Things that go bump in the night!

Things that go bump in the night!
Myths and monsters from the Library's Asian Collections
23 October 2014

"… when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there ..." — Stephen King.

There is no record of Stephen King ever having visited the National Library of Australia but when I read the above I instantly felt that not only has he been here, but that while he was visiting, he spent long enough in the Asian Collections stacks to be inspired to write this quote. It nicely (or not so nicely) sums up how I feel when walking through these particular stacks. On the one hand, they are just rows and rows of books. On the other, the stacks are isolated and lonely, kept in perpetual dimness with only enough light to show the way down a long corridor, pools of darkness to either side of you, and you know that if you pause too long in your journey the things lurking in the shadows will come out and want to play some horrible game with you.

Image of a werewolf like creature

The Great Hantu a werewolf like creature from Malaysian folktales

Needless to say that when my co-worker Alison and I were asked to prepare a display featuring ghost stories and folk tales from the Library's Asian Collections we didn’t have to go far for some spooky inspiration. That we are both fans of the horror genre (supernatural tales and monster stories especially) and rather enjoy a good dose of 'scare' every now and again didn't hurt either.

Both of us being familiar only with Western horror stories and tales of the supernatural, the opportunity to learn about Eastern ghosts and monsters was a real treat for us—the trick being that we didn't have enough time to research as much as we'd have liked.

Our first step was to trawl through the catalogue to find material for our display. We were not certain how much material we'd find, our search criteria being to find Asian ghost and folk stories written in English, though in the end some Asian language—and even one Portuguese language—material slipped in to the display. We were very pleased with our finds. Though Japanese material was the mostly strong represented, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore also featured.

Faced with a small mountain of material taken from the Asian, General and Rare Books collections, we spent some time looking through the material and deciding what to display and how to display it. Ultimately we were able to break our selected material into four categories – one category for each display case outside the Asian Collections Reading Room on the Library's third floor. Then we had to spend some time wondering if a Gashadokuro (The Starving Skeleton) should go into the 'Ghost and ghouls' display or into the 'Folktales' display. Or decide if our story book about a Kappa (a water monster whose hobbies include snacking on cucumbers and drowning humans) should go into the 'Mythical beasts and monsters' cabinet or the 'Modern interpretations' cabinet, as it is a modern story about a very traditional beast. Once these decisions were made we were able to put the display together.

Image of a giant skeleton

Giant skeleton

The books from the Japanese Fairy Tale Series are among some of my many favourites in the display. In addition to being beautifully crafted and illustrated the mini books in this series have the added allure of being printed onto crepe paper, requiring some research to discover more about this mysterious process. Happily I found the answer in Asian treasures: gems of the written word, a title both published and held by the Library. The trick is to print onto a specially prepared high quality flat paper then to crepe the paper.

Japanese crepe paper fairy tale books 

Crepe paper Japanese fairy tales

In One hundred Japanese strange creatures: an English-Japanese guide we learnt about the above mentioned Gashadokuro or Starving Skeleton. This frightful undead creature is a giant skeleton made from the bones of people who have died of starvation, fifteen times taller than humans. The guide says that if you see a Gashadokuro and try to run away, it will grab you and bite your head off. But what the guide doesn't tell you is what will happen to you if you don't run away!

Another favourite of ours is the beautifully and eerily illustrated Yoshitoshi’s thirty-six ghosts. The introduction also tells us what makes Japanese and Chinese ghosts unique "with the exception of the occasional historical figure, returned for reasons of their own, Japanese ghosts are female. Specifically, they are dissatisfied females. Gliding along (Japanese ghosts, like some in China, have no feet) they seek to vent this dissatisfaction, usually with dire results."

Image of a ghost carrying a severed head

Ghost carrying a severed head

It was also fascinating to learn about the legion of monsters and mythical beasts. There are tales of foxes who can bewitch people and take possession of their human bodies, and other monstrous animals such as the giant catfish that causes earthquakes whenever it goes on a rampage, or the Bakeneko, an aged cat that has acquired the supernatural ability to turn itself into other forms and devour humans.

Image of Bakeneko, a supernatural cat


In a more modern interpretation of cats with supernatural abilities a story from Ghosts of Singapore tells the story of a cat who comes back from the dead to terrorise the man who brutally murdered him. Of course these traditional tales and creatures have fuelled many more modern interpretations. From manga and anime to the modern, and much loved, monster movie. The 2007 Korean movie D-War tells the tale of Imoogi, a dragon-wannabe serpent, who has the opportunity once every 500 years to conquer the world by turning into a dragon.

Image of Imoogi, a dragon-wannabe serpent

Imoogi on the rampage

But I think that as wonderful as the modern interpretations, are you can't go past the original traditional stories. My favourite is the story of the Kappa. Once upon a time the Kappa were powerful water gods, but now they appear as merely supernatural beings or monsters who sometimes appear foolish and dangerous (many drownings are attributed to them) or at other times are respected for their healing abilities and for the way they keep promises.

The hardest thing about doing this display was narrowing down the material to use in the four display cabinets. During the process we discovered many strange, wonderful, and somewhat scary, illustrations and tales. All lurking within in the National Library of Australia's collections. It just goes to show that there are actually many reasons to venture into the recesses of the dark and lonely stacks.

You can view this display of ghost stories and folk tales from the Asian Collections in our Asian Reading Room until the end of November. The Asian Reading Room is located on the third floor of the Library, and is open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm.