of the family in some way. Often this character will come into the house through marriage or inheritance. Sometimes they won’t initially know they’re related to the family. In the case of servants and governesses and so on, the point-of-view character will either be secretly related to the family, or they’ll be a parent or spouse in all but name. If the point-of-view character isn’t related to the family, they will gradually fall under the delusion that they are.

– The point-of-view character will obviously be privileged, as they live in a large house and are associated with a wealthy family, but they also need to be disadvantaged in some way. The way in which they’re disadvantaged should have some thematic relevance to the dark secret hidden by the house.

– The point-of-view character must be forbidden from certain behavior by an arcane rule or system of rules. The forbidden behavior will generally involve the navigation of space in or around the house: Don’t go into the forest, don’t go into the cellar, don’t leave your room at night, etc.

– The disadvantage of the point-of-view character will compel them to accept the family rules even though they can intuitively feel that something is horribly wrong. This traps them within the house.

– The goal of the point-of-view character is to escape the maze of the house. The only way to navigate this labyrinth is by breaking the rules, engaging in forbidden behavior, and bringing the dark secret to light.

– The primary antagonist should be a living person in the family, related to the family, or emotionally invested in the family in some way. Although supernatural elements are not out of the question, it’s often the case that the phenomena presumed to be supernatural have a rational (albeit psychologically deranged) explanation. That being said, there’s often a Todorovian elision between “natural” and “supernatural,” with the distinction being left to the reader.

– When the point-of-view character reveals the family’s secret, this destroys the house. This destruction is usually literal. The family almost always dies as well. If the point-of-view character is too closely tied to the family, they may die too. Regardless, the reader will understand that the collapse of the house and the demise of the family is a good thing that needed to happen.

– The house and family should represent an older social system responsible for the disadvantage of a group of people represented by the point-of-view character. This system usually concerns oppression on the basis of class or gender, but it can sometimes be about race, nationality, or colonial heritage.

– The Gothic genre is not conservative, because it’s essentially about how outdated systems of privilege that still continue to oppress people are deeply fucked up and unhealthy and need to be destroyed. “Haunted house” stories are often conservative, but I would argue that Gothic stories advocate for radical systemic change and the self-realization of freedom from social expectations.

– At the same time, Gothic stories are not didactic. The lure of the forbidden goes both ways, after all, and the reader should be able to understand why the point-of-view character allows themselves to become trapped in the house. The old castle is majestic. The beast-husband is attractive. The spoils of ill-gotten wealth are luxurious and comfortable. The ruins are delightfully mysterious. The poison apple looks delicious. The story is queer and problematic, and that’s precisely why it’s appealing.

There are numerous cross-genres and sub-genres of Gothic that have their own specific conventions, like Gothic Romance and Boarding School Gothic. I didn’t address the visual language of the Gothic, or how tropes and conventions vary between times and cultures. Still, I think this is the core of the genre.

Eight Quick Editing Hacks

It’s always a good idea to take time with editing. Giving your manuscript time to rest and breathe before returning to it with a critical eye can work wonders. Deadlines will not wait, however, and sufficient time may not always be available. That’s when editing hacks come in handy!

This post lists eight of my favorite editing hacks, four for deleting extraneous words and four for catching typos. Each of these editing hacks is painless and intended to help you apply a final layer of polish to your writing before you send it out into the world.

Four Quick Style Hacks with Ctrl+F

Find + delete quantitative adverbs.

This especially applies to Americans, who tend to use quantitative adverbs to add color and rhythm to their speech. Unfortunately, these adverbs don’t often translate well into writing, and they can usually be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. “A lot” and “a bit” are common, as are “only” and “very.”

Crtl+f + ly.

This will help you catch quantitative adverbs like “really” and “completely” and “extremely.” I’m a big fan of adverbs, which add texture and flavor to writing, but many writers tend to have a few specific adverbs they overuse in their initial drafts. Searching for all instances of “ly” in your manuscript is a great way to rein them in.

Find + delete words for facial expressions.

“Smile,” “smirk,” “chuckle,” and “sigh” are some of the common ones. There’s nothing wrong with these words, of course, but many younger writers tend to overuse them. Instead of describing what’s happening on someone’s face, it’s often more effective to convey emotion through action or dialog. You can usually delete words that describe facial expressions or tone of voice without hindering the reader’s understanding of the situation.

Find + delete academic transition words.

I’m referring to words like “therefore,” “moreover,” “conversely,” and so on. Although these words can help you structure your ideas as you write, few people use them outside the context of academic papers. This applies to fiction, obviously, but it’s also relevant to nonfiction that you’re pitching or submitting to an editor at a website, newspaper, or magazine. Many people cultivate a habit of using formal transition words while learning to write in high school and college, and unlearning this habit is a process. In the meantime, ctrl+f can help you weed out any holdovers from academic writing.

Four Editing Hacks for Catching Typos

Apply a different font.

This is common advice, as changing the font of your text can trick your eyes into seeing typos that you would have glossed over otherwise. I have to admit that this has never been effective for me. This is what works instead…

Copy and paste your work into a different word processing program.

If changing the font is too superficial, it may be more effective to change the entire text field. I write in MS Word and Scrivener, but I like to copy and paste my manuscripts into Google Docs for two reasons. First, it’s free; and second, it doesn’t mess with the text formatting. As an added bonus, Google’s grammar check has become remarkably sophisticated during the past two years. Sometimes it’s dead wrong, but sometimes it will surprise you with an excellent suggestion. Free grammar check websites such as Slick Write can also be useful. You may not need help with grammar, but a “copy and paste your writing into the text field” site like Slick Write can point out passive voice, frequently occurring words, and other stylistic issues that it can be easy to miss if you’re on a deadline.

Send the text of your writing to yourself in the body of an email or post it onto a private blog.

Some people swear by the email method, which allows you to read your writing with fresh eyes on a different screen. Unfortunately, there are times when my own email inbox gives me anxiety, and I’m sure this experience is relatable to anyone dealing with deadlines or a high volume of correspondence. Instead of using email, you can set up a private blog (on Dreamwidth, for example) and post your writing as an entry. If it helps to maintain separate spaces for different writing projects, you can set up as many journals as you want and delete them when you’re ready to move on. A few of my nonfiction writer friends tell me that they do this with wiki software, but your mileage may vary.

Use a free text reader tool like NaturalReader or Voice Dream.

Many writers read their text aloud to check for typos, but this is time-consuming and not feasible for people who write in shared spaces. Although text readers are still far from perfect, they’ve gotten much better over the past few years. Commercial text readers offer a range of natural voices, but my own experience is that listening to a slightly mechanical voice read your writing makes typos stand out more than they would in a human voice. NaturalReader is easy to use and works well in a desktop browser window, while the Voice Dream app is good if you prefer to listen from your phone.

All of these hacks are designed for spot checks once you already have an edited manuscript. I’m curious if anyone has any quick and easy strategies that they use to edit manuscripts (fiction or nonfiction) at an earlier stage. Also, if you’ve created a short list of “find and delete” filler words that you’d be willing to share, I’d love to see it!

. . . . . . . . . . .

This post originally appeared on Get Your Words Out, a community of writers aiming to maintain healthy creative habits and writing productivity. Membership to the community opens at the beginning of the calendar year. Its content is limited to members who maintain their writing pledges, but the GYWO Twitter account is accessible to everyone and posts encouragement, prompts, and writing resources at a steady but manageable pace.

Be Green, Do Crime

Despite my interest in horror and dark fantasy, I’m very normcore in real life. Still, I am willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to touch grass. If I can’t afford to live in a neighborhood with flowers, then I’m just going to have to plant them myself.

This comic received a lot of support when I posted it on Tumblr, by the way. (This) is one of my favorite responses. Kudos to my fellow urban gardener for the addition!

The Greatest Thing Review on WWAC

I recently had the immense pleasure of writing a review of Sarah Winifred Searle’s graphic novel The Greatest Thing for the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt:

Searle paints a soft pastel portrait of what it was like to grow up in the 2000s before smartphones and social media. Relatively few people talked about what it means to be gay, but the queer kids nevertheless managed to find each other. The Greatest Thing has no epic kisses or dazzling rainbows or flashy pride parades, just a quiet and gentle acknowledgment that growing up means learning to be true to yourself.

If you’re interested, you can read the full review (here). You can also check out the book’s page on the publisher’s website (here) and follow the artist on Twitter (here). Much appreciation and respect to my excellent editor, whom you can follow on Twitter (here).

Watching from the Shadows

I contributed a story about Impa and Princess Zelda titled “Watching from the Shadows” to Goddess Reborn, a zine celebrating the female characters of the Legend of Zelda series. You can check out the zine’s Twitter account (here), and you can read my story on AO3 (here). Here’s a short description of the story…

Impa prepares to train Princess Zelda as a Sheikah warrior during the year following the fall of Hyrule Castle. Zelda is tired of hiding and eager to fight, so Impa shares stories from the past to demonstrate that there is wisdom in waiting for the right moment to strike.

This spot illustration was created by the magical and marvelously skilled Frankiesbugs, whose sharp and deadly work can be found on Tumblr, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

Infernax

Infernax is an 8-bit 2D Metroidvania style game with platforming elements and dark themes that feed into a morality system. The retro graphics, music, and gameplay remind me of Shovel Knight, save that Infernax is the opposite of Shovel Knight‘s brand of quirky and wholesome family fun. Infernax boasts buckets of blood and plenty of creatively disturbing imagery, but the uniquely upsetting aspect of this game is its sidequests, which force the player to make distinctly unpleasant choices.

You play as Alcedor, a duke who served as a knight in the Holy War and returns to his homeland only to find it overrun with the undead. Your job is to infiltrate the five demon strongholds and thereby break the magical seal on your own castle, which is occupied by the big boss demon. You navigate the 2D overworld with the various skills that you acquire in the five 2D dungeons, and along the way you accumulate experience points and money that you can use to upgrade your abilities and equipment.

Infernax bills itself as having a “tough-as-nails” level of difficulty. I found that it isn’t actually that hard until the final two levels, in which the platforming is a bit too precision-oriented for the game mechanics. If you prefer, you can get around this difficulty by using Game Genie style cheat codes (these ones right here) on a menu that’s available at every save point. Using this system to allow yourself infinite lives and access a double-jump ability can really help you out toward the end of the game, where failure at the platforming segments is unduly punished.

I think it’s important to be realistic and accurate about the difficulty level of a game like this, as not everyone is looking for a super hyper mega challenge. Maybe some people just want to stroll around a horror-themed digital theme park while fighting skeletons and zombies, and that’s cool. Infernax lets you turn the cheat codes on and off at any point you like and doesn’t penalize you for using them, and it offers a decent but not impossible challenge to anyone who wants to play the game straight.

The parts where you might need to use a walkthrough are when Infernax asks you to make a binary choice. This choice is usually between showing mercy to monsters or outright killing them. The key to these choices is presented to the player at the very beginning of the game, when you’re asked to make a decision regarding whether to spare someone who has been possessed by a demon. If you’re a decent person and choose to spare him, he kills several people and forces you to kill him anyway.

In order to get the “ultimate good” ending, the player has to continue to choose to kill monsters. This isn’t always easy. Later in the game, for example, a town under siege has trapped another possessed person in a cage. The townspeople claim that the possessed man has killed people, and that he needs to be put to death. Succumbing to the will of an angry mob with torches in order to enact violence on a seemingly defenseless person in a small cage isn’t great. If you let him go, however, he kills everyone. Should you allow the townspeople to set the possessed man on fire, it takes a long time for him to burn, and he screams and thrashes in pain the entire time.

This violence is somewhat mitigated by the 8-bit pixel graphics, which add a layer of campiness to the grimdark world. What Infernax celebrates isn’t just the visuals and gameplay of 8-bit games, but also their unironic and unapologetic violence. Infernax leans into this goriness by having its overworld enemies constantly attack and kill soldiers right in front of you. You can save some of these people, but most become zombie food. Sometimes you’re forced to kill other humans, which can be bloody business as well. If you like, you can aim for the “ultimate evil” ending and kill other humans by choice. This makes the game more difficult in terms of gameplay but also more interesting from a narrative perspective.

Infernax delights in violence for the sake of violence. It’s not actually that deep, but it’s quite fun. Even as they’ve created a dungeon whose theme is literally “piles of dead babies,” the developers are sensitive to the needs of a diversity of players and allow you to customize the level of difficulty to suit your preferences. In addition, there are multiple guides online that will help you unlock all the various silly bonuses the game has to offer, which include letting you run around with a machine gun and giving you free rein to zip through the overworld on a motorcycle.

If you’re bad at games like I am, Infernax might take about ten to fifteen hours to finish without cheat codes. If you’re good at games – or if you use cheat codes – it can be finished in under five hours, which makes the prospect of exploring multiple morality paths more intriguing. Overall, I spent about twenty hours in ultraviolent medieval zombie demon hell, and I regret nothing.

Your Journey Awaits! Pokémon Fanzine

I’ve spent the past several years in the Legend of Zelda fandom, but I have a deep and enduring love for the Pokémon series. Although I’ve taught classes and given conference lectures about Pokémon, I haven’t written fanfic about the series in years. When a few fandom friends announced that they were putting together a zine about the small towns where your avatar characters begin their journeys in the games, I was onboard.

The story I contributed to the Your Journey Awaits! Pokémon Fanzine is “The New Kid in Postwick,” which is about Sonia and Leon from Pokémon Sword and Shield. It’s about Sonia’s childhood in the small rural town of Wedgehurst, her friendship and rivalry with Leon, and the ambitions underlying her decision to set out as a young Pokémon trainer. Here’s a short description of the story…

Sonia has lived in Wedgehurst her entire life. Despite the beautiful nature and rich history of the area, she’s started to feel isolated from the wider world. Her anxieties are exacerbated by the boy who just moved into an old farmhouse in Postwick along with an exotic Charmander. Although he seems confident and carefree, Leon has problems of his own, and he’s ambivalent about moving to the country from Wyndon. Sonia and Leon gradually come to understand one another as they train together, and they seal their friendship by making a promise to venture out into the Wild Area together.

You can read my story on AO3 (here), and you can check out previews of the work appearing in the zine on its Twitter profile (here). The zine itself can be downloaded for free on Itchio (here). Along with a PDF of the zine, the download includes all sorts of fun digital extras like icons and wallpapers. The illustrations and stories are accessible to readers of all ages, so please feel free to share the zine with any younger Pokémon fans in your life!