My book 44 Cemetery Road was reviewed today in The Star by a Michael Cheang.

The verdict was generally good proclaiming that the stories are “pretty well written”, are “fascinating”, “intriguing” and my “style matured” with each new book and that the collection’s greatest asset is the “nostalgia it evokes”. I would like to thank him for his positive comments.

It is thus with some reluctance that I take him to task on the negative side of the balance sheet. Our Mr Cheang has stuck his neck out and claimed that I use “very similar plot devices” and that some of the earlier stories are “predictable”.

This is a serious allegation indeed against any writer and I wish to state my case. Here it is and right to the point: the stories are NOT predictable, nor are they similar in terms of plotting.

If our reviewer thinks otherwise, he should have elaborated, pointing out the offending stories and also to explain why. Such a flippant comment can easily be thrown in, particularly by a reviewer who regards horror stories as often “cheesy”. Yet it is extremely difficult to justify unless we do a test. After reading say 25% of the story, Mr Cheang should then tell us what exactly is going to happen. I doubt he can.

This also leads me to the question of predictability or, its opposite, the unexpected ending. I believe it is the journey rather than the destination that matters. If you watch any Hollywood movie you more or less know the good guys are going to win. Yes, predictable. But how? The journey that gets them there is what counts. That’s what you enjoy. It’s the detail of the story, the suspense, the action, even if you know the outcome, is what makes for good entertainment. So predictability should not be an issue. Having said that, my stories are not predictable.

For an odd reason I cannot fathom, other than the reviewers clearly stated prejudice against ghost or horror stories, Mr Cheang felt let down by the title story “44 Cemetery Road”. Yes, it is a vampire story and this in itself tends to constrain the plot. You can just bet someone is definitely going to get bitten! This in itself does not make a story predictable. But as I said, it’s good for us to remember, whether on holiday or when reading, it’s the journey not the destination.

With that particular story, the reviewer sees problems in the writing – “Elaborate descriptions, overdone superlatives and textbook-style plotting abound” he pontificates. Again, I would like the reviewer to please explain. Which paragraph is he referring to? Where are the “overdone superlatives”? And what does he mean by “textbook-style” plotting? Again, comments are thrown in with no examples, no justification.

As a writer, I am willing to accept negative comments but these need to better thought out and justified rather than just chucked in because it sounds as if the reviewer knows something the general public doesn’t. Perhaps the reviewer had a tight date line and had to type a certain number of words before venturing out to the hawker stall, but this is no excuse.

Overall, Michael Cheang (if that’s his real name) was promulgating a rather negative view on the particular genre I sometimes choose to write in rather than on my book 44 Cemetery Road. It may have tarnished his sense of balance and fair play.

Here’s the review:

(By the way, I’ll be away from the computer for a few days so I might not be able to comment on your comment!)

Alamak, goosebumps!

Review by MICHAEL CHEANG.

44 CEMETERY ROAD:

THE BEST OF TUNKU HALIM

By Tunku Halim

Distributor: MPH, 334 pages

(ISBN: 978-983-369-8271)

A frightening sense of dread came upon me as I held the book in my hands. Maybe it was the cover illustration of a tombstone. Maybe it was the innocuously foreboding title: 44 Cemetery Road: which reminded me of death at every syllable. Or maybe it was just my fear of cheesy Malaysian ghost stories acting up again….

AH, ghost stories. We Malaysians just love them, don’t we? From the stealthy toyol, the vengeful pontianak and the powerful bomoh to the mass graves of Japanese soldiers, black magic, haunted basement car parks and cemeteries, Malaysian folklore is full of such wonderfully colourful and sometimes cheesy stories. So it seems a tragedy that no one has been able to export these stories to a wider audience internationally.

Enter Tunku Halim, who is arguably one of Malaysia’s most prolific writers in English. Over the years, he has released three collections of short horror fiction – The Rape of Martha Teoh and Other Chilling Stories; Bloodhaze: 15 Chilling Tales; and The Woman Who Grew Horns and Other Works. In conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the release of the first collection, he has compiled the 18 of the best stories from the three books into one nice little volume entitled

44 Cemetery Road, and has even thrown in three new stories into the mix.

The titles of the tales told stories of their own – stories of scary vampires, big bad bomohs, lurking shadows and er? monkeys. Memories of dark nights spent hiding under blankets in spooky dormitories, listening to ghost stories being told returned to haunt me?.

To tell the truth, I have never been a huge fan of ghost stories, or horror novels, for the simple reason that I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to ghosts and things that go bump in the night. But to Tunku Halim’s credit, the stories here were fascinating enough to keep my attention, thanks to the familiar nature of many of the myths and legends.

The money-stealing toyol has always been a favourite of mine, and I was happy to read about it in Watching The Doll. Other memorable tales are the creepy Birthdays are Deathdays (the twist in the end was a little unnerving for me) and the gruesome Paradise Revisited (let’s just say you’ll never look at red meat the same way again) and the very spooky The Rape of Martha Teoh.

Tunku Halim has also written three new stories for this collection – 44 Cemetery Road (a good old-fashioned zombie/vampire/ghost romp), Plane Load (a moral lesson of sorts about not accepting pills from strangers), and The Year 1972 (which is actually an autobiographical story set in a location he remembers from his childhood days).

I enjoyed The Year 1972, mostly because of the sense of nostalgia it evoked, but I was disappointed by 44 Cemetery Road. Perhaps because it gives the book its title, I was expecting something a little more than the rather conventional and stereotypical vampire story it turned out to be.

As I turned the pages, the words leaped out at me like a vengeful spirit. Elaborate descriptions, overdone superlatives and textbook-style plotting abound, and it was too much for me to bear?.

Fortunately, most of the other stories were much more intriguing, and Tunku Halim seems to have a knack of putting new spins on old myths, especially in the later stories.

Nevertheless, while the stories here are pretty well-written, many of them tend to use very similar plot devices that may give the reader a sense of déjà vu. That said, it may be advisable not to read all the stories at one go.

Fortunately, his style matured with each book he released, and by the time you reach the stories in The Woman Who Grew Horns, his writing has settled into a less predictable style.

Ultimately, the nostalgia it evokes is the book’s greatest asset, coupled with the fact that many of the stories, characters, settings and locations are so quintessentially Malaysian that the reader can’t help but be fascinated by them.

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