By Drew Baumgartner and Ryan Desaulniers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
They found her body sprawled across the grave. Without realizing it, she had plunged the knife through her skirt and had pinned it to the ground. It was only the knife that held her. She had died of fright.
Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Drew: Like every kid who grew up in the ’90s, I’m intimately familiar with Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories books — the perfect camp fire/slumber party fodder. But “The Girl Who Stood on the Grave” (sometimes known as “The Dare”), whose punchline I spoiled above is the only one that ever actually scared me. Even as a kid, I never believed in ghosts, so stories of long-dead apparitions leaving their sweaters behind or whatever felt more like jokes than anything. But the thought of scaring oneself to death felt all too real when watching my friends get spooked by the other nonsense in the book. I doubt I knew who FDR was at that point, but even then I understood that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Which is to say, I’m far more interested in the telling of ghost stories than I am in the stories themselves. And I suspect we’re all a little that way — it’s why Tales from the Crypt had the Crypt Keeper and Are You Afraid of the Dark? had those terrible child actors — the ritual of telling scary stories is just as important as the scary stories themselves. It’s a notion that Hungry Ghosts taps into twofold, offering a framing story within a framing story, as a Crypt Keeper type tells us the story of people sitting around telling ghost stories.
I suspect that double-framing is meant to allow something otherworldly to happen to the folks telling the stories — heaven knows their host is plenty creepy. Actually, while nothing too spooky happens in this first issue, we already get hints of that otherworldliness here, as one of the guests seems to already be possessed by the Crypt Keeper woman that frames the whole issue.
Which kind of robs the tension of the ritual for me. People scaring themselves is interesting. Me waiting for the shoe to drop on supernatural comeuppance is more of an exercise in patience.
And I might have more patience if the scary stories were actually interesting, but in the grand tradition of ghost story anthologies (like those I’ve already name-checked), it seems like an odd limitation to insist on food-related ghosts. I mean, I understand that co-writer Anthony Bourdain may have a special interest in food (and that it’s probably on-brand for him to do food-related stories), but “has something to do with food or eating” isn’t all that interesting of a premise, basically resulting in ghosts that dispatch their victims by eating them (or at least part of them). Moreover, it’s not even a rule that this issue sticks to all that well, as the host points out of the second story.
Actually, let’s focus on that second story (which is at least a little more substantive than the first one, which boils down to “man doesn’t help beggar, gets his just desserts”), because the logistics of it are so weird. The prospect of a pirate ship rescuing a woman from the sea with the plans of raping her certainly has higher stakes, and the justice that is ultimately exacted feels more poetic, but like, why did the guys stay in line when it was clear all she was doing was biting their balls off?
Maybe questioning the logic of ghost stories is missing the point, but the reliance on the specter of supernatural mumbo jumbo leaves me cold. Or, more to the point, it leaves me struggling to relate to the characters telling these stories. These are just trivial fictions to them, right? Can these stories even hope to reveal anything about their tellers, or would we be better served with just one framing device?
The obvious answer is that it’s too early to tell, but without any obvious purpose, I feel like this first chapter needs to do more to justify these choices. Or maybe I’m just immune to the charms of ghost stories. Ryan, did this do any more for you than it did for me? Do you have more fondness for the actual ghost stories? Did the framing stories satisfy you? Oh! And do you have a favorite from those Alvin Schwartz books?
Ryan D: No way did I go near those Alvin Schwartz stories, Drew! Steve Gammell’s iconic and grotesque illustrations made sure that I never made it past the cover of the book. It may be one of those examples of something being scarier out of anticipation than it is in content, but I didn’t really find the urge to try any horror media until Goosebumps became more popular than yo-yos at school. Apparently, I was not the only soul terrified of the Scary Stories, as the collections have been under siege by parents who want that title out of school libraries.
One of the reasons cited for this parental hatred stems from the fact that many of those stories didn’t express some moral at the end of the story, something which Western audiences have been trained to expect. That’s something which I hope Hungry Ghosts leans into, as well. While the first story carries with it a clear moral; help people in need or suffer accordingly, the second is not as explicit, save for maybe; don’t abuse women. I’d love for the team, going forward, to forsake the need to wrap these tales up with any nice, pretty bow. Before the Disney-fication of classic stories and parables, much of what we know of folklore originally depicted brutal scenes of violence, and often refrained from redeeming any of the main characters. I am thinking of the Hans Christian Andersen school of folklore retelling, which did not shy away from the atrocities which feature in much of Scandinavian folklore. And Andersen’s universally revered as a children’s author.
I think my big gripe with the story so far revolves around the characters in the kaidan level of framing device. Aside from the host, it’s the chefs who feature, and they’re all introduced, visually, as individuals:
This page strikes me as vaguely referential to the Brady Bunch title card, but I think it’s a bit problematic, depending on which way this series ends up going.
If we will be gleaning more from these individual chefs so that their characters become distinct, then I missed an important beat this issue. When the eccentric, billionaire Russian invites them to the table after service and propositions them into taking part with the game, why not give us a moment to see the chefs clock each other and silently decide to play along and join? They have no real agency and the stakes are not nearly as high if the crew buys in without a second thought. Imagine if we got an inkling that one of the chefs decided that they were going to try to run the jewels in the rich Russian, and the compliance of the chefs was part of some long con, a mini class war between the servers and the served. That would add a layer of jeopardy and secrecy to the game.
The other side of that coin is to keep the chef characters indistinct. After all, those terrible child actors in Are You Afraid of the Dark? you mentioned, Drew, may have had names, but I don’t really remember them having personality — all garbed in that generic 90’s jean-jacket look, mixing up the genders and races a bit but not possessing character arcs. These kids weren’t distinctive characters, really, but empty templates for different target demographics to use as their point of entry. Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics that the less photo-realistic a face on a page and the closer to cartoon, the more into which a reader can project themselves. Perhaps this is what the creative team in Hungry Ghosts is going for: trying to give readers a set of neutral bases through which we can engage the story. If that be the case, however, I still feel quite detached from both levels of narrative devices, as if the mechanics of this story begin and the gears of it turn with or without my involvement. And I’m unsure as to whether or not that’s a choice on the part of the creative team.
Make no mistake: I’m a mark for Tony Bourdain — as both a writer and a personality. I love the man’s jaded, insufferable, incorrigible eloquence in his media, forgiving any of his forced turns of phrase because of the legitimate joy he brings to discovering some of the nuances of another culture and its cuisine. Though Hungry Ghosts might be penned by Joel Rose, that love of that which is distinctly cultural and where it intersects with the universally human still permeates this title. And to make a callback to your lead-in Drew: while this opening issue didn’t necessarily pin me to the tomb by my skirt, I’ll still give it a chance to refine its form and, you know, scare me to death.
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(Cue the diehard Are You Afraid Of The Dark? fans to tell us all of those characters had distinct personalities and were, in fact, very well acted.)
Ryan, I’m not sure what you are saying when you discuss the moral, especially when you mention historical, pre-Disneyfication. Many of those classic tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were more brutal and violent, but they also contained morals. The morals are very different to the morals of today’s versions, because of cultural context. But the stories have been moral plays since the beginning.
And your description of the second tale sounds like it has a very clear moral as well. As you say, it is about how abusing women leads to punishment (even if that runs into the problem that while punishment technically exists, we as a society don’t do a good job enforcing it).
I never read the Scary Stories books – I don’t think they penetrated outside the US, as I only heard of them recently and surprised by how everyone saw them as such a childhood staple. SO I can’t say whether they have morals or not. But the ideas that morals and clean, pretty endings go hand in hand feels very inaccurate.