On October 2, I received a package I did not remember ordering. Curious about its contents, I tore it open to discover I had pre-ordered a graphic novel months before. I pulled Hungry Ghosts from its box carefully, as if the skinny volume was a mystical object liable to explode or disappear at any moment.
Anthony Bourdain will go down in history as a great cultural communicator, a brutal and brilliant literary voice. He will be remembered for his honesty and curiosity, for his easy comfort and sense of wonder. Whether he was perched on a plastic stool with Barack Obama in a Hanoi noodle shop, drinking entirely too much vodka with an eccentric Russian in Transylvania, or suffering through the potential pain of eating an uncleaned intestine in really any country, Bourdain was electric and affecting, and reminded us that we’re all just people at the end of the day.
And it would be a damn shame if his fictional works were forgotten.
Hungry Ghosts is a fittingly haunting last publication for Bourdain, and it should be on your list of scary reads this Halloween regardless of who wrote it.
The first panels open on a Montauk mansion so ostentatious that even Jay Gatsby would envy it. It’s all glass and metal, with huge windows, minimalist furniture, and it’s owned by a Russian oligarch, because of course it is.
Somehow, he’s won a very exclusive dinner in a charity auction, and a cadre of high-end chefs are showing off their skills. The guests ooh and ahh over the meal, and at the end, the whole culinary team is asked to come out and greet them. The host offers everyone Cognac so old that “Napoleon was still alive when they put [it] in the bottle,” while he extolls the chefs’ culinary prowess, lavishing them with praise. He asks them to stick around and relax.
…Except that’s not what’s really happening. Not at all.
As the chefs drain their glasses of Cognac, the Russian’s squirrely Japanese “physical therapist” informs the assembled chefs that they are about to play a game of hyakumonogatari kaidankai, the game of 100 ghost stories. This game, a test of nerves for samurai, involves lighting 100 candles and blowing one out every time someone tells a new frightening yarn. According to legend, you summon a demon if you finish it, but no one ever has.
Oh, and since they’re chefs, all the stories have to be about food.
Now, on its face, this doesn’t sound like a compelling topic. What’s scary about food? But think for a moment of how lucky we are to have a reliable food supply in this country. How lucky we are to know that eating lemons or onions keeps us from getting scurvy, and that lots of liquids are good for a cold. That we can go to restaurants like the one I’m writing this in and expect to not get sick. That humans are the global apex predator and we can be mostly secure in the fact that nothing will try and eat us.
Food is rife with potential horrors, and Bourdain sure as heck knew food.
Each chef tells a tale of terror. The older French chef who came up in the cruel, militaristic kitchens of the brigade system tells of the sous chef who routinely sexually assaulted him. The dashing Spaniard recounts the story of a rich man who developed an unnaturally intense appetite for horse meat. The chain-smoking, frizzy-haired guy who just has to be a self-insert brings us a tale of his friend who woke up one morning to discover that a second, starving, talking mouth had appeared on his stomach. These are stories of excess and scarcity, of magic and mundanity. All of them feature yokai.
Yokai is a catchall term in Japan that basically means "monster." The yokai are myriad and mysterious, unpredictable and punishing. A yokai is just as likely to seek revenge on humans for their selfish actions—Japanese folk tales never end happily—as it is to show up, wreck your shit, and go on its merry way for no apparent reason.
Bourdain relished delving into humanity’s darkest places, and he was fascinated by Japan—previous comics were inspired by Jiro Ono of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Perhaps it’s fitting that Hungry Ghosts reflects its author so well. Hungry Ghosts is a fundamentally unsatisfying read. The stories are short. The ending is so abrupt that it leaves you with more questions than you had when it started. It makes you wonder, where’s the rest of the book?
Maybe that’s part of the point. Each story in Hungry Ghosts interrogates gluttony and famine. Its characters are punished for their excesses, for their selfishness. For breaking the number one rule of fairy tales and not feeding beggars, for dehumanizing women, for tricking others with false hope. The ending (which I’m not about to spoil, calm down) is a warning.
When the New Yorker article that inspired Kitchen Confidential was published, that vivid piece of writing led Bourdain down a road that sounds like a dream, but was likely more complicated than it seemed. Starting in his forties, he got to travel the world, meet amazing people, rocket underappreciated businesses to success, and eat just about everything. But he also saw atrocities. He ate with wildly talented people who had practically nothing, people who opened their homes to him and fed him like a king. He ate mindbending meals in the fanciest temples of gastronomy with people whose wealth is as impossible to comprehend as geologic time.
He also knew that some of his work unwittingly glorified a culture of abuse. In an interview with Seth Meyers in November 2017, Bourdain mentioned being shocked when fans used to hand him, a recovering addict, baggies of cocaine at book signings. He found that his work accidentally gave some restaurant professionals permission for their worst behavior.
Hungry Ghosts may not address all of that, but it seems to be a dark reminder to pay attention to the problems of the world around us, to take care of other people regardless of who they are, and to take responsibility for “what you see, not just what you take part in.”
Halloween is fun, but it can also help us. We go out, we indulge, we celebrate being someone else for a while, and when we come back ourselves, we’re a little lighter, a little changed. On Halloween, we can reflect what freaks us out and why. We can interrogate the monsters in our heads, or just enjoy all things creepy and crawly.
So it’s fitting that Hungry Ghosts is full of questions. This Halloween, I implore you to read this quietly haunting, utterly unappetizing comic. Dive deep into your psyche and come out the other side with some questions of your own, questions that just might keep you alive.