Gothic

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Sloan, Stewart. (1994a). The Isle of the Rat. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Horrors.

The story is set in 1908. A birdwatching trio go to a tiny uninhabited island off the New Territories called Hark Shek Chau. By morning, two of the group are dead having had their necks wrenched violently. The third man is a jibbering wreck. He is sent under police escort to the Hong Kong Mental Hospital in Kennedy Town, where he is diagnosed with bubonic plague. Later on, the nurse who has accompanied him to the Hospital is also diagnosed with the plague on her return to Sha Tau Kok on the border with the mainland. .

Meanwhile, the police try to find out what happened, assuming that someone else must have been on the island and murdered the two men. Their inquiries include questioning the crew of a fishing vessel which disappears in fog only to reappear bereft of crew but inhabited by a large red-eyed rat. Their inquiries also lead them to a wealthy farmhouse which then becomes  the site of another mysterious mass murder such as that on the island,  leaving the farmer alone alive infected with the plague.

It transpires that the farmer had taken a family (that had come down from Canton to escape the plague but whose son was already carrying it) to Hark Shek Chau, promising to return the following day to take them further on to the northern coast. Instead, he left them and only returned to steal from their corpses the gold he knew they were carrying.

Beattie, an intuitive member of the police force who is good with the locals suggests they take monks out to pray for the bodies so that they might be washed ashore, in accordance with Chinese folklore. Sure enough, as the monks pray, the skeletons rise up out of the water and Beattie  helps them ashore. Miraculously the nurse and the birdwatcher recover from the plague immediately. The farmer, however, dies with a vision of a rat-inhabited skeleton reaching towards him.

The author indicates, in a preface, her attempts to portray accurately  historical details  such as clothing. These details feel a little clunky at times. The novel sports a variety of stereotypes: the Chinese urban gangster coming to collect money owed him, the tolerant wise Buddhist abbot, the intuitive British policeman who can get the locals to talk, the sweet nurse, the old colonial duffer, the colonial administrator with a heart of gold who despite his decorous reticence gets the girl, the greedy Chinese farmer who gets his comeuppance, the inscrutable Chinese seamen.

The novel presents the intrusion of a Chinese form of the supernatural into the colonial community. This intrusion is caused by the malignant behaviour of the Chinese (the farmer leaving the family to die and then putting their bodies out to sea) and is resolved by the open-minded intelligence of the British who can accept  the laws of the Chinese supernatural and so use them to their own advantage. . The implication is that by opening one’s mind to the possibility of the supernatural - or presumably, oriental intuitive knowledge - one can then master it/work with it. On the contrary,  those who cannot believe/understand the  folk magic being used become its victims. This point is underscored by the historical fact of the bubonic plague in Hong Kong which is given a supernatural twist here. (KB)

 

 

 
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