Scream to the Shadows: Retro Horror Tales from Asia

Tan Kaiyi reviews Tunku Halim’s latest work, Scream to Shadows calling it a collection of tales full of shocks and gore!

Scream to the Shadows is a retrospective collection of Tunku Halim’s career. These 20 spine chilling tales give a great introduction to one of the leading horror writers in Asia. Over a span of two decades, Tunku has written dark stories in the form of novels and short stories—most notably Dark Demon Rising and the Rape of Martha Teoh & Other Chilling Stories

The retrospective collection is a decent Asian entry into the global horror-scape. For readers looking for a break from Western tales of vampires, ghosts in castles and werewolves, the book is an (ironic) breath of fresh air. Tunku draws from the rich local mythology of his native Malaysia. His universe is terrorized with Asian occult elements, ranging from bomohs (Malay shamans) to penanggalans (a female vampiric ghost that takes the form of a detached head). In tales like Malay Magick and Biggest Baddest Bomoh, the main characters encounter bomohs who exploit their desire for sex and love, leading to their downfall. A handful of tales tap on the fear of the female other, particularly in Ladiah, which features a maid who exudes a paranormal allure to ensnare her male employers. Then, there are the classic tropes such as secluded mansions, highway hauntings and demonic rendezvous in cemeteries. 

Tunku’s prose is simple and direct, eschewing lengthy gothic descriptions of demons, demented mental states or shady castles. Inspired by Stephen King, Tunku gets his message across laconically. However, the simple language fails at times to deliver the scares for the sake of clarity. When describing monstrosities or entities, some of the descriptions can border on the overly dramatic, to the point where the shock factor is blunted. Several snippets of dialogue sound stilted and unrealistic, as if they were uttered by characters in B-movies. 

The book is arranged thematically. The Occult World and Graveyard Voices sections contain more conventional stories about ghosts and other incarnations of the undead. Fragmented Minds plunge into the shadowy depths of the human psyche. Dark Technology gives a Black Mirror twist by touching on how the Internet, social media and smartphones have fundamentally altered the way we live—and offers glimpses of the potentialities of terror that lie within. 

Reading through the collection can feel a lot like a night of binge watching B-movie horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

These stories are not for the squeamish. The tales are full of shocks, gore and at times downright sadistic. There is a fair amount of sexual abuse and rape in these tales, so consider yourself warned. The book also explores dark obsessions, trauma and murder. Reading through the collection can feel a lot like a night of binge watching B-movie horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The set-ups are rather typical and the delivery of the scares are very much in your face, reminiscent of the styles of retro slashers and horror flicks like Friday the 13th and the Evil Dead. Readers looking for a more sophisticated brand of horror might want to look elsewhere. But while the stories might not be ground breaking, the collection does encapsulate Tunku at what he does best: back to basics campfire storytelling. 

Overall, Tunku’s inclusion in the Penguin canon signifies some progress in getting Asian voices out there, especially in genre works. But it might feel that the stories were written (or compiled) too late. The collection’s brand of horror would have been much more popular in the ‘70s all the way to the late ‘90s. If you’re new to the category and would like something simple to start with, this could be a good book to begin your journey. Or if you are nostalgic for the older days of retro horror, feel free to pick up this collection. For readers with more modern leanings and seek deeper layers of meaning, such as using horror motifs to social or philosophical issues, it’d be best to haunt the bookshelves for other options. 

Reviewer’s Bio

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).

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