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, Lee Murray, a third-generation Chinese New Zealander. A multi-award-winning writer, editor, poet, and anthologist, she is a four-time Bram Stoker Awards®-winner, Shirley Jackson Award-winner, and a USA Today Bestselling author.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits is called “Displaced Spirits: Ghosts of the Diaspora” and it examines displacement, generational loss, and persecution as hungry ghost spirits as it pertains to Chinese women in Aotearoa.
Kendall Reviews: What does Asian Heritage Month mean for you?
Lee Murray: For a long time, I shied away from my Asian heritage. I didn’t consider myself properly Chinese. Born in New Zealand (like my mother before me), I am the product of several cultures, so I am an entirely new monster, a hybrid spawned into a realm teaming with its own Māori gods and ghosts. In some ways, I have grown up as a kind of cultural Frankenstein, obsessed with belonging, and abandoned, like Gretel, to find my own way home. Recently though, perhaps through my connection with the Black Cranes and Tortured Willows sisterhoods, and extended through Unquiet Spirits, I am beginning to be braver, raising my voice and including Asian themes and characters in my writing, reaching back and exploring the Asian spirits that have shaped my upbringing, while still walking the tightrope of cultural expectation. Many of our authors in Unquiet Spirits have done the same thing, drawing on a blend of spiritual belief and superstition to help come to terms with their unique place in the world. While there is a cohesiveness to the essays in Unquiet Spirits, with many of the writers addressing overlapping themes, there are as many points of difference, since Asian cultures are not homogenous, the countries, families, and communities, they have been raised in differ, and each author’s journey is unique to her. I think that is what makes Asian Heritage Month so important to me; the opportunity to celebrate our shared experiences, while also exploring the rich diversity of our voices.
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 it in other work?
LM: In my essay in Unquiet Spirits, I talk of hungry ghosts:
“Among the best known of Asian spirits, hungry ghosts are typically depicted as bony-limbed creatures with scrawny necks and distended stomachs. Pitiful and emaciated, these disenfranchised souls scrabble on their hands and knees in the dirt, consumed by an unrelenting, unrequited hunger.” (Murray, p.2)
Hungry ghosts are caused by evil deeds carried out in a person’s lifetime. However, in the case of women, the bar is pitifully low, so much so just wishing for a second dumpling at breakfast can get you consigned to an afterlife as a hungry ghost. Displacement is another cause: when people die in foreign lands, their spirits become stranded far from their ancestral villages. And Chinese women need not have been the ones to travel. If their menfolk have moved to other countries to work the goldmines or the gum fields and die as hungry ghosts, then their wives and daughters will suffer the same fate. Which means, women of the diaspora are almost certainly doomed to be hungry ghosts. I explore this notion in my essay and include a famous example from New Zealand’s historical archives.
I explored the hungry ghost notion again in my short story, “The Hungry Bones” (in Damnation Games, edited by Alan Baxter, released in 2022 from Clan Destine Press). The story features a favourite Asian character from my Taine McKenna Adventure series, who has become a hungry ghost through the manner of his death, and who has a request of my hero, Sergeant Taine McKenna, himself a matakite, a Māori seer with the ability to speak to the dead. I loved revisiting the characters again, and the chance to blend military horror with Asian spirituality and our Aotearoa landscape. And the story appears alongside some of my favourite writers and under a Luke Spooner cover. I hope readers will check it out.
KR: What do you hope readers will take away from your essay?
LM: For an Asian woman to be unquiet flies in the face of tradition and is a dangerous and courageous act. So while I hope readers will be entertained and informed, I also hope they will recognise the vulnerability required to share these personal stories, and come away with new understanding.
Reader response to the previous books, Black Cranes and Tortured Willows, surprised us; the way the works also incited a deeper conversation between mothers and daughters, sisters, and grandmothers. It was as if we had unleashed a dragon from its lair that was now riding on the wind currents of those stories and poems—and that dragon is billowing fire. I hope the essays in Unquiet Spirits have that same power.
KR: What was your experience of the ‘messay’ approach?
LM: We asked our Unquiet Spirits contributors to address how ghosts and spiritualism have influenced their everyday lives, and many of them adopted the ‘messay’ approach—a blend of memoir and essay—which they found freeing. Book Riot blogger, Amanda Nelson, explains: “Messays can be messy structurally, thematically, emotionally…They often meander. They go off on tangents and then circle back in surprising ways. They shake things up. They’re complicated.” And when you are writing at the intersection of culture and myth, on the blurred margins of identity, and in the no-man’s land between reality and the supernatural, this fresh storytelling approach allowed us to explore and express complex themes, drawing on poetry, fiction excerpts, myth, proverb, personal histories, conversations, and academic sources to convey meaning.
KR: What are you reading right now?
LM: I’m just about to dive into J.A.W. McCarthy’s latest novella, Sleep Alone, about a couple of touring band groupies where the band are a bunch of succubae. A short fiction specialist, over the past couple of years McCarthy has been making waves in horror circles, so I can’t wait to read her longer form work. I’m also currently reading Ryder Kinlay’s highly confronting horror novel, Rehab, a bestseller on the Godless platform, which explores issues of addiction and trauma in an Australian asylum. It’s Kinlay’s first novel and is unflinchingly authentic. While neither title specifically features Asian protagonists, both writers, like me, are Asian diaspora creatives living in the British commonwealth, so I’m excited to read their perspectives.
KR: Here is an excerpt from Lee’s essay in Unquiet Spirits:
I know my mother remembers and honours her parents—knowing her deep affection for them, that is a given—but this summer, over a cup of tea, I ask her if there are others she honours when she lights her joss sticks. Mum looks off into the distance and shrugs, before speaking of great-great grandfathers, of great-aunts and uncles. She offers no names for the people who went before, the people back in China.
“Did you know any of them?” I ask.
My mother pulls a face. The kind you make when there is something disagreeable on your plate. There’s just her paternal grandmother, who she’d met for the first time on a visit to China in 1947 when she was just four.
“What was her name?”
“I don’t know,” Mum says, “but it’ll be recorded somewhere.”
How strange it is, that my mother cannot name her own grandmother. I think about my Māori friends, many of whom can recite the names and deeds of their ancestors going back to the time before demi-god Māui fished up the land from the sea. (Murray, 2023, pp. 6-7)
KR: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you. Any news you’d like to share?
LM: I’m excited to share that I’ve been dipping my toes into screenwriting and I’m the lead writer (with Mia Maramara and Hweiling Ow) on a feature film that has just wrapped up production. Directed by Bafta-nominated Sasha Rainbow, Grafted is produced by Murray Francis, Leela Menon, and Fraser Brown, and stars local talents Joyena Sun, Jared Turner, Jess Hong, and Eden Hart.
“The film tells the story of a Chinese student who travels to New Zealand to complete the scientific work of her deceased father only to find a new way of achieving popularity, one bloody body at a time.” (Ben Dalton, 28 March 2023, in Screendaily).
Yes, it’s body horror, but it’s more than that. It’s a sharp social commentary on otherness, isolation, and the pursuit of beauty, all underpinned by Asian fox spirit mythology. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
KR: Thank you for dropping by!
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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.
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