The Big Idea: A.J. Hartley

Shape-shifting creatures… in small-town North Carolina? There’s a reason they’re there, and as A.J. Hartley explains in this Big Idea for Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, there’s no better place for them to be. 


Japanese folkore and mythology is packed with shape-shifting monsters. Seriously. Everywhere you look there’s something pretending to be something else. Some of them are funny (monsters disguised as umbrellas, anyone?). Some are terrifying. Some of them are just plain weird, acting according to a logic only they understand. But all of them reinforce a basic idea about the universe: that nothing is exactly as it appears.

It’s a familiar notion, of course, though it seems to have developed a deeper and more unsettling brand of truth as we wrestle with the implications of, on the one hand, quantum mechanics, and—on the other—a greater awareness of how race, gender and other matters create a disconnect between our we appear to others and how we see ourselves.

About those shape-shifters. My new novel, Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, is set in North Carolina but it’s informed by mystical beings from old Japan (generally called yōkai ) because the book’s protagonists are partly of Japanese heritage. I say partly because the title character (who goes by Caleb) has—like my own son—a Japanese-American mother and a Caucasian father. He and his sister have been raised to assimilate into a small town in which there are no other families like theirs, and they figure the best way to get through the pitfalls of high school is to fit in as best they can.

Except, of course, that they don’t look like they belong in their small mountain town, and changing that isn’t something they control. And their lives get more complicated when monsters start appearing in the woods, monsters whose origins are clearly—if mysteriously—connected to Caleb and Emily’s long-suppressed Japanese ancestry.

These aren’t just monsters of the scary teeth and claws variety, however. They are beings whose appearance can change, giving them a much wider selection of weapons. Many of the yōkai of Japanese legend are supernatural forms of common animals. There are racoon-dogs (tanuki) that can pretend to be teapots or sake barrels but can also appear as people. Sometimes they are tired, old folk who beg you to carry them or perform other tasks, for no reason other than their own amusement.

Tanuki are primarily tricksters, and not always competent ones at that, so they often give themselves away: hilarity, as the book jackets say, ensues. Mujina (a kind of badger) are more inclined to scare whoever they meet, appearing as ordinary people whose faces then vanish. In many versions of the story, the victim runs away, half mad with fear, and tells their tale of terror to the first cop, barman, or restauranteur they meet, only for their confidante to reply, “Was it like this?” Whereupon their face vanishes and the hapless victim blacks out in horror.

Once, when I lived in Japan, I saw a kabuki production in which a young family, lost in the mountains, came upon a tiny Buddhist temple where an elderly nun invited them to spend the night. In one of the most startling visuals I have ever seen on stage, the nun leaned behind the translucent paper screen to pick up a lantern, casting a shadow which revealed her true nature as a bakeneko: a massive and monstrous cat. She then performed a bloody attack on the family, and finally ascended into the heavens above the stage, fully transformed, not so much a cat as into a something somewhere between cat and human, covered in fur (and brandishing the afore mentioned teeth and claws), but clothed in a dazzling kimono.

It was breathtaking and unnerving, because the cat creature wasn’t just dangerous, it was uncanny, the kind of thing that makes your flesh creep because it contradicts what you think you know about the world and your place in it.

The supreme Japanese shape shifter is the fox or kitsune, a being so expert at human transformation that it can do what Caleb and Emily can’t; it can blend in. Kitsune can conceal their true nature so completely that they can marry humans, have kids, and live undetected among people for years at a time. These foxes might only be discovered if someone is particularly attentive to what he or she (often she) gets up to when the fox believes itself to be alone. Occasionally they give themselves away when angry, particularly if their spouse breaks an oath made years before. Sometimes they just get bored of human life and revert to their true form, vanishing into the forest and leaving their families baffled and grieving.

It’s a powerful idea, that sense that nothing and no one is what they appear to be, that even the things we think we know best might be something else entirely, something strange or lethal. After all, none of us is precisely what others take us to be. Inside our heads we are so much stranger and more complex, less easily knowable, than other people think, though somehow—preposterously—we still trust our superficial readings of others.

For my purposes, the sudden appearance of these shape-shifting beings in Portersville, North Carolina, provides more than (I hope) thrills and mystery; they embody a running metaphor for people wrestling with their sense of who they are, were, and might be, while surrounded by other people who assume they know exactly what their appearance means. Nothing is what it seems, least of all us.

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