Friday, October 12, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: "So Far From Us In All Ways"

This week's free fiction offering is a complete short story, which first appeared in Jeanne Cavelos's The Many Faces of Van Helsing, a fine anthology that sadly didn't get the attention it deserved. Copies can still be had on the remainder shelves of many Barnes & Noble stores, and I recommend picking it up if you chance upon one.

I've done two more stories with my version of a young Abraham Van Helsing, one in the pages of Adventure Vol. 1, and the other in the forthcoming Solaris Book of New Fantasy, edited by the inestimable George Mann. About the latter story, Nick Gevers had this to say in the most recent Locus Magazine:
"And Such Small Deer" by Chris Roberson, a tale of Doctor Van Helsing in the Dutch East Indies, embraces the grotesque in a neat conflation of Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells.
The Solaris antho is highly recommended, by the way, and should be in stores shortly. And I imagine that George would agree with me that they make great stocking stuffers!

These three stories, for what it's worth, are actually the first three chapters of a novel, Travel Towards the Sunrise, which I may get around to writing one day, assuming that the stink of that crappy movie ever fades.

(And if anyone guesses that there might be a bit of Wold Newtonry in this story, and that the young Manchurian doctor Fu might be somewhat familiar, well...)

So Far From Us In All Ways
by Chris Roberson

Letter, from Fu Zheng Lei, Hunan Province, to his Excellency, the Imperial Minister of Examinations, the Forbidden City, Beijing
(translated from the Mandarin)

Your Excellency, forgive my impertinence in addressing this missive directly to you. At the urging of my uncle, Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty Xianfeng (scion of the Qing dynasty, son of heaven, may he reign ten thousand years), I am writing to explain my absence from my scheduled Jinshi national examination, and to beg your indulgence in allowing me another attempt. My uncle, Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty, thought it might be beneficial if I were to explain how it was that I came to miss my scheduled examination, as the circumstances were most unusual and unavoidable. My uncle, likewise, suggests that recounting the events could prove instructive for me, and help mold me into one who might in future better serve the Dragon Throne.

The difficulty arose on the road from Changsha, en route to Beijing and the Forbidden City.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
(translated from the Dutch.)

1 Sep, 1860. Zhengzhou. -- Left Tianjin by junk boat, morning of 25th August, and after a journey of five days, four onboard and one additional by horse-drawn wagon, reached the rural city of Zhengzhou. Unfortunately, employer’s agent, whose health I was sent afield to tend could not wait my coming. Arriving too late to help the poor devil, I was able to do little more than supervise the packing up of his body to be shipped, first to Tianjin, then back to England for burial.

I have been in the Orient only a relatively short time, and this journey marked my first real foray beyond the protection of the English Concession in the treaty port city of Tianjin. Guarded by English troops, the narrow streets packed with the regional offices of dozens of leading English international firms, my employers among them, living in the Concession is not so different, upon reflection, from my years spent studying in London. Beyond those protective walls lies the alien landscape of China, mysterious and threatening.

I have had occasion, these last months, to question the wisdom of quitting my native Holland for such a strange port. I’ve not felt at ease since stepping off the packet boat on the Tianjin docks, surrounded by the odd customs and incomprehensible jabber of the natives. Even within the confines of the English Concession I am surrounded by foreigners, and never hear my native tongue (though at least there, with my admittedly limited facility with the British tongue, I can comprehend and make myself understood). Still, after the loss of my wife and son this past winter, I could not remain any longer in Amsterdam. Each street corner I turned, each park bench I passed, only served as a reminder of happy memories, and brought to mind the grim, miserable state of my life without them. When the invitation from my former classmate arrived, I saw it as a chance for escape. A fellow student from my days studying medicine in London, he had gone into business, and established himself in international trade. With the cessation of the Opium War, and the opening of Chinese ports to European powers, my former classmate’s business was one of many opening regional offices in the Orient, and his branch in the north port of Tianjin was in need of a physician. In a trice, I resigned my teaching position at the University, packed my bags, and made arrangements for immediate departure.

In the months since, there has been little call for my specialized skills, beyond treating the occasional laceration or fracture, prescribing a poultice for a rash induced by some exotic nettle, or tending to a victim of dysentery. This journey into the hinterlands was to be the first real test of my medical abilities, and due to the slowness of the transportation, I arrive too late even to unlatch the clasps on my bag. I will, at least, be able to serve my patient in some small regard, by escorting his body back to civilization, to be shipped to his family overseas, who do not even know yet that they should grieve.

Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

2 Sep, - Intolerable. Upon arriving at the docks, after a long dusty wagon ride from the company offices at Zhengzhou, I was informed there were no boats for hire, at least none that would be willing to head downriver. Through the broken English of the dock-master, I learned the reason. In the days since I traveled up river aboard the junk, the river’s mouth has been seized by Taiping rebels, and it is not safe for travel, either for Europeans, or for those Chinese loyal to the Qing emperor.

It was apparent that my only option was to travel the long distance back to Tianjin overland. I was directed to a caravan heading north, under the protection of imperial troops. As I understand it, the caravan is transporting weapons and ammunition to the capital city, to be distributed to loyal troops in the northern provinces. There was but a single large cart in the train, all others traveling on foot, but there was sufficient room both for my luggage and the casket holding my charge’s body… at any rate, there was sufficient room after I had asked several times, and punctuated each request with an ample outpouring of the local currency. The casket, an air-tight box of cherry wood, packed in lye and salts, was lashed securely on the cart under a heavy canvas tarp, with the dead man’s head by the driver’s seat, and his feet near neat rows of crated muskets, ball, and powder.

I had little money left in my purse, but was happy to spend what little I had to the master of the caravan, to secure for myself a place at the driver’s seat. The rough plank of the cart was unforgiving and hard, but I would rather pass the next week with a bruised backside, than wear my feet down to the ankle by walking the hundreds of miles to our destination.

It appears I am not the only member of the company to have performed this calculation. I will be sharing the driver’s seat with a young Chinese scholar, who has some smattering of English, while the cart’s ostensible driver will be walking before the cart horse, leading him on a rope.

If nothing else, then, there may be some conversation had, to pass the time.

Later. – I shall endeavor to write in as neat a hand as possible, despite the jars of this rugged road, that I can later read my record of this journey. Though why I should want to do so, in future times, I am now hard pressed to say.

My young companion, the scholar, is a Manchurian bureaucrat named Fu Zheng Li. He is on his way to the capital city of Beijing, to take some form of examination. Naturally, he speaks no Dutch, as does no one else in the company, but he knows a smattering of English, learned from the missionaries in Hunan province, he says, in his childhood. I know barely enough Chinese to inquire after the location of the privy, but am a fair hand at English, though in the awkward phraseology of one accustomed to the more regimented and reasonable syntax of the Dutch language, and so Fu and I are able to communicate between us without especial difficulty.

Fu explains that, with many of the shipping channels and imperial roads under the command of separatists and insurgents like the Taiping rebels, most traffic from city to city and province to province has shifted to rough rural roads. Merchants, bureaucrats and scholars, who otherwise would travel in some measure of comfort, are forced to trudge through clouds of dust, under the not-always diligent watch of imperial soldiers unable to secure for themselves any more attractive posting.

In our small company, besides Fu and myself, are four merchants, three bureaucrats, and two scholars, all watched over by a half-dozen soldiers. The soldiers, despite Fu’s protestations to the contrary, seem quite alert, their hands never straying far from the hilts of their swords, or the muskets slung over their shoulders, their eyes always scanning the horizon for potential threats. China, it would seem, is in the midst of some considerable unrest, even more than I might have guessed, and a lack of attention might bode ill for one’s chances of survival.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Considering the state of the countryside, and the dangers posed by insurgent forces preying on loyal Qing subjects both on the imperial roads and on the waterways, my uncle considered it best that I travel to the capital overland, and had passage secured for me among a caravan carrying military supplies from Hunan province, where such were in abundance, to the capital, whence they would be distributed throughout the northern provinces. As the Taiping rebels held Nanjing, and roamed the surrounding countryside with impunity, the caravan was scheduled to take a more westerly course, bearing more or less due north before turning to the east in the northern reaches of Shanxi province.

Given my station, having passed my Xiucai degree provincial examination at the age of eleven years, and my Juren degree provincial examination at sixteen years, on my way to my Jinshi degree national examinations when not yet twenty years, I was afforded some small comforts among the caravan. My close relations to the governor, and his relations to the Dragon Throne, might also have helped my position. While the other scholars and merchants traveling under the caravan’s protection, then, walked alongside or behind the horse-drawn wagon, I was offered a seat on the wagon-driver’s seat.

I rode alone on the wagon seat for many days, until just past the city of Zhengzhou a foreigner joined the caravan, and inauspiciously bribed his way into the favors of the chief soldier in the caravan.

This foreigner, a Dutchman, was a physician of some sort, escorting a coffin to the city of Tianjin. He was taller than most of the company, strongly built, with a deep chest and thick neck. His wide face and square chin seemed more suited to a field-hand than a man of medicine or philosophy, and his large, jutting nose and mobile, bushy eyebrows made him seem like some sort of primitive. His hair was a mess of reddish wire, and his large eyes were a blue so dark as to almost be black. He spoke no Chinese, but passable English, and so I was able to communicate with him, having learned some measure of English from foreign religious zealots who traveled to Changsha in my youth.

He was crude, with little of substance to share, and I was loathe to surrender the solitude I’d enjoyed on the ride previously.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

3 Sep. – Stayed overnight at a small shelter along the roadside, presided over by a graven image of the Buddha, the god of these heathen peoples. With such considerable distances separating the cities and towns in this wide land, over the generations the Chinese seem to have established an elaborate network of way-stations and shelters along the country byways, separated by the rough distance of a day’s travel. I am grateful for these brief respites, in which I can pry my weary backside from the knotty plank of the cart’s seat, and sleep stretched out under a roof, with no fear that the skies might open up and pour down on me. There was no rain last night, but storm clouds have been gathering since late yesterday afternoon, and I think we’ve little chance of escaping a drenching.

I’ve gotten to know my young companion in our short time together. Over our humble meal last evening, a weak soup stock and a chewy stalk of some form of vegetable, he told me some little bit about his background. Throughout our talk, his eyes shifted to the rest of our company, sitting a distance away, in the protection of the shelter, and to the soldiers, who patrolled the road leading to and from our position. It seemed that his words were for me alone, and that he was wary of any other’s overhearing. Perhaps it was the use of the foreign tongue which insulated him from propriety, and freed him to confide things to a stranger he’d never utter to another.

“My parents, they are dead,” Fu explained. “From an early age, I was a member of my uncle’s household. My uncle, he is the governor of Hunan province since I was a child. He is a proud Manchurian, and he refuses to admit that his distant relations, those who have controlled the Dragon Throne for generations, have lead the kingdom of China into disgrace.”

“Disgrace?” I worked at the touch, sinewy fibers of the vegetable stalk, trying unsuccessfully to soften it in the soup stock.

“Disgrace,” he said, nodding. “Yes, and even ruin, it might seem. After the shaming loss of the Opium Wars, the Qing emperor and his advisors, they have conceded ports to European control, opened lucrative financial opportunities to Europeans, allowed Europeans the freedom of the countryside, to roam as they will. Now, in the countryside, there is unrest, rebels and insurgents sprouting up like weeds after a spring rain. Threatening the honest Chinese laborer. Threatening the stability of the Chinese bureaucracy. Threatening the legacy of millennia of history.”

My young companion paused, and looked across the open space to the merchants, bureaucrats, and scholars huddled in the shelter of the way-station. The flickering light of the circle of candles inside cast moving shadows across his face. His magnetic eyes, narrowed and flashing with the light reflecting back, gave his lean face an almost feline appearance. He slowly nodded.

“In order for China to regain her former glory,” he said, “she will need strong, new leadership.”

With that said, he set down his bowl, turned his face away from the circle of light, and laid down on his side, silent until morning.

Later. – We have ridden without pause since first light, Fu and I side by side on the driver’s seat, the rest of the company trudging through the dusty ruts of this country road.

Some time past noon, the silence that had hung over us for some hours having grown oppressive, Fu and I struggled to find some meaty topic on which we could converse, to pass the time.

“Fu,” I asked, “what is this examination you are en route to take?”

“Jinshin.” Fu paused, searching for the appropriate English term. “It means, Presented Scholar. It is the highest of three levels of imperial examination, the first two being the Xiucai… it means, erm, Flourishing Talent, and the Juren, it means, I suppose, Elevated Person. To join imperial service, in the province, one needs at least to have attained the Xiucai rank, but to serve in the capital, truly to prosper in the service of the emperor, one must become a Jinshin. Presented, it means that one is presented to the emperor himself. It is a very high honor.”

“Three ranks of academic achievement. Quite like the western system of education, with the Bachelors of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctorate. In English, I suppose you might say that you are on your way to becoming Doctor Fu, Manchurian scholar.”

“Yes,” Fu said, nodding, “something like that.” He pointed a long-nailed finger at my chest. “Like you, Doctor.”

I smiled, and nodded in return.

An awkward silence filled the space between us, and I realized we’d exhausted the usefulness of the topic. As I searched for anything to say, Fu charged into the fray.

“Doctor,” he said, “do you have a wife?”

My hands tightened on the edge of the seat’s plank, my knuckles white.

“I had a wife,” I answered, “and though she is lost to me now, I suppose in the eyes of Mother Church she is my wife, still.”

“Doctor, do you have any children?”

My throat constricted, and unbidden came the mental image of my wife and son, laying still on the cold tile of our entryway, their eyes wide and sightless, and contorted faces bloodless and pale. From the hidden recesses of memory came the impression of something else there, some dark figure slipping out the door, blood stained hand lingering on the doorframe for a brief instant before slipping out of view. But such a thing… It is not possible. Reason does not allow it.

“No,” I managed to choke out the word. “Not any more.”

My face tight, I turned my attention to the monotonous road ahead, and ignored any of Fu’s questions or comments for the remainder of the day’s journey. I hadn’t the strength within me to speak further.

Behind us, beneath the lashings and the canvas tarp, lay the coffin of the dead man, always at our sides, silent participant in our disjointed conversations.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

On the third night out from Zhengzhou, stopping under a moonless sky at an unmanned way-station, the caravan was surprised by strange noises from the dark forest. Shuffling, rustling, something unnatural. We huddled in the shelter in the protective circle of candles, the foreign doctor off to one side, smoking a strong, tightly-rolled cigar that fouled the air and offended the senses. Later, we sleep restlessly, under the sheltering eyes of a stone Buddha. In the morning, one of the guards, who had been posted as picket through the night, was found dead, torn into a dozen pieces, several of which appeared to be missing.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

4 Sep. – The caravan continued on, after the soldiers had dealt with the remains of their fallen brother’s body. The company is unsettled, walking closer together, their eyes darting at every sound.

There is scattered talk among the bureaucrats, merchants and scholars, only occasional words of which I’m able to catch. Their chatter continues unabated, in whispered tones, as though afraid something just beyond the edge of vision out in the rushes and the hedges might overhear. In the days previous, the company had been mostly silent, occasionally punctuated by brief outbursts of laughter following what must have been a joke or ribald tale. The slow, steady susurration of whispered voices today, I must confess, has me somewhat unnerved.

Fu has translated for me the meat of the others’ speculations. Some say that it was a wild beast that got to the soldier, while others hold it was some form of phantom or spirit, and that the soldier succumbed to its wiles before becoming its meal. Those who hold the attacker was a wild beast argue that the supply of weapons and ammunition in the cart should prove ample protection, if used properly; those who hold it was a phantom have no such hope.

I couldn’t understand what wiles a phantom might have, and explained my confusion to Fu.

“In China, spirits, they often take the form of an attractive woman.” Fu kept his eyes on the road, a slight blush rising in his cheek. “In this form, they seduce men, drowning them in the… sensual pleasures until they are helpless, and then consume them, body and soul.”

Fu paused, and then drew a slight sigh.

“I do not think, for my part,” he said, “that it sounds like such a terrible bad way to die.”

Having been raised on stories of rotting ghosts and unquiet spirits, and not knowing the touch of a woman until I was nearly Fu’s age, I was forced to agree.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

The sun set on the fourth night, and the company was left uneasy. Still out of reach of any established town or village, the caravan stopped at another way station. Vandals, though, had defaced the small statue of the Buddha within the shelter, removing the head from the stone body. This seemed an inauspicious omen. The members of the company sat huddled, exchanging nervous whispers, in the shadow of the headless form.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

4 Sep. – I write by firelight, my fingers almost numb from cold and fear, but I want to record my thoughts and impressions before sleep and forgetfulness drive them from me. As though I could sleep tonight. The swift stream beside us gurgles like a drowning man, and the stranger who saved us keep a wary watch, and I am undone. But enough. My recollections, before my fear consumes them all.

We had arrived at the way-station, and sat huddled within the shelter in restless anticipation, fearful of the falling of night. We ate in silence, feeling vulnerable in the dim circle of candle light, the shadow of the headless icon dancing on the far wall, unsetting.

A sliver of a moon rose in the sky, and there came from the forest sounds of rustling, of movement. The pickets had been placed closer in tonight, the soldiers well in sight of the shelter. In the flickering candlelight that broke from the entrance, the assembled company could see the tense bodies of the soldiers, their swords and muskets at the ready. The canvas covered cart was parked a few dozen feet from the shelter, alongside the road, while the cart-horse was tied to a nearby tree. Storm clouds gathered overhead.

A strong wind blew in across the tree tops, guttering the candles’ flames. For an instant, the soldiers were swallowed by shadows. When the wind died down, and the flames snapped back to life, burning bright once more, the soldiers were nowhere to be seen. Gone. All gone.

The wind began to pick up again, and the temperature dropped suddenly. A storm was almost upon us. A lightning flash in the distance, and faint peal of far-off thunder, clouds sliding across the slender moon.

The candles were blown out completely in a sudden blast of cold, dry wind. Another lightning flash, and all of us huddled in the darkened shelter saw, framed briefly in the open doorway, a lurching, stiff-limbed horror, arms outstretched, ruined mouth open wide.

It was some monstrosity of which I’d never dreamt, and yet there was for the briefest instant the frisson of recognition. I hadn’t the opportunity nor the inclination to explore the sensation of familiarity, as the monstrosity drew nearer, and fear choked off my thoughts. The stiff-limbed horror advanced, an odd, jerky gait, towards the quivering company, filling the small shelter with a faint green luminescence.

Fu was on his feet immediately, sidling along the darkened wall towards the entrance, and escape.

“Doctor,” Fu called from just beyond the entrance, beckoning to me. “Come on.”

As the lurching monstrosity advanced on the wailing merchants and bureaucrats, I steeled my nerves and slipped through the entrance, following hot on Fu’s heels. But the movement had caught the monster’s attention. I suppose that it reasoned the livelier meal was the tastier, and that two fleeing were livelier than the huddle masses before it. He pivoted on unbending joints, and started after us.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

I raced through the darkened forest, lightning marking out my path. The foreign doctor followed close behind, lumbering and wheezing as he came. The strange, monstrous figure was close at our heels, bounding along on unbending knees. The path we followed through the dark forest was difficult to see, and whipping braches and thorns stung us as we passed.

The monster was almost upon us, our final moments arrived, when a figure jumped out of the darkness before me, with head shaved clean and yellow robes that shined like the sun in the brief lightning flashes.

This newcomer jumped between us and the advancing monster, pulling a woven bag from his belt and shaking out a handful of glutinous rice into his palm. He muttered a quick incantation over the grains, the words of which the wind carried away from my ears, and then threw the rice directly into the face of the lurching monstrosity. The monster reared back, smoke curling up in delicate curls from its desiccated flesh, an insensible yowl issued from the ruined mouth. It swatted at its face with long-nailed fingers, trying unsuccessfully to claw the grains away. In that moment, I recognized the tattered rags hanging from the gaunt frame as the traditional Manchurian burial garb. This was a corpse, given life, or the semblance of life.

The man in the yellow robe turned to me and the foreign doctor, both of us looking on blank-faced in shock and amazement.

“We must hurry,” the man in the yellow robe said in refined Mandarin. “The creature will not be stopped for long by the rice, and I haven’t the strength to fight at the moment.” He then turned, and hurried into the darkened forest.

I turned to follow, but first glanced over to the foreign doctor, who stood stock still, watching the writhing corpse figure, his large mouth slack-jawed, his blue eyes wide.

“Come, we must follow,” I told him in English, my tone urgent. “Danger.”

Considering my duty filled, I turned and raced after the retreating yellow robe. The foreign doctor must have understood, as within heartbeats I heard his lumbering steps following mine.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

4 Sep. Later. – Fu and I followed close behind the yellow-robed stranger, and he led us to a little shrine along a swiftly running brook. Instructing us through signs and barked orders to seat ourselves near the base of the shrine, he pulled a collection of small bags from the belt of his robe, and proceed to surround the shrine at a radius of a few yards with a circle of iron filings and rice. I tried to enquire after his purpose, but it seems that our benefactor speaks no English, only Chinese. I pleaded with Fu to repeat my questions to the old man in a tongue he could comprehend, but Fu sat quietly shaking at the base of the shrine, his narrowed eyes closely watching our savior’s every move.

I wished that I had a touch of whisky to calm my shaky nerves, or even a cigar, but a quick check of my sweat-damped pockets produced only my package of lucifer matches, my other supplies back with the cart. Back with the monstrosity, that strange figure that had lurched out of the darkness, pure evil at sight.

My thoughts spun in tight frenzied circles around the danger stalking the dark night. Would I die here, by strange hands in this foreign land, and be rejoined with my family after so short a time?

When the yellow-robed stranger had finished his circuit of the shrine, and come to sit beside me and Fu in the dim shadow of the shrine, I found my tongue again, and plied Fu once more with questions.

“Who is he?”

Fu left off rubbing his hands together to relay my question to the stranger along with, by the sound of it, several of his own. The stranger, after a long pause, answered in just a few short words, and then turned his attention back to the deepening shadows beyond the little circle of rice he’d laid.

“Well?” I said. “What did he say?”

“This man,” Fu answered, “he is a Taoist priest from the western provinces, and his name, he say, is Master Xi. He says, the creature we escaped, that was Chiang Shih. It means, the Undead.”


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Master Xi explained the origin of the strange creature, and how this doom had befallen us.

“The Chiang Shih is a vivified corpse,” Master Xi said. “Undead, but yet not living. There is in each of us two souls, the higher and the lower. The higher, Hun, is associated with Yang and controls the higher functions of the human self: emotion, thought, passion. On the death of the body, the Hun soul ascends quickly to the heavens, to be among the stars. The lower soul, though, or Po, is associated with Ying, and controls the baser functions: hungers, appetites, lusts. On the death of the body, the Po soul begins slowly to sink to the earth, to be absorbed back into the soil. In the case of violent or traumatic death, or improper burial, the lower soul remain trapped in the body after the higher soul ascends. The corpse of the departed, then, is still driven by the baser passions and appetites of a man, but lacks the guiding instincts and awareness that makes us human. It is a mindless thing, less than animal.

“A century ago,” Master Xi continued, “an army was sent by the Qing emperor to the western wilds of Xinjian, to tame that savage Mongol land for the Dragon Throne. Among those who fought, bled, and died for their emperor were seven Manchurian brothers, the bravest of General Zhaohui’s warriors. Buried in that foreign land, improperly interred and not revered by their descendants, their lower souls stayed with their bodies, and they rose from their unhallowed graves. Driven by their lower animal urges, and the blind instinct to return home, these seven Undead crossed the breadth of China to return to their ancestral Manchurian lands, driven in their mindless, animalistic fashion to their final rest.

“I have been trailing these seven Chiang Shih across seven provinces, saving those hapless victims it is within my power to save, and burying with proper rites those I cannot, so that they, too, do not rise up as Undead. With the aid of my three assistants, I have managed to defeat the Chiang Shih one at a time, so that there is now but one left, but my assistants have all perished in the attempts, and I am left alone. This last, this final Chiang Shih, is the strongest and fiercest of them all, and it is too much for me to handle alone.”

When Master Xi had finished speaking, he grew quiet, and watched for our response. I translated as much of Master Xi’s story to the foreign doctor as seemed appropriate, and he agreed that we had little choice but to assist Mater Xi, primarily because without his help, we had little chance of escaping the Chiang Shih.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

5 Sep. – This morning, in the full light of day, Fu, the Taoist priest and I returned to the shelter of the way-station. The cart and horse still stand, just as they did the night before, but all that remained of the soldiers and our company were scattered body parts and spatters of blood.

“Why does the Undead consume the bodies of men,” I asked, “but does not touch the horse?”

Fu relayed my question to the Taoist priest, and after hearing his response, answered.

“The Undead, Chiang Shih, they are driven by their lower souls, but still crave a higher soul. The souls of animals, they cannot sate this hunger, but the souls of men can whet their appetites. Nature does not allow the Undead to consume the souls of their victims, but the mere whiff of souls escaping as the lives are snuffed out is enough to satisfy their hunger, if only for a moment.”

My first instinct was to check on the state of my charge, the poor unfortunate whose body I was ferrying back to my employer’s care. I found the casket in fine condition, the seals untouched, the wood unbroken and secure. The Taoist priest’s eyes followed my movements, making careful study of everything I did. Satisfied that the body was unharmed, I crossed myself and gave a brief prayer of thanks for this small kindness. When I turned, the priest’s eyes were still on me, measuring my every move, taking note.

Later. – We three spent the long hours of the morning and afternoon making preparations for our coming conflict with the Undead. We began by burying the victims of the monster with the proper rituals, Fu and I taking the backbreaking task of moving earth and the gruesome task of collecting the remains, while the Taoist priest busied himself with charms and chants, burning incense and marking strange glyphs on little slivers of rock.

During a brief rest, with the sun high overhead, I expressed some reservation about what I considered to be provincial superstition. Whether the bodies of these poor unfortunates were danced and sung over with plumes of smoke, or just planted a few feet in the ground without ceremony, it seemed to me that they posed no threat to anyone in their present state.

At the priest’s request, Fu translated my brief outburst, whereupon the priest made a show of walking with thundering steps to the casket lashed to the nearby cart, and with outstretched finger touched his left shoulder, then his right, then forehead, and then navel. Finishing his mimed cross, he turned to me, his expression plain even across the gulf of language. Then he returned to his charms and chants, and finding I could muster no suitable reply, I returned to my digging.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Nightfall approached, and we made ready. Master Xi gave me what training he could, in the time allowed, which I then passed along to the foreign doctor.

Here is what Master Xi taught us:

When confronting the Chiang Shih, hold your breath; the Chiang Shih cannot see, as mortals see, and detects the presence of the living by scenting the trace of the higher soul in their breath. The Chiang Shih fears glutinous rice, which represents the fecund power of the earth itself, into whose bosom the body of the Chiang Shih should return, to decompose and fertilize future life. The Chiang Shih fears mirrors, and can be controlled if one places yellow paper inscribed in red-ink or chicken blood with holy symbols on its forehead. If part of a Chiang Shih’s body is removed or cut off, it will continue to function, apart from the rest of the body. The Chiang Shih fears running water. The only hope in defeating the Chiang Shih lies in immobilizing it first, and then burying it with the proper rituals, cremating it if at all possible, to free the lower spirit to sink back into the earth.

Master Xi assembled our plans, and we made ready. Nightfall approached.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

6 Sep. – It is difficult to think on the events of this last night, the evening of 5th September, but having come this far in recording the events of my strange journey, I would be remiss to stop short here.

Night fell, and we three readied ourselves. Where the night before had seen a storm, lightning and thunder, tonight was clear and still.

The old priest, a sword scabbarded in cherry-wood in hand, looked to the sky, and muttered a few words.

“Master Xi,” Fu translated for my benefit, “he says that fortune is not with us. If it had only stormed again, and fiercely, then the elements might have taken care of the Chiang Shih for us. The Undead are often dispatched by particularly loud thunderclaps, their lower souls shocked from the body by the noise.”

I followed their gaze to the cloudless sky, and shook my head. Our only hope lay in following the old priest’s plan.

The plan was to lure the Undead into the shelter, which has only one door. Once the monster was within the confines of the shelter, Fu and I, who to that point had been hiding in the corners, would rush outside behind it, pulling with us strong cords attached to the mouths of woven bags hung from the rafters just above the entrance. The bags would open wide and a shower of sticky rice would fall, blanketing the entrance to the shelter. The Undead, then, would be trapped inside with the priest, unable to exit without the burning, searing pain at the touch of the grains. The priest would wield his silver-bladed sword, with a slip of yellow paper inscribed in chicken’s blood pierced at the tip. He would then drive the sword through the Chiang Shih’s forehead, immobilizing it long enough to perform the burial rituals and cremate the body.

Fu and I crouched in darkness at either side of the entrance, the cords gripped tightly in our hands. The priest stood before the opening, eyes closed, drawn sword in hand.

From beyond the opening came a thumping noise at regular intervals. The same noise I’d heard the night before, pursuing us into the darkness. The Undead approached.

I could scarcely watch it enter, lumbering in on stiff limbs, long-nailed hands stretched out to the priest, its presence filling the shelter with a sickly green luminescence.

The priest opened his eyes, and then spoke the signal word, the single bit of English he knew, learned just for the occasion.


The initial stages of the operation went as planned. Fu and I rushed past the monster, pulling the drawstrings as we went, which opened the mouths of the sacks and carpeted the hard-packed dirt floor at the entrance to the shelter. Then we crouched outside, fearful, watching the old priest do battle with the monster.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

For the briefest of instants, it looked as though Master Xi’s plan would work. The Chiang Shih fought back, parrying his sword thrusts with long-nailed fingers, but still Master Xi pressed on. The battle between priest and Undead raged.

In the final moment, just as it appeared that Master Xi would succeed in immobilizing the monster, the Chiang Shih swatted the sword from his hands and fell on him, claws and ruined mouth and all. The Taoist priest, with a forlorn shriek, fell under the monster’s teeth and talons, and was ripped into bloody pieces before our eyes.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

6 Sep. Later. – I looked to the cloudless sky overhead, wishing on whatever holy thing that might exist, Oriental or Occidental, that a storm might whip out from the ether, and a thunderclap drive the damned spirit of the monster down into the earth. Then my eyes lit on the cart, and the casket of the dead man, and I knew our only choice.

The weapon and ammunition of the soldiers, forgotten in the excitement of the monster’s attack, were still on the cart, still under the tarp at the foot of the cherry-wood coffin.

“Gunpowder,” I whispered to myself, as though to hear the word aloud would bring it to my hand. “Gunpowder.”

I grabbed Fu’s arm, dragging him after me. I rushed to the cart, still parked only a few dozen feet from the mouth of the shelter by the side of the road, and fell to the knots in the dim light.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Having consumed what it wanted of Master Xi’s body, the Chiang Shih prowled the rice-laid mouth of the shelter like a caged tiger, sniffing the still air for a hint of our breaths. With every pass, the monster’s feet grazed a little further into the carpet of rice, and despite the tendrils of smoke curling up from its soles, and the silent grimaces of pain, still nearer to freedom it came. The barrier of rice would not hold it for long, and then it will be on us

The foreign doctor was side, tearing at the lashes holding the canvas tarp in place, trying to get at the ammunition. I had surmised that if a thunderclap could dispel the Chiang Shih, then an explosion of gunpowder might serve the same purpose. The Chiang Shih came ever nearer the freedom of the open spaces, ever nearer attacking and consuming us both. We couldn’t get the stoutly-fastened knots loose, and had no knife with which to cut the bindings. After all our exertions, only a single trailing rope was free, hanging in the dust.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

6 Sep. Later. – The monster was almost free. There was no time. We’d not got more than a single rope untied, and our time was through.

Fu drew himself up short, and grabbed my elbow.

“Your light,” he said, struggling for the words. “Your flame. Your…” he broke off, frustrated, and mimed the action of lighting a cigar.

“My lucifer matches?” I answered.

Fu nodded, fiercely.

“Yes, yes, now, matches, now!”

“But we’ve no time for nonsense, boy,” I said. “There’s just no…”


Taken aback, I reached into my vest pocket, and pulled out the box of matches. Fu snatched them from my hands, struck one alight, and then held it to the frayed ends of the single rope trailing down from the lashings. It caught fire, and the flame began to climb up its length.

Fu, grimly, got behind the cart, and began to push it forward towards the shelter with all his might. I hung back a moment, confused, and then in a flash understood the young man’s plan. I put my shoulder to it, and heaved for all I was worth.

Three things happened at once, my mind scarcely able to take them all in.

The Undead stepped into the shelter’s doorway; the cart careered into the open door; and the flame traveling up the cart’s trailing rope reached the canvas covering, which caught fire in an instant blaze. In the following instant, there was only deafening noise and blinding light, as the amassed powder and ammunition on the cart caught fire and exploded, in a violent fury, catching the small shelter in a blossoming firestorm that burned bright as the noonday son.

The cart horse, tied to a nearby tree, brayed and whinnied, but was unhurt, while Fu and I, knocked onto our back, could only look on in exhausted awe at the destructive splendor of the blast.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

The next morning, and the way-station had burned to fine ashes. Nothing of the cart, or the coffin, or Master Xi, or the monster, remained. Of all the caravan that had set out from Changsha, so long before, and all that had joined along the way, only I, the foreign doctor, and the cart-horse remained.

We sat, in silence, while the sun rose and climbed the pale blue sky. With few words exchanged, we got to our feet, unhitched the horse, and mounted, the foreign doctor riding behind me, and continued up the road to Beijing.

I arrived, finally, a day late for my Jinshi degree national examination, and was sent with the next convoy back to Hunan province in disgrace.

I have returned to service in the administration of my uncle, the Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty Xianfeng (scion of the Qing dynasty, lord of heaven, may he reign ten thousand years), but am still desirous of serving the Dragon Throne in a more personal fashion, and helping to bring greater glory to the kingdom of China. Perhaps the strangest lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience is the resolute nature of the Manchurian spirit. Even in death, the Manchurian will not cease to fight, will not surrender. If we remember that, then perhaps we might someday rule the world.

Again, I thank you for your kind indulgence, and await your response.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

31 Oct. Tianjin. – I’ve had neither the opportunity nor the will to update this record since the early morning hours of the 6th September, the morning following the conflagration. During the long journey back to Tianjin, my mind was simply too numb to compose rational thoughts, and upon my arrival at the English concession, I was greeted with too many questions regarding the ultimate disposition of the body of my charge to have a moment’s reflection.

In the end, my employers and the British authorities in Tianjin reached a compromise, and recorded the unfortunate gentleman as “Lost Through Misadventure.” Nevermind that a certificate of death existed, showing him dying of native disease in the township of Zhengzhou, and that his body was among the manifest of a caravan lost en route. There was no body, and no chance of his return, and so his family back in England was simply told that he had been “lost,” and that was an end to the matter. Still, they look at me with suspicion, and none accept the truth of my story.

Of the young scholar Fu, I have seen nothing since our arrival in the capital on horseback. He was greeted with no small dismay by the imperial wardens, as he had evidently given insult to the examiners by missing his scheduled appointment, and compounded the offense by arriving in a sorry state in the company of an uncouth foreigner.

I could not help but pity the young scholar, but felt certain that he would preserver. Though we spoke little in our solitary journey to the capital, on the long nights by the roadside we forced conversation, anything to fill the terrible empty silence of those dark spaces.

I had made mention, on one of these nights, that we in Europe have legends of creatures similar to the Undead of our shared experience, but that men of science and learning such as myself do not give them credence. I wondered aloud what difference in environment or circumstance might give rise to such unnatural monstrosities in one geographical locale, but not allow them in another, as I am certain we have no such in the West. Any thoughts to the contrary are the result only of delusions or irrational passions.

Fu, after a long silence, began to speak in response, but it was almost as though he were answering some question that had not been asked. He had a far away look in his eyes, the flickering light of our fire reflecting his eyes back to me like a cats, glowing in the night.

“I could not help but to feel some small pride at hearing the accomplishment of the seven Manchurian brothers in life,” he said, “seven champions of Xianjian, even if they were responsible for such horrors after death. They had been, in life, true warriors of the Manchurian spirit, and with more like them today China might prove better equipped to stand against foreign intervention and insurgents from within.”

Fu fell silent, and after a time I asked him whether his opinions on the presence and influence of foreigners in his country was common.

“No,” he said simply, “it is not. Those of my mind, we patriots, must pander to the soft whims of those in authority over us. To gain prestige, to gain position and influence, we flatter and coerce. But someday, perhaps, with enough of us in high bureaucracy, matters will change.”

He looked at me across the flickering fire, as though seeing me for the first time, his eyes narrowed.

“And come that day, Doctor, I would hope that you are gone from this land. Far away when that day comes.”

I shivered, and could not help but agree. But I need not wait for Fu’s promised rise to power to force my decision. I have arranged to return to Amsterdam as soon as possible. I hunger to be away from here, and my only sleep is fitful.

In my dreams, I am haunted by the memory of that strange, unearthly creature, lurching after me in the darkened Chinese woods. Strange, then, that in my dreams those woods become, at length, the pristine entryway to my home back in Amsterdam, and that instead of the young Manchurian Fu by my side, it is my wife, and my young son, fleeing for their lives.

And every time, just before waking, the monster overtakes my wife and son, and I alone survive, but before I can turn and face the creature, I awaken with a chest rattling scream.

I had hoped to escape my demons by coming to the East, but have found that there were only other demons here, waiting for me. I look forward to returning home, where at least the memories which haunt me will be happier ones, and reason still holds sway.

Copyright © 2004 Monkeybrain, Inc.


Thanks for sharing, Chris.

If the "Wold Newton" flavor is an intended feature, then you did succeed in that admirably.
Thanks, Paul. (And yes, definitely intended.)
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?