We all remember our first… manga series that someone gave to us as a gift, right? Whether it’s from a friend, a relative, or a benevolent holiday ghost, someone other than us fuels our passion for this medium. I can’t remember the exact details of my first gifting – Did I make it known I liked manga? Did I put a spell on the gifter to make them buy me this? – I do know that I received The Dreaming in high school. While it may seem odd to talk about a horror series just as Spring begins here in the USA, I feel it’s my duty to bring us back to wintry darkness (mwhahaha). So! For today, let’s take a look at volume 1 (no spoilers in case you want to check the whole thing out!) of Queenie Chan’s The Dreaming. Are you ready for this female-led tale of horror? Then let’s go!
The Dreaming is a 3-volume series by Queenie Chan that came out between 2004 and 2007. Interestingly, this series isn’t from Japan – it’s an original English-language series, one of the first that Tokypop put out. As a result, the series is read from left-to-right (the way you read English literature). It’s a bit confusing when you’re used to reading right-to-left for traditional manga, but it’s something you can quickly overcome. According to Chan’s website, The Dreaming is actually a combination of two different stories. Tokyopop liked the artwork for one series and the plot for the other, and so Chan took those two elements to create The Dreaming. The series is classified as drama and horror, but Chan sees it more as mystery with horror elements thrown in.
From the back of the first volume:
When twin sisters Amber and Jeanie are accepted into an exclusive Australian boarding school, their future looks bright. But the school’s halls harbor a terrible secret: students have been known to wander into the surrounding bushlands and vanish…without a trace! No one knows where they went – or why. But as Amber and Jeanie are about to learn, the key to the school’s dark past may lie in the world of their dreams…
From Queenie Chan’s website:
The Dreaming is a supernatural mystery story about a pair of identical twin sisters who arrive at their new private boarding school, only to find that it is haunted by something frightening and evil. Set in the remote Australian bush and using native myths as its inspiration, this ghost story is light on gore and aimed at anyone who enjoys an atmospheric story.
Volume 1 primarily sets the stage for what is to come in the later volumes. Amber and Jeanie are told about the mysterious bushlands, they meet minor and principal characters, they begin to have uncanny dreams, and they see the bushlands claim a student’s life at the end of the volume. The cliffhanger-ish ending is certainly strong enough to convince readers to check out the second volume.
Amber is 15 years old and one of the protagonists of the story. She’s shy and a bit dependent on her sister; the only times she really speaks is to another family member. Although we don’t know much about their home life, Amber alludes to some trouble there that could explain why she and Jeanie are being sent away and why their parents didn’t even see them off. Amber seems much more affected by the supernatural elements pervading the story, and she becomes more and more lethargic as the tale goes on as a result. She’s haunted by dreams in which she appears in Victorian dress in the middle of the bushlands. These dreams are pretty creepy; I’m not going to lie. There’s blood dripping from trees, faceless women in fancy dresses…in short, some nice, low-maintenance nightmare fuel. It’s not nice for Amber to see, of course, but the way she responds to the dreams – thinking they’re an omen – allows her to become the main character who builds suspense. Asides from that, though, Amber doesn’t really do much in the first volume. She’s sort of just there, but because she is the primary agent for creating tension, you can’t completely write her off.
Like her sister, Jeanie is 15 years old. However, she is much more sociable and is always up for a good adventure. Whereas Amber’s role in volume 1 is to subtly (and unconsciously) create tension, Jeanie’s role is to learn about the mysteries surrounding the school. She is the character who we follow as she secretly meets up with friends and goes searching for someone in the bushlands, and she is the character whose thoughts we are most privy to. Jeanie also has the same dreams as Amber, but she doesn’t see them as symbolizing anything – or at least, she doesn’t want to think of them as meaning anything. Jeanie comes across as the more interesting sister mostly because she actually does things; whereas Amber is passive and quiet, Jeanie is active.
Skeener is the Vice-principal of Amber and Jeanie’s school. She hates twins with a passion, but volume 1 does not explain why. The other students seem to dislike Skeener because she’s a mean old lady, to put it nicely. However, this unkindness conceals Skeener’s secrets, secrets that are set up in volume 1 so they can be answered later. I mean, the woman has a secret door WITH AN AXE IN IT; how can you set that up and explain it in one go? It’s better to take time to further develop suspense and then explain what Skeener’s deal is.
Because Queenie Chan decided to focus on atmosphere as opposed to gore, her plot has to be clear and strong. She based it on some Australian myths about children getting lost in the bushlands (I’ve done the research here for you), and setting her story out in an extremely isolated area gives the story an eerie feel. The bushlands function as a character in the story, particularly in the first volume when their reputation is built up. We know they’ve been stealing students for a number of years and that no one in their right mind would ever conceive of going into the bushlands at night. Since they surround the entire school, they more or less envelop the students in ominous and creepy feelings.
Females, Females, Females
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a sucker for sibling-centered manga, particularly of the painful kind (looking at you, Donten ni Warau). However, as you’ve probably noticed, I don’t come across many manga series with a female lead, let alone TWO females who also happen to be sisters. In fact, one unique feature of this series is that nearly every character is female despite the school being co-ed. We get two males in the first volume, and they only act as expository devices. So what that means is that we get females building bonds and discussing things other than men on basically every page. The main content of their talk in volume 1 revolves around the bushlands and getting to know one another, and while that may not initially come across as meaningful, it IS meaningful in the context of the story because these ladies will have to figure this mystery out together.
One thing this series does really well is create, build, and maintain a sense of dread – not only in the characters, but in the readers as well. There’s no dramatic irony used where we the readers know more than the characters; instead, we take in information at the same time as the characters. You have your classic tropes – the haunted school, the haunted woods, the missing students, the change in your best friend (or in this case, sister), chanting Bloody Mary/Mary Spector in front of a mirror – all of which serve to up anxiety levels. There aren’t any gross-out images; the most we get is some blood and a drowning, all of which is tastefully drawn (can you even draw something like that tastefully? I guess so). The series focuses more so on several mysteries and how this affects character relationships with one another.
The use of dreams to create tension is pretty cool. In the first volume, the dreams only last for a few panels, yet they come across as incredibly sinister because we don’t know why they’re happening. We know the dreams must mean SOMETHING (the series is called The Dreaming after all), and part of the mystery is finding out precisely what that is.
Should you check this series out?
If you prefer your horror stories to be full of gore, then this series probably isn’t for you. If you like horror stories with atmosphere, then this is the series for you. It’s a quick read, and what’s great is you can read the series on Queenie Chan’s website for free (http://www.queeniechan.com/thedreaming/ ). Because I do love sibling relationships in fiction, this series has my seal of approval. We get to see the sisters drift apart because of supernatural means, and we get to see them fight back.
Next month’s plan is to look at the “joys” of translation, so look forward to that!