The novel opens with an actress named Sherry Cantor, ruminating over her career when a hulking monster bursts in and brutally murders her. His frame is swollen with muscles, and a white, demonic mask hides his face, but this is one of the titular tengu, the mythical bird demons of Japan. Or rather, this is a man who’s been possessed by the tengu spirit and granted its awesome strength. There are many tengu in the novel, a small army possessing demonic powers. But not a good sense of direction.
It turns out, this tengu attacked the wrong house. The real target was Cantor’s neighbor, a World War II veteran named Jerry Sennett. At first, Sennett doesn’t put the clues together, allowing us to be introduced to the rest of the characters.
Investigating Cantor’s murder is Sergeant Skrolnik of the LAPD, who serves as sort of a conduit for this large cast. He tracks down Mack Holt, Sherry Cantor’s former boyfriend, and from there, we meet other tertiary characters, like the wrestler El Krusho. He’ll be important later, believe it or not.
There’s also Gerard Crowley, a shady businessman who is involved with Mr. Esmeralda, a mysterious smuggler from South America. When we first meet Gerard, he’s confronted by his wife Eva for having an affair with his secretary. Esmeralda arrives at her home, and, after some wooing, he seduces her for ulterior reasons. Esmeralda is probably the most unsavory person in this rogue’s gallery, having a fetish for women and animals together.
Added to the mix are Nancy Shiranuka and Ernest Perry Ouvarov, two more sketchy people involved in this hidden conspiracy. Ouvarov was a US Navy officer kicked out for a “bottomless scandal involving opium, surplus war materials, and worst of all, the procuring of young Japanese girls.” See what I mean? Scumbags. Nancy Shiranuka is a little better, but she placates Ouvarov’s doubts through sex, and the image of a younger Japanese woman servicing an older white man is not lost on me.
There are many other smaller, side characters, but the last main player is the shadowy Kappa, the mastermind behind all these machinations. Kappa is a wretched creature, his body little more than a wriggling torso and a face, always hidden behind a mask. Kappa was a victim of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, not in the initial destruction itself, but the radiation left behind which mutated his body in the womb to the hideous lump of flesh it is now. Since he is always masked, Kappa is an alter ego, a name taken from the Japanese turtle demons that would pull innocent passersby to a watery doom.
There’s no real protagonist of Tengu and as we meet characters, their subplots seem to drive the narrative at the expense of the overall plot. In fact, it’s not until about a third of the way through that we even know what the tengus are and what Kappa is planning. To take revenge for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, tenfold. The tengu are to cause a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, wiping out not only Los Angeles, but all of Southern California in a blinding atomic doomsday.
I’m no fan of LA, but this seems like overkill. But given Kappa’s freakish state, his bitterness is understandable. There are a few lines saying that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima constituted a war crime, mostly from Kappa, but it’s hard to see what the author, a Brit and therefore more neutral, actually feels. But in this world, it’s revealed, the entire reason the atomic bomb was dropped was to take out the main base of Japan’s secret weapon – the tengu.
The tengu in this novel are akin to supersoldiers – incredibly strong, obedient, and virtually unkillable. Hell, some tengu keep walking forward after their heads have been blasted to a stump of gore. During World War II, Japan began deploying these tengu soldiers in small batches. Had they been able to mass-produce them, then the war in the Pacific might drag on for years. Jerry Sennett had identified Hiroshima as the prime tengu base, and the bomb was dropped. Nagasaki though, well, even Sennett doesn’t know why it was nuked.
“They might have suspected another tengu center there, but I doubt it. They probably realized that the atomic bomb was so damned effective they could end the war almost immediately.”
A contrived reason, but sure. I’ll go with it. Kappa wanted to kill Sennett and another retired officer, a US Navy admiral, off early lest they put the pieces together and realize that the tengu have returned.
But that begs the question, what exactly are the tengu? Well, they’re men who undergo a special ritual that allows a tengu bird devil to their bodies, giving them near-invincible strength. The novel makes a point to stress what foul creatures tengu are, as if they’re the evilest of all Japanese demons.
Except, they’re not really. For starters, there are two main types of tengu. There’s the dai tengu “great tengu” and karasu tengu “crow tengu.” Although they have wings, great tengu have a more human-like appearance, albeit with an elongated nose and bright red face. True to their name, crow tengu look more bird-like all around, having a beak instead of a nose. Both are common fixtures in Japanese masks for No theater, but the masks that the tengu wear in the novel are described completely differently.
Also, the tengu being the most “evil” of demons doesn’t line up with Japanese mythology. Although they have been portrayed as a destructive enemy in Buddhism, they more often assume the role of tricksters in folktales, punishing liars and braggarts while protecting the forests. They can be bad, but more often they’re neutral.
The way the novel describes tengu aligns more closely with the oni, the hulking ogre-like devils of Japanese mythology, who kill, steal, and eat anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. Oni do make an appearance, but they’re just normal humans in Kappa’s employ wearing masks, usually pulling guard duty.
The tengu are being created in an isolated complex in Southern California, and one wonders, how exactly does Kappa pay for all this? He’s a slug-like monster, but it seems like he might have family money.
By around the halfway point, the main characters, who’d been involved n their own subplots, come together and set out to thwart Kappa’s plan. Clocking in at over five hundred pages, tengu’s prose is page-turning, but the overall length is too long. But this was published in 1983, the golden age of horror paperbacks and fat novels were all the rage, imitating Stephen King’s hefty tomes. The more pages meant the more publishers could charge.
Although advertised as a horror novel, Tengu isn’t really scary, leaning more toward a crime thriller. The dark magic and literal demons are downplayed in favor of suspense and gore which would typify the genre soon to be known as splatterpunk. Graham Masterton is well-known in the horror genre, but this is the first novel of his I’ve read. While I enjoyed it, the length was a bit frustrating, as an editor could have trimmed it into something leaner.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s goofy as most “super-powered creatures created during World War II” fiction usually is – see Peter Benchley’s novel White Shark or the 1991 Japanese film Mikadroid. The novel was also written right at the beginning of what I’ve dubbed the “Japan Panic,” a fear of Japanese economic supremacy which would plague the 1980s, culminating with books and movies like Rising Sun. As such, the Japanese themselves are portrayed in a very unsympathetic manner, the only minor exception being Nancy Shiranuka. Then again, nobody in this novel is very likable.
However, if you’re looking for pulpy escapism, give Tengu a read. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is memorable.