Cryptozoologist Richard Freeman has suddenly launched himself on the world of weird fiction. Not only has he been able to showcase an extraordinary imagination he also been quite wonderfully prolific. Last year he published `Green, Unpleasant, Land', a collection of strange tales taking as their starting points the British countryside and its folklore, with knowing nods towards such masters of this genre as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Now he has been inspired by his love of Japan and its own particularly peculiar legends.
``Hyakumonogatari' is the first in an ambitious series of volumes of short stories set in Japan and reflecting a Japanese tradition of storytelling in which 100 spooky yarns are told by a number of guests. The ritual is supposed to ultimately call up a ghost. This volume contains 25 stories and Freeman is intending to write the full 100 himself in three follow-ups over the next couple of years. Judging by this initial collection, there is little doubt he will succeed admirably.
Richard Freeman is an accepted British authority on the Yokai, the surreal menagerie of ghosts-cum-demons-cum-monsters that inhabit Japanese folklore. The Yokai have provided the author with splendid material for `Hyakumonogatari'. Here you will encounter a bewildering array of supernatural menaces, from demonic humanoids and bestial monsters through to polite little critters that will devour you as soon as bid you good day and cute little doggies that spell instant death should you so much as brush against them. Here too are such weirdies as animated metal skeletons, murderous strips of cloth and trees bearing fruit with the faces of men. Freeman's stories are set throughout the islands of Japan and in a number of different periods, from the times of the Shoguns through to the present day.
The stories are straightforwardly told, almost journalistic in tone at times. This, plus Freeman's undeniable knowledge and love of Japan, lends an authenticity essential considering the grotesque and bizarre nature of his protagonists. The style works especially well in my favourite story, `Brother On The Hill', which tells of primitive hominids encroaching on the domain of humans in a remote mountain forest in Hokkaido. In `Brother On The Hill', Freeman's expertise as zoological director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology lends further authenticity to a tense and thoroughly believable narrative.
`Hyakumonogatari' is a startling collection of more than two-dozen stories ideal for horror fans who are jaded by the endless round of vampires and werewolves (and vampires who fight or fall in love with werewolves). Any one of these yarns would have graced the pages of the old `Weird Tales'. Bring on the next 75, I say!