The Hungry Dead of Yü-Ching and Other Stories
In my experience as a reader and Reviewer of books across many genres, it is quite rare to find an author who writes stories across multiple, distinctly different genres; and even rarer still to find an author who can be said to have mastered each of those genres through skill, imagination and quality of writing. With his most recent publications, however, it has become increasingly clear that author Paul Leone meets these criteria, effortlessly moving between genres as his catalogue of works increases. Whether it’s Science-Fiction (Little Greys); Alternate History (In and Out of the Reich & Murder in Jerusalem); Occult Detective (The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey: Volume One); or even Arthurian Fantasy (The Governess of Greenmere), it seems like there is no genre that Leone cannot turn his hand to and produce something fresh and engaging. I follow his works with a great deal of interest, always eager to see what he’ll tackle next, and was therefore delighted to be offered the chance to review a pair of short story collections he intends to release throughout 2021. The first of these is the intriguingly-titled The Hungry Dead of Yü-Ching and Other Curious Tales, and gathers together ten tales that are set within the shared universe of his Zillah Harvey stories. Fronted by another excellent piece of cover art by Jackson Tjota, the illustration shows a young woman diligently reading a curious folio in the corner of a study, the walls festooned with a variety of pictures and photos; as will soon become obvious when reading the collection, they are all cleverly linked in some manner to each of the stories, a subtle touch that helps to further entice the reader. Impressed by the cover art, and also the back-cover blurb which tantalises with mentions of ‘Immortal Champions’ clashing with dark forces throughout time and across the planet, I found myself diving into the collection with all due haste, eager to see what Leone had in store for me this time.
Comprised of ten stories in all, the collection opens with the eponymous The Hungry Dead of Yü-Ching, which takes us to Shanghai at the very end of the 19th Century. Our protagonist is Miss Emily Bailey, a lady visiting the International Community in Shanghai who is invited to tour the eponymous Yü-Ching, an abandoned ghost town in the company of old family friend Colonel George Turner-Wright, late of the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot; they are accompanied by local guide Kuo T’ien-chien, and photographer Renee. But what begins as an innocent, albeit somewhat ghoulish, trip to an isolated rural area soon becomes something infinitely more dangerous. The group encounter fearful locals who warn against entering the village, warning about the eponymous Hungry Dead, but despite the warnings the foursome trek onwards and eventually find the wartorn remnants of Yü-Ching. But it soon becomes clear that the village is far from abandoned, and the group are soon fighting for their lives; only the appearance of an Immortal Champion offers even the slightest sliver of hope for survival. Leone composes the story with a fine eye for period detail and some beautifully evocative prose, especially in his descriptions of the Chinese countryside and its inhabitants. I particularly enjoyed his portrayal of a society in upheaval as Western traditions and culture sit uneasily with the local population, and the way this carries over to the characters and their interactions during their journey. Add to that some finely-choreographed action sequences, and you have a fantastic start to the collection. It’s then followed by Ástríð which takes us to the early days of the Second World War and the account of a British soldier posted to Iceland, where he meets Ástríð Haraldsdóttir, a fisherman’s daughter and becomes besotted with her. Good food, friendly locals and utter boredom are the soldier’s usual routine, isolated and far from the war raging across the continent, until a mysterious shipwreck occurs. At first it seems to be nothing more than a casualty of war – until the killings start and civilian bodies start piling up. Leone deftly creates an air of paranoia and mystery as the soldiers search for a murderer who brutally carves up bodies rather than using bombs or bullets. It’s a great little murder-mystery blended with fantasy elements, in an unusual setting, and ties neatly into the world-building he’s developing around the Immortal Champions. It also has another fantastic fight scene, something Leone seems to be particularly good at writing.
Trouble at Yushan Village, by contrast, opens in the thick of the action in 6th Century Tang China; Master Ying Shihao leads his apprentice Miss Yueji in a brutal fight against a horde of jiangshi, or the undead. But even as they triumph against the demonically-possessed corpses, they are summoned to another trouble-spot in the Tang Empire’s southern borderlands in order to deal with yet more evil. As they travel, we are given some tantalising glimpses of the duo’s history, both individually and jointly, Leone deftly utilising Chinese mythology in his worldbuilding and in developing the relationship between the two warriors. There’s also some great interplay between Ying and Yueji, with witty comebacks and gentle humour; and that, combined with yet more skilful action scenes and surprisingly deep and thought-provoking worldbuilding when they reach Yushan Village, makes me eager to see more of the duo’s adventures in future stories from Leone. We’re then transported to Mercia in Anglo-Saxon England for The House of the Owl, and the adventures of Ælfgifu Ælfrædsdohtor and her brother Ælfwine, as the twins search for the source of a mysterious dream that has recently plagued Ælfwine. To do so, the two will have to leave the safety of their family and venture into a wild, dark and forbidding forest to locate a strange woman sleeping in a white house; a journey that will test them both physically and psychically, the latter the result of the strange gifts that only they share. The Lobbeweald is a fantastic setting for the story, its weird and unsettling nature playing into Leone’s strengths as a storyteller; and the story as a whole has an intensely mythological feel to it that kept me glued to the pages until it had finished; it’s one of the strongest stories in the collection, and well worth the purchase price alone. Red Dawn Operation 842 then fast-forwards to the Soviet Union in the fading years of the Cold War. Captain Aleksandr Smolnikov and his team are sent to investigate why an archaeological team near the Afghanistan border haven’t been heard from, days after they were expected to check in. But what should have been a quick and simple mission to check on some witless civilians instead presents a mystery: overturned tables, missing archaeologists, and barefoot footprints in terrain that would burn an unshod foot in mere minutes. Venturing into an uncovered tomb, the Soviet soldiers rapidly find themselves fighting for their lives (and souls) against a terrifying and utterly unnatural foe. The story has shades of William Meikle’s excellent S-Squad series, with the same engaging characterisation and intense action scenes, but the story is also leavened with some unique twists that allow Leone to put his own stamp on the concept without it seeming at all derivative. It’s a fast-paced, guns-blazing action-adventure that is another strong contender for best story in the collection
Moving towards the end of the collection, we return to Anglo-Saxon England and the eerie Lobbewald forest for Sigrid Sigdansdohtor and the Wolf of the Lobbewald, with the titular character acting as our protagonist for a brief but potent story that sees her take up her ancestral axe to investigate a commotion in the depths of that forest, only to encounter fearsome crows, a pile of brutally shredded bodies, and a bizarre hybrid creature that pursues her through the forest before she can bring it to a final, epic battle. It’s only a few pages long, but it’s written in an intriguing style that well matches old Anglo-Saxon chronicles that I’ve studied over the years, and it’s a keen demonstration of Leone’s skill as a writer. Terror Beneath Times Square, as the title might suggest takes place in, around and under New York City in the early 1980s. Immortal Champion John Bearkiller (an amazing surname) meets an old family friend in a restaurant in Times Square, expecting a simple meal but instead receiving a strange tip-off; dozens of people are going missing in and around Times Square, but because they’re the wrong sort of people – addicts, homeless, prostitutes – no-one cares. But John Bearkiller cares, and is determined to get to the bottom of the disappearances. That means an investigation that begins in the urban wilderness of a Times Square lightyears away from the squeaky-clean tourist spot we now know, and then eventually descends into the squalor and darkness beneath the area. Unsettling, human-like creatures, rich dilettante occultists and the human detritus deliberately forgotten by ‘decent’ society all come together in an adventure that puts Bearkiller in a great deal of peril, and also expands Leone’s mythological world-building in some very interesting ways. We’re back to China for the events of Strange Incident at Five Mile Pass and also returning to the character of Miss Yueji, albeit a much older Miss Yueji who now holds court with assembled guests to sip tea and trade stories. Yueji tells the tale of when she met an Indian Immortal Champion, who in turn spoke of the time they had fought a particularly dangerous demon at the titular Five Mile Pass. Upon hearing reports from distant villages that mysterious demons from the sky, travelling in flying ships, have killed livestock and kidnapped villagers, a squad of soldiers are dispatched to Five Mile Pass to investigate. It’s another well-told mystery tale by Leone, abandoned villages, burnt survivors and a quietly chilling and unsettling atmosphere as the soldiers investigate; only the intervention of Hina, Champion of the Stone Spine of the World (yet another awesome naming convention) gives any possibility of survival for the outclassed warriors.
The penultimate story, Red Dawn Operation 953 sees Captain Smolnikov and his team return for another adventure, this time in the Tuvan People’s Republic, in a story that blends pulse-pounding action-adventure, terrifying creatures, and a delightfully cynical protagonist trying to survive the slow decay of the Soviet Union. Not only do we see the Soviet specialists go up against alien creatures, we also get some delightfully creative and subversive worldbuilding around the aliens and their uneasy co-existence with humanity; in fact, I was particularly entertained by the way in which one character gave a dialectical-materialist explanation of how proletarian – and therefore friendly – each of the alien races were. Finally, The Greenmere House Call takes us to modern-day Britain, and a police officer called in to investigate reports of a ‘big cat’ prowling around the titular Greenmere House – also the location of Leone’s stand-alone novella, The Governess of Greenmere that I reviewed last year. A simple house call soon turns into a bizarre encounter for Constable Elle Edward, involving a mysterious houseowner, baffling references to events and creatures that surely never existed, and something called the Shadowlands. It’s a brief but entertaining story that picks up many of the threads found in the preceding stories, and also the novella, and is a great way to round out the collection.
The Hungry Dead of Yü-Ching and Other Stories is a brilliant collection of stories from Paul Leone, deftly covering a number of different genres, all bound together by the intriguing idea of the Immortal Champions stretching through time and space. The concept of hugely powerful and near-eternal warriors is slowly but surely built up through each story, common threads and concepts blending together to create a cohesive and thoroughly engaging and entertaining universe. It adds an extra layer to an already superb collection, creating an additional reason to purchase the collection apart from Leone’s deservedly-growing reputation as a skilled author able to write in multiple genres. Not only is Leone developing his world-building and creating his own universe to play in, but stories like Sigrid Sigdansdohtor demonstrate that Leone is clearly not going to sit on his laurels – experimenting with different prose and style forms is always the sign of a great writer. Collecting together a series of action-packed, atmospheric and fast-paced stories, all bound together in a fascinating mythology of Leone’s own creation, and supplemented by some fantastic internal illustrations by Franziska Wenzel, The Hungry Dead of Yü-Ching and Other Stories demonstrates that Leone is a hugely talented author able to deliver innovative, engaging and action-packed tales across multiple genres.