Villains are the ones who make stories move. You can sympathize with them while they do it, but they can be mysterious and scary too. I’m a big fan of the former, but for this Prose Dive I wanted to highlight a short story that does the unknowable evil proud.
“Screaming Without a Mouth” is Travis Heermann’s frightening tale of grief, loss, and ghostly villainy. It starts out with us learning the ways viewpoint character Yukiko deals with the death of her friend Kasumi, but ends up being about something far more sinister. Ghosts, spirits, kami — whatever particular terminology/mythology you subscribe to, the Japanese believe they’re real. And in this story, you see just how deep that belief can go.
Reader Beware: Content is intended for mature audiences who have read the story. You are advised to read it before proceeding.
Yukiko was supposed to die along with Kasumi, two best friends ending their lives in rebellion of an unfair world. But she didn’t, and the regret is slowly taking its toll on Yukiko. She wanders around town, not sleeping, ignoring calls and texts from both her mother and her porn-obsessed boyfriend, Hironori. Lost in her grief, she’s barely connected to the outside world, which she loosely keeps up on through social media.
Then Yukiko hears of a series of “strange mutilations,” starting with Kenta, a guy that her dead friend Kasumi was infatuated with. Supposedly he was admitted into the hospital because his mouth had simply disappeared. Two other people were admitted with a similar affliction, and we find out later that the couple are Kasumi’s parents. As Yukiko continues to grieve for Kasumi, she begins to feel more lost.
Yukiko begins getting strange texts from Kasumi’s old number — mostly emoticons with frustrated expressions. Then Hironori is admitted to the hospital, and he’s saying it’s Kasumi’s fault. Yukiko doesn’t believe him at first, but a picture convinces her to see him. There, Hironori puts everything to paper (since he can’t speak), telling her that Kasumi was led on by Kenta one night, intoxicated by alcohol and Kenta’s presence, and then convinced to have kinky sex with both Kenta and Hironori. This led Kasumi to the decision to kill herself, an act Yukiko was supposed to follow through with and did not.
Hironori reveals something else. On the night he lost his mouth, he felt the pressure of something at his feet while in bed, something that smelled like Kasumi had that night. And that something stole his mouth.
Yukiko believes Kasumi has become a yuurei, a hungry ghost, and that she is behind the disappearing mouths. She contacts Kasumi via text message, saying she’ll join her friend in death if it will stop others from getting hurt. Kasumi responds in a flurry of violent thoughts, and Yukiko’s mouth is stolen that night.
The ghost begins to indiscriminately eat/steal mouths, raising alarm throughout the town, then the city. Kenta kills himself in the hospital, and Yukiko’s own thoughts return to suicide as she contemplates the devastating force that has now taken over what used to be her friend.
The epistolary nature of “Screaming Without a Mouth” works really well for an effective modern horror story. Going back and forth between the story’s text messages, online news articles, emails, and Facebook posts seems just as natural as the letters in Dracula. Nowadays we have more means of communication now than ever before, and with that comes the ambiguous urban myths of the internet.
In “Screaming,” the story is mostly told through Yukiko’s correspondences with people she knows. Since she is suffering such a profound loss already, the rumors of people with no mouths that spread through her Facebook seem matter-of-fact, a by-product of a great evil at work. With that, however, comes a lack of confirmation that any of it is real, and it isn’t until Kasumi contacts Yukiko that we start to feel that something is terribly wrong. Items like the newspaper articles build up the mystery surrounding the yuurei, but the text messages and emails Yukiko receives from the dead Kasumi make it more personal. These messages enhance the horror we feel because even though characters like Yukiko and her mom know this creature’s mythology, we still can’t be sure if that’s what’s really happening. A hungry ghost eating people’s mouths is certainly the fantastical, horror story explanation, so we as readers are inclined to believe it. We aren’t completely sold on it until Yukiko believes it herself.
“Screaming Without Mouth” is a delight because it makes us think about who is the real villain. In trying to place the blame on the right party, we find it isn’t as easy as we think. Several characters are worth their weight in villainous salt, but leave it to a mouth-eating ghost to outweigh them all.
Kasumi fits as a mysterious villain since she is responsible for the story’s earliest tragedies. But she’s also sympathetic because of the heartache she causes for Yukiko. And once we find out what Kenta did to her, we begin to understand her actions. Even as a yuurei, a malevolent force that robs people’s ability to speak or eat, we can sympathize with her. Of course, she goes back to being mysterious again once she begins to lose her sense of self and begins eating indiscriminately. But when we find out Kasumi is behind everything, we can’t help but feel for her.
For true, black-hearted villainy, we can look no further than Kenta. He betrayed Kasumi’s affections, using her for kinky sex, which drove her to suicide. Considering that, we feel he gets what he deserves when his mouth is eaten, and he later kills himself. By extension, Hironori gets what he deserves as well, as he takes part in Kasumi’s deflowering and is still with Yukiko on the side. Both boys are certainly to blame for Kasumi’s initial evil acts, and their afflictions (and death in the case of Kenta) feel justified.
I can’t help but come back to the yuurei, once it starts acting independently of Kasumi. If we look at it by itself, it is a true mysterious villain. It’s very nature is unknowable; we don’t know its motives, save for it’s driven only by an unexplainable hunger, and it doesn’t care where it satisfies that hunger. By that definition, it’s a villain in the truest sense of the horror genre.
Yukiko is the only main character who isn’t villainous; she just wants to do right by her friend. But in a story that’s largely about villains, she’s also the least interesting — and the least developed. We don’t find out why she feels so strongly about killing herself along with Kasumi, aside from her depressing family life. But she makes for an ideal viewpoint character; horror stories need victims, after all.
Maybe there are no villains in this story. Maybe there are only victims, casualties of a too demanding modern world. Yukiko wanted to die with her best friend but can’t explain why she couldn’t; she never thought Kasumi’s ghost would resent that she went on living. Kasumi was betrayed by the boy she loved, which affected her so deeply she took her own life; the vengeance she exacts as a ghost goes far beyond her original intent. Kenta and Hironori were boys whose taste for experimental sex, a very modern idea in its own right, have consequences no one could have foreseen.
Terrible things just kind of happen to all the characters. Their goals in the story are thwarted and turned upside down, resulting in fates far worse than they deserved (yes, even Kenta). That’s the awful beauty of “Screaming Without a Mouth.” It’s a story that can get away with having no true villains, even a hungry ghost with a taste for mouths, and can still seem closer to real life than a contemporary drama. Maybe the difference between mysterious and sympathetic villains depends on how confidently you can point the finger and declare how “bad” they are.