Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0750-37-8
Here Be Nightmares, Julya Oui’s collection of horror and fantasy stories, is mostly new – mostly, because some stories first showed up earlier in other magazines or anthologies. They are all new to me, so I’m afraid I can’t say whether the not-so-new stories have been revised in any way. I can say that this is an amateurish collection that showcases very clearly the author’s weaknesses. There are no nuances here.
The Horns of Sister Mary Angele is horrible. Our protagonist demands to know why her aunt is cloistered away in a nunnery, and when she is refused entry to meet that woman, she grabs her boyfriend to storm the place. The title of this story gives away the twist – great move, that – but this isn’t a great loss as the protagonist is such an unlikable shrew that I have no idea why nobody has pushed a pillow over her face ages ago. Many of the antics in this story are dictated by plot rather than logic, our protagonist is spectacularly stupid and obtuse, and the author tops the whole idiocy with an eye-rolling heavy-handed take-home message about evil and humanity. This whole thing reeks of amateurism.
Insane is, naturally, the second-person point of view story (you know, where “you” are the protagonist) that every Malaysian author seems to believe she has to write in order to gain literary credibility.
Maybe it’s the result of reading too many literary fiction, or maybe it’s because there are enough creative writing teachers out there that drill into the heads of these poor souls that they have to go all “you, you, you” to show off the power of the author over the reader or some nonsense like that, but god, so many local authors do this crap and I don’t get it. This is a gimmicky style that adds nothing to the story. No, it doesn’t create a sense of intimacy or helps the reader get more invested in the story, it’s just a show of the author arrogantly using her story like a hammer to bash the reader’s head in a “See? I am an amazing author who takes the laziest and most intrusive narrative gimmick to create an immersion experience!” manner.
Anyway, Insane shows tinges of horror elements that are reminiscent of HP Lovecraft’s brand of psychological terror, but on the whole it is another tired gimmicky effort by an author who seems desperate to convince me that she’s literary crème de la crème.
Mina has one sister telling another that she has been raped by aliens. This is another potentially interesting tale, and it does have a pretty good (if tired) set-up, but the two female characters are so poorly drawn and one dimensional that they may as well be cardboard cut-outs. It’s not as painfully contrived as the first story in this collection, but close.
Stench of the Dead has the best premise in this collection, revolving around an old woman’s haunted memories of her child, but the story goes on for way too long. The author unknowingly provided the perfect closure for this story by the midpoint of this story, as that scene is just perfect as a heartstopping moment, but Ms Oui drags the story for another considerable distance and kills whatever momentum she has achieved up to that point. Again, the desire to impress and show off trumps substance.
Gifts from Heaven is the most low key, simple, and straight-to-the-point story. No gimmicks, no deliberately tortuous narrative styles or big words, nothing – it’s the best story here by default, as a result, but it doesn’t say anything new or interesting. Idiots go up in the sky but, instead of finding a castle like Jack with that beanstalk thing, they find… who knows, it’s not like I care.
Garden Snails is about, what else, creepy snails that factor in our protagonist’s traumatic memory of some… incident… in his past. I have seen that movie before, but still, this one could have been a pretty decent story if it hadn’t been ruined by a pointless flashback device that reveals the author’s weakness in creating realistic characters that I can bother to even try to care about. Once again, this is another story with cardboard-thin characters whose motivations and actions are dictated by plot necessity, therefore making them obvious vehicles for the author to show off instead of, you know, telling a story.
The Scouts Are Coming ties with Gifts from Heaven as a good story by default because it has no artificial gimmicks, but I’ve seen this kiddie-harbinger-of-destruction theme many times before in the likes of The Twilight Zone and such, and the author offers nothing new or interesting in her take of that trope here.
Gorgon is another story where the twist is revealed in the title of the story itself, and the whole thing feels like a ham-fisted attempt by the author to deliver a hackneyed message about humanity and evil. Not to mention, we have a Greek monster here, which means the author could have added some flavor by either injecting new twists to the monster or expand on the Greek mythology behind the monster. Instead, I have a tale set in a nondescript setting populated by characters who are bewilderingly clueless for the sake of the plot.
The Case of Suspension is about people who find themselves trapped in a plane where they have to hold on to some beam or they will fall. I’m sure the author is trying to tell me something profound about life here, but I think I miss that because I’m too busy rolling up my eyes as I turn the pages of this pretentious gibberish.
Doom St. Diner… another tale with a premise covered by The Twilight Zone and other anthology horror series of its sort. To reveal more about this story would be to ruin it, so I’ll just say that this is another tale ruined by the author’s clumsy gimmicky narrative style.
The Toy Collector is another familiar tale, but at least this one is straightforward. A woman is scared of her boyfriend’s toy collection because she is convinced that the toys hate her. I’m sure we all know where this is going. Unfortunately, the twist at the end has me laughing out loud instead of shivering in terror. It’s so over the top ridiculous. What, the boyfriend is made from animated creepy toys coming together? How does that work, like Voltron? How can she have sex with him and not know? How can these toys have sex with a woman? Do they even have the necessary parts?
The Curse of the Nail actually has a different and refreshingly not-so-rehashed premise, and it’s… readable! The conversations feel natural, everything flows like it should, and the curse in this story is intriguing. And then, the author ends the whole thing just when the story is becoming interesting. I’m starting to feel that any moment of brilliance in this story arises by accident while the author flails around throwing everything at the wall and hoping that something sticks.
Best Kept Secret has alien invasions, a big secret, and more. The closing story, this one is also the longest entry. Again, this one could be great, but it is ruined by unnatural stilted-sounding dialogues, characters doing things in ways that are clearly motivated by plot, and occasional gimmicky framing device that make this one seem like a low-grade take on War of the Worlds.
At the end of the day, all I can take home from this collection is that the author occasionally has some imaginative flights of fancy – when she is not rehashing popular horror tropes, that is – but she is severely hampered by classic local author problems: the desire to show off by using all kinds of gimmicky techniques gratuitously, often to the detriment of the stories.
I mean, come on, we are talking about horror stories. This is genre, darling. So either ditch or use correctly the gimmicks – they should not be used just because nobody is stopping the author from doing so. Lose the one-dimensional characters in the process. Horror stories, especially psychological ones, rely on the reader’s identification with the protagonists’ mounting fears. This means that the characters should resemble human beings that the readers can recognize, if not relate to, in order to get drawn into the story. Having cardboard shrews and their emasculated boyfriends running all over the place isn’t horror, it’s a strong invitation for readers to wonder just what issues the author has with her own sex.
Anyway, Here Be Nightmares is a pretty good textbook example of what happens when an author tries too hard to impress people with her technique.