Readers will really appreciate the back blurb on Alvin Lu’s first novel, The Hell Screens. Because it’s probably going to be the most coherent page of the book.
Here’s what seems to be the gist of the story: an American of Chinese descent, Cheng Ming, goes to Taiwan to do some sort of nebulous research on suicides and murders. He meets up with quite a cast of characters, both living and otherwise. There’s Sylvia, a young woman with prescient powers who may or may not be a ghost; besides doing fortunes, she kind of doubles as a financial advisor as she’s quite good with picking promising stocks. Then there’s Fatty, an obese filmmaker wannabe who’s waiting to get to America via a vanished brother-in-law. And Wang, a “tang-ki” – who is sort of a shaman-minor-god-conduit to the netherworld.
Those are the three Cheng Ming actually has contact with. Then there’s K., a serial rapist-killer with whom ghostly (or not) Sylvia may or may not have been in a failed (… or not) double suicide pact. The entire island is obsessed with the criminal, waiting for him to strike again. Offensively enough, he’s quite the ladies’ man, as well. And the mysterious Chuan Tian-yi, who may or may not have survived a double suicide pact (sounding redundant here), who may or may not have run off to California, and made apocryphal films with real corpses, who may or may have been reincarnated as an ex-student-now-mountain-hermit.
And if that’s not enough, there are all sorts of random suicides, monks with strange tales, spirits and ghosts (blue ones, even!) that keep popping up on almost every page. The frequency of Cheng Ming’s encounters seem to be linked to his eyesight – or lack thereof. His contacts start giving him trouble, he loses one and goes around one-eyed and, amazingly enough, doesn’t pull out his glasses until two-thirds through the novel. It’s hard to imagine that Lu could possibly be using such obvious, overused imagery: the less Cheng Ming can see of the real world, he can see of the not-real world, and eventually reality and the netherworld get all so blurred he doesn’t know where he is.
Whatever Lu’s intention, Hell Screens doesn’t work. Cheng-Ming is a mindless wanderer in a mindless world. And in spite of all the death and destruction, there wasn’t a single shiver down the spine. Just eyes glazed over in utter boredom.