The Magical Roots of Malaysian Horror Fiction In English
The diverse history of Malaysia has given rise to a unique folklore that stems from multiple sources such as animism, tribal beliefs, shamanism and various religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Serious studies of the occult exist, if heavily biased by colonial views at the time of writing, such as Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsular by Walter William Skeat (Frank and Cass Co.Limited 1900, reprinted 1965). To date, the best-known study is An Analysis of Malay Magic by Kirk Michael Endicott (Oxford Claredon, 1970). Widespread interest in the subject of occultism and popular national consumption of Western supernatural fiction has created a brand of distinctly Malaysian horror written in English.
British writers have featured Malaysia in short horror fiction although their stories are set in an exaggerated version of Malaya (as Malaysia was known before its independence in 1957). British broadcaster A. J. Alan (Leslie H. Lambert, 1883 – 1940) published fanciful horror tales, which include “The Bayang”, an account of black magic cast by ‘vengeful natives’ in the jungles of Pahang. The most extensive and famous writing comes from Sir Andrew Caldecott, British civil servant and ex-governor of Singapore and Hong Kong, who retired from the service in 1946 to write fiction. Both of his published short story collections Not Exactly Ghosts (1947) and Fires Burn Blue (1948) showcase genteel chillers in the style of M. R James set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Kongea , based on Malaya. Caldecott’s uncluttered prose enhances the unsettling stories by almost convincing the reader of their anecdotal nature. This is most striking in “Fits of the Blues”, an explorer is cursed with a mysterious eye disease after stealing a prized sapphire from a Kongean tribe, and in “Grey Brothers” an Englishman ‘goes native’ in a mountain valley and worships deadly spider phantoms . The sensationalist treatment of Malaysian settings by colonial writers such as Alan and Caldecott tends to endure, as shown by Ann Goring’s 1990 story “Hantu-Hantu” (Malay for ‘ghosts’), which shares a similar insectoid theme with “Grey Brothers”. In “Hantu-Hantu”, guests at a dinner party encounter a pair of mysterious siblings who are revealed to be spirit cockroaches in human form.
In contrast to its colonial manifestations, contemporary Malaysian horror in English is a vibrant and dynamic field made up of prolific Malaysian writers. The best known national name is Tunku Halim, who specializes in extreme horror and dark fantasy. Halim debuted in 1997 with a short story collection, The Rape of Martha Teoh and Other Chilling Stories, and a novel, Dark Demon Rising, which was inspired by Endicott’s An Analysis of Malay Magic . In 1999 Halim published more macabre short fiction in BloodHaze: 15 Chilling Tales, that includes the Fellowship of Australian Writers prize-winning metafictional story “This Page is Left Intentionally Blank”. 44 Cemetery Road (MPH Publishing, 2007) compiles the best of Tunku Halim’s stories written from 2000-2006. International readers can find the darkly humorous “Biggest Baddest Bomoh”, a short story from The Rape of Martha Teoh republished in the anthology The Apex Book of World SF (edited by Lavie Tidhar, 2009).
Apart from Tunku Halim’s work, there are other notable Malaysian horror fiction collections written in English. Retired Singaporean minister Othman Wok penned two short story collections that feature supernatural horror stories, The Disused Well (Horizon Books, 2006) and Unseen Occupants and Other Chilling Tales (Horizon Books, 2007). Dark City (Midnight Press, 2006) by Xeus, features horror and suspense stories with a Malaysian urban setting. The most striking of these is the disguised social commentary of “Trashcan Child”, in which the biological mother of an abandoned infant offers its foster mother a supernatural chance for redemption. The popular success of Dark City generated a second volume Dark City 2 (2007). Horror fiction also earned critical acclaim in The 2009 MPH Alliance Bank National Short Story Writing Competition. One of the shortlisted stories was “The Hunter and the Tigress” by Zed Adam Idris, about an indigenous tribesman who must destroy a shape-shifting spirit that has been imprisoned as a tiger motif painted onto an earthenware plate.
The appearance of new comics provide the latest direction for contemporary Malaysian horror that promises to steer it away from the subjects of occult magic and shape-shifting entities. Graphic artist John Ho offers seven tales of supernatural encounters in his graphic novel Scary Ever After . Malaysian independent Gilamon Comics launched the graphic novel series Major Zombie in December 2010. It is a sly dig at the superhero and zombie apocalypse genres that examines the irony of Major Zombie’s position as a member of the undead who protects the living.
The brief history of Malaysian short horror fiction still roots it in the cultural past of myths, occultism and folklore, but there are enough developments and emerging new writers in contemporary Malaysian horror writing to ensure a budding future.