Tan Kaiyi in conversation with Tunku Halim: The Dark Lord of Malaysian Horror
In Tunku Halim’s illustrious career in horror writing, his beginning could be the strangest story of all in the history of the genre.
His first ever published work was Everything the condominium developer should have told you, but didn’t, containing his musings on buying condominiums during the Klang Valley real estate boom in the ‘90s. He followed that up with a sequel, Condominiums: Purchase Investment & Habitat, before publishing his first ever horror novel, Dark Demon Rising, in 1997. The hero of the story is Shazral, a city lawyer, who returns to his home kampong to attend his father’s funeral. It is there that he realises that he has been given a supernatural inheritance, in the form of a Hantu Penanggal, a Malay nocturnal vampiric entity.
The “dark lord” of Malaysian horror certainly had a peculiar start on the way to his throne—compared to the others around the world.Tweet
America’s Stephen King began his career with Carrie, the iconic high-school telepath that brought terror and chaos to the students and teachers around her. Edgar Allan Poe, regarded as one of the founding fathers of horror fiction, started with poetry. H.P Lovecraft, the father of modern Weird fiction and the mind behind the Cthulu Mythos, started his career writing for pulp fiction. Thomas Ligotti, regarded as Lovecraft’s modern successor, also wrote for the small presses before he carved out his own shadowy niche.
“I don’t like to use the word proud. Pride is a dangerous thing. I prefer to say which stories gave me great fulfilment,” he said when asked about which stories gave him the most pleasure. If Tunku is the dark lord that is able to conjure up diabolic tales that enthral and terrify readers, his favourite “minions” are Mr Petronas, Biggest Baddest Bomoh, Ladiah, The Rape of Martha Teoh, and the Black Bridge.
“I don’t like to use the word proud. Pride is a dangerous thing. I prefer to say which stories gave me great fulfilment,” he said when asked about which stories gave him the most pleasure.
The Rape of Martha Teoh opens his latest collection of stories, Scream to the Shadows. The book is a retrospective of his work. The story is a good introduction to his narrative sorcery. The tale describes the mental disintegration of the protagonist Martha. Haunted by a history of sexual violation, the spectre of the events continue to harass her mentally—as well as supernaturally. The story, first appearing in 1997, precedes the growing trend of exploring the monstrous aspects of humanity through classic ghost story motifs. While it can be argued that this was the subconscious intent of the horror genre from day one—readers and literary analysts today have the benefit of past criticism to bring these hidden elements to light.
When it comes to summoning his dark imagination to do the bidding of his tales, Tunku is a fan of ancient methods of conjuration. He eschews modern computers and opts for using pen and paper. “It feels more organic,” he quipped. His writing process is also rather akin to a séance. Tunku has an initial idea of a story. With it as a starting point, he ventures into the creative unknown with his pen. As he writes, new ideas and inspirations come along automatically, moving the story along as if driven by a spirit.
The dark lord himself is a believer in the supernatural. “Not everything can be explained by science. There is more than meets the eye. In my Scream to the Shadows collection, one of my themes is ‘The Occult World’ which alludes to another reality, a supernatural one, hidden just beneath our normal day-to-day existence. The supernatural world can give our lives deeper meaning,” he said. Here, Tunku breaks with the tradition of traditional horror writing—at least with his Western counterparts. While Poe’s exact religious beliefs are unclear, the terror in his works are the consequences of human wickedness and fallibility, with only a hint of the supernatural.
He was also one of the pioneers of detective fiction, which celebrates the triumph of the rational mind in overcoming the chaos of the world, with works such as Murders in the Rue Morgue. While Poe is said to operate in the mode of dark romanticism, his works suggest a non-supernatural perspective of the world, which flew in the face of the pre-dominantly Christian America of his time. Lovecraft is known for his reductionist view of the universe. Symbolising the growing modernist concerns of the time, his pantheon of monster-gods and blind cruel deities are a representation of a cold universe devoid of a world beyond the material—and hence stripped of meaning. Shirley Jackson, another renowned American writer of tales of terror, also followed in the footsteps of Poe, focusing on the horrors of humanity, rather than the wild unknowns of ghosts and goblins.
Despite practicing horror, Tunku’s inspiration goes beyond that of the genre. His notable mentions reveal an imagination that draws inspiration from other sources to fashion his dark creations: The Old Man and the Sea, The Gormenghast Trilogy, Kafka by the Shore, Great Expectations, Salem’s Lot, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Catch 22 and The Grapes of Wrath. On the list, only one of them can be said to be a work of horror. Salem’s Lot, King’s story of a small American town haunted by a vampire, is one of the books that have made an impact on Tunku. King’s signature of embedding horror into the everyday lives of people come across strongly in Tunku’s works.
The American writer of classics like The Shining is known for setting his tales of terror in ordinary settings populated by everyday people. Instead of classic tales involving reclusive academics and aristocrats in castles and exotic locations, King’s main characters are store clerks, beach vacationers, and working class men and women. Tunku’s protagonists are pretty much ordinary folk who are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. They are librarians as in the case of Malay Magick, an accounts clerk in Mr. Petronas, and a young man in search of love online in The App.
When asked what he would say to Stephen King if they were to meet, Tunku said, “I would tell him that he has had a big influence on me, that I enjoyed his tales and I admire him as a writer.” But he doubled back on his optimism with a caveat, “But then again, I might just stay silent because everyone, I’m sure, tells him these things.” Part of any meeting in Malaysia involves savouring the local cuisine. “I’ll take him somewhere to enjoy our local seafood. I might have considered one of our local buffets. But with COVID-19 rampaging, I don’t think he’ll appreciate it,” he added. Apart from King, Tunku also has another writer to thank for influencing his career during its early stages—one much closer to home and across the Causeway. “I’ve often said, I now don’t read horror because I don’t want to be influenced nor feel that I want to compete. Though I must mention the Singaporean writer, Nicky Moey. I read his collection of short stories in the early ‘90s and I said to myself, ‘I think I can write such stories too.’ And I did,” he said. Tunku has previously recommended Moey’s book, Pontianak: 13 Chilling Tales, as a starting point for Asian horror fiction. The two writers have yet to cross paths. “I haven’t met him. Perhaps he lives in a haunted mansion like me,” Tunku said.
While Tunku has acknowledged good works in the literary sphere, he has less nice things to say about modern horror films. “A lot of horror movies are low budget too and so are cheaply done and badly acted. The plots can certainly be improved. My first question is why does it usually involve a house, which we know is haunted? Why does the daughter or wife have to go down the cellar when the electricity is out? I certainly wouldn’t go down there. Horror movies also reply too much on the shock element together with the element of blood and gore. This is not something you can do in a written narrative,” he complained. However, this criticism does not extend to certain classics. “I really did like The Exorcist, The Shining, The Changeling, Alien, The Thing, The Blair Witch Project, The Conjuring, World War Z and several others. Alien and The Thing appear to be sci-fi movies but are horror, in reality, because of the element of fear,” he listed.
Despite shaping an extensive career in horror, Tunku doesn’t seem to have been tainted by dark leanings of his stories. In his email interview, he sounded chirpy, upbeat and very forthcoming. This personality also comes across in the other interviews he did. While the dark lord summons his minions with his imagination, he makes it a point to ensure that they are distinct entities, possessing separate lives from their master. “You need to separate the creator and the created. My creations come from my imagination but just because I can imagine such things doesn’t in any way influence my character. Or, to put it another way, it’s not my personality that gives rise to my imagination,” he said. The attitude no doubt has helped him avoid the pitfalls that befell his predecessors and counterparts. Poe was a notorious alcoholic and depressive. Lovecraft suffered from social developmental problems and rarely left his home in New England, USA. Meanwhile, King himself went through a long phase of drug addiction. It was so severe that his wife, Tabitha King, had to intervene.
“You need to separate the creator and the created. My creations come from my imagination but just because I can imagine such things doesn’t in any way influence my character. Or, to put it another way, it’s not my personality that gives rise to my imagination,” he said.
Tunku will continue to build his dark domain with more horror works, but for a different audience—children. Akin to RL Stine’s Goosebumps series, his next work will be a book of Asian spooky stories for kids. This is not his first foray for writing for children. In 2003, he published A Children’s History of Malaysia, a series of dramatic tales for the young ones about key events in the nation’s history. He followed this up with History of Malaysia: A Children’s Encyclopaedia. Both books have been re-released as second editions. But in spite of his growing achievements, Tunku continues to stay grounded. A father of two himself, the dark lord says that his children doesn’t think much about him being a horror writer. “My daughter enjoys reading and watching horror. I’m not sure if I’ve been an influence there!” he lamented.
Tan Kaiyi is a content consultant at a marketing communications firm, based in Singapore. His poems have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. Kaiyi’s horror story, The Siege, appeared in Kitaab’s Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018).