Review of Richard Parks, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #235, September 28, 2017: Read online. Reviewed by Elora Gatts.
Trials and tribulations await a father/daughter team of devil-hunters and the snake-devil in their service when a restless spirit approaches them in hopes of finding rest.
Straightforward and linear, “On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts” seems more focused on adventure than theme. The characters are largely archetypes, never revealing enough of themselves to be memorable—although the father does seem to scratch his beard often. Despite being relegated to the periphery, Mei Li, the snake-devil in training to become human, has potential; unfortunately, her struggle never feels integrated into the plot meaningfully. This is a shame since there are so many ways in which one could explore her situation.
Instead, our focus is trained on an insidious plot involving the spirit of a wronged princess from a bygone kingdom. Most of this is shared via expository dialogue, and the forward motion stalls while this story-within-a-story unfolds. Once we reach the conclusion—expected and unsatisfactory, as if nothing much changed, adventure or no—there is a sense this story is actually a vignette. It is, perhaps, more of a case, not unlike something you’d see in a beloved mystery series like Christie’s “Poirot“ or Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Unfortunately, this format doesn’t work well without quirky, memorable characters or long-term serialization; part of the reason we love these stories is that we can return to a beloved character again and again—the only thing that changes is the particulars.
All told, I did enjoy the use of Chinese mythology and the way it informed the world. It’s encouraging to see fantasy break with western traditions.