Hell Screens

Hell Screensbook by Alvin Wu

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Hell Screens was such a great read.  Alvin Lu’s first person character has such a mellow immediacy and his curiosity is so passive that it gives our journey an elusive air, which serves the story well.  The manner in which he moves from one scene to another is abrupt and odd and in this nether world between ghost world and reality, it serves to disorient the reader, first to the point where you question everything, then to the point where you, like the main character, sit back and let it wash over you.  When our hero starts to understand that his journey is out of his control is when we do the same, making it all the more interesting to follow.

His elusive is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-ghost palm reader is a very intriguing character.  For someone who might not exist she has a very no-nonsense attitude, so that when our hero steps into her world, she is clearly in charge in a very human way, making her all the more appealing.  There is a great device of her cleaning his contact lens in her mouth, making it have special powers.  It ushers us into the in-between world as seen through our hero’s new eyes.  Being acutely myopic, I found the scenes where his lens is dry or he can’t quite see properly all the more torturous.  The fact that he is a writer trying to find out about a mystery lets us suspend belief: of course he would keep trying to wear the lens as it is leading him where he wants to go.

Maybe I have watched too many Chinese ghost stories, but I felt completely absorbed by the city Lu created, constantly shifting.  It was such a nice device, as ghosts dwell on streets that only exist sometimes, at addresses the cab driver may or may not be able to find.  I was very taken by the entire sequence in the public park where the hermit lives.  I loved the foggy mist, the lost people wandering through it and, especially, the rope to nowhere, up which an older man in street clothes scrambled as quickly as a bug.  Even though our larger journey was a bit vague at times, things were creepy and tense throughout and the visual imagery kept me rapt.  This feeling of otherness opens up my protagonists journey into a ghost-filled world.   Lu’s prose is a good reminder of creepiness in details.

The character of Fatty is hilarious, he is every guy’s obnoxious college roommate.  We get the sense that our hero tolerates him and his fumblings in the way that we all tolerated that loveable pain in the ass of a friend or roommate at one time or another.  The greatest thing about Fatty is his dependability and ineptitude, so that when he goes around the bend and starts getting weird, things get truly scary.  Having an edgy friend go weird is one thing; having a mundane drag of a buddy go freaky is downright terrifying.   While killing off the best friend is an old trick, the fact that Fatty had been shrinking physically due to his ghost encounters, puts him in a realm beyond the stereotypical expiring best friend.  Our hero is losing a friend in a frightening and destabilizing way.    This portion made me mindful of how to keep my heroine’s decay real and to pay attention to not only the details of each stage, but to keep my protagonist reacting to these details.  It is in his vision of her that she can become truly frightening.

The notorious murderer K has a storyline that runs through the background of the book, giving it a noir feel as our hero investigates one thing or another, in a half-hearted attempt to seek him out and to write about him.

Unfortunately, once we are safely lost in the eastern world of Taipei during high ghost season and things seem to reach a climax (our hero has barely recovered from an encounter with a ghost) we are given a very Western and predictable reveal: our hero IS K and has gone back to San Francisco to wreak more havoc.  Here I feel that the writer lost something beautiful and fragile he had created and the journey through the ether is given a B-movie plot twist, causing our delicate castle in the air to fall down with a nasty clunk.  It makes me more determined to see where my novel takes me, rather than trying to wrap it up tidily at the end.  The ending I had in mind when I first thought of the idea was WAY too B movie and while I kind of know how things are going to end, I need to be careful to maintain whatever it is that I have built up (am still building!) through the beginning.  We talked in the workshop about twists that are disappointing to the reader and I am hoping to diffuse any movie-like leanings that I may have by providing that twist early on.

The book was very inspiring as I keep on with my ghost story.  I can take a moment here and there to breathe and feel creepy through the atmosphere and I need to take some more time in the point of view of the protagonist to really creep him out.  I need to go back through what I have and increase his feelings of uneasiness.  I do find that in moving from movies to fiction, the scares have to be more deeply based than the old cat-jumping-off-a-counter scare or sudden-television-at-full-volume.  But if we make the reader myopic in his thoughts, things can creep up on him and frighten him (and, I hope the reader) more easily.  I just need to find what the scares are and the manner in which Lu writes gives me some very good pointers in atmosphere to create them.

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