My Neighbor Jiaojian
Alyssa Wong (Writer), Wendy Xu (Artist)
Although I am relatively new to the horror genre as a whole (I am a self-described scardey-cat and still find The Nightmare Before Christmas unwatchable), I’ve found that the stories that stay with me often are very intimate, with a small cast, touch upon very real psychological fears and issues that all humans share, are set in a vague time period, and have ambiguous endings that cause sleepless nights of agonized wondering. My Neighbor Jiaojian, written by Alyssa Wong and illustrated by Wendy Xu, falls into this category of horror with the result that the story feels like a well-known urban legend from any part of the world. Emily, the narrator of the story, has recently moved across the country with her father and soon befriends another Chinese girl around her age named Jiaojian. We eventually learn that the move was due the recent death of her ill mother (or so Emily’s father tells his in-laws). The reader might expect the story to focus on Emily’s grief, but as often happens with life, death serves as a background to more pressing issues: the question of what exactly is stinking up the house.
Between the first-person narrative and Alyssa Wong’s excellent writing it’s easy to empathize with Emily. What child hasn’t felt alone and confused by sudden events? We don’t know Emily’s exact age (I hazard that she’s around eight or nine), but we immediately see that she’s still at that age where a child can easily befriend their nearest peer (in Emily’s case, regardless if they’re alive or dead). Like Emily, the reader can’t help but be pulled into the mystery of Jiaojian and the source of the smell (although we can easily guess). The twist, however, isn’t the discovery of Jiaojian’s body, but the parallels between her and Emily…and I’m not talking about the fact that they’re both Chinese. The find and Jiajoian’s ensuing actions serve as a major shock, especially since Jiaojian has up to this point been merely creepy, not malevolent,and we’re left with an ending that’s deliciously ambiguous.
We can’t, of course, forget to give credit to Wendy Xu and her art. The cover page, a taped-up Polaroid depicting Emily standing under Jiaojian’s hovering shadow,
sets the story right away. We expect, and fully get, quite a bit of mystery as indicated by Emily’s uncertain stance and the presence of patterned wallpaper both in the background of the photo and on the wall that the photo is taped to (“The Yellow Wallpaper,” anyone?). What, we want to know, is being covered up in this story, and how many layers should we expect? The choice to have the comic in black and white is a good one — it creates a stark contrast and emphasizes Emily and Jiaojian’s eventual descent out of the brightness of day into the overwhelming darkness of the basement. Xu’s highly detailed style also gives the comic an anxious, almost chaotic feel while the stylistic choice to have the putrid smell winding its way in and around of the panels makes the reader feel like the smell is physically surrounding them too. The overall result is a heavy cloud of unease that the early introduction of Jiaojian, the story’s ghost, does not dispel.
The comic succeeds as a short, suspenseful story, but a few plot holes keep the story from becoming truly great. We know from the title ghost girl is named Jiaojian,but how does Emily know her name? Jiaojian herself refuses to answer when Emily asks. The title also misidentifies Jiaojian as a neighbor even though Emily indicates that Jiaojian was a former resident of Emily’s house. If anything, Emily, as the newcomer, is the outsider, not Jiaojian. Emily seems strangely unperturbed at Jiaojian’s clear status as a ghost (Jiaojian disappears right in front of Emily early on in the story). As a young girl who’s mother just died you would think Emily would be a bit curious about death and the afterlife, but playing with Jiaojian seems to be her only concern. Although we do know that Emily and her father have been living in the new house for about a month, we don’t know how much time has passed since Emily’s mother’s death and have no idea how Emily is coping. She could be done grieving or she could mimicking her father and continuing life as if everything was normal to block out the pain of her mother’s death. On the other hand she doesn’t seem to seize upon Jiaojian or the mysterious smell with any sort of interest that would indicate any conscious effort to distract herself. Despite being the narrator Emily merely serves as Jiaojian’s tool, going along with all of Jiaojian’s suggestions. Emily’s passiveness, combined with the quick pacing of the comic, lends the story a dreamlike feel that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but does seem to indicate a lack of plot and character development.
Despite it’s flaws, My Neighbor Jiaojian is a great first collaboration between Wong and Xu. I’m curious to see whether they will continue to produce short, intimate stories, or create longer, more-drawn out narratives with larger casts. Either way I’m eager for their next project.