CAVERN OF THE BLOOD ZOMBIES by XU Lei, translated by Kathy Mok (Things Asian Press, 2011)
I had to read Cavern of the Blood Zombies by Xu Lei after finishing Search for the Buried Bomber. The sequel to Bomber hadn’t been translated and I was thirsting for more books by this author. Luckily, Things Asian Press has managed to put two other of his books into print. This is the first of a series, The Grave Robber Chronicles. Chinese novels can run to an arc of ten or more books. This edition comes with rich illustrations by Neo Lok Sze Wong.
Cavern of the Blood Zombies opens with a preamble taking place fifty years ago. A family of tomb robbers are busy excavating an important find. After constant bickering among themselves, the elder members of the family elect to go down into the hole they’ve dug while leaving the youngest member on the surface holding the rope to a bucket. When the rope begins to get pulled hard, he pulls back harder until the bucket comes flying out of the hole. The bucket contains the severed hand of his brother and an ancient document written on silk. The young tomb robber barely escapes with his life by out running a “blood zombie”.
Flash forward fifty years. The descendant of the man who fled the tomb is now running the Hangzhou Xiling Printing Company and reading his grandfather’s journal. A mysterious customer enters the shop, which specializes in selling antiquarian books, trying to find out if they buy ancient manuscripts from the Waring States Period (475-221 BC). The stranger has been referred to the shop by a shady character and wants to know if they still have the manuscript his grandfather escaped with from the tomb. To prove his sincerity, he shows the narrator a manuscript written on silk, very similar to the one his grandfather stole. The narrator manages to photograph the silk before the stranger leaves.
He takes the photograph to his father’s third brother (“Uncle Three”), a bon vivant who’s a famous tomb robber in his own right. When Uncle Three looks at the photograph, he claims it to be a coded map of an important noble’s tomb from ancient China. Convinced the document is a treasure map, Uncle Three assembles a team to go after the goods.The team consists of:the narrator, Uncle Three and two of Uncle Three’s old grave robbing buddies, Panzai and Big Kai. Later they are joined by a quiet young man nick-named “Poker Face”.
The tomb raiders find the mysterious ancient grave and spend the rest of the novel trying to get the treasure out if it. Along the way, they meet-up with another grave robber, who is christened “Fats” because of his size. They find themselves lost in an underground labyrinth out-running carnivorous bugs known as “corpse-eaters”, blood zombies, and a man-eating tree. They also have to survive booby-trapped coffins, preserved corpses, and constant attack. The novel ends inconclusively,which leads into the next book in the series.
This is a book where it helps to know a bit about Chinese cosmology and mythology. I think some of the translations match western equivalents too readily. The book lacks foot notes which would help the uninitiated understand some of the references being made.
There’s plenty of humor in the book. Uncle Three is constantly arguing and putting down his companions.But you never know when a trap door is going to open.
I’m curious how the series develops. Book #2 awaits.