Star Article for Halloween 2014 … Horror of Horrors!

As it’s Halloween week, the Star’s reporter Terence Toh interviewed Ee Leen Lee, Julya Oui and myself about Horror and Horror writing. The scariest thing about the article (Horror of Horrors) was seeing my age in print! :)

Here it is …

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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.

Tunku Halim
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.”

Ee Leen Lee
“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.

Julya Oui
“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.”

Bob Dylan in Sydney – 3 September 2014

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In his last two concert tours I ventured to back in 2007 and 2011 Dylan, although writing some of his best songs in his 60 year career, was performing imperfectly on stage. His rasping voice was often inaudible and he refused to carry the song’s tune. But his fans forgave him. He was after all a man in his late 60s who should quite rightly be sunning himself in a rocking chair on his veranda. His playlist too unfortunately included songs which most fans hadn’t heard of or deconstructed to such an extent that they weren’t recognisable. But still his followers, and I, forgave him.

But this Dylan concert is different. You can mostly hear the words he spurts into the microphone and he’s even carrying the tune. But what is fundamentally different is his playlist. Three quarters of the songs are from his last 5 albums, with at least 6 of them from his latest 2012 album, Tempest. There was no deconstruction here. His gravelly voice suits the songs. And they soar. The highlights for me are Soon After Midnight, Scarlet Town and Long and Wasted Years.

Some say that at 73, this might be the last time you’ll see this troubadour in concert. But that’s no reason to see him. This is a man reinvented, with hard-hitting, edgy songs, a man with not much to lose, even when he’s not too far from knocking on Heaven’s door.

Now and Then

Yes, it’s me again … it’s been awhile. I’ve tried to answer your comments . There have been so many and I apologise if I missed yours. I’ll occasionally visit this blog perhaps with an odd post now and then.

What is dead can rise again! :)

Hello (Again!)

Thanks everyone for all your comments since I stopped posting.

Apologies that I cannot respond to your comments … because time waits for no man etc etc

But I really appreciate you good folk visiting this blog of mine.

Now, it’s time to  plug my new book which will be out soon!

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7 Stories. 7 Days.

 Read each tale on its set day …

And you shall see a ghost.

Tempted?  Slightly scared? 

For it may just be true.

The human mind works in disturbing ways.

These 7 dark stories are born from such a place. They include:

A smartphone App that’s just far too helpful. A shrine no one should visit.  A world on the edge of destruction. A wear-tiger than seduces a maid. A woman who doesn’t age.

The End

This is my last post. It’s my 300th one.

(Can’t you hear that bugler in the distance?)

All good things, as they say, must come to an end. Everything falls away.

That expensive new car you bought will get rusty. That breathtaking romance will be routine. The renovated designer home will eventually crumble. Even this once super-fast MacBook barely crawls.

You see, nothing lasts. Everything perishes. All is transitory.

Including life itself.

You will, if you’re lucky, grow old and die.

There was a famous philosopher who kept a skull on his desk to remind him of this.

Any resemblance?

Thank you reading my blog, whether you’re a new or old reader. I do appreciate the many comments. I’ve tried to reply to all of them. Forgive me if I haven’t.

So why have I decided to stop posting?

I’ve long thought that my three hundredth post would be a good place to end.

With every ending there’s a new beginning though. It allows for a new start. I’m not sure where, when or how. But the closing of one book will lead to the opening of another. Of course there’s uncertainty, with any new beginning.

Yet I feel a sense of freedom as I write this. Not that this blog was a shackle. But there was a need to regularly post and reply to comments.

I’ve met many fellow bloggers, in person and in cyberspace. Some have stopped blogging, others have left this earth, many carry on. It has indeed been good. It’s been great to know you.

So the feeling now for me is this: as if you’ve held something precious for so long and you just … let it go!

This letting go releases you, sets you free.

So now I walk away down the beach, towards the embracing sunset … but you’ll never know where I’ll turn up next! :)

Hot Chicks!

A friend and I were at a café. Across the road was a billboard plastered with the gorgeous face of a, obviously heavily Photoshopped, young woman.

The words “Hot Chick!” leapt at us, followed by the usual advertising of some otherwise boring product.

“The thing is,” said my friend, “people just don’t think that hot chicks will grow old.”

“I’m sure they do,” I said. “Everyone grows old. We know that!”

“Yeah, but not when you’re staring at a billboard, mesmerised by this young model. Wishing they could get into bed with her.”

I laughed. “You’re right. We don’t think such women age. We don’t realise how impermanent, how unreal beauty is.”

I won’t grow old

“It’s only skin deep, Halim. If we just imagined, say forty, fifty years ahead, we’ll see our hot chick become so aged. Perhaps our desires will just fall away!”

“Hmmm …” I mused. “So hot chicks will become elderly women.”

“Hot chicks, Halim, will become elderly women with joint problems, stomach pains, blabber infections and falling hair.”

“So hot chicks will become geriatrics?”

“Yeah, hot chicks will become geria-chicks!

Yesterday I came across this quote:

“Both the good and the pleasant present themselves to men and prompt them into action. The yogi prefers the good to the pleasant. Others, driven by their desires, prefer the pleasant to the good and miss the very purpose of life.”

(B.K.S Iyengar)

 That reminded me of our cafe conversation.

The good versus the pleasant.

The model was indeed very pleasant. But if our minds constantly focus on the pleasant we very often miss the good.

We are offered, through corporate propaganda, a multitude of pleasant things which are possible in our lives – good food, spa treatments, fashionable clothes, gorgeous partner, fabulous vehicle and all the things made to entertain us. We can have some of them if we have the money. If we spend. And the corporations thus profit.

But how often are we offered the good?

It seems that we have to seek the good out for ourselves. It’s a more difficult path.

It’s possible that our model on the billboard may realise how unreal, illusory and impermanent life really is and, therefore, to seek out the good.

If she did, I’m sure all us men will follow! :)

Girls Pressured to be Raunchy, Dumb and Looks-Obsessed

“Celebrity culture and social networking sites risk spawning a generation of dumb and shallow girls, a leading headmistress warns.”

Those first lines in an article in The Times from last year.

Our headmistress warns that young women are under extreme pressure to shun intellectual interests and conform to images of women that lack depth, are raunchy and are obsessed with their looks.

As a father of a sixteen-year-old girl, I find this entirely disturbing.

The evidence is plain to see. You’ll only have to watch music videos, teenage magazines, adverts, movies and TV to see the highly negative influence on our children. The role models today are stereotypes: hunky men, sexy women. Most of them are celebrities. It doesn’t matter if they’re brain dead as long as they’re drop dead gorgeous!

Such images can change our children’s values

Such misgivings are echoed in Lisa Bloom’s book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World. The author fears that women are in danger of spiraling into a nation of dumbed down, tabloid media obsessed, reality TV addicts.

It all comes to desire. Women, it seems, need to be wanted. And they believe that it is this skin-deep thing called “looks” that will create a desire for them.

Yet in the book Women and Desire by Polly Young-Eisendrath, the author retells the tale of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnall (the full story is available here).

In the tale, we discover, is that what a woman truly wants is “sovereignty over herself.” To be able to make her own decisions, to be able to exercise her own free will.

Making your own decisions, is a mental activity.

No looks involved.

This means that the better educated you are (whether achieved in or out of school or university), the more you contemplate, the greater the introspection, will likely lead to you making better decisions.

Thus that sovereignty is exercised well.

But as Polly Young-Eisendrath says “ … personal sovereignty is different from assertiveness, individuality, independence, and getting your own way … [it] means feeling free to choose and to intend your actions. It requires practice and knowledge to make decisions in a way that is responsible, fulfilling, and satisfying.”

That is the key. The correct decisions will lead to a fulfilling and satisfying life. I think, for all of us, men and women, that is what we ultimately want.