Asian horror appears to have been on the rise in recent years with literary events and awards lists featuring both indigenous writers and people of the diaspora—those living beyond Asia in other countries. These creatives are bringing old lore and fresh perspectives to the horror genre, addressing topics such as gender, tradition, racism, poverty, war, and oppression through the lens of their lived experience. And Asian horror stories run the full gamut from terror to triumph, from epic adventure to ethereal ghost tales, and from bloody battles to quiet suffering. Yet as rich and vibrant as they are chilling, Asian stories always present a challenge, told as they are at the intersection of cultures, languages, landscapes, and generations.
Throughout Asian Heritage Month, Kendall Reviews is celebrating Asian horror creatives, culture, and folklore in this exclusive interview series with contributors from Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror edited by Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith (Black Spot Books, Feb 2023)
Today, we welcome Eliza Chan, who is a Scottish-born Chinese speculative fiction author who writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic. Her short fiction has been published in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy. Her debut novel FATHOMFOLK — inspired by mythology, ESEAN cities and diaspora feels — will be published by Orbit in Spring 2024.
She has been a medical school drop-out, a kilt shop assistant, an English teacher and a speech and language therapist, but currently she spends her time tabletop gaming, cosplaying, crafting and toddler wrangling.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits is “Lucky Numbers, or why 28 > 58” and is a personal reflection on numerology—the concept that some numbers are inherently good or bad luck— on aspects of her life and identity.
Kendall Reviews: What does Asian Heritage Month mean for you?
Eliza Chan: The US Asian Heritage Month is something that I’ve only been aware of in the last five years or so. As someone of the Chinese diaspora who is not based in the US, it’s a brilliant opportunity for me to learn about the similarities and differences in our communities, as well as celebrate the amazing Asian creatives out there. Growing up I struggled to find common interest with my local Chinese community, and I always felt like an outsider. It’s absolutely wonderful to find I’m not alone and that diaspora Asian creatives are pushing boundaries around the world. The UK has started their own East and South-East Asia Heritage month in September, but it’s only been running for two years. I can’t wait to see how it grows and evolves also.
For example, when I heard about the first anthology in the series, Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, I was astounded there were enough Asian women horror writers to make an anthology in the first place, and also that it won the most prestigious awards in the genre! Yes, I was glad there was a readership, but for selfish reasons I was even more excited about this sisterhood of weird that existed. Asian Heritage Month is a chance to find out about
things like this. To connect the disparate groups scattered around the globe to say we exist and we hear you.
KR: What is it about horror that appeals to you?
EC: I fell into horror through the back door through fantasy! I love all things folklore and mythology and most of my work is around updating traditional folktales and reclaiming the frustratingly passive, seductive and fridged female figures. It is odd to me that folktales/fairy tales are considered childish because beyond the sanitised versions, some of those originals were grim (excuse the pun). Amputated body parts, gouged out eyes and heads in sacks, steaming entrails and skinned ripped off. What’s not to like? I like the sort of stories where the real monster isn’t the grotesque beast lurking under the bed. It’s the suave attractive prince at the door. Or it’s the reflection in the mirror.
KR: What makes Asian horror unique?
EC: Asian horror always feels more alive and immediate to me. The belief systems and superstitions are living ones, not ones of musty history books. I’ve never seen a dog-collared priest do an exorcism, nor have I (fortunately) seen a hockey mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding psychopath in my local neighbourhood. But my mother swears she saw her mother’s ghost sit down at the dinner table. People burn offerings for relatives who have passed away as well as hungry ghosts. You might throw beans at demons or feed choi to lion dancers. Respect for spirits is part of a living culture. And that makes the horror from those spirits both more mundane and more real.
KR: Please tell us about the supernatural, superstitious, or spiritual aspect that was the focus of your essay. What made you choose it? Have you been inspired to write about any others?
EC: Luck is a universal concept across cultures, as is the idea that you can have good luck and bad luck items. I am fascinated that within the Cantonese Chinese community I grew up in, it extends much further than this. That luck if finite and must therefore be courted and hoarded. “Lucky Numbers, or why 28 > 58” explores how my life experience has changed me from rolling my eyes at these beliefs, to gaining a deeper understanding about why they are important for some, especially for a first-generation emigrant who had little control over many aspects of her life. Growing up I thought it was just my mother being superstitious but came to realise numerology beliefs continue across Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.
KR: Does your other horror work feature Asian myth and folklore? Do you make a conscious decision to include Asian experiences/characters in your writing?
EC: Horror is a great medium for exploring othering. Ghosts and monsters are outside normal society, just as many from the diaspora community feel like we occupy a liminal space where we are neither and both Eastern or Western enough. I started including more Asian or biracial characters in my work after I lived in Japan and realised I didn’t just have to write about white men. It also came at a time when I started using social media and realising there are other Asian creatives out there writing Asian point of view characters. Finding short fiction by Ken Liu, Alyssa Wong and Neon Yang massively impacted on the characters I decided to write. It was like someone unlocked a door in my head, giving me the permission I had denied myself for so long.
Sometimes my characters’ Asian experience is important to the plot such as in Joss Papers for Porcelain Ghosts, The Tails that Make You or Knowing Your Type which explicitly explore identity. But in other work such as Kikinasai and One More Song it wasn’t relevant to plot. If it could be anyone, then why not let it be an Asian character.
KR: Any Asian/Asian diaspora creatives you’d like to give a shout-out to?
EC: Too many to count! Zen Cho’s range from contemporary to historical fantasy always deals with difficult issues but somehow makes it appear light and easy. Her most recent novel Black Water Sister is superb and her short fiction in Spirits Abroad are must-reads for me. Fonda Lee is an absolute powerhouse of world-building and making her own subgenre of gangster martial arts fantasy in the Jade City trilogy. Isabel Yap and Vanessa Fogg who both writing lyrical short fiction and have collections out.
The writers who shared raw, difficult experiences in their personal essays within Unquiet Spirits are also names I’ll be looking out for in the future especially Lee Murray, Angela Yuriko-Smith, Geneve Flynn, Rena Mason, Ai Jiang, K.P. Kulski, and Yi Izzy Yu.
KR: Here is an excerpt from Eliza’s Unquiet Spirits essay:
Four. A near homophone for death. And fourteen—definite death. A major problem extending far beyond the connotations of unlucky number thirteen. Pervasively infecting many aspects of life.
I was a teenager when I first visited Hong Kong. Standing in the elevator watching the numbers tick upwards, I distracted myself from the sticky humidity by looking at the buttons. Hong Kong was my first experience with high-rise apartment blocks. Rows and rows of buttons representing each floor like I had only seen in films. Even at my grandparents’ modest apartment block, there were more than thirty floors, and this was nowhere near the height of the shining skyscrapers at the waterfront. It was then that I realised some buttons were missing: 4, 14, 24.
KR: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you. Any news you’d like to share?
EC: I have two short stories forthcoming this year which are polar opposites! A cosy fantasy slice of life about a prayer to Guanyin that gets lost in translation will be online with Worlds of Possibility. The second is a horror inspired by mining in the North of England.
I am also incredibly excited about 2024, when my debut novel FATHOMFOLK will be released by Orbit in the US and UK. It’s an adult fantasy exploring what if those immigrants taking our jobs were seafolk in a flooded ESEAN inspired city. It’s a story about rebellion, identity, diaspora feels and water dragons. Because I always insert dragons wherever they’ll let me.
KR: Thank you for dropping by!
Catch up on Kendall Reviews Asian Heritage Month Exclusive Interviews and content please follow the links.
Kendall Reviews talks to…
Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
From hungry ghosts, vampiric babies, and shapeshifting fox spirits to the avenging White Lady of urban legend, for generations, Asian women’s roles have been shaped and defined through myth and story. In Unquiet Spirits, Asian writers of horror reflect on the impact of superstition, spirits, and the supernatural in this unique collection of 21 personal essays exploring themes of otherness, identity, expectation, duty, and loss, and leading, ultimately, to understanding and empowerment.
Website and social media links.
Links to other works mentioned in the text here.
Joss Papers for Porcelain Ghosts The Dark Magazine
The Tails that Make You Fantasy Magazine
Knowing Your Type Three Crows Magazine
Kikinasai Flame Tree Publishing
One More Song Podcastle
Zen Cho www.zencho.org
Fonda Lee www.fondalee.com
Isabel Yap www.isabelyap.com
Vanessa Fogg www.vanessafogg.com
Worlds of Possibility www.juliarios.com