I spent several days binge-watching all six seasons of the television series American Horror Story, and thoroughly enjoyed the nightmarish tales, blood and guts, high production values and an ensemble cast who took every opportunity to ham it up with undisguised relish.
The horror genre is a popular one in literature and film perhaps because it offers its connoisseurs a harmless outlet for their darkest impulses and imaginations.
The most famous anthology of Chinese horror stories is Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio), completed during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign (1662-1722) by Pu Songling, a scholar who repeatedly failed the imperial examinations and spent the rest of his life as a private tutor and clerk.
Strange Tales, whose 491 short stories cover the pantheon of goblins, ghosts, immortals and fox spirits, was a collection of both Pu’s original creations and folk tales he had expanded upon.
The story of Pu setting up a stand by the road and offering a free bowl of tea to any passer-by who could tell him a ghostly tale is almost certainly apocryphal. Many of the horror stories in the collection are morality tales and parables with aphorisms on social truths and human behaviour. A line from one story, titled “The Scholar Expels the Goblin”, goes: “A brown cat or a black cat; the one that gets the rat is king”, which China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously used, albeit with modifications, in the run-up to Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.