HWA Mental Health Initiative : Out of the Darkness: A Conversation with Lee Murray and Dave Jeffery

Lee Murray:

I write horror. I also suffer from anxiety, and sporadically from depression. Most of the time, I’ve managed to keep this to myself, but, in recent years, I’ve tried to be more open with friends and family about my mental health. The interesting thing is, in doing that I learned that a lot of my horror colleagues are also pacing to and from at the ramparts checking for danger or engaged in all-out battles with kaiju of epic proportions. Was it time to open a discussion about horror writing and mental health? I consulted my friend, Forever Man author, and psychologist Brian Matthews, who agreed that a discussion was timely, and with his help we put together a panel for 2018 StokerCon, Providence which we called Writing From a Dark Place. We were able to enlist some incredible panelists too, including Brian Kirk, Leslie Klinger, James Arthur Anderson, and Eric J. Guignard. The conference committee welcomed the proposal, and the resulting panel conversation was frank, informative, and warming. Then, some months after the convention, I shamelessly used the panel discussion as the basis of an essay, which was later published in Victoria University Press’ Headlands anthology, along with 33 other New Zealand writers with their own personal stories of anxiety. The Headlands project has led to an upcoming hui (gathering) to bring the writers together for further discussion and a possible documentary on the topic. It seems when you open a conversation about mental health and lift it out of the darkness, a lot of good things can result. For that reason, I welcome this new initiative by the HWA to support Mental Health Awareness. I’m excited (and a little anxious) to contribute to the blog series and to an ongoing conversation about horror writing and mental health.

Dave Jeffery: 

I have worked as a mental health professional in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for 35 years. I have been a writer of dark and obscure fiction for considerably longer, writing my first horror novella at the age of 13. The novella was poor, but my experience of working with those who endure mental illness over the years has been nothing short of amazing. It is an honour to work with those who endure mental health issues on a day to day basis, they are the brave and mighty, they know true suffering and they have fought for light in the darkness. I know this because I have seen it, holding the hands of troubled souls, witnessed the tears and the trauma. It leaves a person humbled beyond words. 

In his 1964 publication, Madness and Civilization French philosopher Michel Foucault writes, “Mental illness has its reality and its value only in a society that recognizes it as such.” In other words, how we define mental illness as a society reflects how we ultimately treat it. There is truth in that those with severe mental illness are marginalised, the stigma associated with acts and behaviours making more of an impression on how they are viewed rather than on what these people endure. As a mental health professional and a horror writer I have a duty to readdress the balance and ensure the social stereotype of ‘lunatics’ and ‘maniacs’ are challenged from the beginning. Nothing puts me off a book quicker than the thoughtless misrepresentation of mental illness. 

Lee Murray: 

Thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me, Dave. I’m looking forward to hearing your perspective as a mental health professional and a horror writer. 

Naomi Arnold, my editor in Headlands says, “Clinic anxiety is a chronic crushing panic. Sometimes you can function fine, with a faint residual fluttering and a few deep breaths,” She writes. “Other times, it grows until it takes over your mind, your gut, your heart, your breath, your limbs, and everything in your life until your entire being feels reduced to the nub of your earliest brain. The one that pumps adrenaline through your system, puts everything on red alert, shuts down all your body systems and makes every cell scream.” 

I waited until I was 50 for a diagnosis of anxiety. “Oh and by the way, you have depression, too,” the doctor said. 

When I tell them, most people can’t believe it. “But you’re so bubbly and outgoing,” they say. “So smiley.”

It’s true, I do try to be cheery. But it strikes me that a person’s mental health isn’t always evident from their demeanour, and sometimes those who we least expect are suffering the darkest demons.

After the Writing from a Dark Place panel, panelist Brian Kirk wrote to me, and what he said interested me because it’s something I’ve noticed too. He said: “I’ve always found it curious that, in general, horror authors are some of the friendliest and most optimistic people I know. Whereas comedians are typically morose and depressive.” Would you agree with that comment?

Dave Jeffery:

My experience of the horror writing community is indeed one of warmth and inclusion, and an almost overzealous need to help others. I often wonder if there is a compensatory element in that writers are, by nature, insecure entities and perhaps coming to the aid of others has a basis in the desire to create climates in which they, too, feel safe. In their study of personality types, Ando, Claridge and Clarke (2014) concluded that comedians have traits not dissimilar to those who suffer psychosis, so I would certainly agree that comedians overall tend to be somewhat distant in real life. 

Lee Murray:

Kirk also says, The basic commonality I see between works of profoundly troubled people is an extreme kind of sensitivity. A brutally insightful look into our basic human condition.” If what Kirk says is true and people with mental illness have an ‘extreme sensitivity’ and ‘insight’ into the human condition, do you agree that horror writers who suffer from mental illness, make better writers? After all, many of our best-loved horror icons, past and present, are known to have struggled with mental illness—writers like Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Ann Rice, and Mary Shelley.

Dave Jeffery:

I’m comfortable with the view that those who are ‘in tune’ with the darker side of the human condition can make better sense of how to translate that onto the page. There does need to be balance, of course. My view is that one-sided worldview, for example: the terrible actions of one person or one group of people somehow defining humanity, makes for a dull, cliched narrative, no matter what the intention of the writer. The links between mental illness and creativity has been long established, so I’m not surprised by Kirk’s view on this perspective and would support it wholeheartedly.

Horror and mental illness are effective bed-fellows. Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is a classic example of how this can be used to incredible effect as the narrator questions his own sanity following his heinous act of murder, and the guilt this generates. Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a less subtle take on the dualities of man and the consequences of wanton action. This concept of two sides to a personality has plagued public perceptions of schizophrenia for centuries. This cannot be laid at Stephenson’s feet as the book is of a time where the renaissance of modern-day psychiatry was a few years away. Do you have any favourite examples of where horror and mental illness have been used effectively? 

Lee Murray:

I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Let’s start with Hamlet, given that I spent my high school years quoting Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, out damned spot’ soliloquy whenever I washed my hands in someone’s hearing. Other fiction titles addressing mental illness that resonated for me while growing up include Madge Piercy’s classic A Woman on the Edge of Time, The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Stromberg Schaffer, and The Bone People, by New Zealand’s Booker-prize winner, Keri Hulme. More recently, I could add The Drowning Girl by last year’s StokerCon guest of honour, Caitlin R McKiernan and there’s Mark Matthew’s grueling anthology Garden of Fiends with its stellar line-up of authors writing addiction-inspired stories. Your own novella Bad Vision effectively addresses how the system fails sufferers when a man faced with a debilitating mental illness is unable to find support from his doctors, his community and even his wife. And there is Kirk’s We Are Monsters, which won him a Bram Stoker-nomination for First Novel. The book examines two doctors’ approaches to a schizophrenia: one, Drexler, who uses his patients as guinea pigs for his experimental drug treatments, and the other, Alpert, who advocates for therapy. As the story unfolds, a serial killer named Crosby becomes the test subject for Drexler’s latest treatment, but something goes wrong: the medicine alters Crosby’s mind, dragging him, and everyone with him, into a parallel plane where they are forced to face their demons. If we’re talking about translating the darker side of the human condition onto the page, then Kirk has definitely achieved that. 

I’m going to stop there, and let you jump in with a couple of favourites because so many of our horror colleagues are doing excellent work addressing mental illness in their fiction that this could become a very long list.

Dave Jeffery:

Gosh, there are so many to cite, outside of those I’ve mentioned earlier. If I’m looking at recent examples, I would have to say Gary McMahon’s excellent What They Hear in the Dark which focuses on the cost of terrible loss. I also add King’s novel, Pet Sematary, Richard Farren Barbers’s novella, Closer Still and James Everington’s Trying to Be So Quiet as wonderful stories that capture grief and its impact on the psyche. One that certainly lingers in the memory is Phil Sloman’s Becoming David which is a subtle and brilliantly executed exploration of the descent into madness. 

Lee Murray:

For anyone who would like to read more widely, I’ve found an excellent summary of more than 250 mainstream titles featuring mental illness (non-fiction and fiction) on the Bookscrolling website. The page also includes 22 other sources listing mental health and illness titles. 

Dave Jeffery: 

As highlighted in my introduction, the stigma of mental illness is an ongoing issue in society. For someone who works in the mental health field, the frustration when inroads in challenging these issues are swept away by negative, inflammatory media stories is beyond description. Yes, some people have committed terrible acts of violence when they have been in the throes of psychosis, but statistically the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of crime. It is my view that those with extreme forms of mental illness have become a soft target for society’s ills. When someone commits heinous crimes, they are often labelled ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’ when it has more to do with deficits in their personality or behavioural programming. Perhaps they are just bad people. Many atrocities have been undertaken by governments all over the world and throughout history, after all. These constructs became the motivation for writing Finding Jericho and has been, if it hasn’t come across already, a passion of mine for most of my working life. 

Lee Murray:

I agree the stigma surrounding mental illness is perhaps the most significant barrier to getting support to people in need. As an example, for several years I sat on the committee of our local Alzheimer’s Society, providing community support to the families of sufferers. At that time, the region had two part-time field officers and a growing number of clients. With growing demand, the committee discussed the possibility of purchasing a vehicle, which the field officers would share and which we would brand with the Alzheimer’s Society logos to improve community awareness, another of our stated goals. The field officers were against the idea, preferring to use their private vehicles despite personal cost to themselves. We wouldn’t understand it. Field Officer  ‘Anna’ explained: “As it is, several of my clients have asked that I not park in the same street, and to please come to the back door when visiting, so that the neighbours don’t see.” The field officers were concerned that an Alzheimer’s-branded vehicle would mean clients would refuse valuable help, for fear of friends and neighbours finding out they were suffering from a mental illness. Even the words used to describe mental illness have stigma attached, our local field officers using the less offensive term ‘memory loss’, rather than Alzheimer’s or dementia, when speaking with clients and their families. It’s clear, the stigma of mental illness is a monster in itself.

Dave Jeffery: 

The associations between horrific acts of violence and mental illness in genre media can be exacerbated when such misguided links are assumed in horror fiction. As a horror writer, do you think we have a responsibility to temper this view when we write our narratives? 

Lee Murray:

I think we have a responsibility to write with authenticity. My Writing From a Dark Place panellist, Eric J. Guignard, is of the same mind. He says writers should: “create empathy with real life sufferers by sharing authentic experiences by way of storytelling”. To do that I believe we need to write complex rounded ‘real’ characters, including characters with mental illnesses. And if we also show the missed opportunities for help, those pivotal moments for connection that might have averted those acts of violence, then perhaps we would also see opportunities to affect change. 

I guess that gives us an altruistic reason to write horror, doesn’t it? 

Something interesting I learned recently is that while New Zealand’s Māori and Pasifika population currently have the country’s the highest rates of mental illness and suicide, a study conducted in the 1940s showed that, by contrast, Māori had no discernible incidence of mental illness at that time. Mental illness is a new phenomenon in Māori communities and is largely a product of the pressures of our modern society, arising because the traditional support networks provided by family and community have been broken down.

Baker (1988) reports: “Society had this fear of contamination from mental disease and also a massive denial that it even existed. These concepts were alien to Māori people whose whānau (family) members suffering from trauma were always included within the whanau (family), hapū (subtribe), iwi (tribal) boundaries and given special status.”

I think we have a lot to learn from the traditional Māori approach of inclusiveness and care when dealing with mental health issues.

Dave Jeffery: 

I would agree with your viewpoint. There is certainly a recovery-based ideology prevalent in Baker’s description of Māori culture, and this can be seen in Western values throughout the history. For example, in 1796, Quaker William Tuke set up The Retreat, a facility built in the city of York, UK that was to become the cornerstone of a philosophy of what was called The Moral Treatment. The programme involved giving patients purpose, including them in their decision-making and giving them a meaningful life through the sanctity of work. These are key tenets that we see in the recovery paradigm that is so fundamental to mental healthcare in the 21st Century. Community and inclusion are essential to the concept of reducing stigma. With celebrities using their high profile to share their experiences of mental health issues, I have to say we’ve come a long way, but it is nowhere near enough. 

Lee Murray:

Whether or not it is therapeutic, writing has been known to save people. 

Janet Frame is one of New Zealand’s most iconic writers of dark fiction and the subject of Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table. Almost all of Janet Frame’s work, including her debut novel Owls Do Cry (1957), addresses mental illness and is thought to have been drawn from her own experience. After a suicide attempt, Frame spent eight years in mental hospitals and received 200 electroshock treatments. She was about to undergo a lobotomy, but the New Zealand Society of Authors sent a letter advising the hospital that she had recently won a major literary prize, and instead she was released.

Later, a panel of psychiatrists determined that she didn’t have schizophrenia, a fact which Frame resented, as she wrote in her third autobiography: “Oh why had they robbed me of my schizophrenia, which had been the answer to all my misgivings about myself?”

It introduces a chicken and the egg aspect to the horror-mental health debate, doesn’t it? Which comes first, the horror writer who suffers mental illness, writers who suffer mental illness who are then drawn to dark themes? Why exactly do we choose horror over happier more light-hearted themes, anyway? As a mental health practitioner and a horror writer yourself, do you consider dark themes are therapeutic in any way?

Dave Jeffery:

 I think if done with integrity and skill then, yes, it can be therapeutic. I say with the caveat of recovery, of course. If people relate to the experiences of characters then it reinforces the concept that they are not experiencing these things in isolation, that social context is has given them common ground through the characters. Where it becomes less helpful is where the narrative is delivered in a clumsy way by those who prefer to shock, reinforcing those ever-present societal views of the salivating lunatic who kills anyone they see, a human monster terrorising the innocent. My advice to those who are planning on writing about mental illness in horror fiction is to treat it with the sensitivity as they would gender and race issues. That way you will take the time to consider what the pitfalls are and ultimately write something interesting and, above all, authentic. 


Lee Murray and Dave Jeffery are current co-chairs of the HWA Wellness Committee.

Lee Murray is an author, editor, screenwriter, and poet from Aotearoa New Zealand. A USA Today Bestselling author, double Bram Stoker Award® and Shirley Jackson Award winner, her work includes military thriller series, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir trilogy The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and short fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories. Lee is the editor of nineteen volumes of dark fiction, among them Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (with Geneve Flynn). Other works include non-fiction title Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips with Angela Yuriko Smith, and several books for children. Her short stories and poems have appeared in venues such as Weird Tales, Space and Time, and Grimdark Magazine. Lee is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, an HWA Mentor of the Year, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow. Read more at https://www.leemurray.info/

Dave Jeffery is the author of 17 novels, two collections, and numerous short stories. His Necropolis Rising series (Severed Press) and yeti adventure Frostbite (Severed Press) have both featured on the Amazon #1 bestseller list. He regularly contributes both articles and short stories for the prestigious genre publication, Phantasmagoria Magazine. His YA work features the Beatrice Beecham supernatural mystery series (Crystal Lake Publishing & Crossroad Press). Jeffery is also the creator of the critically acclaimed A Quiet Apocalypse series (Demain Publishing). His contemporary mental health novel Finding Jericho is currently being optioned as a TV miniseries. 

Jeffery is a member of the Society of Authors and actively involved in the Horror Writers Association where he is a mentor on the HWA Mentorship Scheme, and co-chair of the HWA Wellness Committee. He is contactable through his website: http://www.davejefferyauthor.com

References:

Ando, V., Claridge, G. & Clarke, A. (2014) ‘Psychotic traits in comedians ’. The British Journal of Psychiatry.  204(5)

Baker, R. (1988), ‘Kia Koutou’ IN Walsh, C. & Johnson, S. (eds.), Psych Nurses, 88, Wellington, p.40.

Beaglehole, E., Beaglehole, P., (1947), Some Modern Māori, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland.

Foucault, M. (1967) Madness & Civilization. Routledge, London. 

Arnold, N. (ed.) (2018) Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety. Victoria University Press, Wellington.

Tuke, W. (1813) Description of the Retreat. Alexander: York.

 

 

Book Review: Tortured Willows by Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, Geneve Flynn and Christina Sng

Review by Daphne Strasert

5 stars

Tortured Willows bleeds, sobs, and howls with rage. The poems stab at the monsters who desecrate, they release spirits to deliver revenge and honour the memories of mothers and grandmothers. The words of these four poets – Lee Murray, Angela Yuriko Smith, Geneve Flynn, and Christina Sng – cannot be ignored. By sharing often intensely personal experiences of otherness, of suffering and prejudice, they reach into your heart and demand you listen.

The driving force behind these verses is the combination of cultural heritage, the definition of woman and the modern-day perception of the poets as ‘other’. Employing a variety of forms, – from sonnet to black-out to blank verse – the poems educate those of us who have been unaware as to the level of suffering of our sisters on the other side of the world. The notes provide further information, book, newspaper, document references to their histories and their realities.

Every poem deserves its place. Lee Murray delivers tragedy in Fox Girl and Exquisite and poignancy in The Girl with the Bellows. Geneve Flynn serves up anger in ‘Abridge’, the cultural practice of ghost brides in ‘Bride Price’, the fears of a mother for her son in ‘Unpicked Stitching.
Christina Sng brings up supernatural revenge in Flat, The Visit and The Last Bus, respect for ancestors in The Offering and the place their ghosts still have in our lives.
Angela Yuriko Smith develops the strength of women in Four Willows Bound, the traditions of the Ryukyuan in Onarigami and Her Hajichi, her sense of difference in The Nukekubi.

In theory, I would list every poem – they all have something to say. In lieu of such a list, all I can say is buy – or borrow – but do read – this extraordinary and eye-opening collection

In the words of Angela Yuriko Smith in her poem, Four Willows Bound:

Four willows stood bound
in their sisterhood, in strength —
unquiet, waiting

They are waiting for you.

Guest Blog: “The Asian Myths and Monsters of Tortured Willows”

“The Asian Myths and Monsters of Tortured Willows

By Geneve Flynn

Featured Author: Lee Murray

Southeast Asian mythology is much less familiar territory for many horror fans. While vampires, werewolves, and zombies are well-known, creatures such as the tiyanak, the penanggalan, the pontianak, and the nukekubi are less so. Does that make them scarier? Let’s dive in and see.

Tortured Willows is a newly released collaborative collection of sixty horror poems by four of the authors from the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson award-winning anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, Christina Sng, and Geneve Flynn showcase some of these creepy mythological creatures in their poetry. In this blog series, we chat to each of the contributors about their monsters.

Please say hello to Lee Murray.

GF: Hi Lee! Congratulations on your wonderful poems! Please tell us a little more about Tortured Willows, and what inspired you to create this collection.

LM: The response to Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology comprising fourteen stories by horror writers of Southeast Asian descent, has surpassed all our expectations, so a second volume of some sort seemed inevitable, although perhaps not quite so soon! Nor had I expected that second volume to take the form of a poetry collection. Tortured Willows arose out of a discussion between you, me, and Angela Yuriko Smith not long after the Bram Stoker Award announcements. We were all still reeling about the reach of the book and the broader dialogue the stories had provoked, when someone (okay, it might have been me) suggested that a collaborative poetry collection might allow us to expand on, and even deepen, the dialogue introduced in Black Cranes through use of media other than prose. What if we were to write a collection of poems that explored the themes of otherness and expectation as they applied to our own diaspora? Perhaps we could reach an even wider readership? Angela, always effervescent, was wildly enthusiastic. Poet Christina Sng, whose novelette “Fury” (her longest work to date) features in Black Cranes, also felt she had more to say. You said yes. That’s when the terror set in. While I was thrilled to work with my Crane sisters again, I’m fairly new to poetry other than as a consumer of it, so what followed was one of the most intensely terrifying periods of my writing life. I was a fledgling poet with only around a dozen poems published previously. What did I know about writing a cohesive series of poems which might dovetail with work by experienced, acclaimed poets like Angela and Christina? But, keen to learn more about the New Zealand-Chinese diaspora as it applied to women, including in my own family, I dived in, using poetic forms and historic archives to structure and inform my work. I approached each individual poem as a tiny story whittled down to its bare bones. And of course, since Tortured Willows is a collection of horror poetry, it seemed as natural as air to turn to Asian myth and monsters for added inspiration.

GF: I loved getting a glimpse of some of your very personal experiences as part of the New Zealand-Chinese diaspora. Your poem “tiyanak” draws a comparison between being drained from the many demands and expectations placed on Asian women and the care of a grotesque vampiric baby. Please tell us more about this creature.

Picture attribution- ShareAlike 4.0 International CC By SA4.0

LM:  The tiyanak is a monster of Filipino origin, although similar creatures exist in other Asian cultures. The creature is formed when the body of a dead foetus or infant is inhabited by an evil spirit, or it occurs as the result of a union between a demon and a human. Often found mewling in the forest by hapless travellers, the tiyanak is an insatiable and vengeful vampire, appearing as helpless human baby at first, and later, when it has ensorcelled its victim, it reveals its true vampiric and parasitic self, even as it devours them. The creatures are said to have bloodshot eyes, pointed ears, and tiny sharp teeth. In some versions, they have elongated limbs and wrinkled old-man skin, which they shed in the same way a snake does. Author Isabel Yap describes the creature beautifully in her story “Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby” in Margrét Helgadóttir’s gorgeous anthology Asian Monsters:

“I held you against my heart and let you rest there, and I could feel your red eyes boring into my skin, hear you hissing. I was afraid, but love is like that. Sometimes, it requires bravery, asks us to quell our fears. Your teeth! Your eyes—fire dancing! And the way all of your skin creased around your face, into terrible wrinkles…” (page 67).

Gabriela Lee is equally eloquent in her story “Rites of Passage” which appears in Black Cranes, describing the monster’s “red-rimmed eyes that do not have a speck of white—the entire sclera is firelight bright” (page116), its smile as “blood coated” (page 116), and its skin darked by the sun and some slick substance that seems to coat it from head to toe” (page 115). For me, the tiyanak was the ideal metaphor to describe the expectations placed on Asian women, who are socialised to sacrifice their own desires in favour of family and community, even to the point of death. This is a lesson I have learned well, so much so that I find it hard to say no. As a result, there are times when I’ll still be awake at 2- or 3am for nights on end, working on other people’s projects at the detriment of my own goals. I wrote “tiyanak” at just such a moment. Here is an excerpt from the poem:

innocence

it latches on

as ever

slivering flesh

to gorge on blood and milk

its tiny claws grip-grasping

tiny teeth rasping

feed me, feed me

GF: Such a chilling image, so perfect to depict how expectations can drain us dry. You reference another creature, the nine-tailed fox in “fox girl.” Where does this myth come from, and what does it symbolise in your poem? 

LM: The inspiration for my poem “fox girl” was Rena Mason’s gorgeous story “The Ninth Tale” from Black Cranes. Of course, I already knew of the shape-shifting fox spirit of Asian mythology (among them Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese) and the nine mortal iterations the creature must go through in order to return to the celestial realm as her true self, but Rena’s story was so beautiful and so imbued with magical folklore that I was inspired to revisit those tales again. In general, the fox spirit takes the form of a beautiful woman while still retaining some of its fox attributes: paws, ears, or even the tails representing the lives it has lived. Consider this first paragraph of Rena’s “The Ninth Tale” from Black Cranes, for example:

“The fox spirit straightened the skullcap, moist with blood, atop her head then stepped over the headless corpse from which she’d taken it. Her hind paws transformed into petite, human lotus feet adorned in pointy shoes embroidered with golden silk. This visit, her name would be Júhua, like the chrysanthemums woven in the fabric near her toes. The eight tails behind the fox spirit became long braids, winding themselves into intricate loops and circles, concealing the bone that aided her in keeping a human guise.” (page127).

The story, and my subsequent reading, got me thinking about how fox spirits are outsiders, women travelling through time and across lands while wearing another person’s skin, all with the view to achieving enlightenment and (hopefully) returning to their home in the heavens. I likened their journeys to the Asian diaspora in New Zealand, and I was lucky enough to secure a fellowship to write a short poetry collection on this theme. “Fox spirits are very lucky,” writes Ho Pham in Vixen. But that isn’t always true for the women whose form the creatures inhabit. As I dived into New Zealand’s newspaper archives, I uncovered some horrific tales about Chinese women’s lives here, and although I intend to explore the notion further, I was immediately prompted to write a poem and capture my reactions. “fox girl,” a terzanelle, was the result, the repeated lines intended to show the ongoing iterations of the creature’s lives and the common themes of otherness and persecution. Here are a few stanzas from the poem:

in a former life, in another time

a fox girl departs from the land of jade

in a former life, in another time

to a distant cloud where fortunes are made

nine obedient wives, all refugees

a fox girl departs from the land of jade

amid ugly tongues and eyes that won’t see 

one hangs herself in her husband’s kitchen

nine obedient wives, all refugees

*Watercolour by Lee Murray.

GF: Oh my goodness! I love both the poem and your stunning artwork. The fox spirit illustrates the diasporic experience so beautifully. 

Thanks so much for introducing us to some of the mythology that features in your poetry. If you’d like to read the poems mentioned in this blog series, Tortured Willows is available from Yuriko Publishing.

 ____________________________________________________________________________________

Praise for Tortured Willows:

Tortured Willows bleeds, sobs and howls with rage.”—Stephanie Ellis, writer and poet, co-author of Daughters of Darkness

“Thought-provoking, unapologetically brutal, and downright unsettling, Tortured Willows is a collection unlike any you’ve read before…and one you’re not likely to forget. Murray, Flynn, Smith and Sng have not just raised their voices, they’ve roared them into the pages, and the result is simply superb.”—Rebecca Fraser, award-winning author of Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract.

“In Tortured Willows, the many veils of a woman’s heart are peeled back, revealing multi-layered petals of an aching beauty, rooted on a stem of vulnerable resistance.”—Jamal Hodge, director, writer, visionary

“This is a brilliant book, insightful and scintillant. Construed as a thematic sequel to the award-winning Black Cranes (the anthology edited by Murray and Flynn and containing fiction by Sng and Smith), it may also be viewed as a distillation. The theme is strong, but the lessons reach beyond it. Cutting across rhetoric and euphemism, Tortured Willows will hold meaning for whoever dares read it.”—Kyla Lee Ward, Bram Stoker Award®-nominated poet

Tortured Willows

Bent. Bowed. Unbroken

The willow is femininity, desire, death. Rebirth. With its ability to grow from a single broken branch, it is the living embodiment of immortality. It is the yin that wards off malevolent spirits. It is both revered and shunned.

In Tortured Willows, four Southeast Asian women writers of horror expand on the exploration of otherness begun with the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women.

Like the willow, women have bent and bowed under the expectations and duty heaped upon them. Like the willow, they endure and refuse to break.

With exquisite poetry, Christina Sng, Angela Yuriko Smith, Lee Murray, and Geneve Flynn invite you to sit beneath the tortured willow’s gravid branches and listen to the uneasy shiver of its leaves.

 https://www.amazon.com/Tortured-Willows-Bent-Bowed-Unbroken/dp/1737208334

Lee Murray is an author, editor, screenwriter, and poet from Aotearoa-New Zealand. She is the winner of 12 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, three Australian Shadows, two Bram Stokers, and a Shirley Jackson Award, and has been a finalist in the Aurealis, British Fantasy, and Imadjinn Awards, among others. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and short fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories. Other works include non-fiction title Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips with Angela Yuriko Smith, and several books for children. LitReactor’s Editor of the Year for 2021, Lee is the curator-editor of eighteen volumes of speculative fiction, among them Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (with Geneve Flynn). She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021. Tortured Willows, a collaboration with Angela Yuriko Smith, Christina Sng and Geneve Flynn was released in October 2021. Read more at  https://www.leemurray.info/

Chilling Chat: Episode #196 Part II – Dan Rabarts

chillingchat

Dan Rabarts is an award-winning author and editor, four-time recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award and three-time winner of the Australian Shadows Award, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father ofDan Rabarts two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun. Together with Lee Murray, he co-writes the Path of Ra crime-noir thriller series from Raw Dog Screaming Press (Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, Blood of the Sun) and co-edited the flash-fiction horror anthology Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror, and At The Edge, an anthology of Antipodean dark fiction.

His steampunk-grimdark-comic fantasy series Children of Bane starts with Brothers of the Knife and continues in Sons of the Curse and Sisters of Spindrift (Omnium Gatherum Media). Dan’s science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in numerous venues worldwide. He also regularly narrates and produces podcasts and audiobooks.

NTK: How did you become involved with horror and how old were you?

DR: Aside from strange nightmares being some of my first actual memories? My first taste of horror was the Fighting Fantasy gamebook, City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, back when I was about 10, but the book that really bit hard and held on was Stephen King’s IT, which I read at the tender age of 14, and never looked back. Then in my teens, I read a LOT of Hugh Cook, a kiwi author who blended SF with fantasy and horror like he was just mixing up cheese and chilli omelettes and frying them in the skulls of his enemies, and after that I found anything that didn’t have at least a hint of darkness about it just didn’t appeal. When I started writing for reals, it didn’t seem to matter if I was trying to write SF or fantasy or even something vaguely literary, the horror just crept on in and made itself at home among the words.

NTK: What is your favorite horror movie?

DR: Ridley Scott’s Alien, although Event Horizon is a very close runner-up. Followed by Shaun of the Dead. But from a purist horror perspective, I’m going to say that actually, I really like The Ring.

NTK: What is your favorite horror television show?

DR: Black Mirror, hands down. Season Two in particular.

NTK: What is your favorite horror novel?

DR: Phil Rossi’s Crescent is a stunning deep space horror debut, even more so if you listen to it in his own sultry voice from when he released it as a podcast novel. Another excellent book which I first discovered in audio, but is now only around in ebook is Jack Kincaid’s Hoad’s Grim. And right now I’m really enjoying Gemma Files’ Hexslinger series.

NTK: What inspires your writing?

DR: I find that inspiration is a sort of building-block exercise, with small ideas clattering around in the corners of the old think-box until enough of them collide together to create some resonance, their own light. Often when I start to write, if I’m just free-writing without a particular theme in mind, one of these mash-ups will drive an urge to figure out what’s in the middle of that light, by breaking it down in words. So in short, I find inspiration by soaking up lots of random stuff all the time and surprise myself by seeing what comes out on the page at the end of the day. Oh, and simmering rage at the vile injustices of the world and my role as an artist to balance those scales with words.

NTK: As a person of color, how has your experience been in the horror community? What improvements could be made?

DR: Ever since I started to find my voice as a Māori writer, I have had far more feedback to the tune of please do more of this, than anything negative. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we’re on the long hard road towards reconciling the damages wrought by colonialism, and overcoming decades of ingrained racism and inequality is a huge challenge. But we’re getting there, slowly. Māori voices in literature tend to focus on the literary, both historic and contemporary, so bringing my perspective to the speculative genres has offered readers a fresh look at not only the sort of stories we in Aotearoa can tell, but it has also allowed me to explore some of these social issues through the lens that the speculative offers. Someone famous once said something along the lines of “Those of us who have the ability to express ourselves, have a duty to do so, on behalf of those who have not”. Writing Matiu in the Path of Ra, who exists not only along the fringes of race and the law but also the fine line between this world and the next, between sanity and madness, allowed me a fantastic opportunity to really delve into what that phrase means to me, and to exercise my need to speak out, and give voice to those who cannot.

NTK: Do your characters have free will? Or do you decide their every move?

DR: I usually find out what my characters have done the day after I write it. You know, I tell Lee that I’m working towards the plan, but really it’s the characters who take charge and tell the story. I can’t be held responsible for all those unexpected explosions and body parts that litter the pages. It’s all them.

NTK: (Laughs.) What’s it like working as a collaborative team? What is your writing process like? 

It is my duty to make sure that while we’re following all the rules of telling the story we planned to tell, we’re making sure that if the story wants to take itself off at a tangent for the benefit of the story, that I enable that to take place. The story has a right to be heard. It’s a highly dynamic process.

NTK: Lee said, “Dan writes that bad-ass character, Matiu Yee, so well, I have to wonder what he got up to when he was younger…”

DR: Well, to answer your question Lee, I used to do my fair share of walking the streets at night, looking all gloomy, but that was mainly because I didn’t have a car, which was sad. Not because I was secretly an enforcer for a seedy dog-fighting ring in the backblocks of the Hutt Valley AT ALL. I even have witnesses who’ll back me up on that. Dependable, reliable people, who you don’t want to mess with. As you can tell, part of my role in this partnership is often to deliver the comic relief and smile darkly for the camera.

NTK: (Laughs.) What’s your best piece of advice for the new writer?

DR: Finish what you start, have faith in what you create, and follow through by getting feedback, revising your work, and submitting. You won’t know if you can sell a story until you dive in and start selling stories.

NTK: What does the future hold for you? What works do Horror Addicts have to look forward to?

DR: My main focus right now is Children of Bane, a grimdark/steampunk/comedy fantasy series about unlikely hero Akmenos, an imperial cook accused of political assassination most foul, who has to save the world armed with little more than good intentions, salt and pepper, and an armload of food-related puns. I’m currently working on the final chapters of Book Four in the series, titled Daughters of Dust, but anyone who’s keen to try something dark yet wildly absurd can take a bite out of Brothers of the Knife, where it all begins (the first couple of chapters are up to read over at my website).

Monster Madness Month: Review of GROTESQUE : Monster Stories by Lee Murray

GROTESQUE: MONSTER STORIES 

A book review of Lee Murray’s Bram Stoker Award nominated collection

Reviewed by Renata Pavrey

“Generosity could be as contagious as the plague, as long as enough people were willing to be carriers”, is a quote that opens the book and sets the tone for the kind of writing one is in for. A collection of eleven tales narrated as flash fiction, short stories, and novelettes, Grotesque spans the horror landscape from mythological creatures to contemporary social media addictions, as the reader travels across France, China and New Zealand, meeting everyone from Maori warriors to zombies, spirits and sea gods and gods of earthquakes and volcanoes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Tangaroa, tin soldiers and kaiju. A taut collection I came across in a horror literature forum, the book is in equal parts thrilling, dark and educative, an action and horror fest, with layers of historical references and cultural influences.

The titular story opens the collection with an archaeological find transporting us to the 16th century to reveal its secret. As we move back and forth from the 1500s to present day, fantasy elements of horror merging with historical roots made Grotesque one of my favorite stories and a fabulous one to start the collection as it set the pace for what lay ahead. History is followed by mythology that serves to remind and educate about the stories of lore, as Hawaiki takes us through Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and the Maori immigration story; as does Maui’s Hook, another monster story with its foundations in Maori mythology. I love mythological retellings in literature as they teach you so much about different cultures around the world; legends and folklore containing treasures of life stories through the ages. The kaiju story was another one of my favorites.

The New Breed is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, while Cave Fever merges science fiction with horror through a two centuries-old storm that forces mankind to seek refuge underground into a claustrophobic cave existence. Selfie and Dead End Town are out-and-out horror fests. I loved Lee’s take on the millennial social media obsession with her twisted spin on selfies in the former, while addressing domestic violence in the latter. Edward’s Journal was another stunner of pure horror – an epistolary story of colonialism featuring a British soldier from India helping white settlers in New Zealand, while Heart Music takes us through the restless spirit of a fourteen-year-old dead child. Into the Clouded Sky is a novelette of adventures in New Zealand – a ride through action, thrills, and monsters all the way, and Lifeblood pits marginalized groups against each other to detract from their actual problems.

Every story offers a unique reading experience, and encourages you to read between the lines into the theme being expressed in each one. Grotesque is a splendid collection to note the range of the writer’s prowess in relaying stories across genres and themes, having relatable elements as well as something new to learn wherever in the world you might be reading the book. Lee’s dark and disturbing tales cover commonplace topics like clicking selfies, address issues like dementia and child abuse, and turn the spotlight on immigrants and grave robbers – causing the reader to ponder upon who the real monsters are. Grotesque is a collection filled with monsters, but through an array of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology and more, Lee reminds us that we have already encountered many monsters; with many more still to be met.

In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories force us to challenge our fears. 

~Lee Murray

This book will delight horror fans and is a magnificent collection for those new to the genre to explore. I would also recommend it to readers of mythology – there’s much information to be gleaned about world cultures. The Maori glossary is a wonderful touch to familiarize readers with terms and phrases in the stories, although Lee does a splendid job in explaining them through the context of the story itself. Lee’s creations are out of this world and each one surprises in its own way. There’s an aftertaste that you could read an entire novel surrounding each plot.

Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor with several novels and series to her credit. Grotesque is her first short story collection, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards this year in the category of collections.

My rating of the book: 5/5

Renata Pavrey

March 2021


Renata Pavrey is a Nutritionist by profession; marathon runner and Odissi dancer by passion; driven by sports, music, animals, plants, literature and more. She reads across several genres and languages, and loves the world of horror – in both, books and movies.

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/Asian

 

Asian Horror Month – First Ever Ghost Story Game – Angela Yuriko Smith

First Ever Ghost Story Game

Happy Halloween!

Six authors got together to play an impromptu story telling game. Join us and laugh as we try to make up spooky tales on the spot. Thanks to Kate Jonez and Omnium Gatherum for helping bring the Ghost Story Game to life… and thanks for the brave participants: Geneve Flynn, Lee Murray, Austin Gragg, Ryan Aussie Smith and Eric Shapiro.

About Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher, and author with over 20 years of experience in newspaper journalism. She co-publishes Space and Time magazine with author husband Ryan Aussie Smith. For more information visit SpaceandTime.net

Asian Horror Month: Meet Black Crane – Lee Murray

Meet Black Crane Lee Murray

Posted on November 6, 2020 by Angela Yuriko Smith

Lee Murray is a three-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee, HWA Mentor of the Year, an Honorary Literary Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Authors, and New Zealand’s most awarded writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Find her website here at LeeMurray.info.

Lee, your stories are populated by such well developed characters I think they must be fragments of real people you know, reassembled. Which of your stories/characters best represents you?

My character Lucy in my Black Cranes story “Phoenix Claws” is actually me, once upon a time, and my husband is Finn, the partner who loves yum cha brunch but not chicken feet, although he isn’t a plumber and I never took accounting. Also, unlike Finn and Lucy, a new couple who are learning to navigate a relationship with the conflicting demands of blended cultures, my ‘white ghost’ husband and I have been married for more than thirty years.

But the family tradition highlighted in the story exists: I was subjected to it and, to my horror, I have unwittingly perpetuated it. My other story in Black Cranes, “Frangipani Wishes,” is based on true events, never explicitly revealed to me, but somehow understood, in a strange form of familial osmosis. It is one of my saddest memories, and I’m still remorseful that I was the wrong generation, a girl with no power and no real understanding, that I did nothing to intervene. Would I, could I, if it were happening now? I don’t know, and I guess that makes me complicit.

I also wrote myself, or parts of me into my Path of Ra series (Raw Dog Screaming Press) which I write collaboratively with my New Zealand colleague Dan Rabarts. In those stories, Hounds of the Underworld, Teeth of the Wolf, and Blood of the Sun, my character (Penny / Pandora Yee) is a Chinese-Māori woman who I believe shares many of my traits: she’s a stickler for rigour, doesn’t like to break the rules, and tends to overthink things. Like me she is still finding her way as an Asian New Zealander. She’s a scientist (as I was), who struggles to be acknowledged in her field. And Penny loves her family fiercely and would do anything for them, despite them occasionally being as annoying as hell.

I love how you have woven parts of yourself into your work. Two adjectives I would use to describe your writing is ‘powerful’ and ‘dark.’ What are some of your favorite themes to explore in your work?

Early on in my writing career, I learned that I wanted my work to address the things that frighten me, and as an anxious piglet sort who tends to overthink things, there is a lot that keeps me awake at night. If I’m lying in the darkness for hours ruminating on them, then why not write about them too? In my stories, for adults and for children, I’ve addressed global issues like the impact of technology, climate change, the importance of conserving our environment and especially our endangered species, and the very real fear that New Zealanders have of a catastrophic volcanic event. More recently though, my work has tended towards personal themes like loss, loneliness, isolation, persecution, erasure, and otherness, and horror, and in particular monsters and monstrosities, have become the lens through which

I explore those themes; they’re a staple of my work.

Tell us a bit about your heritage and your experience of ‘otherness’. Has this influenced what you write?

Recently a colleague asked me this question in an interview, so I’ll tell you what I told him: I was one of the first Chinese-Pakeha (European) children to be born to a bi-racial couple New Zealand. Not the first, but one of the first. In school, the only other Chinese children were my brother and two cousins. We ate weird food and had slanty eyes, so we got called all the usual things. “Ching-Chong Chinaman!” “Chink!” Yellow Peril!” “Wog!” “Hey, do you know Bruce Lee? Come here and I’ll show you.” Hey, you wing the wong number?”

But our cousins were full Chinese. My brother and I were only half. Which was somehow worse. Apparently, the titer of our blood was important and being only half Chinese meant we were lesser: we weren’t proper New Zealanders and nor were we properly Chinese. Our own family rejected us. My brother and I were five and six-years-old and we were other. I remember my Chinese aunt demanding that I choose whose side I was on. If there was a war with China, what side would I pick? Who did I love most: my mother or my father? How could I answer? Even then, I knew it was an unfair question.

As for whether my heritage and my otherness has influenced my writing, let’s just say that it’s beginning to. More and more those Asian ideals that I’ve grappled with all my life are creeping into my work. Perhaps it’s because I’m suddenly aware I’m fifty-five and long past the age most people ‘find themselves’. Surely by now I should have come to terms with my identity. So what if I’m all grown up and still there is no literature that reflects my Chinese-New Zealand experience? If I want to see that happen, then maybe it’s up to me to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. And perhaps that feeling is what prompted Black Cranes. And the fact that Geneve and I both arrived too early to a conference session, like the good conscientious Asian girls we’ve been raised to be.

The two of us got to talking in the lobby while we were waiting. Where were all the Asian horror writers? Where were Asian women’s experiences being highlighted? We could see a gaping hole in existing horror literature, but would our colleagues feel the same way? Was the timing was right, and would anyone would want to read an anthology of Asian horror? We had no idea. The response from our Black Cranes contributors confirmed they had been waiting for the opportunity, or perhaps they’d been waiting for something and couldn’t quite put their finger on it. And nor could Geneve and I have predicted the positive response to these wonderful stories, even though it’s only been a month or so since the book’s release. We couldn’t be prouder of these writers and their stories.

What has your experience been as an Asian writer? As a writer of dark fiction? How has this changed over time, or not?

I’ve been a full-time writer for fourteen years now, and for most of that time I’ve seen myself as a writer first, and then a New Zealand writer of mainly dark speculative fiction, so perhaps that is also the way I’ve been perceived. It’s only very recently that I’ve been brave enough to envisage myself as an Asian writer, perhaps because for so long my I’ve felt I had to hide that part of myself, make myself smaller, as if being born Chinese in New Zealand was something I should be ashamed of. Now I feel like I need to change that, to push back at that erasure, both from external sources, and also due to my own complicity.

What do you think of common depictions of Asian women in dark fiction? What, if anything, would you like to see done differently?

Geneve summed up those depictions when she wrote the back cover blurb to Black Cranes. We’re a slew of tired tropes: the tiger mums, the sly fatales, the submissive, the studious, and the conscientious. But I think you said best, Angela, in our Black Cranes online launch panel, when you said we need to see authentic diverse nuanced representations of Asian women in fiction. That is exactly what we need: characterizations which reveal us as the complex, richly layered shapeshifters we can be. Portrayals which speculate on futures for Asian women which go beyond the tropes and the traditions. Beyond the petals and the perfidy.

Oh, I love your phrase “petals and the perfidy.” Perhaps that will be another anthology—hint hint? How about other readings? Do you have any recommendations for works that have resonated for you as an Asian horror writer?

Everyone who appears in this book, including Alma Katsu and Tori Eldridge. Please check out the work of our Black Cranes contributors. There is a reason they appear in this anthology. As for other writers whose works have resonated for me, at a certain level, I’ve been intrigued and inspired by the works of writers like American Pearl S Buck (The Good Earth, 1931), Xinran (The Good Women of China, 2002), Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club, 1989), and Jung Chang (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, 1991), literary works likely not intended as horror but which read that way for me.

Yet my interest in those texts was tempered; I saw them as pertaining to me, but only in a detached and distant way. I recognized certain notions that had filtered through the generations and settled on me here, but also that the New Zealand context had subverted and changed them in various ways. It would have been wonderful to have explored these ideas in my reading, but when I was growing up, the Asian-New Zealand diaspora was largely ignored in literature—and still is.

Even now, I know of no stories which reflect my experience as a half-caste Chinese-New Zealander other than my own work. Perhaps, it is significant that I first saw myself in John Wyndham’s science fiction novel, The Chrysalids, as someone grossly flawed and banished to the fringes, only in New Zealand, where the only other Asian children I knew were my siblings or my cousins, there were no telepathic allies with whom to share my otherness. Finding this shared experience now with my Black Cranes colleagues has been extremely uplifting, and also a little sad.

Can you tell us briefly about your last project and what you’re working on next?

Thank you for asking. As well as Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, this year’s projects included my debut short story collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, which released in July from Things in the Well, Australia, and Blood of the Sun, the final book in the Path of Ra, a supernatural crime-noir trilogy co-authored with Dan Rabarts, which released from Raw Dog Screaming Press on 4 November 2020.

As far as my plans go, I’d like to carve out some time to work on a poetry project, some scripts, and another Taine McKenna novel. I also have ten short story commissions on the go, and since I’m a slow writer, barely able to complete 500 words a day, I think that’s enough to keep me going for a while.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with us, Lee. I have a lot of respect for you both as an individual and as an artists. I’m very happy to share you here today, and look forward to chatting again next Tuesday on the next Skeleton Hour! Remember, you can register for the online event on Facebook here.

Asian Horror Month: Black Cranes Unquiet Inspirations by Lee Murray

BLACK CRANES: UNQUIET INSPIRATIONS by Lee Murray

Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women was inspired when two editors of Asian heritage arrived way too early for a panel at a conference in Brisbane. Geneve Flynn and I both laughed that we should fall so deeply into the conscientious Asian girl trope, and that set us to talking. We’d both been raised in predominantly Western cultures. How was it our behaviour was so influenced by our Asian heritage? Did we know any other Asian women writers? Where were the Asian horror writers? And where was the vehicle for our stories? Our voices? Although Flynn and I had communicated online, and I’d enjoyed some of her fabulous stories published by a mutual publisher, I hadn’t met her previously. I liked her immediately, finding her well-read, articulate, funny, humble (and of course, conscientious). Before we’d even entered the panel session, the cogs were turning, the two of us already sifting possibilities for the anthology we would co-edit. 

Fast forward a year, and Black Cranes is a reality, the anthology comprising stories from many of our favourite authors of dark fiction, a hard-hitting foreword from Alma Katsu, author of The Hunger and The Deep, and published by boutique small press Omnium Gatherum behind a glorious Greg Chapman cover. In the short time since the book’s release, Geneve and I have been overwhelmed by the response to Black Cranes, not the least coming from Asian women writers of dark speculative fiction:

“As haunting and versatile as the Chinese erhu, the stories in Black Cranes pluck and bow the strings of the Southeast Asian experience with insightful depth and resonance.” —Tori Eldridge, author of the acclaimed Lily Wong novels, The Ninja Daughter and The Ninja’s Blade.

“A varied and fascinating collection of monsters, full of dazzling landscapes and writers to watch.” —E. Lily Yu, John Campbell Award winner and author of On Fragile Waves. 

But my experience with Black Cranes has gone deeper than just the chance to work with some amazing writers. Two of my own stories appear in the anthology, inspired by my personal experience as a third-generation Chinese New Zealander. ‘Phoenix Claws’ is a contemporary comic horror focusing on that moment when a prospective partner meets the family, an awkward occasion, especially when the relationship involves a blending of cultures. Will the parents like them? What if that person unwittingly stomps on an important tradition? In ‘Phoenix Claws’ an unwritten litmus test of suitability involving chicken’s feet multiplies the awkwardness of that meeting. 

‘Frangipani Wishes’ is a story sucked from my marrow, one of those tales that was never told to me, but somehow I knew it anyway. Perhaps I heard it whispered on frangipani scented winds while on visits to Hong Kong. Because of, or perhaps in spite of their source, these stories forced me to address my ongoing struggle with my Kiwi-Asian identity and the powerful expectations of self-erasure experienced by many Asian women. And in the case of ‘Frangipani Wishes’, a story pieced together from secrets, I experimented with a new-to-me prose-poem format to capture those shadowy origins. Here’s a short excerpt:

Some things you knew already. Some things you knew before you were born; they were revealed to you in the rhythm of your mother’s heartbeat and in the echoes of her sighs. Later, you heard it in the closing of doors, in the scuff of a suitcase, and the low hum of a ceiling fan.

the bitterness of smiles / the perfidy of eyes

That was back when you lived with your bones squeezed sideways into the spaces between the floorboards of your father’s villa, cowering from the sharp tongues of lesser wives and the cruel taunts of your half-sisters. Back when you were waiting to live, when you lived and waited, comforted by the soft scents of your silly frangipani wishes. Embroidering silk dreams, you waited, listening for the hundred-year typhoons that whipped across the harbour, tugging at rooftops, flattening shanties, and stealing away souls. Because only when the winds raged and the waters of the harbour thrashed, only when the villa rattled with unease, only then were the ghosts quiet. Only then, were you able to breathe.

* * *

Since the moment you were born, generations of hungry ghosts swirled around you, teasing the air, your breath, your hair. Not your fault, although First Wife and Little Wife and the entanglements who dwelled in your father’s villa, those living repositories of secrets, they blamed you still. They whispered behind their hands, hiding smiling teeth, muttering, uttering, chattering. Your mother had unleashed them, they said, spawned them as she spawned you, let the starving ghosts escape into the night. A hundred dragon’s teeth could not drive out such demons. Nor a thousand dragon teeth ground to powdered dust. It was as well she was gone.

Your mother might be a ghost herself; you didn’t know. No one had thought to tell you, although they said other things—mean, sunken, tortured things. Things with thin bony limbs and slender necks. Swollen bloated-bellied things which wormed their way beneath your ribs, pushing aside your lungs, where they took up residence: pulsing, and pulsing, and pulsing… You learned to live with them, the tortured, swirling wisps of ghosts and the ugly, swollen pustules lodged under your heart, while you waited for the tempests, while you waited to live, in your father’s villa on the hillside.

A cousin came to the villa. He worked in the textile business and came to weft and weave words with your father. A distant cousin, although not so distant. Little Wife called for you, she liked to see you underfoot, so you squeezed your way up to where the living roamed, hauling yourself from the damp crawlspace, through the gaps in the floorboards. Scrubbed and pretty, you served Distant Cousin tea in the salon, hands trembling with reverence, since he was your father’s guest. You served the sweet red bean cakes that were everyone’s favourite. You nibbled on the crumbs, caught the rifts of conversations, and a waft of sultry sandalwood. After that, Distant Cousin stayed on, stopping to play mah-jong with your father and his friends, their voices murmuring, and the tiles clattering long into the night.

the harbour / glints / in his eyes

Hello, little cousin, he whispered as he passed you days later in the hall, setting your insides aflutter, like the wings of the skylark Little Wife kept in a domed teak cage in her room. Just in time, you remembered to drop your head respectfully and hide your smile behind your hand.

* * *

Ongoing conversations with my Black Cranes contributors made me realise that my dance with themes of otherness and identity was just beginning, their insightful comments inspiring me to dig deeper into my own history. But how would I do that? And would there be any interest in that work? 

No one wants to know. Maybe I should just keep quiet.

In May 2020, New Zealand journalist Karen Tay wrote in Stuff: “To be invisible in this world is to have your stories erased or reduced to the margin, which is how it’s largely been for many generations of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand. But in the past decade, New Zealand’s Chinese diaspora – from Kiwi-born Chinese, whose families arrived as long ago as the earliest Pākehā, to recent immigrants – is taking back the power by writing their own stories. They are no longer striving to keep their heads down and completely assimilate. Instead, these writers are sharing their own truths unapologetically and unequivocally…redefining on their own terms, one story at a time: the immigrant narrative.” 

Could I add my own voice to those narratives described by Kay? Take back my power? Perhaps a longer prose poem narrative in the style of ‘Frangipani Wishes’? 

Cogs turned again.

I consulted New Zealand’s archive site Past Papers, peeking into the lives of Chinese New Zealand women over the past century: a badly beaten Chinese woman falls from the second floor of a Taranaki tobacconist; in Taumarunui, a half-caste Chinese slices the throat of her new-born with a cleaver; in Wellington, a sixty-year-old hangs herself in a scullery. What experiences drove these women to commit such acts against themselves and their families? Could I also incorporate some of those stories alongside my own? I thought of Rena’s charming story ‘The Ninth Tale’ in Black Cranes, a chilling folkloric tale highlighting the Chinese mythology of the fox spirit—and was inspired again. I would write a series narrative prose-poems inspired and informed by real life narratives of New Zealand-Chinese women, connecting them through the various lives of the Chinese shapeshifting nine-tailed fox spirit, húli jīng, 狐狸精, as that creature attempts to ascend to the heavens. 

Still, I wasn’t sure. 

“Above all,” wrote Alma Katsu in her foreword to Black Cranes, “Asian women are supposed to be submissive. Obedient, invisible, without wants of her own, and so content to devote herself to making others happy. This is the expectation I found the hardest. But I found the mere expectation soul-crushing. That anyone could expect another person to negate themselves voluntarily.” Katsu goes on to demand that we “use the power of story to push back on these stereotypes. To show the damage they cause. To show that we’re made of flesh and blood.”

So, with Katsu’s words in my head, and encouraged and supported by my Black Cranes colleagues, Geneve Flynn, Christina Sng, and Rena Mason, I submitted the proposal to New Zealand’s Grimshaw Sargeson Trustees, and was thrilled to be awarded a 2021 fellowship to work on my project, Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

“This is something very special,” the award convenor confided when she called to give me the good news. 

Nor am I the only Black Cranes contributor who’s been inspired to continue the discussion opened in Black Cranes. Angela Yuriko Smith, publisher at Space and Time, was already focused on promoting marginalised voices, but it is clear her resolve has sharpened, both in her own writing and in her vision for the iconic magazine. 

“I’ve been diving into all kinds of Thai myths and folklore, ghosts, spirit houses that they actually erect and bring items to, and it’s absolutely fascinating,” Rena Mason wrote in one email to me after the anthology was released. Determined to promote Asian and other marginalised groups and brimming with new project ideas, the three-time Bram Stoker Award-winner is currently working on the HWA’s anthology Other Fears, her first foray into editing. With the HWA anthology also addressing concepts of alienation and otherness and due for release in late 2021, I feel proud that she is continuing this important work.

As far as a sequel Black Cranes anthology is concerned, COVID has put a stop to unexpected conversations with new friends in convention centre lobbies for the moment, nevertheless, the cogs are turning…

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Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a three-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. Her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories. Her latest anthology projects are Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, co-edited with Geneve Flynn, and Midnight Echo #15. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021. Read more at leemurray.info.

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