Seeing Ghosts: Joel Rose on Anthony Bourdain’s Appetite for Horror Stories

Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts Co-Writer Reflects on the Berger Books/ Dark Horse Comics Series

Comics Features Anthony Bourdain
Seeing Ghosts: Joel Rose on Anthony Bourdain’s Appetite for Horror Stories

With the collected edition of Hungry Ghosts hitting bookstores today from publisher Dark Horse Comics and Berger Books, Paste invited the late Anthony Bourdain’s friend and frequent collaborator Joel Rose to write a bit about Bourdain and their work together on the series. His essay follows.

I didn’t ask questions when he came to me wanting to do ghost stories. When he mentioned the idea for Hungry Ghosts, wanted to know if I wanted to do it, I said yes, straight up. I never asked myself why he wanted to go there. To a place I certainly knew nothing about. What did he want with horror? I didn’t know. What attraction did ghost stories have for him? Didn’t ask that either. What was he looking for? Never went there.

But now I know.

You make assumptions. You make leaps.

Hungry Ghosts Cover Art by Paul Pope

Over the last couple of years, before his death on June 8th, Anthony Bourdain and I worked on a graphic novel together, one of a long line of collaborations. We were old friends. More than 35 years. After all our years together, intrinsically, we were on the same page.

Hungry Ghosts was conceived as a comic book, four issues, based on the Edo period samurai parlor game, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, 100 Candles. I won’t go through the particulars, but the object of the game was to tell a story, designed at heart to scare the shit out of your rivals and tough-guy buddies listening in to the terror you were spinning. A lot of ceremony, a lot of drama, a lot of cool stories. Told to each other by samurai warriors.

Tony wanted to tap into that mother lode. Change the samurais to chefs, set the stories all over the world, apocryphal tales that would have to do with food, in whatever way we could imagine.

Sounded good to me.

The place to start, I quickly learned, the source of translated Japanese tales of strange creatures and strange happenings, is an early 19th-century scholar named Lafcadio Hearn. A Greek by birth, Irish by education, Hearn lived all over the world, including New Orleans, where he stayed for 10 years and wrote vividly about the city. In the end Hearn set himself up in Japan, first as a journalist, then as a teacher, and over a course of a 14 years (1890-1904), married, adopted a Japanese name and undertook exhaustive research into both Japanese and Chinese manuscripts and art. In 1903, he published the seminal book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a volume of impressive scholarship and vivid brilliance. In these pages he outlines, illustrates, brings to life in astonishing richness, a world of Japanese ghosts and eerie folklore, yurei and yokai and obake, ghouls, goblins and shapeshifters, never known by the western world before.

Did I mention that part of the game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, after the telling of his story and blowing out his candle, his andon, each samurai would gaze in a mirror that had been placed on a bare table, to insure that he himself had not been possessed by a yokai or yurei during his telling? Stephen King has written that writers write horrors to help we the people cope with real-life terrors. Horror as the timely exposer of those fundamental, shared fears plaguing our shared culture and shared society. Horror is at its most effective when of the moment. There is a lot of common ground, a plethora, between horror and modern politics. Horror illuminates what we fear. What we fear most.

Horror can be morbid, gruesome, surreal. Horror can promote fear, shock, disgust.

Horror can do all of this. Yet horror is capable of more still. In troubling times, we all look for answers. We are all on a quest. And isn’t it the old saw, writers of stories hold up the mirror for all the world to see?

Hungry Ghosts Cover Art by Paul Pope

Beyond our imagining, beyond our shock and astonishment, beyond choice, we have found ourselves woken up, living in a sudden (or not so sudden) age of fear and turmoil. Every day we see the flailing sword of myth and legend (although, evidently, not truth) wielded to incite, to divide, to control. Our paranoia runs rampant. Perhaps, rightfully so. In an essay, written for The New Yorker, magna writer Lee Child asks a fundamental question: Why aren’t we extinct as a species?

Language has a lot to do with it, certainly, Child allows. The ability to communicate and strategize, the ability to plan, that certainly gives us a leg up. But Child poses something more, an element beyond language. An essential more potent. It is story, he contends, that has empowered us and set us up to profligate. Specifically fiction, Child charges. Non-fiction? Sure, non-fiction covers the ground. After all, non-fiction prepares us and lets us know truth by definition. But fiction, the making up of things, affords us a different ability. The ability to imagine. To discern. To take apart and put together. To move forward. As Lee Child posits, fiction inspires us, empowers us, emboldens us.

As long as there has been even the crudest communication between our ancestors, more than anything, language has served story, making story the integral part of us. Story is how we define ourselves. It is how we puzzle over ourselves. Story is how we solve and strive and excel and reveal. Story is how we dream.

But at the same time, fiction has dealt us ill. Because fiction has engendered lives and we are vulnerable at its hands. “It is ironic,” Child concludes, “given my profession, but the more I learn the more I would uninvent fiction.”

Tell no lies, Child urges. The knight is a hero. He goes to battle. He defends what is right.

But note well, nota bene, Circe is a temptress.

A siren calls to our hero as he floats by on his voyage, on his ship, lashed imperfectly (obviously) to the mast.

Hungry Ghosts Cover Art by Paul Pope

Do you know of Jorogumo? Have you ever heard? The beautiful Japanese spider woman? She carries a sweet baby and approaches an unsuspecting man. She hands her baby to him and the babe promptly molts into a quivering mass of spider eggs and the eggs hatch, all over the man, and devour him.

In troubling times we all look for answers. In troubling times it is not uncommon for people to turn to story to suss out the world, to understand it. We find ourselves in a time of fear, where fear is wielded as a weapon to create division between us, to separate us, to drive a wedge between us, and ultimately, possibly, to conquer us. As a culture, as a people. The intrusion of disturbing supernatural elements into everyday experience can reap huge rewards in terms of entertainment value, but where does horror get us? What does horror do? How does it expose our terror and like a putrid wound, let it bleed?

In his heart, Tony was drawn to horror, not only for the elegance of story, but also for the opportunity horror afforded. I now know Tony needed to excise his demons, tell the story, tell it his way when he guided our direction and we crafted those stories for Hungry Ghosts.

In putting together our book Tony and I had many artists from whom to choose. The talent of artists involved in comic books who endeavor to draw horror is a wealth undervalued. Tony, especially, had a specific look, mood, experience, he was looking for, trying to invoke. Guided by our editor, Karen Berger, who cut her teeth on horror comics, we were able to scout widely, choose wisely and well. Two days before he passed, we were going back and forth, the usual way we worked, composing the Hungry Ghosts dedication for the compiled edition.

Horror gave to Tony opportunity to use the conceit as a political and social cudgel with a felted face. Perversely, what is familiar and comforting about horror, what is terrorizing and discomforting, is also what is enjoyable. To tell the tales of the excises, the dismembering of man’s fear of woman, the gluttony, the sloth, the inhumanity, the tribalism, the dearth of kindness, the fear of another, as entertainment, this was the tremolo, what horror is able to expose in 2018, because, no doubt, there is a monster and a monstrosity upon us, and it clutches at us. Horror, and Tony, yearn to afford us that glimpse of insight in order to fight back.

Hungry Ghosts Cover Art by Paul Pope

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