Outstanding stories always leave the reader in silence.
But one very special type of outstanding story, after silencing them, stimulates them into furious action. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
—Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), foreword to Night Voices, Night Journeys 2
“Night Voices, Night Journeys” (2005) by Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦) is the title story of the first volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 story 夜の聲 夜の旅 (Yoru no Koe, Yoru no Tabi); the translator was Edward Lipsett.
This is a story about revelation. In Shanghai, the femme fatale Azie is the plaything of her master, the last in a long line of those who possess her. Yet this is not a story about human trafficking or sex slavery. That is the frame of it, the red herring. Onion layers of truth are peeled back, one at a time, bandaids ripped off as the reader starts to understand what is actually going on…and when you finally get it, when the realization of who and what “Azie” is finally comes together, there’s a desire to go back from the beginning and read it again.
At the same time, this is also a story about how images translate across cultures, in particular how certain images of the Cthulhu Mythos have been interpreted and popularized in Japan.
Lovingly, those fingers toyed with her ear.
Those fingertips, moving so skillfully, soothed along the perfectly-sculpted rim of her ear, cupping; the trace of a fingernail. […] The rhythm of his fingers. She lay on the bench seat, facing upward, body stretched out to him. To his fingers. His incessant, gentle, ravenous fingers.
Of course, the fingers would love not only her ear. He would surely walk them elsewhere. From her ear, on down, to other parts. those unique fingertips, slick with saliva pungent with the scent of myrrh, would glide from that other place to yet another spot, rich in so many secrets, never ceasing their mysterious dance.
—Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦), Night Voices, Night Journeys 181
H. P. Lovecraft first mentioned the Necronomicon in his short story “The Hound” (1924). Although given little description there, it is in good company alongside:
A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held certain unknown and unnamable drawings which it was rumoured Goya had perpetrated but dared not acknowledge.
This was the beginning of the Necronomicon‘s association with anthropodermic bibliopegy and the strange and varied library of Mythos tomes which continues on even today. While Lovecraft himself did not bind it in human leather, other creators did, and the idea was given visual form in the Evil Dead franchise as a series of props that still possessed discernible human features on cover—including a distorted face on the front cover and an ear on the back cover.
The films in the Evil Dead series made their way to Japan. The image of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis became strongly associated with visual representation of the Necronomcion in various Japanese Mythos artwork, most recently appearing as the inspiration for the volume in Tanabe Gou (田辺剛) in his adaptation of “The Hound”:
It is a fine point as to whether or not “Azia” takes the form of a literal woman in Inoue Masahiko’s story; the prose often deliberately obscures the details from the unknowing reader until practically the end. The idea of the Al Azif becoming a nubile female was a major conceit of the series Demonbane (デモンベイン, 2003), but “Night Visions, Night Journeys” predates that work, and the approach is much more subtle. “Azia” is in many senses an object, the reader gets her view but she does practically nothing, being utterly passive, something to be possessed by different masters.
It is in miniature a history of the Necronomicon in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, from the view of the Necronomicon, and that is fantastic enough when the realization hits, but even more fantastic when the reader sees how cleverly and carefully the work was done. For example, in the story when it is written:
She had donned an Islamic robe for him, plucking the Egyptian qanoon.
—Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦), Night Voices, Night Journeys 196-197
Is a reference to:
Mediaeval Jews and Arabs were represented in profusion, and Mr. Merritt turned pale when, upon taking down a fine volume conspicuously labelled as the Qanoon-e-Islam, he found it was in truth the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, of which he had heard such monstrous things whispered some years previously after the exposure of nameless rites at the strange little fishing village of Kingsport, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
That is only brushing the surface of things; “Night Voices, Night Journeys” is a tremendously fun story for fans of the Mythos, with many more references both subtle and explicit. The reader’s sympathies lie with “Azia” (or “Nekkie” as the others call her), who is innocent of the uses that her various “Masters” put her secrets to, yet is forced to witness every evil end, her skin absorbing the spilled blood. It’s imagery that translates very well, especially if you’re familiar with the sources being drawn from—but the story is much more than a nostalgic retread through the pages of Lovecraft.
There is a scene at the end where “Azia” faces an audience—and that is us, the readers.
“They’re your fans. They love you.”
“But… those horrible faces…” she said, shivering. “They’re all my sacrifices.”
“No, your recipients. The recipients of your saga,” he corrected.
—Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦), Night Voices, Night Journeys 200-201
How could it be otherwise? The Mythos has always been about reader participation; the reader always brings their prior knowledge of the Mythos with them to each new story they read, building their own canon, putting together pieces of the puzzle. For readers who have never read “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” the reference to Innsmouth in “The Thing on the Doorstep” is meaningless—as may be the reference to the limousine driver from the port town in “Night Voices, Night Journeys.” To read about the Mythos and play the game of connections is to be a part of it, whether or not the reader ever creates anything to expand on it themselves.
If there’s a criticism with “Night Voices, Night Journeys,” it’s that certain absences in representation are more apparent. Lovecraft never had any female characters in possession of the Necronomicon, so none of the “Masters” in the book are female. There are in fact no other female characters in the story, aside from the brief passage where the books whisper to each other on the shelves. The gendered perspective of “Azia” as both female and passive and sensual might be interpreted as borrowing on sexist tropes, although in this case that appears to be entirely incidental. A byproduct of the raw material for the story rather than any deliberate statement being made by the author.
Which is certainly true for many other Mythos stories as well. Still, it would be interesting to see how “Azia” would take to having a Mistress caress her instead of a Master—or if there was some fundamental difference in how a woman might use and interpret the Necronomicon. But that would be a different story altogether; “Night Voices, Night Journeys” is about the way “Azia,” simply by existing, twists those around her…and it is fascinating and fun.