Welcome to the afterlife. The food has no taste, the drinks don't get you drunk, and the sex...well, let's just say 'don't bother.'
Welcome to the Making Connections blog today for a guest post (Chinese Ghost Festival) and giveaway with Terri Bruce, author of Hereafter!
Today is Chinese Ghost Festival—a holiday occurring in the middle of Ghost Month (August 17th to September 15th this year)—commemorating the dead, similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead or the Roman festival of Parentalia. During Ghost Festival, people leave plates of food outside (on the sidewalk or at altars) for the dead, prepare lavish banquets for their deceased relatives/ancestors, and burn paper effigies of items they believe the dead will need in the afterlife, such as money, animals, and even televisions, sailboats, and houses. Ghost Festival is not celebrated just by the Chinese—there’s a form of Ghost Festival in almost every Asian country.
Ghost Festival has become one of my favorite aspects of Chinese afterlife mythology, and is featured prominently in Hereafter. At some point, I began imagining a version of the afterlife in which the dead could actually take possessions with them—what would such a world look like and what would the dead do with all this stuff they had collected—and Hereafter was born.
Today, to celebrate ghost festival I wanted to share part of a scene from Hereafter that takes place during Ghost Festival, and give a few “behind the scenes” glimpses into the scene, including a couple of hidden “Easter Eggs” (for more Hereafter Easter Eggs, check out my August 22nd guest post at Butterfly-o-Meter Books).
At the start of the scene set during Ghost Festival, Irene—the main character—and her friend Amy (both ghosts) are in downtown Boston, near Chinatown:
A loud blast of horns and drums drew their attention, followed by the sharp crackle of firecrackers.
“What’s going on over there?” Amy asked, turning to look down the cross alley that led to the next street. She started cautiously toward the alley, motioned for Irene to follow, and then surged forward without waiting.
My sister-in-law teaches English in China and has become quite versant in Chinese culture. She told me that firecrackers are a big part of Chinese culture—they are used to drive away bad spirits (apparently the noise is meant to frighten them). The Chinese don’t regard ghosts and spirits as “bad” or malevolent, per se; however, spirits are believed to be generally jealous of the living and often bent on mischief. In a bid to be “safe, rather than sorry,” the Chinese generally combine placation and prevention in their approach to ghosts—they provide offerings for the dead, while at the same time using preventative measures to drive spirits off. Firecrackers are one such method and are used to “cleanse” an area before anything significant takes place—which can include a marriage, a birth, or even having sex for the first time! I so wanted to have a scene where I worked in the firecrackers before sex, but unfortunately I didn’t find any way to use that tidbit (in this book).
They emerged into a thick crowd of people watching a Chinese dragon parade down the street.
“Oh my God, it’s Ghost Festival!” Amy grabbed Irene’s hand and began pulling her through the crowd.
“Ghost Festival?” Irene asked. Something dinged in her memory. Jonah had said something about a ghost festival. She wracked her brain, trying to remember what he had said. Something about…the living sending stuff to the dead…
“Yeah, all these foreigners have one, you know. They’re really superstitious, but I’m not complaining. It’s like Christmas.” She gave Irene’s hand a sharp tug. “Come on!”
Unfortunately, (as of the writing of this blog post), to my great sorrow, I have never attended Ghost Festival. The Chinese calendar is based on a lunar cycle, which means dates move from year to year (Ghost Festival generally falls somewhere between mid-July and mid-September) and I always manage to miss it.
She dragged Irene down a side street, away from the crowd. Irene noticed things laid out on the sidewalk. She slowed down, trying to get a closer look, and realized it was mats covered with dishes of…“Hey! That’s food,” she cried.
“Yeah,” Amy said, still tugging her down the street, “but it’s all nasty Oriental food. God, what is it with these people? Doesn’t anyone have anything good? I’d kill for a pork chop or even a Skybar.”
Irene pulled her hand free. “Okay, slow down for a second and please explain to the new girl what exactly is happening here.”
Someone knocked against Irene and a man—glowing blue—dropped to all fours in front of the closest mat of food. “I haven’t eaten anything in months,” he moaned and began shoveling food into his mouth with both hands. Repulsed, Irene took a step back.
She thought back to the last time she had thought about food—it seemed so long ago that she had stood in front of Stephanie’s thinking that she hadn’t eaten in days. It seemed a lifetime ago. She still wasn’t hungry, but the sight—and tantalizing smell—of the ghost food stirred the memory of hunger and her “stomach” growled.
You don’t have a stomach, she reminded herself.
My goal for Hereafter was to create a world in which all the afterlife beliefs—from every culture and religions—were true. I’ve always been interested in mythology and love to learn about the origins of myths—the “real story” behind the story. So I tried to imagine the “real” origins of some of these myths. Of course, one of the earliest problems I had was that so many myths have to do with giving physical objects and food to the dead—who technically have no bodies. What, then, would a ghost do with food? As I delved further into afterlife mythology, the Egyptian belief that the soul is made up of five parts—the heart, the shadow, the name, the soul or essence, and the “vital spark,” that which makes us alive—captured my attention. The Egyptians believe that each of these five parts separates at death and serves a vital function. I used this idea to create an afterlife in which that which remains after death is the spirit or “essence” of an item—whether it be a person, an object, or food. Therefore, in Hereafter, spirits don’t eat actual physical food—they consume the spirit or essence of food.
“Come on,” Amy said. “Before all the good stuff is gone!”
Amy gave Irene’s hand a tug and then, dropping Irene’s hand, she bee-lined down the street and disappeared around a corner. Irene slowed down, trying to get a good look at the items laid out on the sidewalk. On closer inspection it turned out that it wasn’t just food laid out for the dead. There were small items—such as soap, candy, jewelry, flowers, and money. There were also elaborate paper models of larger items—sailboats, cars, even animals.
Irene stooped and picked up a paper horse—delicate and precise. It was beautiful, obviously folded with care. She reached down and scooped up several more paper items, turning them over in her palm to study them—paper money, some sort of building that was either a pagoda or a house, and a motley collection of animals, mostly birds.
She meandered down the street, stopping to explore the contents of each display with fascination. She found a cigarette lighter at one—just a cheap, convenience store item—but it was glowing blue so she slipped it into her bag to give to Ernest next time she saw him.
Food seemed to be the most popular item left for the dead—she passed many empty plates and quite a few dead, greedily eating. The paper animals seemed to be the least popular, judging by the number that she found left behind. She picked up a few more, holding them in her palm like pebbles.
Of course, a whole separate issue was what would a ghost do with all the “stuff” left for it during something like Ghost Festival? Did ghosts have ghost houses, populated with ghost televisions, ghost refrigerators, ghost furniture? Almost every culture thinks that the dead need some form of currency in the afterlife—the Chinese mythology is perhaps the most elaborate in that they create paper money (ghost currency) specifically for the dead (which they burn as a way of sending it to the afterlife). What, exactly, were the dead doing with all this money? Are there cities in the land of the dead—an economy, stores, jobs where one can earn more money? It was all incredibly fascinating to envision and try to figure out!
She heard Amy shout her name. She absentmindedly dropped the paper items into her bag and ran to catch up. She found Amy around the corner, happily munching what turned out to be a hamburger from a local fast food chain.
“God, this is good,” Amy said.
“Really? Someone left a bag of fast food for the dead?” Irene gaped at the blue glow surrounding the fast food bag.
Amy held out the remainder of the burger, offering it to Irene. Irene shook her head. “You are so lucky,” Amy said, polishing it off. She burrowed into the bag and pulled out some fries. “We didn’t have anything like this during my time!”
“It seems like a rather smart-assed move to me—leaving fast food.” Irene couldn’t believe it was a serious offering to the dead, on par with the meticulously folded paper animals.
Amy wrinkled her nose. “I’ll take a hamburger over a paper cow any day!”
Irene wasn’t convinced
“Think about it,” Amy added. “If you thought the dead were hanging around, pining away for the things they enjoyed when they were alive, which would you send them...a…”—she snatched up one of the paper animals—“…pig? Or a television? Stewed cabbage or a hamburger?” She dropped the tiny animal to the ground and took Irene’s arm. “Let’s see if we can find some dessert. I adore dessert!”
Apparently people actually do put out hamburgers during Ghost Festival. I took this a step further and had someone leave a bag of fast food. It’s meant to be a kind of funny and irreverent addition to Ghost Festival, but at the same time, there was a strange kind of logic that made it reasonable that someone might actually do this. I know people who pour a glass of scotch over their hard-drinking father’s grave every year and I’ve seen medals, photos, and toy cars left on grave stones as a token of remembrance, so why not a bag of fast food? I know that’s what I’d want someone to send me!
They wandered down the narrow street, checking both sides and the alleys leading off of it. At one point, Amy cried out in elation at finding a pack of playing cards and then promptly had to fight off another young, dead woman who tried to wrestle them away from her. There were a lot of wind chimes, which Irene and Amy had a good laugh over, wondering what possible use those could be to the dead, and a lot of paper money that Amy impatiently told Irene wasn’t of any use when she saw her picking it up.
“Coins are the only money that matters,” she said.
Amy shrugged. “Just is.”
Here’s another Easter Egg—anyone who knows their mythology know why coins are important in the afterlife! The dead were buried with a coin for millennia so that they could pay the ferryman to row them across the river, to the land of the dead. This practice went out of fashion a couple hundred years ago, leaving Amy and Irene confused as to why coins are important.
The scene continues on after this, touching on some of the traditional food offerings (stewed cabbage and Red Bean Paste Buns [which I really like!]) and also traditional preventative means of keeping a ghost out of a house. I had a lot of fun imagining that during Ghost Festival, ghosts just walk into houses, sit down at the table, and help themselves to the food left for them. While it’s traditional to set a place for the ghosts, I don’t think anyone actually expects ghosts to literally sit down and eat with them. Imagine if you found out that they really did! It was little twists like this that made Hereafter so much fun to write. J
I hope you enjoyed this behind the scenes glimpse into the writing of Hereafter and Chinese Ghost Festival. If you want to learn more about Ghost Month, visit my post on the topic, celebrating the first day of Ghost Festival, at Kelly A. Harmon’s site.
Why let a little thing like dying get in the way of a good time?
Thirty-six-year-old Irene Dunphy didn't plan on dying any time soon, but that’s exactly what happens when she makes the mistake of getting behind the wheel after a night bar-hopping with friends. She finds herself stranded on Earth as a ghost, where the food has no taste, the alcohol doesn’t get you drunk, and the sex...well, let’s just say “don’t bother.” To make matters worse, the only person who can see her—courtesy of a book he found in his school library—is a fourteen-year-old boy genius obsessed with the afterlife.
This sounds suspiciously like hell to Irene, so she prepares to strike out for the Great Beyond. The only problem is that, while this side has exorcism, ghost repellents, and soul devouring demons, the other side has three-headed hell hounds, final judgment, and eternal torment. If only there was a third option..
Publication Date: August 1, 2012
Publisher: Eternal Press
Number of Pages: 296
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy
Available Wherever Books Are Sold:
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