The Demon Lover - Traditional Ballad

Characters: Woman, Ghost

Trick: Definitely potential for horror here - the ship set for hell, the demon crew, the shores of heaven just beyond reach, the person you most loved now altered by death and bent on your destruction, the safety of your family and home now lost behind you. Or how does the story look from the ghost’s point of view? Does he take a terrible pleasure in condemning his former lover, or is he inexorably cursed to do so against his will? Does it seem to him the right, or even the loving, thing to do, no matter how terrifying and wrong it may look from the perspective of the living?

Treat: Well, perhaps the ballad has it wrong? Perhaps heaven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and there are other places for spirits to be happy together. Perhaps he has become some sort of sea spirit, and plans to make her the same? Or you could go with ghost!sex of course. That would work too.

(The ballad has a living woman and a male ghost/demon, but if you want to flip one or both their genders, that’s fine with me.)

Near Eastern Mythology

Character: Dumuzi

Trick: Dumuzi’s prophetic dream of the horrors awaiting him. His desperate attempts to escape the demons sent for him. His eventual failure. Dumuzi and Inana at the start, seen as a necessarily doomed relationship (whether Dumuzi doesn’t realise he is disposable, or realises it and loves / can’t resist / daren’t refuse Inana anyway, or thinks the eventual fall is worth it to be king).

Treat: Dumuzi’s relationship with his sister, Ngeštin-ana, in happier times. Dumuzi and Inana before the whole being sent to the Underworld in her place thing happened (written as happy and fulfilling). Dumuzi as the successful and acclaimed king.

Sir Orfeo - Traditional Ballad

Characters: Orfeo, Heurodis, Fairy King

For anyone who wants it, a modern summary can be found here.

Trick: Heurodis’s dream - what was it that caused her to awaken so distressed? Why did she at once believe the dream to be true, and that she had no choice but to obey? What is life really like for her in the fairy realm? What sort of creature is the fairy king, and why does he act as he does? How does it feel for Sir Orfeo, facing him with nothing but his harp to win his own freedom and that of his wife? How might Heurodis have been changed by her sojourn at the fairy court?

Treat: Does Orfeo find some satisfaction in his simple life as a wandering harper, or Heurodis some pleasure in the other world? Is the fairy king satisfied with the way things turned out? (Perhaps Heurodis’s time in the otherworld and Orfeo’s dedication and heartfelt music earn them some gift he wanted them to have, or perhaps he was keen to hear the best music the world had to offer?) Or, if you’re going with sex, you can pair any two of them up, or all three.

Liáo zhâi zhì yì | Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio - Pú Sônglíng

Characters: Scholar, Monk, Ghost, Fox Spirit

Penguin Classics has a selected translation by John Minford. A much earlier translation by Herbert Giles is available online, but keep in mind it’s from 1880 and is heavily bowdlerised. Liaozhai is a collection of short tales of the bizarre, the supernatural and the out-of-place: I wasn’t sure how best to nominate characters, since there are so many separate stories, but in the end I went with four character types that recur throughout. I'd be equally delighted with a new story featuring any of the four, or your take of any of the original stories.

Scholar: I used ‘scholar’ as short hand for any of the young literati gentlemen who spend so much time getting entangled with foxes and ghosts or having the illusory nature of reality demonstrated to them by Taoist priests (or losing their most prized possessions to them).

Monk: Monks and priests wander through the tales, giving away an ungenerous merchant’s pears under cover of illusion here, thwarting fox spirits there, presiding over a monastery where you might seem enter heaven through a wall painting, or creating a myriad of other illusions, beautiful or terrifying. From their point of view, what we think of as reality as just another illusion.

Ghost: Many of the ghosts in the tales are not terrifying monsters, but ghosts of young women, capable of great love (albeit sex with a ghost may turn out to be deadly), or ghosts of men driven by ties of friendship and obligation. The Tales covers everything from the happy three-way human/fox/ghost relationship of Lotus Fragrance (Minford)and the friendship of the unwitting ghost in Friendship Beyond the Grave (Minford), to the horror of Biting a Ghost (Minford) and the man who returns briefly from the dead to take his wife with him in Dying Together (Minford)|Mr Chu, the Considerate Husband (Giles).

Fox Spirit: Foxes feature in so many different ways, from villains meriting death, through a variety of ambivalent roles, to admirable heroines. Stories with admirable foxes include Grace and Pine (Minford)|Miss Chiao-No (Giles) and Lotus Fragrance (Minford); more ambiguous and dangerous foxes can be found in The Laughing Girl (Minford)|Miss Ying-ning (Giles) and Cut-Sleeve (Minford)*; outright evil creatures in Bird (Minford), Fox Enchantment (Minford) and The Merchant's Son (Minford)|The Trader's Son (Giles) (although only in the last is there no trace of sympathy at all for the foxes).

* In the past, I’ve summed up Cut Sleeve as 'Dearest cousin-in-law! What fond memories I have of our affair in my past life - the one where you consumed my Yang until I fell sick and died. Which reminds me, there's this official who's bothering me - I was thinking, maybe you could go seduce and kill him. What do you mean, you don't want to?’

In General

Things I like (provided only as indicative of my taste, not in any way as particular requirements of your story): established relationships, clever and competent characters, witty banter, slash (incl. femslash), moral ambiguity, apparently simple conversations with a great deal going on under the surface, angst if done with restraint, metaphor, clever use of literary allusions. Let's see, what else? Fierce loyalty (the tear the world apart for you variety, not the sit here passively putting up with anything variety), complicated love/hate relationships with lots of backstory, unflappable characters, arrogance if the party concerned has the requisite ability to back it up, committed partnerships between people who see the world at the same angle (even if they aren't always on the same side) ...

Things I’d prefer you avoided: I’m not terribly keen on mpreg, watersports & scat, humilation or stories told in the 2nd person, and I do have something of an embarrassment squick. Oh, all right, I also don't tend to like issuefic, but I'm not sure that's something people generally set out to write - one person's issuefic is another's searingly honest portrayal.
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