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Book review: A Hong Kong ghost story

‘Inhospitable’ is less concerned about scaring the reader, instead weaving a narrative based on a knowledge of modern Hong Kong and of the history of southern China dating back to the 1930s

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

INHOSPITABLE, by Marshall Moore.

Ghost stories all tend to follow a similar pattern. Once the hauntings have started, they can only get worse, and then, finally, after an appropriate climax, the ghosts are put to rest. Inhospitable, recently published by British-Taiwanese independent publisher Camphor Press, predictably follows this line of development. What other options are available to ghost story writers?

Two Americans, Lena and Marcus (who is half-Chinese), are in contemporary Hong Kong to spend an inheritance buying a building and converting it into a hotel. While Marcus is back in North Carolina looking after some business matters, Lena witnesses two teenagers commit suicide by jumping together off a high building on a street in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai District. Before long she begins to sense the proximity of ghosts — a sudden coldness, a wineglass shattering for no obvious reason, and then the actual presence of one of them, who says his name is Loki.

Lena is being helped in overseeing the new building’s conversion by a young gay Chinese man called Isaac. He too is able to see ghosts, and spots one having lunch in a restaurant before Lena, who has been aware of ghosts since childhood. Loki even addresses Lena through the medium of Isaac on one occasion.

Loki tells Lena that some figures from another world are out to harm Marcus. Before long Marcus arrives back in Hong Kong, and is curious that Loki’s family name is Ngan — a comparatively rare name in Chinese, he says, and his grandmother’s family name.

Lena also has an American friend, Claire, who has lost a husband in Iraq and a son in Afghanistan. She wonders if Loki might be able to establish contact with them for her.

Publication Notes

INHOSPITABLE

By Marshall Moore

302 pages

Camphor Press

Paperback: Taiwan


Things predictably get worse rather than better, however. An otherworldly cat is sighted, and as the first guests arrive at the new hotel a plate-glass window looking onto the street buckles without apparent cause.

And then another ghost, called Wing, starts to appear. A visit by Lena and Isaac to an insalubrious area of north Kowloon reveals that Wing is from the era of the wartime Japanese occupation when he became involved in prostitution. Now he wants revenge on anyone surnamed Ngan.

The new hotel opens despite the problems, and one of its features is a clutch of Taiwanese guests who are particularly enthusiastic about its arrangements, and especially its prices.

Hong Kong is generally portrayed as polluted, crowded and full of people willing to do almost anything for money. There are some gruesome details about life there, too — this, for instance, about beggars with mutilations. “They’re controlled by the triads. Supposedly there’s a factory… The mobsters burn them or saw off a couple of limbs or blind them.”

The author reveals in a note at the end that he wrote Inhospitable as part of the requirement for a PhD in creative writing at the UK’s University of Aberystwyth. Is this a reason for being kinder to it in any critical assessment?

Inhospitable is no masterpiece, but it reads well enough if you like this sort of thing. Ghost stories can sometimes terrify, but this one is more concerned to weave a narrative based on a knowledge of modern Hong Kong and of the history of southern China going back to the 1930s. As such it’s cogent and, should you believe in ghosts, just about credible.

The description of ghosts in America as well as Hong Kong — Lena’s deceased sister Alice comes back to haunt the family in North Carolina, and a trip back to the US constitutes part of the plot’s resolution — prevents spirits from an afterlife being seen as only a characteristic of the Chinese, oriental world.

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