Interview with Lee Murray – Part 2

In the previous blog post, we spoke with New Zealand writer Lee Murray about her dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, and her journey with Black Cranes. (Click here for the first interview in this series.) Here we cover her second award-winning book, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

  1. Grotesque: Monster Stories was your first collection, and it won a Bram Stoker for best collection. After all the books you’re famed for, why the move to short stories? What challenges did you face in comparison to publishing novels and novellas?

Not exactly a ‘move’ to short stories; I’d been writing short fiction for anthologies and magazines, and less frequently for competitions, in order to improve my writing, and gain some early credits. Short fiction is a demanding form, with every word vital for creating ambiance, character, and plot. There is the tricky balance of adhering to the theme of the submission call, while also delivering something fresh and engaging. And there is the discipline of sticking to a deadline, word count, and other constraints imposed by the market. So, while creating my novels, I was simultaneously writing short stories to dip my toe into the mechanics of the publishing industry. I didn’t occur to me to gather those works into a collection. Grotesque: Monster Stories might not have happened at all if Steve Dillon at Things in the Well hadn’t approached me for a volume not long after the release of Into the Ashes, the third book in the Taine McKenna series, when I was at a bit of a loose end regarding my own writing. Between jobs, if you like. So we selected some likely stories in my back list, identified a unifying theme and scope (monsters, horror, breadth of style and form), and highlighted some potential gaps which I set about filling with fresh material, including a Taine McKenna novella. I approached it as if I were the editor of an anthology, only in this case I was the sole contributor.

2. Your own stories in Black Cranes, as well as the ones in Grotesque, cover a lot of cultural horror – from New Zealand to China and even other places. Is this a deliberate attempt to educate through literature? What kind of research goes into building a story around traditions, rituals, and cultural events?

No. While I hope that ultimately my writing educates and informs, I think it can be dangerous to make education the focus of our writing. We have to remember that readers are discerning; they know when we’re trying to clobber them over the head with our ideals, and it’s the kind of thing that makes them put a book down. Far better to write a narrative that engages and entertains and inject your theme into the book in more subtle ways, such as through symbolism, metaphor, and character responses. Recently, I’ve been writing more at the intersection of culture and myth, exploring my Asian heritage and Māori culture of my country. “I’ve always felt a yearning for Māori stories,” I wrote in a Medium interview by my Cranes sister, Christina Sng. “There are a lot of shared values and beliefs between the Māori culture of my homeland and the Chinese culture of my heritage: a certain synergy. Both cultures are founded on the deeds of supernatural ancestors, live by a mandate to protect the natural world, are imbued with a sense of community over individual, and tell simple compelling tales which teach respect and honor.” I do a lot of secondary thorough research—online, library resources—but occasionally I’ll use interviews and other primary sources to inform my work. I also send my work out for review and sensitivity assessment before I submit it, because we can’t see our own biases. When it comes to traditional culture and beliefs, authenticity and intent are key factors, as well as ensuring the dynamic aspects of character, since none of us are homogenous; we’re all the sum of myriad influences and identities.

3. You have co-written the Path of Ra series with Dan Rabarts. Could you tell us about the experience in co-writing a book? How does each author’s writing and storytelling style sync with the other to form the final product?

Here’s what I had to say on this topic when interviewed by Claire Fitzpatrick for The Horror Tree back in 2018: “The more I learn about collaborative writing projects, the more I realise that there are a million ways to go about it. It’s always different, depending on the medium, the subject matter, and the writers in question. With Dan and me, we have a kind of Lucy and Linus van Pelt thing going on: where I am the bossy big sister, and Dan is the highly independent little brother, who likes to charge off and do his own thing. Of course, that makes me even crabbier! So, we’ll have a basic plan, and we’ll start out writing chapter about, and by Chapter Four, Dan will have Matiu racing down a dark alley, dodging explosions. Then I’ll have to come up with an explanation for the ‘diversion’, since I’m responsible for the science, writing the uptight stickler-for-rules science consult. Aargh! It’s actually a lot of fun, our real-life process mimicking the relationship you see on the page between our protagonists, Matiu and Penny. I haven’t heard of any other teams writing in quite the same way, but it seems to work for us.”

For our Path of Ra work, we chose a ‘he-said, she-said’ approach to retain very distinct voices for the dual protagonists, so we kept our editing light for that reason. When I wrote Mika (a Kiwi-NZ version of the Wizard of Oz for youth), a collaboration with Piper Mejia, author of The Better Sister and Other Stories, and Dispossessed, we also wrote the book from a basic plan using a turn-about chapter-by-chapter approach, but when the novella draft was completed, I went back and ‘smoothed’ the narrative, sanding off any identifying edges so the story appears to have been written by a single author. There are so many ways to approach collaboration, a no one way is best, but possibly the most important factor is your choice of collaborator because it really is like raising a child with someone; you have to want what’s best for the work.

Path of Ra series, co-written by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts

4. As an editor, you work with writers across science fiction, fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, thrillers; a mix of poets and prose writers. How do you balance your roles as writer and editor?

I love a fruit salad of genres and forms, and the privilege that comes with working with other writers (and having a small part in shaping their work), so editing projects are a passion on mine. Plus, I’ve forged some incredible friendships as an anthologist; the Black Cranes sisterhood is a good example. I do have to hold myself back from becoming too much of a chipmunk, though. I’m tempted to drop the nut I’m carrying, for another enticing nut I’ve encountered on the way. I’ll get enthusiastic and jump in, taking on new projects at the expense of my own writing. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow writer, with Hemingwayesque wordcounts of just 500 words a day. I don’t typically do the ‘word vomit’ drafts that other writers speak of. I blame my inner editor, a perfectionist, who always has her lips to my ear, saying things like, “Make it lean. You don’t need that. Delete that clutter. What is that: a cliché? No, no, no.” She slows me down a lot; very annoying. So, while I set out to be a writer, and that is still my intent, I find editing easier. If I’m procrastinating, I’ll often edit instead. So, yes, getting that balance is essential and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet.

5. Thank you, Lee, for taking the time for this interview. A final question for readers – What and who are your own favorite books and writers for reading? Any authors who inspire your writing, or books you would recommend picking up?

Oh dear. I always find this question very hard to answer, Renata, because there are so many great books, and I don’t want to offend any of my wonderful colleagues. However, I’d be grateful if people who haven’t yet discovered them would pick up a copy of my Bram Stoker Award®-winning works Grotesque: Monster Stories and Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Supporting my work means I can continue to write, so I’m grateful for any reader support. And if you do pick up a copy of Black Cranes and enjoy it, please look for other work by our wonderful contributors, including Geneve Flynn, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rena Mason, Gabriela Lee, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng.  Please also show some love to Alma Katsu, who wrote our foreword and who has appeared on the Bram Stoker Award® finals twice in two successive years with The Deep and The Hunger. Katsu’s latest work, Red Widow, is a spy thriller, so sure to be an intriguing fast-paced read. Tori Eldridge, who lent the book so much support, has her wonderful Lily Wong series, Asian American thriller fiction with a kick-ass protagonist, and E Lily Yu, who also endorsed the collection, has her newly released fairy tale-inspired On Fragile Waves—wonderful works to discover. For more horror fiction, there is no better place to start than the Bram Stoker Award® finals list which is crammed with incredible stories from novel through to short fiction.

Happy reading! Thank you so much for having me.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~For Lee’s interview with Christina Sng: Sng, Christina (2021). How Heritage Affects the Stories We Live and the Stories We Tell: An interview with Lee Murray. 23 Feb 2021 https://magazine.interstellarflightpress.com/how-heritage-affects-the-stories-we-live-and-the-stories-we-tell-bdd381f7a620

~Interview with Claire Fitzpatrick: Fitzpatrick, Claire (2018). The Horror Tree Presents…An Interview with Lee Murray. 20 October 2018 https://horrortree.com/the-horror-tree-presentsan-interview-with-lee-murray/

~Bram Stoker awards list for horror fiction: http://www.thebramstokerawards.com/uncategorized/winners-nominees/

Interview with Lee Murray – Part 1

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows, Bram Stoker Awards). 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. She is proud to have edited seventeen volumes of speculative fiction, including international Bram Stoker Award®-winning title Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women co-edited with Geneve Flynn. Her latest work, released May 2021, is non-fiction title, Mark My Words: Read the Submission Guidelines and Other Self-editing Tips co-authored with Angela Yuriko Smith. 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 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

In the first of a two-part series, in honor of her double win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, we talk to Lee about the award-winning anthology Black Cranes.

  1. Hi Lee, first up, congratulations on your dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year. You’ve been a five-time nominee overall and now won two awards in the same year. How does it feel to be acknowledged as one of the best in the horror writing genre around the world?

Thank you, Renata. To be honest, it feels like I’ve brought home a gold in two events in the same discipline at the Olympics. In literary circles, the Bram Stoker Awards® are the ultimate accolade for a dark fiction writer, so to win two is simply overwhelming. I can hardly believe it. Such a kind acknowledgement from my horror colleagues. Although, rather than being the ‘best’, the awards are given for ‘superior achievement’, recognition that the books selected have resonated for readers at the moment. When the pandemic was escalating, we were half-way through writing Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, a collection of tales by horror writers of Southeast Asian descent on the themes of otherness and expectation. We considered postponing the release date, but with anti-Asian sentiment on the rise, it seemed even more important to push on. In retrospect, it was a good call. People needed to read these stories in this moment. With Grotesque: Monster Stories, the pandemic might also have been a factor, although there has always been an interest in New Zealand dark fiction in overseas markets. The fact that Grotesque is a book of monster stories, might be significant, since monsters allow us to explore our fears from a safe distance. But do awards make a difference? In my case, I’m always convinced there was some kind of mistake, that people are going to find out I’m not who they think I am, and it makes me want to work harder, to write better fiction.

2. You co-edited Black Cranes – this year’s Bram Stoker winner for best anthology – with Geneve Flynn. With one editor in New Zealand, another in Australia, the publisher in the US, and the contributing writers scattered in different countries, how challenging was it to bring the book to fruition?

Being stuck at the bottom of the globe in New Zealand, I’d already had some experience as an anthologist, bringing together writers from all over the world using simple techniques like email and messaging. Then, when the pandemic erupted, it forced everyone to embrace platforms like zoom, teams, and discord, for our work and social connection, so in a way that’s been the silver lining of the pandemic; the barriers have come down when it comes to bringing together communities of creatives using technology. We’re a little less hung up on professionalism in favour of connection. By now, we’ve met everyone’s cat, seen myriad children run by half naked in the background, and have an intimate knowledge of the speaker’s weekend wardrobe. We’ve become familiar with online book launches, zoom readings and panel discussions, vlogs and pods, virtual conventions, as well as more innovative ways of promoting literary works. Zoom events with our Black Cranes contributors, for example, have served to celebrate the anthology and cement our connection. That said, it was an in- person meeting with my eventual co-editor, Geneve Flynn, and a recognition of our shared experience that prompted the book Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. We were attending a conference in Brisbane and, being conscientious Asian girls, we both turned up too early for a panel. We’d chatted online before, and were connected through various venues on social media, but we had never had a face-to-face conversation. Without even having to say it aloud, there was an instant understanding between us of why we were the only ones waiting in a lobby twenty minutes before the convention opened. We got to talking, asking ourselves where were the other horror writers of Southeast Asian descent? Other people with our experience of the Asian diaspora. People who also had grandmothers who played mah jong late into the night. Other writers like us who everyone assumed would be a bad driver. Where was the anthology comprising those writers? After the conference, we continued the dialogue, including who we might want to see in our project, looking for connections. We played with some names. We realised we’d need a venue. The only publisher that I approached with the concept was Kate Jonez at Omnium Gatherum Media USA, who jumped at the idea, even though anthologies aren’t part of Omnium’s brief. However, their focus has always been on diverse and unusual texts on dark themes, so the fit was good from that perspective. Perhaps too, Kate was influenced by the whisperings of a pandemic coming out of China and early responses to that. In any case, we’re very grateful to her for her enthusiasm and professionalism. In terms of challenges, she had the biggest task, getting books to people all over the world in the midst of a pandemic.

3. Black Cranes addresses a niche market – Southeast Asian women, and women writing horror. Did you envision the book soaring to the heights it has reached? What was your aim in creating this anthology?

It’s interesting that you should describe it as ‘addressing a niche market’. It is certainly true that growing up as a third-generation Chinese New Zealander, I never saw a book that reflected my experience, no characters who looked like me. But despite attempts to keep us out, Asian people have lived and worked here for two centuries now, with more than 15% of New Zealand’s population identifying as Asian currently. And that’s just New Zealand. The Asian diaspora affects millions of people and extends across the globe, with Asian women making up at least half of those people, so surely there should already be bookcases full of works addressing our Asian experience? Just last week, the week Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women won a Bram Stoker Award, a pair of New Zealand editors released the first anthology of Asian fiction in New Zealand, comprising works from around 70 new voices, the majority of whom are women. While I’m not included in the mix, and the work is not horror, I find it shocking that we have had to wait so long for texts of this nature. As for Black Cranes being horror, it seemed natural to me that Black Cranes would tend towards darkness, because, as Geneve Flynn said in her acceptance speech, horror is a genre that doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable themes. Horror writers don’t look away. Again, the timing with the current pandemic, and the spike in anti-Asian sentiment, may have had a lot to do with the response, which has been simply overwhelming. So, to answer your question, we wanted to give voice to our shared experience, to create a community, and open a discussion about our feelings of otherness, of being the perpetual outsider, and it seemed other people have embraced that vision. I guess Black Cranes is the literary prescription for what ails us all right now.

Lee Murray at the 2019 Bram Stoker Award banquet – Photo by Ellen Datlow

4. Black Cranes was picked up by a book club in India last year for their October 2020 book-of-the-month. You and Geneve even met the members at the book discussion, albeit virtually. How does it feel to interact personally with readers from different parts of the globe?

A writer needs readers, so any interaction with readers who have engaged with your text is wonderful. Just knowing that you have fired up the imagination of others, and perhaps incited a broader dialogue feels like a secret superpower. It explains why even those big-name authors who aren’t always accessible to the public, will offer to join book club meetings to discuss their work with readers. And readers who go the extra mile to reach out, like the book club in India, or the little girl who sent me a drawing of my first literary award, are invaluable. People who seek you out to have their book signed. Even those seemingly small interactions can make up for the sucky parts of writing, things like low pay and high barriers. Interactions from across the globe offer extra insight. How do people in other cultures and groups perceive our work? How hard was it to obtain a copy? Do similar texts exist in those countries? Is there a gap that readers are looking for that has yet to be exploited? Questions we were asked, and which surprised us, when we were invited to the Indian group included: Where is the Indian-Asian version of Black Cranes? and There are no cranes in the book; why did you call it Black Cranes?

5. Speaking of virtual discussions, you released two books at the height of the pandemic last year. And both won Bram Stoker awards. With an absence of book launches, bookstore visits, book signings, literature festivals, libraries shutting down, how did the pandemic impact you as a writer? And what does the Bram Stoker mean for you in light of the current situation versus pre-pandemic times?

My dad died in the early months of the pandemic, and the grief and added isolation affected my writing, so all I managed were a few haiku which I shared with a friend. You can read more about that in a guest post called Writing from my Bubble on poet Stephanie Wytovich’s blog, Writing from the Madhouse. I only wish Dad could have been here to see me receive these awards, because he was my first mentor, his own storytelling key to my understanding of story structure and my love of literature. From a writing standpoint, although my workplace didn’t change, I was busier than ever. Looking back, I wonder if that was an attempt to keep myself busy and avoid spiralling into depression, rather than a direct impact of the pandemic. For horror writers, whose work is typically published by small independent presses operating out of a passion for the genre, the pandemic has been especially precarious, since many smaller presses have folded and others have pushed release dates back, meaning incomes have dropped considerably, even among those of us who are doing reasonably well. Here in New Zealand, “despite the wider arts sector accounting for up to 7% of the total workforce, it receives a disproportionately small proportion of overall government spending,” writes arts lecturer Mark Harvey in a New Zealand Herald article in May. “Last year, arts, culture and heritage were given just 0.33% of the total 2020 Budget and COVID-19 Recovery package (NZ$374 million out of $112.1 billion). This was an increase on previous years, but still miniscule compared with other sectors.” The literary arts account for an even smaller slice of that pie, and horror not at all. Most of us did not qualify for emergency aid. Add to that, we have no literary agents and no publishers of horror or even of science fiction and fantasy (other than some micro-presses) here in New Zealand, proving that the barriers for writers were already high even without COVID. Given this context, for me, a horror writer from New Zealand, to receive two Bram Stoker Awards® feels like a turning point. I hope it means a new interest in New Zealand’s horror fiction community. There is still the stigma associated with horror, literature’s ugly stepsister, to overcome. One colleague on the committee of a prestigious national writers’ festival noted that now I have two Bram Stoker Awards® I might have ‘enough respectability now’ with the festival selectors to be invited to a panel. I’m delighted, of course, because any invitation to the table is a step in the right direction, but I’m also saddened because that is an especially high bar to set for genre fiction writers.

Reading resources shared by Lee Murray:

~Lee’s guest post for Writing from the Madhouse: Murray, Lee (2020). Writing from my Bubble, in Writing from the Madhouse by Stephanie Wytovich.18 May 2020. http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/2020/05/writing-from-my-bubble-guest-post-from.html

~Mark Harvey’s article on arts and artists: Harvey, Mark (2021). New Zealand Herald: The Conversation. NZ Budget 2021: we need the arts to live, but artists need to earn a living. 13 May 2021. https://theconversation.com/nz-budget-2021-we-need-the-arts-to-live-but-artists-need-to-earn-a-living-160761

We continue our conversation with Lee Murray in the next blog post. Click here to join the discussion on her second Bram Stoker winner, Grotesque: Monster Stories.

Stitched Lips – An Anthology of Silenced Voices

Title – Stitched Lips

Editor – Ken MacGregor

Authors – Multiple

Genre – Horror

The book caught my attention with its catchy cover – a simple design that reveals a lot. I also liked how each of the contributing writers is mentioned on the front cover, unlike most anthologies that only feature the editor’s name. I hadn’t heard of any of these writers, except for Lee Murray whose works I’ve read and loved, and was looking forward to reading the book just for Lee.

Stitched Lips turned out to be a pleasant surprise; a phenomenal compilation in every way. As the tagline states, each of the stories are set around the theme of ‘silenced voices’, and I loved how every single writer interpreted the concept and integrated it with their stories.

The anthology starts with Wordeaters, R.L. Meza’s horrifying introductory piece about monsters who devour words. You’re safe as long as you’re silent; speak one word and meet a dreadful end. We then move on to Chorus of Whispers, a haunting tale by Sarah Hans (and one of my personal favorites from the collection), about female babies made to undergo procedures that remove their vocal chords. A band of women rebel by murdering men to “steal their voices”. Linda Nagle’s way with words is to be marvelled at, as she chooses a novel setting for Jack, inside the mind of a brain-dead patient, as past and present, reality and dreamland interweave. Avocation touches social and political issues through insurance corporations denying customers medical claims, as Lucy A. Snyder delves into the intricacies and sensitivities of employees seeking promotions and fat pay checks at the cost of patients dying due to a lack of means to fund treatment. Lee Murray addresses the immigrant diaspora in Nil By Mouth, as an elderly lady seeking help for her ailing granddaughter, meets with an accident herself and is unable to communicate in the language of her host country.

The Toll takes us into the animal kingdom, through ZZ Claybourne’s tale of a female animal threatened by a male hunter. Joanna Koch navigates child abuse and pedophilia through Aristotle’s Lantern, as a movie runs for the reader through the eyes of a victim. Green of Bad Visions was another one of my favorites, as Gabino Iglesias combines immigration and botany in a thrilling tale of a scientist’s discovery being hushed up. Hailey Piper takes us to college with Why We Keep Exploding, to a land where girls explode if they speak. Artown Correctional Center is a stellar journey through Patty Templeton’s imagination of a monster that consumes inmates at a facility. Tableau Vivant ends the collection by traipsing into the world of art with Michael Paul Gonzalez, as a sidelined artist goes on a murderous spree of all the people who wronged him.

Stitched Lips is a powerful ode to voices that go unheard and people who remain unseen. Each of the stories has a strong metaphorical angle delicately balanced with pure horror and gore. When you read between the lines, the topics covered here are not uncommon. How often has someone been shushed while speaking, told to be grateful about having a job and stay silent to retain it, ordered to follow the hierarchy without asking questions, had credit stolen for work done, threatened to be extradited or fired for standing up and speaking out, the helplessness of not knowing the language of the people around you, speaking but not being heard, heard but not understood, being stalked or harassed, facing casual racism and sexism dismissed as a joke, considered irrelevant, suggestions and ideas discarded, treated like a living statue? Whether an actress abused by male co-stars, or a comatose man desperate for attention, an immigrant unable to ask for help, to a student whose research professors claim as their own, voices are silenced and people can be dismissed in myriad ways. Stitched Lips offers an ear to all those marginalized voices.

The stories were peppered with beautiful lines:

~If she didn’t move. If she didn’t speak. If she could make it look like she wasn’t breathing. This might just save her life.

~Being in a dark hole was better than being in the wide open with a monster.

~He liked making lists. He liked checking lists. He liked to think he created good by recording goods.

~It was much better to feed the Thing than be fed to it.

~Asking questions cost time and never paid extra.

~Someone always noticed, but if people thought you don’t matter, what you notice didn’t matter either.

~An echo is better than silence.

~The prison librarian was busier than deathbed regret.

~Whispers aren’t enough. Something inside me wants to roar.

~Unspoken words can’t escape. I watch her swallow them, and they stew in her guts like trapped gas in a mine.

~She clutches her gut, as if the unspoken words now burn her belly.

~Rumors in the hall were so bad they couldn’t be entirely made up unless whoever started them had a Stephen King-level imagination.

~Journeying inward, where feeling is the opposite of being.

~A thing made to be left alone, a thing to be watched only in silence.

~You want to see me prick myself on the needle of my moral compass. See what colors I bleed.

~There’s no hope, says the team. There’s every hope, says the mother.

~Hurrying nowhere gradually, their take their time in a rush, making small-talk to help pass the sixty-second, hundred-mile trip.

~The reading had stopped. The books had stopped. No words, no voices, no existence.

~He reminds himself to remember that it doesn’t matter if he forgets.

~We recommend you cease and desist robbing women of their voices, or we will take yours.

A dark collection that sheds light on important issues, Stitched Lips is not to be missed. When it comes to anthologies, it can be an arduous task to source writers of equal credibility, so that each story stands out and carries the volume to new heights. I would recommend this book not just for reading but also for great writing. There’s brilliance in every single one of the stories, when you consider how diverse they are while still adhering to a theme. Kudos to the editor Ken MacGregor for this wonderful initiative. Definitely a must-read for horror fans, Stitched Lips deserves to be read by all readers for the topics it addresses and the stand it takes for the oppressed, powerless and disenfranchised.

Some artwork I created based on the book.

Grotesque: Monster Stories by Lee Murray

“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 sets the pace for what lies 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, 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

This literary review has also appeared in the March 2021 edition of Horror Addicts under their theme of ‘Monster Madness’.

Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins – A Literary Legacy

When Australian writer Aiki Flinthart was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wanted to work on a final book as a literary legacy. Her shout out to writers who were willing to participate in a project was answered from around the globe. So, we have Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Lee Murray, Ken Liu, Ian Irvine, and several other authors from the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, experimental fiction, and speculative fiction coming together to support a fellow writer. And what a stunning display of literature has been brought forth for the reader!

Aiki’s theme was relics, wrecks, and ruins – very narrow in itself, heightening the reader’s curiosity into what the contributors could possibly have come up with. And they surprise you with one story after another! A magical carpet woven with stories that come alive, an underwater village of corpses, a submarine under attack by the real world and saved by a mythical one, a life composed of 16-minute loops, a dog stealing enchanted artifacts, musicians conducting exorcisms through rock music. A world of witches and fairies, alien interactions and underwater adventures, past and future, the highest points in space and the depths of the oceans – Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins lives up to its task of creating a legacy.

Aiki Flinthart passed away earlier this month. Her final creation is an astonishing work of art, considering the extraordinary circumstances of how it came into being. A must-read for all readers, irrespective of the genres mentioned above. It’s just so well written! When it comes to anthologies, sourcing multiple writers with equal credibility is a task in itself. Add to that their numerous genres, the narrow scope of the theme, and the fact that they’re scattered around the world and still working as a team. Flinthart could not have been prouder of the legacy she left behind.

Black Cranes: A Review in Verse

A few months ago I had read and loved an anthology titled, ‘Black Cranes‘. Spearheaded by New Zealand author Lee Murray and Australian editor Geneve Flynn, the project brought together women writers from Southeast Asian backgrounds, to highlight the meaning of being ‘woman’ and being ‘Asian’, and the concept of women writing horror. The collection ranges from science fiction to mythology, folklore, legends, comedic horror, post-apocalyptic tales and historical battles. I had reviewed the book here, and was also fortunate to meet the editor duo at my book club’s discussion of their book – summarized here – and the rest of the writers at a Skeleton Hour event with the team. Black Cranes is such a wonderful and powerful read I have been recommending to all, that I decided to review it again as a poem.

Tales of Unquiet Women

From voices no longer silent

In this anthology of Asian narratives

Ranging from hilarious, to haunting and violent

A frisson towards an immersive journey

Headlined by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Not merely stories, but an assemblage of shared experiences

And teamwork presented by Omnium Gatherum

Alma Katsu leads the proceedings

Of what follows and what to expect

Asian, women, and horror

Tales of identity, expectation and neglect;

Obligations, traditions, duties and more

Scientists, warriors, princesses, spirits

We can be many things

But we cannot be defeated

A haunting foreword sets the tone

For Elaine Cuyegkeng to kick off with a bang

Pandora’s box of gene editing

Or more attuned to a boomerang;

Snipping out traits and replacing preferential ones

Rarefied offspring too good to be true?

There’s always a price to pay

Specimens or daughters? Are we a ‘what’ or ‘who’?

Nadia Bulkin marshals an uprising

With Indonesian history and folklore

A princess’s people retrieving her throne

A fight and reclamation at its core;

Who is monster and who is human?

Questions Kapre in his chronicle

Rin Chupeco’s unique love story

Depicts a tale heartwarming and ironical

Beauty, cosmetics, enhancements galore

Two tales from Angela Yuriko Smith

How far would you go to be yourself no more?

Sci-fi abounds; this isn’t myth

White on the outside, yellow within

Patchwork eyes and warring factions all over

Whom do we belong to if we don’t belong at all?

Gift recipient or pushover?

Grace Chan makes a two-fold mark

With hunger and fury, suspicion and doubt

Gabriella Lee’s rites of passage

Aspects of womanhood poured out;

The legend of the nine-tailed fox

Of trickster entities and lotus feet

Rena Mason presents womanhood again

As past, present and future accrete

Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

In their dual roles of editor and writer

Lend duality with contrasting themes

From heartbreak, to horror, and lighter;

Caring for an ailing parent,

A mind-blowing take on pets,

A litmus test of acceptance,

Words – their shining assets

Set the clock ahead with Christina Sng

As we time travel to a zombie apocalypse

An ode to women in the military

Fury is not one to be eclipsed;

The fury of sacrifices to accommodate

Meeting the expectations of others

Hollowed versions of ourselves

Emptied out; unconsidered druthers

With stories of folklore and legend

From the common to the esoteric

Across geography and culture

From charming to barbaric;

Returning to ones roots

Or imagining a far-fetched world

From the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore

China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand;

Asian women from wherever they might be

Scattered across place and time

Breaking notions and stereotypes

That living is not a crime;

There’s no single type of woman

No all-encompassing concept of Asian

The multifaceted identities of horror

And the stories of women who experience their own versions.

Revenge – Book Review

Title – Revenge

Author – Yoko Ogawa

Original language – Japanese

English translation – Stephen Snyder

Genre – Experimental fiction, horror

Yoko Ogawa is one of my favorite contemporary writers, and I love how her writing covers a range of genres, all brilliant works in their own way. “Revenge” is a peculiar book, written in the form of short stories, where each story connects to another – in no particular order – culminating into a larger tale somewhere down the line. More recently, Jane Borges’ “Bombay Balchao” was another book written in the experimental fiction format – a collection of seemingly unrelated short stories woven together to form a novel. Both Ogawa and Borges are a pure delight to readers with their literary prowess in taking writing – and reading – to a different level.

Coming back to Revenge, it can be termed as a series of dark tales, with sinister elements binding them to one another. The protagonist of one story can be a minor character in another, at times not even named – leaving the reader to decipher who we are reading about, what role they play in each story, are they even connected or does the reader feel so because we assume the stories are strung together. The eerie world created by Ogawa moves across generations, time spans, places – past, present, future, the real world and the supernatural, fact and fantasy all drawn in as well as apart from each other.

An aspiring writer, a murderous landlady, an obsessed bag maker, a singer, a surgeon, a Bengal tiger, a mother, strawberry cake – crossing paths and converging their fates in this dark web of vengefulness. Ogawa can be emotional and unsettling, impassive and heartbreaking, creepy and gentle. Her macabre take on relationships and emotions make this book effectively terrifying. Revenge is not horror in the traditional sense. A passenger train, a bakery, home gardening – the fact that her settings are so bland ups the ante of the terrors that lurk within. Ogawa’s writing can transform a normal scene next door to something downright horrifying – nothing seems out of the ordinary, and you can’t tell when and how the horror crept up on you. The best part is connecting the stories, navigating clues as you wander in this strange world.

Of course, Ogawa’s frequent English translation collaborator Stephen Snyder deserves as much of credit as the writer herself, for marvelously bringing life to her stories. Horror fans might not find this “scary” enough, and Ogawa’s fans might find this a little disturbingly different from her other works. Revenge is a collection/novel that would be appreciated by literary fans – those who revel in the written word and the beauty she creates with literature.

My rating – 5/5

Black Cranes – Book Review

Title – Black Cranes

Author(s) – Multiple

Editors – Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Genre – Multi-genre anthology

“Several times, I’ve woken before sunrise, convinced that something has changed in the middle of the night. As though some god has reached down, and, with a colossal finger, nudged the earth, and now everything is sitting two degrees off-kilter. I scan above for the subtle movement of the clouds, to assure myself that the sky is not a two-dimensional poster glued onto a false backdrop.”

These words could not have rung truer than in the present scenario, with everything seeming to go wrong this year. Tales of Unquiet Women is a befitting subtitle for this collection of short stories, written by women from Southeast Asian backgrounds. I came across this book on a horror literature forum, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the writings cover a plethora of genres – including science fiction, fantasy, humor, mythology, folklore and legend, subtly merging with horror rather than an out-an-out spook fest. The team of contributors come from Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and even Asian immigrants to the US and New Zealand, as an embrace as well as rejection of traditional concepts related to femininity and what it means to be a woman – in times gone by, present day, and in years to come. The collection features fourteen stories – including contributions by the editors themselves and a wonderful foreword from Alma Katsu – all different from each other, but similar in their women characters striving to make a place for themselves in their worlds. From spirit foxes taking human form, and ghost babies created from unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, to military women fighting for their place in a male-dominated post-apocalyptic world, and individuals cloned to fabricate the perfect person. There is humor in a spirit expressing discomfort in a human body due to the constrictive lotus feet, and a woman believing her husband is an alien due to an emotional distance after years of marriage; satire in the obsession over fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, and the “perfect” attributes of grace, obedience and not speaking ones mind; the frustration of being perfect, but not perfect enough; horrors of betrayal, the warmth of a monster protecting a child, and peculiar tales featuring shelter animals, and monsters and motherhood. The genres and themes cover such a wide range, there is something here for everyone.

The writing is sheer brilliance – quite commendable in an anthology where authors of equal credibility need to be sourced. I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes from the book, without revealing the specific writer or story. Note how wonderful they are in their own way.

~In the abandon of your fury, you had cut yourself on its spiteful blade.

~You stormed from room to room, spewing your hurt and your hate, so it dribbled down the wallpaper and seeped through the cracks in the floorboards.

~Alongside a dragon, a butterfly flutters.

~You stitched a life from scraps left in the laundry.

~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.

~Memory is an ocean wave: once it has attained enough momentum, it can’t be stopped. It must rise, swell, peak, crash, and be endured.

~A double-punch to the gut – the first blow rendering me immobile for the second, the second intensifying the first. The ripping of a half-dried scab to expose a festering wound.

~Family matter. I’ve heard that excuse many times. Abuse wrapped up in a pretty little bow so no one admits it happens.

~Her eyes were patchwork – flecks of blue and black pooled into warring factions that expressed the conflict inside the girl.

~You live in a monster’s empire. You’re only upset because you’re not the biggest monster anymore.

~She speaks in a language I don’t recognize, but somehow an understanding sinks into my skin. She speaks of buried dreams, and choked-back words, and old fury knotted into a lump as cold and dense as a black dwarf star.

~Women can be scientists, warriors, princesses, soldiers, caretakers, spirits. We can be many things. The only thing we can’t be is defeated.

A powerful anthology that serves as a reflection of Asian societies – the role of societal expectations, familial obligations, the oppressiveness, submissiveness, and the need for self identity. The element of horror so smoothly weaves itself into the warp and weft of the lyrical and haunting prose, you don’t realize what you’re getting at until you get there. I wish I could review each story individually. I can’t pick a favorite from the lot because they are all so good. The title lends its own significance to the stories within – cranes being associated with grace and fragility, versus the darkness within that finds its way out when suppressed for too long. And that gorgeous cover – a pop of color in the black and grey; a metaphor for beating the darkness and bursting forth with our true selves. This is dark, reflective fiction at its best.

My rating – 5/5

August 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in August – a mix of historical fiction, science fiction, horror, memoir, short stories, literature in translation and non-fiction.

~Orphaned by S.L. Bhyrappa – A Kannada-English translation of a book originally written in the 1960s, with its English version only having come out last year. Set around an old Kannada folk song about a cow and a tiger, the story narrates the significance of the cow in Indian culture through old world traditions versus modern lifestyles, morals and values, ethics and science, cross cultural and cross generational beliefs and conflicts. A thought-provoking book that has no right or wrong, but requires the reader to reflect and bring ones own meaning and interpretation to the forefront. A powerful story that hasn’t lost its relevance over time, brilliantly translated in spite of its heavy blend of Sanskrit within Kannada. 5/5

~Dancing in the Family by Sukanya Rahman – An inter-generational memoir that showcases the changing backdrop of Indian classical dance through history. The author takes us along on a journey with her grandmother, mother and herself – all eminent dancers in their chosen styles. Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Ballet, Modern Dance – the book is a historical wonder of dancers and a bond forged through dance that was thicker than blood. Truly a gem of literature in the classical arts, replete with wonderful archival photographs dating from the 1800s though the years, with each remarkable woman representing her generation. 5/5

~Girl with a Pearl earring by Tracy Chevalier – A historical fiction, speculative biography of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, and his most famous work – The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Vermeer was known to be a recluse, with barely 35 paintings to his credit, and was one of the greatest enigmas of the art world in the 1600s. His work reflected themes of domestic life, subtlety and simplicity with an emphasis on light and texture. The author attempts to recreate the story behind the anonymous muse of the titular art – and the narrator of the book herself – taking us into Vermeer’s closeted world of color. A stunning story, simple in narration but rich in color, just like its inspiration. 5/5

~Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat – A collection of short stories about Haitian people, all dealing with themes of immigration, displacement, family, community, diasporic experiences, relationships that bind as well as those that break people apart. Short stories can be impactful because brevity lends them power. They can offer serenity, be warm, upsetting, joyful, moving, illuminating, educative, hopeful – each story powerful in its own way, Danticat truly a magician with the written word as she works the reader’s emotions just like her characters. 5/5

~The Humans by Matt Haig – A mathematics professor gets abducted by aliens, who send one of their own to impersonate him and document life on Earth. Body-snatching and numbers have never been so funny and entertaining while being philosophical and moving. Haig’s originality and humor are commendable, teaching us about ourselves through an outsider’s perspective. A science fiction delight of a book that will keep you laughing all the way through, with its subtle insights and contemplation. 4/5

~Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra – An attempt to revisit the Partition of India through objects carried by refugees as they crossed the border on both sides. Described as material memory, the author aims to identify belongings, mementos, gifts – things that people hurriedly picked up or chanced upon or happened to inherit – that hold memories of life in undivided India, and what those memories and objects mean to them now. An alternative history of the Partition viewed as a tangible event, the book can be described as a cross between history and anthropology, wonderfully researched and presented. 5/5

~Things Not Made by Michael Sellars – A peculiar story about beings that hate readers and everything that comes with them – books, words, sentences, paragraphs, stories. They’re allergic to books, and booknerds serve as an anathema. So they’re out to eliminate anyone who loves the written word. An odd book that keeps you guessing all the way, as it takes your mind on a trip to another world, just like the story itself does. Quality writing, unsettling adventures, witty dialogue, well fleshed out  characters, vocabulary that makes you pause, and above all, the significance of the title of the book, make this one adventure you want to as well as don’t want to miss out on. 5/5

~The Sweetmeat by K. Saraswathi – A Malayalam-English translation from the Amma Series, a feminist classic that addresses themes of love, marriage, relationships through the prisms of intoxication, dominance, inferiority, domestic abuse, the blurred lines of victim and victor, cause and effect, and the vicious circle of each leading to the other. The fact that the writer’s works were neglected in her own state and country due to her feminist stance, and gained popularity only after being published in American journals, shows the true strength of literature and the power of its honesty. 5/5

Things Not Made – Book Review

Title – Things Not Made

Author – Michael Sellars

Genre – Horror

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A peculiar story about beings that hate readers and everything that comes with them – books, words, sentences, paragraphs, stories. They’re allergic to books, and booknerds serve as an anathema. So they’re out to eliminate anyone who loves the written word.

Holly is a bookworm who loves reading more than anything else. She always has a book on her or stashes one some place nearby, is perpetually ready to recommend titles to fellow readers, and is happy to convert non-readers into readers. “Books just pull me in, wrap themselves around me”, she declares. One evening in a bar with her former college mate turned friend and colleague Melanie, Holly finds her drink spiked while Melanie is off to catch up with some friends. A man in a green hood stares at her intently while she realizes her predicament, and finds herself in a parallel world – a facsimile of the place she is in, but with nothing and no one except her and the hooded man. A new kind of drug, an alien abduction, or is she just losing her mind? Melanie sets off to find and rescue her friend in this strange world, replete with horrifying creatures alongside riddles on books and reading. The two friends are separated not only from each other but from reality itself, trying to discern the identity of the hooded man, fathom the happenings around them, and navigate a path to safety.

“Things Not Made” is truly a reader’s delight, with the plethora of books, quotes and excerpts finding their way into the narrative. With its inherent horror and smatterings of humor, Michael Sellars proves to be a worthy competitor to his protagonist Holly – the love for reading, search for appropriate vocabulary in thought and conversation, prioritizing books and writers whatever might be the situation. As a reader, I could see myself in Holly and Melanie – identifying books from their quotes, reminiscing about classics read long ago, comparing page numbers between tomes, literally going off track where books are concerned in spite of the horrific situation at hand. “Books aren’t just delivery systems for words and stories, they’re sacred objects.” The atmosphere is surreal, with terrifying descriptions of the anti-book beings enveloped in a world where reading is looked down upon, and could even bring you harm. Incunabula, deliquesce, miasma, putrescence, collective nouns can be kryptonite or saviors here, depending on who’s asking. The friendship between the two lead characters has a story of its own, adding to their camaraderie in the narrative and its outcome, while being authentic and moving to the reader.

An odd book that keeps you guessing all the way, as it takes your mind on a trip to another world, just like the story itself does. The chapters are narrated alternately from Holly’s and Melanie’s points of view so we experience each ones take on this strange new world and what to make of it. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ethan Frome, and Alan Moore, nestled snugly beside The Haunting of Hill House, Frankenstein, and Turn of the Screw, with exploding snakes, spiky rodents, and crawling hands just within reach. Incorporating classic writers and works of literature in an out-and-out horror book was a very striking endeavor, and Sellars manages it masterfully. Quality writing, unsettling adventures, witty dialogue, well fleshed out  characters, vocabulary that makes you pause, and above all, the significance of the title of the book, make this one adventure you want to as well as don’t want to miss out on.

My rating – 5/5