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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Headcases (3)

The floating head goblin encountered throughout South-east Asia occurs in a much more Shinto-friendly sanitized form in Japanese folklore. No pus-dripping entrails here, no blood and childbirth, just an eerie flying head as described by Lafcadio Hearn in Kwaidan:

Gently unbarring the door, Kwairyo made his way to the garden, and proceeded with all possible caution to the grove beyond it. He heard voices talking in the grove; and he went in the direction of the voices, stealing from shadow to shadow, until he reached a good hiding-place. Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads—all five of them—flitting about, and chatting as they flitted. They were eating worms and insects which they found on the ground or among the trees. 

Presently the head of the chieftain stopped eating and said, "Ah, that travelling priest who came tonight—how fat all his body is! When we shall have eaten him, our bellies will be well filled. I was foolish to talk to him as I did; it only set him to reciting the sutras on behalf of my soul. To go near him while he is reciting would be difficult, and we cannot touch him so long as he is praying. But as it is now nearly morning, perhaps he has gone to sleep. One of you go to the house and see what the fellow is doing."

Another head—the head of a young woman—immediately rose up and flitted to the house, lightly as a bat. After a few minutes it came back, and cried out huskily, in a tone of great alarm, "That travelling priest is not in the house. He is gone! But that is not the worst of the matter. He has taken the body of our chieftain; and I do not know where he has put it." 

At this announcement the head of the chieftain—distinctly visible in the moonlight—assumed a frightful aspect: its eyes opened monstrously; its hair stood up bristling; and its teeth gnashed. Then a cry burst from its lips; and, weeping tears of rage, it exclaimed, "Since my body has been moved, to rejoin it is not possible. Then I must die! And all through the work of that priest. Before I die I will get at that priest! I will tear him! I will devour him! And there he is behind that tree!—hiding behind that tree! See him—the fat coward!"

In the same moment the head of the chieftain, followed by the other four heads, sprang at Kwairyo. But the strong priest had already armed himself by plucking up a branch, and with that branch he struck the heads as they came, knocking them from him with tremendous blows. Four of them fled away. But the head of the chieftain, though battered again and again, desperately continued to bound at the priest, and at last caught him by the left sleeve of his robe. Kwairyo, however, as quickly gripped the head by its topknot, and repeatedly struck it. It did not release its hold; but it uttered a long moan, and thereafter ceased to struggle. It was dead. But its teeth still held the sleeve; and, for all his great strength, Kwairyo could not force open the jaws.

With the head still hanging to his sleeve he went back to the house, and there caught sight of the other four Rokuro-Kubi squatting together, with their bruised and bleeding heads reunited to their bodies. But when they perceived him at the back door all screamed, "The priest! the priest!" and fled through the other doorway out into the woods.

* * *

Notice that Hearn calls it a rokuro-kubi, rokuro being the Japanese word for a potter's wheel and kubi meaning neck. Technically (if folktales can ever be subject to technical analysis) the word rokuro-kubi ought to describe another Japanese goblin that sends out its head by night on the end of a long stretching neck, like Mister Fantastic, and the proper term for one of these things with a fully detachable head is nuke-kubi. I'm not sure that a Japanese storyteller would bother with the distinction, though. Hearn certainly didn't.

Less viscerally terrifying than the penanggalan this may certainly be, but I prefer it. Like a lot of Japanese folklore it's more dreamlike, less shlock-horrific and so far creepier. Hence it was the nuke-kubi that I used in Lords of the Rising Sun - as brilliantly illustrated here by Russ.


  1. Please stop. The Ganjees still give me nightmares, never mind that flying head thing in Dragon Warriors that kills you and steals your rotting body.

  2. I had to Google ganjees and here they are:

    As for the DW flying head... Since you "requested" it :-)

  3. Hi, I appreciate there is a strong element of randomnesss to this question, but how did you and Jamie start the process of writing the fabled lands? I would imagine its non linear plot would make it a different process to a "standard" game book, like an ff book.

    Did you start with individual quests that you then linked together or did you have an idea of the world and fit the quests and linking passeges into that?

    1. We started with the maps, and a sense of the flavour and culture of each region, then just improvised as we went. A few of the ideas were probably recycled from characters and situations in our role-playing campaigns, but mostly it was just a question of coming up with enough material to fill up the 25 sections a day we needed to write to hit our deadline.

  4. Those Rokuro-Kubi (or technically Nuke-Kubi, it seems), also cropped up in Mark & Jamie's 'Sword of the Samurai'. One of the gamebook monsters that made an impact on my youthful mind, for sure.

    Now that I'm all grown up, I wonder whether these books - aimed at adolescents, and younger - occasionally went too far in depicting gruesome monsters and grisly ends. How monstrous is too monstrous? That said, I can't believe they did me any harm.

    That's what the screaming voices in my mind tell me every night, anyway.

    1. We wouldn't be allowed to get away with anything one-tenth as scary these days, that's for sure, which probably explains why boys give up reading fiction.

      I found my English story book from primary school and I had my heroes meting out very graphic violence on their foes - guts sliced open, fingers chopped off, you name it. That was considered quite normal for a boy in the 1960s. In 2012 the teacher would need counselling and the pupil would be sent for psychiatric evaluation.

      Oh dear, I'm in Grumpy Old Man mode today :-)