Wailing Ghosts (Penguin Little Black Classics) by Pu Songling

In my post on The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell, I mentioned that I felt the Penguin Little Black Classics Collection had a certain bias towards male writers. Whilst I stand by that, I do think that they have done a good job in the collection of including a range of influential texts from a variety of cultures and nationalities. One of the things I have enjoyed about this collection is that it has enabled me to read some classic short fiction and poetry from cultures that are very different to my own: as an International Student Worker, this has been particularly exciting for me, as my students love telling me all about their home country’s culture and literature.

Wailing Ghosts is a series of very short stories from Classical China, most of which probably come under the category of ‘ghost stories’. The stories revolve around strange events and mysterious people; monsters and magic; wrongdoing and supernatural retribution. Some of the stories are moralistic, serving as a warning to the readers about certain behaviours; others simply describe an inexplicable event with little comment except for the reader to notice the strangeness. The one constant is the theme of fantasy and the supernatural which is prevalent throughout.

The stories, as mentioned before, are very brief with very few coming in at longer than two pages. It is fascinating to see how well Pu Songling makes use of so few words: each story feels contained and complete despite the fact that there are few answers to the questions raised by the narrative. This fast pace and enigmatic writing style took me a while to get adjust to, since it was very different to the literature I am more familiar with. However, after the first few stories I enjoyed this difference, and came to appreciate the stories for their conciseness.

One of the things which was surprising to me was how well Pu Songling manages to create characters of depth in such short stories. From a few well-timed moments of speech to brief but telling descriptions, each protagonist is engaging and interesting, if not necessarily likeable. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about characterisation and the extent to which the reader needs to be told key information about a character in order to engage with them: these stories definitely make a compelling argument for a ‘less is more’ approach.

Overall, this was a fascinating little book to read. I enjoyed many of the stories, and have had rereads of some of my favourites (not a task that takes a particularly long time). It was good to jump into a culture different to my own as I read these tales, and definitely encouraged me to keep reading more non-Western literature.

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