By Atikah Abdul Wahid
I’ve always wanted to write a horror short story. Granted, my fiction writing resume is still quite short, but this story is one of my many firsts as a writer. When I saw the call for submission for the inaugural Remang horror anthology, I knew I wanted to take part in it. Maybe I want to emulate what Stephen King did to me through Carrie and The Shining. If you think reading horror stories are thrilling, creating one is even better.
The horror genre gives writers a free pass to create a world that is part realistic, part fantasy, and with a dash of chills. I also like the fact that I can create and pinpoint the exact moment when the story crawls under the skin of the readers, bringing discomfort and unsettling them. Readers always anticipate this exact moment, so it is the responsibility of the writer to bring it on when they do not expect it.
However, I didn’t want to just go into the usual bag of tricks of Malaysian horror with long-haired women by the roadside or tiny green creatures sneaking into people’s bedrooms. No, I wanted them to be recognisable but also, just slightly off from the classics: the pontianak is not waiting by the roadside anymore; she’s on a stolen motorbike, egging horny random mat rempits for a race. The modern-day toyol is not looking through your wardrobe for loose change; they’re in dodgy cybercafes, phishing for your private information. I wanted something new and yet Malaysian in essence. It’s the 21st century, and we have new horrors now.
It is said that the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown. If that is true, all ghost stories with classical, well-known tropes should no longer fascinate and terrify us. Yet, we still lean in greedily whenever a friend tells us, over a roadside table at the mamak, about a friend of a friend who recently got possessed while staying at some dodgy hotel. We read blog posts, Facebook statuses and Twitter threads about personal encounters with the supernatural kind. We spread shaky videos of exorcisms through Whatsapp quicker than a virus, authenticity be damned. Maybe it isn’t the fear of the unknown that drove our fascination with horror stories; it is the love for the familiar.
Almost every Malaysian horror story is something that you heard from somebody you know. Six degrees separation between you and a nightmare situation involving a bomoh, jembalang or pontianak. I suppose the thrill of horror is that, just by a stroke of luck, you were not that poor, pitiful main character in those horror stories. But you could be, and your story still might be the one that they whispered about at mamak stalls, or featured in horror true story blogs in the future. For now, though, you’re safe. Or, I hope so.
I didn’t want a classic monster for my story “Restless”, but I wanted a familiar protagonist. Elena is just another teenage girl, trying to survive the cutthroat Malaysian education system. However, unlike other teenage girls, Elena is haunted by something that she doesn’t quite understand from within her mind. What happens when you are your own monster? Surviving through SPM is the least of her problems when she can’t even guarantee she could survive another day.
Writing “Restless” took many months, even longer to see it in print. While this story might not be the most recognisably Malaysian horror story—no pontianaks in this one—it is a horror story and, without revealing too much, it revolves around a tragedy that only Malaysians could relate. I hope that my first foray in writing horror will be creepy for you but also makes you think of all the unusual possibilities of undiscovered fears that are familiar and yet, new at the same time.
Like I said, we have new horrors now.