[The following text was first published on the Jim McLeod's Gingernuts of Horror site in September 2020, and subsequently lost when the site was hacked. ]
Midnight has passed, and I am seated in the clearing with my Black Cranes colleagues. To my left is Geneve Flynn, who is both author and co-editor, and going around the circle are our contributors: Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rin Chupeco, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Gabriela Lee, Rena Mason, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng. Practitioners of the dark arts, magical beings whose words cast spells and conjure worlds. Like a coven, we have chosen this night to sit around the campfire and talk of writing, horror, and our uniquely Asian perspectives. To speak of otherness and isolation in this glade misty with unquiet, the blackened silhouettes of the trees closing around us, their branches whispering and sighing overhead. Blocking out the moon. Having discussed the tales of our childhoods, we wrap our cloaks about us, huddle nearer to the fire, and continue our conversation.
“Dear ones,” I say over the crackle of the fire, “what contemporary horror text would you recommend? What stories have you enjoyed recently?” As always, when we talk of books, the source of our power, my colleagues brim with excitement.
Her cloak wrapped tightly about her, Geneve Flynn says, “It’s just a month since WorldCon and I always come away from conventions with so many recommendations and new authors I want to read. Chikodili Emelumadu was a participant on a panel I moderated, and I adore her writing. She’s not Asian (she grew up in Nigeria), but she’s someone I’d recommend. Her stories are utterly readable and unapologetically unique. Of course, I’m rather partial to the authors in Black Cranes. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of these writers in the future.”
I note that each of us beams a little in the firelight. For all her scariness, Geneve is a discerning editor, so her comments carry weight.
“I’m a big fan of China Mieville’s short stories,” says Gabriela Lee, “particularly the short story ‘The Ball Pit,’ which has that kind of quiet, subtle thread of fear that doesn’t rely on shock tactics or gore to make you feel that shiver down your spine. Joe Hill’s collection 20th Century Ghosts was also an impactful experience for me, with the lyrical language and blend of both fear and nostalgia. Several of Carmen Maria Machado’s stories are just mind-blowing as well, particularly ‘The Husband Stitch,’ which was equally amazing and horrifying. In the Philippines, I would say that Yvette Tan’s Waking the Dead and Other Horror Stories and Karl de Mesa’s Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic Abyss are excellent short story collections that introduce international readers to Philippine horror.”
There’s no wi-fi coverage out here in the forest, but my phone still has some charge, so I pull up the notes page and add ‘The Husband Stitch’ to my to-be-read list. “What about you?” I ask Rena Mason when my phone is safely back in my pocket. “What’s your go-to horror read?”
“Clive Barker’s Books of Blood have always been my horror go-to for all the emotions they elicit,” Rena replies. “I read them as a young teen, so they left a strong impression and have a special place in my dark heart.”
“The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and Experimental Film by Gemma Files,” adds Nadia Bulkin.
“Both the Bancho Sarayashiki and the Tale of Oiwa are some of my favourite ghost stories,” says Rin Chupeco. “Bancho Sarayashiki was the basis for movies like The Ring and The Grudge, and also inspired my book The Girl from the Well. The Tale of Oiwa is about a woman who’d been disfigured and shamed in life, and now haunts her selfish lover in death.”
In the distance an owl hoots, and I tremble, perhaps because in Māori and Pasifika mythology, the cry of the owl is a portent of death. I think of Rin’s book The Girl from the Well, and wonder what ghosts are lurking in the shadows beyond the circle of firelight.
“I’ve recently enjoyed: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang; Her Body & Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado,” Rin adds, on a roll now. “Short stories: ‘Voice of the God,’ by Maria Z. Medina; ‘The Meal Channel,’ by Elizabeth Tan, ‘The Pontianak’s Doll,’ by Geneve Flynn.”
This time it is Geneve’s turn to beam.
“I also enjoyed Hungry Ghosts,” Rin says, “a four-part miniseries on SBS. They aren’t all solely horror, but they all have horrific elements.”
“I deeply love Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House: an entire family haunted by the monster house they lived in for one summer,” says Elaine Cuyegkeng. “It’s a powerful story about grief, the way it haunts and consumes you. I also love Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic—another story about a monstrous house, and a young woman who finds herself trapped in its jaws. It’s a horror story that grapples with the horror of colonialism and eugenics and patriarchy. It’s a stunningly beautiful and atmospheric book.”
I nod. Stunningly beautiful and atmospheric is an apt description. It is interesting how the Latina experience speaks to so many of us. It seems there are some sharp parallels—shared expectations and tradition—appearing in South American narratives particularly.
“For me,” says Christina Sng, “Swan Song by Robert McCammon is still the best novel I’ve ever read in terms of the sheer scale of the story, and the unadulterated beauty of the language always struck me and made me realise that words can be a mesmerising piece of art too.”
Of course, it is just like Christina, a Bram Stoker Award–winning poet, to be fixated on the words. Her own work resounds with unadulterated beauty.
Angela Yuriko Smith is the last of our campfire companions to share her reading list, and it also includes poetry: “One I’ve enjoyed recently is The Man Who Married Death by Amy Langevin,” she says. “It’s a long poem about a man who seeks to commit suicide, but when Death comes, they marry instead and go on a rampage relationship. I enjoy stories that push the limits. Alessandro Manzetti’s ‘Kirti’ is like that as well. Not for sensitive readers, the mission is to seek and destroy literary inhibitions... and it accomplishes this. I’ve enjoyed Chthonic Cleaning by Austin Gragg. It’s a fresh and candid study of a couple’s relationship and how the dysfunction becomes a destructive entity on its own. The poetry of Marge Simon and Linda D. Addison both have those twisted, other-perception promoting ideas woven throughout their work.”
Angela uses a branch to stoke the crimson embers of the fire. “Finally,” she says, “every single author in Black Cranes is worth following to discover their other work. Individual, powerful, and unafraid... these are all qualities I admire not just in horror, but in all writing.”