Monday, 25 November 2019

Tunku Halim Talks Horror with Elaine Chiew

Tunku Halim, dubbed as the Malaysian Stephen King, surely needs no introduction.

Scream to the Shadows is a retrospective of 20 years of his short tales of horror, also billed as 'world gothic'.

But a short bio for those of you not as familiar:


Tunku Halim was born in Malaysia in 1964. He is dubbed the Stephen King of Malaysia. By delving into Malay myth, legends and folklore, his writing is regarded as ‘World Gothic’. 

His novel, Dark Demon Rising, was nominated for the 1999 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award whilst his second novel, Vermillion Eye, is used as a study text in The National University of Singapore’s Language and Literature course. His short story has also won first prize inn a 1998 Fellowship of Australian Writers competition. In Malaysia, he has had three consecutive wins in the Star Readers’ Choice Awards between 2015 and 2017. 

His other books include the short-story collections The Rape of Martha Teoh & Other Chilling Stories (1997), BloodHaze: 15 Chilling Tales (1999) and The Woman Who Grew Horns and Other Works (2001); and the novella Juriah’s Song (2008). His non-fiction books include A Children’s History of Malaysia (2003) and a biography of his late father Tunku Abdullah – A Passion for Life (1998).  

EC: How did your first start writing horror stories, or fiction in general?

TH: My first ever story is called “Banking Hours”. It is actually a crime story but did involve a description of a road known to be haunted. My next story, “Something Called Mamsky” loosely based on my own experience, can be categorised as horror. That was the tale that really sent me down this dark, winding path. So why did I start writing stories? Maybe it was because I had a word processor, a blank screen and nothing to do!

EC:   How do you feel you’ve grown as a writer?  Has your writing process changed?

TH:  My first collection of tales were plot-based. I just wanted to tell stories. By the time I was writing my second collection, I was adding other elements into them. For example, “Mr Petronas” is not just a story about an orang minyak. It was about oil money and all the greasy things that can occur in our country and in our hearts. The third collection went even further, delving into human nature and recognising that fiction can make the heart soar ... or even crash! My writing process is mostly unchanged. I had at one time found it more difficult as I was beginning to set myself very high standards and had become self-critical. But that has, thankfully, mostly gone and now I write because I simply enjoy it.

EC: What imperatives do you set yourself as you prepared the older stories for a fresh publication?

TH:  Each story is like a child. My older stories have grown up, gotten married and even had kids. So I don’t want to interfere with them. They have their own lives. So I’ve mostly left the stories untouched. “Hawker Man” went out into the world and caused a lot of problems, so I had to bring that recalcitrant child back into the womb for re-birthing into a new story:“Hawker Man and I”.

EC:   Were you always drawn to horror, even as a child?  

TH:   I remember going to see a Dracula movie in the cinema as a young child. It scared the hell out of me and gave me lots of lovely nightmares. I read mostly horror as a teenager. The genre was very popular in the 80s with entire book shelves in bookshops dedicated to the genre. I even read non-fiction: books on the occult and witchcraft. I wasn’t drawn to just horror but rather the darkness or mysteries that lie beyond our day-to-day. 

EC:  What powers your imagination in horror? For example, quite a few of the stories in Scream to the Shadows describe perverse or rampant sexual desire that often leads your protagonists to the dark side. TH:   My imagination is usually sparked by something I hear or read. I once read a news article about a woman in China who grew horns. That inspired my story “The Woman Who Grew Horns”. K. M Endicott’s book An Analysis of Malay Magic inspired my first novel, Dark Demon Rising. “Ladiah”, a story about a maid and her lustful employer, is based on what someone once told me. “The Rape of Martha Teoh” is a title that just came to me and I wrote a story about that. Often our cravings, whether sexual or not, do indeed lead us towards darkness. 

EC:  The book has a section dealing with technology and horror. What led to your interest here, and how do you go about shaping these two strands?  

TH:  Certainly the “Black Mirror” series allowed me to see that some of my stories had a strong connection to technology. As digital technology begins to take over our lives, we can see how darkness and horror can easily arise from it. My story “The App” tells of how technology and in particular our smart phones now dictate our lives. “Mr Skull” is about social media and how the endless streams of online photos can steal our souls. Technology makes us less human. The less human we are, the easier it is for us to do more inhuman, unspeakable things. Technology should be a tool and no more and certainly not the reason for our existence. 

EC: You’ve also written novels. Tell us what Dark Demon Rising, the novel, was about. 

TH: It is about a young lawyer who has to return to a rural village because his father his dying. His father, a shaman who wards off evil, needs to pass the inherited spirit to his son before he dies. His son doesn’t want to become a shaman as he loves his materialistic life in the city. But then the past catches up with him and the remembers the evil he encountered as a boy. His father then dies and he decides to become a shaman. But there are evil forces out there that intend to stop him. I was a young lawyer when I wrote this and some of the elements in the novel may be autobiographical. The novel has been studied by academia with one of the published papers being entitled “‘Where Meaning Collapses’: Tunku Halim’s Dark Demon Rising as Global Gothic” by Glennis Byron at the University of Sterling. 

EC:  I read that you often tap into Malay myths and folklore as a source of inspiration for your stories. The weretiger story in In The Village of Setang for example. What avenues do you use to research Malay myths and folklore? 

TH: Do I visit Malay shamans in the deep of night for inspiration? I certainly wouldn’t dare. Instead I use books such as Malay Magic by William Skeat which is a deep mine of information. There is information online but those lack the academic depth of study. 

EC: In your blog, you talked about reading Stephen King when you were younger. Was he a literary influence? 

TH: Most definitely. He is not only a great horror writer. He is a great writer per se.

EC: And how does it feel to be called the 'Malaysian Stephen King'? 

TH: On the one hand, I do feel proud but on the other, it puts me in a box. Perhaps a coffin! Because it does typecast me. King had this very problem too. Many people don’t know that the non-horror tale The Shawshank Redemption was written by him. I also write non-fiction. For example, books on weight loss, Malaysian history and even a cook book! So Malaysia’s Stephen King should not really be writing such other stuff. I do suffer from having a multiple-personality disorder branding wise!
EC: What are some other literary influences on your work?

TH:  Other than Stephen King, there’s Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Mervyn Peake, J.R.R Tolkien, Haruki Murakami and Bob Dylan. Actually I’m more influenced by particular books rather than certain authors. I do read as widely as I can and I try to avoid reading horror.

EC:  To your mind, is there a difference between “world gothic” and “horror”? 

TH:  World gothic are tales that are not informed by European, Western, North American culture. A lot of it maybe Asian. These may use Asian settings, characters or myths. They are likely to be written for a local readership rather than an international or Western one. But I prefer not to put writing into different genres or sub-genres. It may assist with communication but it actually limits the imagination, which is the death-knell of all writers.

EC:  Thanks so much for joining us, Tunku Halim!We wish you all the very best in your next literary endeavour. 


NB:  Scream to the Shadows are available at local bookshops in print format across Southeast Asia at local prices.