Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio is a great, odd book. It doesn’t quite fit any contemporary category. Some of these stories are folktales or fairy tales; some are the kind of “I swear, this really happened!” supernatural yarns you find in books of “true hauntings;” some are news of the weird. Pu Songling never drew these distinctions; to him, they were all Strange Tales. Penguin’s volume of excerpts from his apparently massive collection of stories mixes them as randomly as he did.
The fairy tales are the most developed as stories but the least interesting. Most involve fox sprits and attractive ghosts, and once you’ve read a few they all seem pretty much the same. Usually a minor scholar or bureaucrat—actually, these were almost the same profession—meets a beautiful ghost (or fox spirit) and has sex with her. Then he meets a beautiful fox spirit (or ghost) and has sex with her, too. In the end the scholar and the fox spirit and the ghost get together in a sort of group marriage. Pu Songling was a minor scholar himself and I think he needed to get out more.
The other stories, though, are weird—and, yes, they’ve been translated from a foreign culture and there are references and allusions I’m not getting, but allowing for that these are still damn strange. In one tale, the ghost of an elderly woman is seen inexplicably hopping around a courtyard, water spraying from her mouth. In another story a man sneezes and small animal falls out of his nose; it runs up his leg and fuses to his belly, and the story ends there, inconclusive and gnomic. To find these uncanny, surreal moments, it’s more than worth skimming through pages of fox spirits helping bureaucrats salve their mid-life crises.