Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Hantu & Popcorn

While in the West, speculative fictions have developed from writing as wildly diverse as Lord Dunsany’s wondrous stories and Thomas M Disch hard core Science Fiction, the history of Malaysian (English language) speculative fiction stories, remains a comparatively brief one,

Malaysia revels in legends, myths and tales drawn from the country’s multifaceted and multicultural past. Malaysian folklore is steeped in stories gleaned from Hinduism, Islam and ancient animism. Echoes of tales, and stories from indigenous tribes peoples sit, sarong clad, knee to knee with those dropped en passant by Dutch, Portuguese and English settlers - though many tales are only available through the Malay language.

Contemporary Malaysian speculative fiction mostly draws upon those ancient legends and myths to create stories of horror - especially those involving vampires (Pontianak) and wild assortments of the supernatural including a myriad ghost (Hantu) stories. These dark tales drip blood over mini –magazines (‘penny dreadful’ or ‘Pulp’ magazines) in a publishing market largely dominated by Malay language horror fictions.

Aside from Malay horror, fluffy pink Malay romances make up the rest of the popularist publishing market, giving teen and twenty girls insights into romantic worlds they will only encounter in such books and magazines, unless they lounge soaking up the cool air-con in cinemas projecting the latest Hindi or Tamil romantic masala movies.

The ghoulish national obsession for ghosts, spirits and all manner of supernatural flying, crawling and creeping beings permeates throughout Malaysian popular culture, and is easily available in low cost magazines and cheap thrill books. Over the last few decades such fictions have gnawed and clawed their way into a growing Malay comic book industry which, like the ‘pulp’ magazines, feeds extensively from local legend and lore.

Comparatively little in the way of other speculative fictions exists, save for one magazine - Gempak (Shocking). This innovative Malay language magazine styles itself as ‘The Magazine for the New Generation’. As a teen orientated compendium Gempak features local and Manga influenced comic book material serials such as Helios Eclipse by Kaoru, as well as film reviews, the latest TV news, Game reviews, general articles and interviews.

Aside from comics and those compact pulp-like magazines depicting ‘real’ or fictionalised ghost stories there has been one, long running, Malay language, series of horror books.

During the 1980s Tamar Jalis (a pseudonym) produced a number of horror stories for a magazine called Variasari. These spooky and quite graphically gruesome stories were compiled into book form, later called Bercakap Dengan Jin (Talking to Demons). Somewhere in the region of 200 horror-story books (in Malay) were produced over a number of series and years.

Precursors to Malay horror writing, and comics, were the 1950s Malay horror films. These early, black and white, Malay horror films greatly resemble American ‘B’ movies, with their simplicity of sets, paucity of storyline and exaggerated dramatics - all accompanied by darkly rich, sombre music.

In 1957 Cathay Keris Films made Pontianak (Vampire), then came Serangan Orang Minyak (Attack of the Oily Man) by Cathy Keris Films in 1958. Sumpah Orang Minyak (Curse of the Oily Man) by Malay Film Productions ltd followed in 1958, while Cathay Keris Films made Sumpah Pontianak (Curse of the Vampire) also in 1958.

More recent Malay horror films resemble the 1950s/60s British Hammer films, of which there has been a contemporary upsurge with films like Rahsia (The Secret, 1980s) and the infamous Pesona Pictures horror films - Pontianak harum sundal malam ( Restless Vampire, 2004), and its sequel the following year, with Waris jari hantu (The legacy of the Ghost Finger, 2007), Dukun (Witch Doctor) also in 2007 and Histeria (Hysteria) in 2008.

English language Malaysian speculative fictions have proven to be a slow emerging field.

Though living in Tasmania, Tunku Halim (pseudonym), writes mainly for the Malaysian horror market, and has, seemingly, taken the lead in English language horror writing, with novels like ‘Dark Demon Rising’, (1997) and short story collections such as ‘44 Cemetery Road’ short stories (2007). Because of the consistency of his work, and there being no contenders for his crown, Tunku Halim reigns supreme as the Stephen King of Malaysia.

Competition is slow to challenge Tunku Halim, but in recent years the anthology volumes Dark City (2006) and Dark City 2 (2007) edited by Xeus (Lynette Kwan) - published by Midnight Press have intended to do just that.

Dark City: Psychotic and other Twisted Malaysian Tales is a compendium of writing, ranging from terror to horror and suspense. Dark City 2, its sequel, incorporates storylines from a man learning to kill, 15th century angels, the intense agony of entombment and the bitter sweetness of man’s revenge for the death of his wife and son.

While English language speculative fictions, in Malaysia, may be slow to take off in novel or short story format, their august and illustrative presence may be felt within the Malaysian comic book medium. Well fed on diets of Superman, Spiderman and Batman today’s Malaysian twenty, and thirty somethings, are well versed in reading speculative sequential art.

The Malaysian comic book industry, fledgling in the 1980s is beginning to come of age in the 2000s. As well as re-producing Japanese and Chinese Manga forms in English and Malay, the Malaysian comic book industry is generating stunning new works by Malaysian writers and artists, many of whom are currently also involved in the American comic book industry.

Works by artist/writers like Leong Wan Kok (aka Puyuh – quail) bring fresh dimensions to the Science Fiction and horror genres with images such as Astro Hunter, graphic novels such as Astro Cityzen (2006) and From a Twisted Mind ( 2008).

The new magazine ‘Popcorn’ represents a fresh type of comics magazine for Malaysia, in English. It is modelled on Marvel’s Epic comics magazine and Heavy Metal (French - Metal Hurlant). This young adult comic magazine promises to bring the very best of S.E.Asian and Malaysia comics material to an eagerly waiting, knowledgeable, general public.

This then may be the future of Malaysian speculative fictions – comics and graphic novels.


Gita Madhu said...

This is a really valuable piece of writing.

A lively snap shot of Malay "Pulp Fiction" for the uninitiated, it will go a long way in making sense of books one sees in the Malay language, of Malay authors writing in English (In this genre) and hopefully help those of us passing through this amazing land to pick up some good reading for a nice thundery afternoon in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting stuff. I'm with a Chennai publisher, Blaft, that recently brought out a compilation of Tamil Pulp Fiction in English translation. Might you be able to put us on to a potential translator to do something similar for Bahasa? We're interested in the graphic novels and English horror too. Drop a line: