Queen of K'n-Yan is the latest volume of Japanese Cthulhu mythos writing from English-language Japanese publisher Kurodahan Press, complementing their earlier four-volume collection of short stories, Lairs of the Hidden Gods. Its author, Asamatsu Ken, is not only the editor of that earlier collection, but also one of Japan's foremost writers of weird and horror fiction. Lovecraft and his creations have found themselves an enduring place in Japan, where—according to Mr Asamatsu in his introduction to volume 4 of Lairs—it finds echoes, parallels, and sympathetic chords with a native tradition of demons, gods, and ancient mysteries. The Kurodahan Press translations represent only a fraction of the Japanese works that have been produced in homage to and influenced by Lovecraft.
This short novel is inspired by one of Lovecraft's lesser known stories, "The Mound" (written in 1930, and published in 1940 in a shortened version under the name Zealia Bishop). It is a tale of a haunted burial mound, two doomed expeditions some years apart, and a terrible secret. Queen of K'n-Yan speaks to that framework, but has built upon it something rather more complex and nuanced, confronting the ghosts of Japan's military past alongside the horrors of an inimical, alien underworld, and a chilling sense of realpolitik. Japanese DNA specialist Dr Morishita Anri is seconded to Japan Gene Engineering, Inc, a powerful corporation which has requested her assistance with studying an ancient Chinese mummy found in a tomb in China. Reluctant and suspicious, Anri finds herself hemmed in by company rules, watched by everyone she meets, and prey to strange hallucinations in which she is a young Chinese woman in 1940s Japanese prison camp in Manchuria. In neither reality nor hallucination is anyone what they seem and Anri's attempts to escape and to discover what is going on only lead her deeper and deeper into danger. In true Lovecraftian form, there are dangerous secrets to uncover, but in Asamatsu's vision, the horrors of the voracious alien Queen are only one part of them. The core of the novel lies in the bitter twentieth century history of China and Japan and in the resentments, hatred, and suspicions engendered by it. Li Xiu-Li, the Chinese scientist who heads the mummy project, is at once Anri's antagonist and her soul-mate, trapped by her own experiences and obsessions into repeating old mistakes despite herself.
The book is feverish, events and images tumbling over each other with a sometimes baffling speed once the plot gets going, and the twists and double-crosses can be challenging to keep up with. Asamatsu's world of cynical research and devious managers is not a pleasant one, and none of the characters are entirely likable. Intelligent and resourceful, Anri holds the book together, but she remains cold, aloof, and rather superior: we do not quite feel her fear or her anger, wrapped about as it is by her sense of outrage and entitlement. The novel is as cold as Anri herself—undeniably clever, but distant and even slightly unpleasant. The shivers it inspired, in me at least, were as much revulsion as fear as I watched the cast—including the Queen—manipulate, exploit and damage each other. This reader remained behind her pane of glass, never quite as engaged as she would like to have been.
Part of that is down to the translation, which is less elegant than workmanlike. Translator Kathleen Taji is a specialist in technical translations first, and in place this shows. There is a flatness to some of the text—perhaps a literalness—in some places, and this damages the suspense and the atmosphere. In general, the descriptive and reflective passages are strong, but the dialogue can clunk in English. Some of this is down to the self-conscious Lovecraftian style adopted by Asamatsu: he can be heavy-handed with his adverbs. There are also a few minor, but distracting, translation decisions. Anri holds a doctorate, but does not insist on her new colleagues addressing her as "Dr" suggesting instead that they use just her surname instead. Her colleagues wish to be more polite, however, and add on an honorific (presumably san) which Taji has chosen to translate as "Miss." In English, this becomes faintly insulting, as it apparently denies Anri's academic achievements. Leaving san might have served Asamatsu better. We are told, too, that Anri's personal name is unusual—like a made up one—and this is significant to the plot, but no further help is given to a curious English-speaking reader. Chinese names are rendered using the Pinyin system, by and large, but while the majority are given with accents marked, well known ones (Beijing, for instance) are not. The name "K'n-Yan" is taken from Lovecraft: it has a somewhat Chinese sound, but when put into the mouths of Chinese characters who are otherwise using Pinyin, it looks a little odd. I would like to know how Asamatsu envisaged that combination, given that Pinyin is not an issue for writing in Japanese.
Did I like it? I'm not sure. I admired it, and am glad that I read it. Should more works by Asamatsu be translated into English, I'd be interested to read them. This novel is a worthy addition to the Cthulhu universe: English language writers of the same need to take note.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts, due from DAW books in March 2009 and is the reviews editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction association. As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early middle ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: the true story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.