While he’s primarily known for his work in films and television (Ghostwatch, Afterlife, Gothic), Stephen Volk is also one of the horror genre’s masters of the short form, with stories such as “After the Ape” and “In the Colosseum” among my very favourites of recent years. He writes a column for Black Static but this short from #9 is the only time that his fiction has graced the pages of the magazine.
And the first thing that needs to be said, is that it’s not quite like anything else I’ve read by Volk (and his work runs all the way from traditional Jamesian ghost stories through to something like “In the Colosseum”, which is bloody enough to give a splatterpunk pause, so he’s not a writer it’s easy to categorise, instead going wherever his muse leads him). Set in medieval Japan, it reminded me of nothing so much as Dunsany’s elegant concoctions and the occasional ventures into ‘chinoiserie’ found in Bradbury’s back catalogue, but here given a much darker hue.
The town of Orobi is besieged by ghosts, and so the Emperor sends Hojo, a samurai regarded by his peers as fearless, to get to the bottom of things.
Hojo the Fearless is an arrogant man, rather vain with regard to his reputation for courage. Upon arrival he mocks the townspeople for their cowardice – ‘”Does not even one of you know what these creatures you are so afraid of even look like?”‘ – and for their superstition, the belief that anyone who sees the ghosts will go mad.
But as the days unfold, the reality of Hojo’s situation becomes apparent. The townspeople continue to disappear from their beds, taken by the ghosts, but Hojo is never able to confront the enemy he has come to vanquish, possibly because the patrols he is so diligent about conducting never take him any further than to the windows and rooftop of the house where he is staying.
Deprived of battle and a chance to prove his bravery, the samurai gives himself over to imagining what the foe might actually be like, and to take precautions against them based on his preconceptions. The ghosts will be slimy to the touch, and so he acquires metal caps for his fingertips so that he need never touch their skin. Perhaps their screams will send men mad, and so he ties cloth pockets over his ears. And so on.
And yet we wonder at the samurai’s motives. Are the cloth pockets really to block the ghosts’ screams, or simply so that he needn’t hear any cries for help in the night, and so feel compelled to run to the aid of anyone attacked? Is the way in which Hojo trembles really due to the cold, to combat which he gets a black bear fur coat, or something else entirely? When push comes to shove, how brave is Hojo the Fearless? Beneath that bluff exterior, is he every bit as superstitious as the townspeople whose fears his reputation compels him to deride?
When he stitches his eyelids open to prevent sleep we realise that Hojo has gone mad, and there is further body mutilation to come. The man of action, deprived of any tangible enemy, has been undone by his own imagination and increasingly desperate attempts to convince himself that he is not afraid.
The end when it comes, the longed for confrontation with the ghosts, is the realisation of all Hojo’s worst fears, his nightmares come true and given a form.
Underlying this tightly written fable, one in which repetition and pattern are used to compelling effect, is a subtext along the familiar lines of ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. Hojo knows how to defeat a physical enemy, how to hack and thrust with a sword, but this bluff man of action is simply not equipped to deal with the terrors of the ‘metaphysical’ world. His imagination is a tool he has put to little use, and so now when, spurred into motion by inactivity and the fears of the townspeople, it is given free rein, Hojo finds that it uses him rather than the other way around.
He cannot make an accommodation with his inner demons, this man of whom it is claimed that he has never known fear and whose sense of self is built around that fact, and so they tear him apart.
In attempting to maintain his self-image as Hojo the Fearless he is entirely undone.