There’s more to scary fiction than schlocky exploitation say local horror fic authors.
Whether we like it or not, ghosts, monsters and the unquiet night have always been part of Malaysian culture.
After all, we Malaysians love our horror stories, whether they be lurid tales from folklore, gruesome accounts of twisted crimes, or mysterious experiences that happened to a friend-of-a-friend. Our local movies are packed with ghosts and ghouls, both of the serious and comedic variety. And all manner of twisted, creeping, crawling creatures lurk in the pages of Malaysian writing.
But why do we enjoy horror fiction? It’s very existence seems counter-intuitive. Why would we deliberately subject ourselves to such psychological torture? Why do we enjoy feeling chills down our spines, goose bumps prickling our flesh, our hearts thumping as our eyes now see things in the shadows that were never there in the first place?
“The reason is simple. When you are scared, you live more intensely. Adrenaline surges in your blood. Every breath is filled with life, for death may just be around the corner. Horror takes us beyond the ordinary. It gives us a glimpse into the other world, a dimension which might just exist,” says Tunku Halim, 50, in an e-mail interview. The author is well-known for the local horror classic The Rape Of Martha Teoh & Other Chilling Stories (1997) as well as bestselling titles like Dark Demon Rising (1997) and Horror Stories (2014).
Julya Oui, 51, author of Bedtime Stories In The Dead Of Night (2011) and the upcoming Here Be Nightmares, says in another e-mail interview that “People generally like things that excite them or are thrilling to them. The rush of adrenaline, the terror of being shocked, and the unexpected intense aversion for things seem to make life a little less boring.”
“Our fear instinct is in our evolutionary make-up. And we need to exercise that, even if it’s vicariously, through horror books and fiction. We need to feel scared to keep this fight or flight instinct alive,” says Lee Ee Leen, 36, author of the horror short story collection 13 Moons (2014).
“Our lives are too comfortable now. Nothing scares us now. It’s not like in the early days, when early man faced danger everywhere and needed warnings, which they told through stories.
“And that’s why I’m certain the first story ever told was probably a horror story,” she says, speaking at an interview in Kuala Lumpur last week.
According to Lee, Malaysian horror writing in English has a long and wide-ranging history, going back to pre-independence times. In her 2011 essay, The Magical Roots Of Malaysian Horror Fiction In English, Lee writes that one of the earliest examples of such work came from British broadcaster A.J. Alan (a pseudonym for Leslie H. Lambert, 1883-1940) who published stories such as The Bayang, about black magic cast by “vengeful natives” in the jungles of Pahang.
Contemporary Malaysian horror in English, Lee says, is a vibrant and dynamic field made up of prolific Malaysian writers such as former Singaporean minister Othman Wok (Unseen Occupants And Other Chilling Tales, 2006); Xeus (Dark City, 2006; editor of Dark City 2, a collection of stories by Malaysian writers in 2007); John Ho (graphic novel Scary Ever After, 2009); and Gilamon Comic (known for its graphic novel series, Major Zombie, which began in 2008).
“There’s a type of horror fiction that’s very unique to Malaysia. You’ll never find anywhere else with such a cornucopia of folklore, with such strange things like black magic and creatures all coming together,” Lee says.
“Our stories have a certain sensibility to them. In everyday life, if someone says they had an experience, or said they saw something, people don’t pooh-pooh it, or say they’ve been drinking. They want to hear the story! We’re not too taken aback or dismissive of these things. There’s a certain acceptance of the supernatural in our society, and Malaysian horror reflects that.”
Malaysia’s unique topography, she says, adds a lot to it’s propensity for horror.
“We’ve got pockets of urbanised areas, and we have the jungle around us, threatening to encroach on us. There’s also these pockets of unused land, like those used for tin mining, and plantations,” Lee points out.
“I wish more local writers would incorporate more of our settings, like our kampungs, and condominiums. I’d like to see less mimicking of modern Western horror. We don’t have the same tropes as they do. Like the old haunted house on the edge of the street: they’ve all been demolished to make condominiums!”
Adding to this sentiment is Tunku Halim, who says the melting pot of many cultures in Malaysian society creates an interesting setting for horror.
“We’re a superstitious lot and so supernatural tales have more credibility. We readily believe in black magic, love potions and sleeping spells used by burglars, and often with good cause. So ghosts, spirits, vampires and the paranormal are deeply ingrained in our culture,” Tunku Halim says.
“From the Malay perspective, there is a wealth of ghouls and ghastly spirits to draw on in Malay folklore. You only need to browse through (anthropologist Walter William) Skeat’s Malay Magic (1967) to get an idea. We’ve only scraped the surface in using them in our tales.”
The author recommends works such as Nicky Moey’s Pontianak: 13 Chilling Tales and Chuah Guat Eng’s The Old House And Other Stories for those interested in getting acquainted with Malaysian horror fiction.
“As a boy, I was petrified by the P. Ramlee movie Pontianak. I can still see that gruesome creature emerging from the hollow of a tree!” Tunku Halim recalls.
So what makes a piece of horror fiction uniquely Malaysian?
“It’s undoubtedly Malaysian horror if any of the characters say ‘lah’!” Tunku Halim jokes. “But joking aside, it really is about a Malaysian setting and Malaysian characters. For example, I wrote a story that takes place in London called “Malay Magick” which is included in my Horror Stories collection. Because of the location, it has much more of a mainstream Gothic rather than a Malaysian feel to it.”
Oui, however, says “localizing” a horror story should only be done if it is pertinent to the story.
“Horror stories from different countries have their own signatures, legends, cultures, taboos, superstitions, and so on. I started writing ‘Western horror’ way back then when there was no market for ‘Malaysian horror’. But now there are some elements that I use for Malaysian horror, including characters speaking Manglish, hangouts such as the mamak stall or kopitiams, local rumours or folklore, and even the social and political background,” Oui says.
“It depends on what kind of a horror story a writer is working on. If it has a localized flavour, then every element of Malaysian life plays an important role in shaping the story.”
A common criticism of horror fiction – whether foreign or local – however, is that it is exploitative and schlocky, relying mostly on lurid details or gristly acts to shock or titillate readers. All three authors, however, completely disagreed with this sentiment, saying there is much to gain from horror fiction.
“Some horror writing can indeed be just that ... but that’s not limited to horror. You’ll also find cheap and gratuitous writing in other genres; romance, fantasy, science-fiction and crime come to mind. Good horror, or Gothic fiction, can be deep and wonderfully moving,” Tunku Halim says.
“Horror is about exploring the unexpressed,’ Lee says. “It could be anything from repressed emotion to repressed social concerns. For example, in the stories of (Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist) Edith Wharton (1862-1937), she discusses infidelity and divorce, things that were not discussed in society then. It gives you a glimpse into the darkness underneath every life, and it prepares you for anything that life can throw at you.”
“A lot of things can be gained from everything we read. The reader just has to know what to appreciate in a book,” Oui says.
“I learned not to wish for things selfishly from W.W. Jacobs’s The Monkey’s Paw (1902). I learned that humans can be blinded by their beliefs from Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery (1948). I learned that people will do anything in desperation from Roald Dahl’s Man From The South (1948). And Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) reminds me that the guilty conscience will always make up horror stories even if the world is at peace.”