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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Black Cranes: Gingernuts of Horror Blog Tour


[The following conversation is the text of an article published on Jim McLeod's Gingernuts of Horror site in September 2020, and subsequently lost when the site was hacked.]

Tonight, as midnight draws near, I gather in a clearing with my Black Cranes colleagues. To my left is Geneve Flynn, who is both contributor and co-editor, and going around the circle we are joined by contributors Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rin Chupeco, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Gabriela Lee, Rena Mason, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng. All exquisitely talented practitioners of the dark arts. Like a coven, we have come together this night, to sit around the campfire and talk of writing, horror, and our uniquely Asian perspectives. To speak of otherness and isolation. So, it is fitting that we’re enveloped in a place which bristles with unquiet, the blackened silhouettes of the trees closing around us, their branches whispering and sighing overhead. Blocking out the moon. We pull our cloaks around us, huddle nearer to the fire, and begin our chat.

“Now, dear ones,” I say, “tell me what books and stories you saw yourself in while growing up. What tales spoke to you and inspired your love of darkness?”

Geneve Flynn dives in, her upbeat Aussie accent at odds with her repertoire of dark work. “Stephen King’s It was a lightbulb text for me,” she says. “After migrating from Malaysia to Australia, I spent the latter half of my childhood being one of only a handful of Asian kids at various schools. As a sensitive, bookish kid, it was hard to shrug off the random abuse and casual racism. I also carried the weight of expectations typical of an Asian girl—conscientiousness, good grades, obedience. The Loser’s Club in It—seven bullied misfits who were brave and defiant in the face of malevolence—saved me.”

I nod at this. Some of our colleagues do, too. This is something we understand. For many of us who have felt ‘othered,’ fiction can be a saviour.

“Reading about the losers made me feel like a door to a secret clubhouse had been opened,” Geneve goes on. “Here were kids who weren’t perfect, who rebelled, who were outcasts. Yet they triumphed. And above all, I knew, with all my heart, that if I had walked up to the door of that clubhouse and knocked, I would have been let in.”

Gabriela Lee stokes the fire with a crooked branch. Her eyes flashing in the firelight, she says, “I read Edgar Allan Poe as an easily impressionable child, and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ scared me so much that I literally buried my copy of the book underneath a pile of other books so that it wouldn’t come alive and get me. But if we’re talking influences, Stephen King was a very strong influence in my adolescence, particularly It and the first few Dark Tower books (I think I read until Book 4). I tried reading his other, more grisly novels, but they never really captured my imagination in the same way as these titles. When I first read It, I thought about identifying with Beverly, but it turns out that I really identified more with Mike, who turned out to be a librarian and the one who stayed back.”

Angela Yuriko Smith’s eyes widen at this. Now the editor-publisher of iconic magazine Space & Time, she also works part-time at a library. “My early years of grade school were spent at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cheyenne, Wyoming. During one of our library times, I found Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum: Twelve Shuddery Stories for Daring Young Readers,” she says. “On the cover, Hitchcock peers menacingly through drips of blood going sideways across the book. It looked scary... and thrilling. I identified with being a ‘Daring Young Reader.’” Grinning, she leans forward. “I checked it out and was not disappointed."

The fire cackles, equally gleeful that the gloomy aisles of our local libraries may have been instrumental in inspiring and forming this group of dark fiction writers. Angela goes on: “There was one story in particular that resonated with me enough that later, as an adult, I hunted down a copy of this book and now it’s one of my treasures. The story was ‘Shadow, Shadow on the Wall’ by Theodore Sturgeon. The tale centres around a bullied boy named Bobby. His stepmother was a sharp, cruel woman. Bobby was a lonely and loveless boy. “I identified with Bobby’s loneliness. My parents were both busy in college and I was a latchkey child. I’d leave an empty house to go to a school where I was bullied and return to an empty house. In Bobby’s world, he had shadow friends that turned out to be dangerous to those that were cruel to him. In the final scene, his stepmother was sucked into the wall by these shadows, and Bobby was left alone... but free. The scary things in the book, especially that story, weren’t scary to me. They were scary to the bullies of the world. They passed judgement and punished cruelty. They were allies. The nuns at my school decided my obsession with this one book was unhealthy and they finally made me turn it back in (‘Just for a week, dear, so someone else can read it.’), but when I came back for it... gone. Their plan to promote ‘healthier’ reading for me backfired, however. In my mind, they crossed over to my long list of oppressors, and instead of dampening my love for scary literature, they ignited it. Later, I learned that Bobby was right, and we could call monsters to do our bidding, but they work better with ink on paper than shadows on walls.”

Call monsters to do our bidding! I peer over my shoulder into the gloom, the back of my neck prickling, suddenly terrified to be sitting in the darkness with such a powerful group of creatives, each one able to conjure ghosts and monsters. When I turn back, Christina Sng is smiling. “I saw myself as Sister in Robert McCammon’s Swan Song while growing up,” she says. “She was broken from life and found a new purpose in the apocalypse. Now I have reached her age and I am living her life!” I think of Christina’s novelette, ‘Fury,’ which appears in Black Cranes and is the poet’s longest work to date, of her badass protagonist striding into the apocalypse ready to take on zombies, betrayal, and change. Yes, there is both preparedness and empowerment in dark fiction.

We all turn to Rena Mason now, author of ‘The Ninth Tale’ which holds the ninth spot in our Black Cranes line up. “The first real horror novel I ever read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson,” Rena reveals. “At first, I bought it because of the cover art. Young girl with long black hair looking through a hole in a fence.” She gathers her dark tresses, bringing them together over her left shoulder. “I totally related to that image back then because that was me—stuck inside, looking out. My sisters and I were latchkey kids and weren’t allowed to leave the confines of the ‘fence’ that surrounded our home while my mother was at work. Then when I read the story about the sisters and one of them was a bit naughty and aloof, and the older one was trying to get a boyfriend, well, I could totally relate to that, too, because my older sister was into boys, while I preferred to run wild and sneak off to the park nearby and climb trees, spin around on the carousel, swing as high as I could, and play, play, play. And I always hated my sister’s boyfriends, often thought about offing them, and probably would have if we kept rat poison in the house.” Rena’s eyes twinkle as she gives us her ‘evil grin,’ and as the firelight flickers across her face illuminating that grin, the rest of us shuffle a little further away.

Rat poison, indeed.

“What about you, Nadia?” I ask, moving on quickly. “Did you see yourself in any horror stories growing up? Who did you identify with?”

“The first horror text I saw myself in was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson—I could relate to the unstable, isolated character Eleanor Vance,” Nadia Bulkin replies. “I was out of college by the time I read that, though, which is to say—I didn't see myself in any horror text growing up.”

I curl my toes in my shoes. Interesting that Shirley Jackson’s work should resonate for Nadia as it did for Rena. And that Nadia has since gone on to become a five-time Shirley Jackson Award–nominee. Grace Chan turns to Nadia. “I didn’t see myself in texts while growing up, either,” she insists. “I wasn’t in my library books, and I wasn’t on the TV. Perhaps, without a reflection, I concluded that I was the invisible other.”

Invisible. Other. The words hover in the air above us.

“I was a gentle child,” Grace adds, “and preferred to escape to fictional worlds where I could become the champion on the page and defeat villains. Funnily enough, I never thought of myself as a horror fan—until in more recent years, I realised that many works I enjoy are indeed horror of a subtle and insidious nature.”

Hang on. What did Grace just say? We stare at her in disbelief. Not a horror fan?

Elaine Cuyegkeng chimes in, “This is where I confess I wasn’t much of a horror fan growing up—I was the person who hid behind the couch during anything remotely scary! I watched most of The Ring and The Grudge with my face hidden in a friend’s shoulder.”

She smiles. “I did love stories of haunting and folklore—I read my brother’s copy of Usborne’s Book of the Supernatural to death,” Elaine explains. “I also grew up on stories of local hauntings—white ladies (the Filipino term for women ghosts, dressed in the white dresses they were buried in) who were killed during the Japanese Occupation; the victims of the Marcos Regime; aswangs and urban legends that lurked in the city. Horror was everywhere—it was an intrinsic part of my world.”

Rin Chupeco agrees. “Growing up in Asia, I was always immersed in horror,” they say. “It always felt to me as just a consequence of the kind of culture I grew up in, as someone in the intersection of Catholicism, Buddhism, and all the Chinese and Filipino mythology around that. We have our own version of fairy tales collected the same way as in the West, (some old texts like the Shahanjing, or more recent collections of old tales bound in a book) but most of them are mainly ghost stories about nine-tailed foxes, and warring gods, and magic lanterns. The one glaring difference I think, that separates eastern horror and western horror is that with a lot of the popular western horror in films like say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween, is that there is very little explanation as to how or why the murderer is the murderer as portrayed by the movie. Even with something more subversive such as Psycho or The Shining, little emphasis is given on how these hauntings begin, or why the murderer becomes psychopathic. It’s the shock factor that takes centre stage. In Asian horror, it’s the ghosts that are often the real victims. They’re murdered for discrimination or love or rage, and that’s why you empathise with them better, recognising their trauma. Knowing their tragedy is what drives the rest of the story and makes it more personal, and that’s what I love.”

We fall silent because Rin has zeroed in on an undeniable truth: whether we are writing from trauma, truth, or tragedy, Black Cranes is personal for all of us.

It is midnight. I add fuel to the embers, sending up a breath of black-orange sparks. The flames roar, and the campfire takes hold, shedding light on the authors of Black Cranes.


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