Second Draft


A Youkai for Everything

Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Thursday, February 18, 2010

One of the most fun things about writing Demon Gate has been learning about youkai.

Youkai are supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore.  In English they are sometimes referred to as spirits, ghosts, demons, or monsters, but none of those words seems to completely encompass what they are.  They are not human, though they sometimes look like humans, or were humans once, or can change into the form of humans.  Sometimes they even start out as objects made by humans — umbrellas, paper lanterns, straw sandals.  Then… something happens to them.  They turn one hundred years old, or they go through some other out-of-the-ordinary experience, and the event transforms them, distorts them… gives them motivations of their own.

It’s amazing fun to be a Western fantasy writer with these resources at one’s disposal.  In Japanese folklore there seem to be supernatural creatures for every situation imaginable.  Perusing the Wikipedia list of Legendary Japanese Creatures , I’m like a kid in a candy-store of ideas.  Some of these are from specific folktales, and some are just youkai you might encounter anywhere, down the street, beside the river, going for a walk in the hills… or in your own house.   How to chose just a few for the story, from this embarrassment of riches?

There’s abumi-guchi, the fallen commander’s stirrup that’s been transformed into a little furry monster, waiting in the grass for its owner to return.  There’s basan, the giant fire-breathing chicken-monster; ikuchi, the sea serpent that travels over boats and drips oil on them; jatai, the old sash turned into a snake; jubokko, the vampire tree.  And kagge-onna, a very specific sort of creature — the shadow of a woman, cast on the paper shoji doors of a haunted house.

Then there’s the trio of weasels that haunts the mountains and attacks passers-by; we’re using them in Demon Gate, because they’re the weirdest tag-team we’ve ever heard of.  There’s the creature made of hair, the pillow-moving spirit, the ghost fire that follows people, the bean-grinding hag who eats people, and the giant catfish that causes earthquakes.   And more:  the hair-cutting spirit, the upside-down haunted pillar, the reanimated lump of decaying human flesh, the horse’s leg that hangs out of trees and kicks people as they go by, and of course the unharvested persimmon that turns into a monster.  (How do you keep house without an unharvested-persimmon monster?  I have three in my fridge.)

There are so many more than I won’t begin to mention them, and I’ve decided I like them all.  But I admit that most of them are personalities I wouldn’t want to encounter in real life.  Except perhaps the akaname — the spirit that licks the bathroom clean.  It sounds like it might be a useful youkai to have around, at least on house-cleaning day.

But then I suppose I’d have to clean the bathroom all over again afterwards, to remove the akaname spit.  There’s always a catch.

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