Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0954-18-9
The follow-up to Here Be Nightmares, There Be Monsters shows some improvement when it comes to the author’s narrative style. However, there is some distance to go yet, as many of the stories here still suffer from classic Malaysian authorial mistakes: writing more for showing off one’s vocabulary and never taking into context whether these big words used are actually appropriate for a certain scene in a certain plot. In genre fiction such as horror, it is not enough to serve up something that would give one an A in the English SPM paper – the readers have to be entertained, and readers are entertained by good plot, good characters, and something subjective and harder to define called the oomph factor. Here, many of the stories have a premise that ranges from decent to intriguing, but they fall apart when it comes to characterization, dialogue construction, pacing, and plot structure.
In the Wake of Uncle Zim has a macabre premise, but the execution is horrible. Am I supposed to believe that two kids can rip out a heart from a corpse this easily with a pen knife and a candlestick? There are layers of skin, fat, and bones to go through. The only way this one would have worked if the author had gone full sail with campy humor – think Tales from the Crypt – but no, she has to go all sober instead. Also, there is overwriting here, such as using the phrase “anthropoid-shaped box” to describe a coffin. It’s nice to know that the author knows what “anthropoid” means – that A in the SPM English paper is well-deserved – but in a story from the perspective of kids, how likely is that phrase going to crop up?
Flutter the Dovecast is like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds with some demonic portal thing, and it suffers from some of the most florid writing I’ve ever seen. A 11-year old kid who doesn’t know what “incubate” is uses the word “preposterous” in his thoughts, for example, and after describing a man’s unhygienic actions, the author describes the man’s actions – unnecessarily – as “unhygienic actions”. Characters scream, hiss, and flail around like caricatures in a Looney Tunes cartoon centered around epilepsy, and don’t get me started about the very sober treatment of a demonic portal inside an egg. The only thing scary about this story is the overwrought yet ridiculous plot, horrible cardboard characters, and the inappropriate use of big words in various contexts.
Things start to get better with The Night It Rained Murder, a psychological thriller revolving a battered wife haunted by what seems like a husband that wouldn’t stay dead despite her efforts to snuff out his life. This one is solid, the writing is gripping, and the pacing is just right. It’s too bad that the author chooses to end this story in a scene that involves two people talking in a very stilted and unnatural manner, and the twist is practically battered into my head with no subtlety whatsoever.
The Strange Solitude of Hungry Helen, which revolves around a poor overweight and hunchbacked kid bullied by her peers, is also a well-crafted tale with some gruesome chills to be had. Unfortunately, the characters are so shrill and flat, the horror elements are almost muted by the unintentional and sometimes painful comedy that arises from the overwrought screaming and kicking and yelling taking place here.
What the Boys Are is an amusing tale that brings up a question: if you are a loser who previously can’t get a hot girl to like you even a bit, and now a hot girl finally lets you know that she’d love you to death – literally, of course – would you go for it? Of course, once again the author completely fails to capture even one believable and realistic line of dialogue among the two guys here, but hey, it’s a very short story, so I’ll give it a pass.
Out of a Canine’s Manger is the tale of a crazy woman who gets insane jealous of her husband’s new adoration for a stray dog he picks up. I don’t know why the author loves her crazy evil women so much, because her brand of crazy evil women tends to be shrill and painful rather than fun to follow. That is one big problem marring her previous collection, and it’s the same big problem marring this story: reading it is as fun as having a drill being bored into my skull while I am awake, because the harpy in this story is just ridiculous in the most nerve-grating manner possible.
7 Versions of Bad is interesting – people play a game where they have to kill the other six doppelgängers of themselves out there in the world. The execution is a failure, though. I’m supposed to believe that a Chinese, an Indian, a Caucasian, and an Israeli can all be passed off as identical twins? I wonder whether the author’s definition of ‘doppelgänger’ is the same as that found in most modern dictionaries. Also, why on earth would anyone want to play such a tedious game? Think of all the air-tickets and weaponry one need to purchase in order to win, not to mention the hassle of trying to smuggle all those weapons across borders? This story should have been set entirely in a dystopian future or a virtual reality setting, if you ask me.
That Lonely Bastard is a short story, sort of like a The Matrix fanfiction that had to be ended abruptly because the author has a train to catch. Completely forgettable.
Into the Wild Unknown combines Cthulhu and madhouse horror, but all the interesting notions and concepts are bogged down by the focus on a doctor fellow whose existence, it seems, is for the author to deliver heavy-handed messages about evil, insanity, and what not in the most hammy manner possible. The author needs to create strongly defined characters that the readers can root for if she wants these characters to be her soapbox speakers, and right now she’s not even close to succeeding in creating such characters.
Mimeux is another heavy-handed overwrought tale about the evil that men are capable of, but this one is an unexpectedly heartbreaking tale, elegantly constructed and written. It is easily the best story in this collection, and it actually makes the author’s bumbling around in other stories even more obvious and more disappointing to bear.
Constipation, on the other hand, just goes on and on and on like an interminable, repetitive bore. The author completely loses her sense of pacing here, and whatever she is trying to do here – this one could have been a satire or a serious take on the organic craze; with the author’s constant shows of incompetence, it’s hard to tell – and the only feeling I experience when I reach the last page is sheer, profound relief.
Fatalism is Alfred Hitchcock meets Cthulhu, but this is a conversation- and character-heavy story. Because the author’s idea of ‘compelling characters’ boils down to shrieking and shouting twats behaving in exaggerated hammy manner, and her conversations are all contrived, hammy, and stilted, this story ends up being an epic fail of colossal proportions. Worse, it’s long and interminable.
Battle Damage has a premise straight out of The Twilight Zone – a man discovering that his reality is not what it seems to be, at all – and it is simple, lovely to read, and marvelously restrained in its denouement… until the author ruins the effect by having the protagonist launch into a short monologue in his moment of despair. It is a monologue that involves bombastic rhetorical questions, as if someone has transplanted the protagonist onto a debate podium.
Horror is not about showing off all the big words the author knows, or writing her stories in a manner which suggests that she believes that her readers would not get her brilliance unless she spells everything out in a painfully obvious exposition passed off as a “conversation” in the last part of the story. While horror may not be high drama all the time, it works best when the characters speak like what they are written as. If the character is a child, for example, then let the child speak and think his or her age – don’t let all those big words creep into those thoughts and lines. Pacing is important, too – end the story quickly once the twist is revealed, as everything else would pale in comparison and bore the reader silly. And more importantly, horror is most effective when the reader can relate to the premise, so put some thought into the little details in the story. For example, the family in that stupid pigeon story live in a Malaysian house… that has an attic. A typical attic more commonly found in Western homes, rather than the renovated lofts that are described as “attics” in Malaysian homes. Things like this jolt me out of the story and leave me scratching my head.
Anyway, I can go on and on, but I have better things to do so I’ll just end by saying that There Be Monsters only demonstrates that the author still needs to improve considerably if she wants to make her mark as a horror author. Right now, she makes that hack Russell Lee look like Clive Barker in comparison.
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