Wu Shih-sheng is a taxi driver, sinking in debt and living in a cockroach-infested metal shack in the outskirts of Taipei with his wife, Hsiang-ying. When she dies in a mental hospital, after claiming to have been hearing the voice of a ghost threatening her life and that of their daughter, Shih-sheng decides to dig deeper. His journey will lead him to consult with a deranged Taoist priestess, and eventually to embark on a dangerous hike on the top of Mount Jade, in central Taiwan, with the purpose of destroying the evil creature.
Chang Yu-Ko’s Whisper, translated into English by Roddy Flagg, is a well-crafted horror novel, set against the background of Taiwan’s contemporary urbanscape, theater of uncanny—and sometimes deadly—encounters with eerie presences and ominous voices.
The story is constructed along four narrative threads, each following the point of view of one of the four main characters. Besides Shih-sheng and his wife Hsiang-ying, who soon falls victim to the ghostly presence, the novel also tells the story of Hsiang-ying’s supercilious sister, Chen-shan, who will have to face her own terrible demons, and finally that of Jui-yi, the social worker handling Hsiang-ying’s case at the mental hospital, whose contribution will turn out to be of key importance to solve the mystery of the spectral voices.
The alternation of these four parallel stories creates a fast-paced rhythm, making the novel a real page-turner, while at the same time allowing for a gradual unfolding of the mystery, as the characters put together the different pieces of the puzzle.
But Chang’s novel is more than a thrilling ghost story—though this element surely is enough to make the reading experience satisfying. For while the narration is set in contemporary Taiwan, the ghostly elements are rather tied to the country’s Japanese colonial past, a time of profound social conflicts between the Japanese colonizers, the Han locals, as well as the island’s original inhabitants, Taiwan’s indigenous people. The novel intercepts elements from Taiwan indigenous folklore and intermingles them with cultural influences of the Japanese colonial period, especially in relation to matters of religion, spirituality, and superstition.
The weaving of these historical details and cultural references into the plot of the novel contributes to the emotional tri-dimensionality of the characters, both the humans, but also, more interestingly, the non-humans. In other words, the whispers are not just immaterial manifestations from some otherworldly reality, but are given a very concrete—and burdensome—historical significance.
It all starts when Shih-sheng, on one of his shifts, finds an abandoned car. After rummaging through the inside of the vehicle, he eventually finds a cassette recorder in the glove compartment. He presses play, and a hissing noise starts to come out. Amid the noise, a name is uttered: Minako. Before falling to her gruesome death, Hsiang-ying also claims to have been hearing a crackling voice—as if coming from inside a radio—telling her that someone is coming to kill her. That someone has a name: Minako, again. Even Tsu-tsu, the mental patient who shared the hospital room with Hsiang-ying and who has witnessed the death of the woman, has now started to behave incoherently, mumbling words in her native tongue, Bunun (one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups) that have to do with spirits and demons. The deterioration of Tsu-tsu’s mental health prompts Jui-yi, who cares deeply for her, to start her own investigation into the nature of these apparitions.
The road to finding the truth about Minako is tortuous and dangerous. “The mountain is the gateway of the ghosts,” the Taoist priestess warns Shih-sheng while discouraging him from going to Mount Jade in search for Minako. But Taiwan is a country of mountains, and indeed a country where ghosts—symbolic projections of an unresolved past—are free to roam in the present and haunt its inhabitants.
The suspenseful atmosphere is maintained throughout the book, with a few climaxes in which the author delivers some truly horrific scenes—fluently rendered in Flagg’s engaging translation. Besides the gruesome descriptions of Minako, especially terrifying are the parts regarding the macabre rituals performed by the Taoist priestess—a character that is perhaps even more spooky than the ghosts she maintains to be fighting.
A satisfying—and bone-chilling—read, Whisper will captivate both lovers of the horror and ghost genres, as well as those who are interested in discovering some less known—and in some ways, still sensitive—aspects of Taiwanese culture and history.