When it was first completed in 1578, the Bencao Gangmu (The Compendium of Materia Medica) was arguably the world’s greatest medical text. Drawing on hundreds of existing works and incorporating new scholarship, in almost two million characters it described the entire body of knowledge of Chinese medicine. Among the many interesting prescriptions were two from the Song dynasty, in which the main ingredient related to the mythological figure of Zhong Kui; an image of this deity was burnt and then the ash eaten or drunk as a powerful medicine.
Zhong Kui was known as the demon queller, a guardian spirit who defended mortals by hunting down and devouring the evil spirits responsible for sickness. The cult of Zhong Gui began or was at least popularized during the Tang dynasty by Emperor Xuanzong (reign 712–756 AD), in whose dreams Zhong Kui is said to have appeared. By the Ming dynasty, it had become common practice to place a portrait of Zhong Kui over the front door of homes each New Year to ward off evil spirits.
According to folklore, Zhong Kui was once a mortal man who had travelled to the capital of Chang’an (called Xi’an today) to take part in the imperial examinations. Although Zhong Kui placed first among the test takers, because of his ugly, disfigured appearance, he was denied his rightful reward of high office and was cast out of the palace grounds. Infuriated, Zhong Kui took his own life upon the palace steps. Condemned to hell for having committed the sin of suicide, his integrity and talent were nonetheless recognised by the God of Hell, who made Zhong Kui the King of Ghosts, with duties to maintain order in the afterlife and hunt down wayward ghosts.
Vincent Stoia’s thrilling Dark Blossom incorporates these folkloric elements of the Zhong Kui story into his narrative, and the novel starts with Zhong Kui taking the imperial examination in Chang’an. Stoia also uses another figure from the panthenon of Chinese gods: the mad monk Jijong. This hard-drinking, meat-eating monk was said to have used his supernatural powers to fight injustice, and became widely worshipped as a diety. Dark Blossom is a horror story, however, not historical fiction, and Stoia has to play loose with his chronology. The real-life monk upon whom Jigong is based lived two centuries after the events of the novel. Apart from the prologue introducing Zhong Kui, the novel is set in the year 907 AD, when the last days of the great Tang dynasty are at hand.
The title Dark Blossom is from the nickname of the main protagonist, Avagul Radir (Ava), after her dark skin and exotic looks. She is a “barbarian” rather than of Han Chinese heritage, having been abducted as a young child from the steppes of Central Asia and sold to a brothel in Chang’an, then the largest city in the world. Now thirty-one, Ava escapes from the brothel and becomes a fugitive on the run from multiple foes; Liu, the sadistic Captain of the Guards; Horse Face and Ox Head, guardians of the Underworld; and later on, the fiercest of them all, Zhong Kui. In trying to save the only thing she holds dear, her two illegitimate children, Ava finds herself caught up in a plot against the Emperor. She is alone on her mission except for some sporadic help from the “beggar god” Jigong, a figure whose filthy appearance and eccentric behavior do not inspire confidence.
On first meeting Jigong, Ava had been surprised yet underwhelmed:
“You’re Jigong,“ Ava said. “The god.”
Jigong gobbled the last of his pork and nodded to Ava. “The very same.”
“The gods are supposed to be all-powerful,” Ava said. “They can move space and time. They lift a finger and an empire falls. If one of them gets mad at you, he can take away your fortune, make you sick or even kill you. They’re not supposed to be dressed like beggars. They’re not supposed to be…” Her eyes fell on Jigongs’s wine jug, and she trailed off.
Jigong grinned, exposing a row of yellowish teeth. “What’s the point of being a god if you can’t enjoy yourself?”
Dark Blossom is a fast-paced read with suspense and twists aplenty. You are kept guessing who the good guys are, who is going to die next, and how things are going to end. I especially liked a scene where a character was suddenly killed off just after having been given an interesting backstory with the implication that he’s become more deeply involved in the intrigues.
The setting of China’s old capital is an interesting one, the action is riveting, and the plotting very good. There’s also a lot of humour, and this is done well. It’s not easy writing “funny” – there are the questions of whether jokes work and how much fun readers want in their horror. When emphasising action, horror and humour, there’s always the danger of characters being underdeveloped and a bit cartoonish. Overall, Stoia finds a good balance. Mercifully, he handles the deities and supernatural elements in a straighter, more satisfying way than in all those campy Hong Kong and Chinese films. (For a recent example of cinematic failure featuring the Demon Queller, have a look at the 2015 film, Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal.)
I enjoyed Stoia’s previous novel, Jin Village, an atmospheric horror set in contemporary China, where an archaeological dig in a remote mountainous corner of the country goes badly wrong. Dark Blossom, his second novel, is a step up, but there are still areas that the editors should’ve caught; phrases either added or deleted here or there would have turned a good novel into an excellent one. Firstly, the narrator voice is too casual, sometimes slipping into modern slang. And although there is good period colour (Stoia drew heavily from Charles Benn’s superb Daily Life in Traditional China) the capital of Chang’an would have benefited from more Central Asian flavour – yes, it needed more camel bell.
As Hollywood moviemakers dredge the back catalogues of comic books for ever-more obscure superheroes, or pitch A-list superheroes against each other as sequel fatigue sets in, they could do worse than follow Stoia’s example in borrowing figures from China’s rich folklore.
To learn more about Vincent Stoia and his books, visit vincentstoia.com.