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 Rena Mason, who is an American horror and dark speculative fiction author of Thai-Chinese descent and a three-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award. Her co-written screenplay RIPPERS was a 2014 Stage 32 /The Blood List Presents®: The Search for New Blood Screenwriting Contest Quarter-Finalist. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, The International Screenwriters’ Association, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and the Public Safety Writers Association. She is a retired registered nurse and currently resides in the Great Lakes State of Michigan.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits is “Lady Nak of Phra Kanong: A Life Inspired by the Female Duality Archetype” and is a personal reflection on cautionary ghost stories her mother told to elicit good daughterly behaviour.
Kendall Reviews: What does Asian Heritage Month mean for you?
Rena Mason: I celebrate Asian Heritage Month by sharing and promoting all things AAPI from history to artists, fashion, horror films, books, like Unquiet Spirits, some of my favourite dishes and foods, people in the current spotlight, and even vacation destinations I’ve travelled to. A couple of my personal favourite books are Jamie Ford’s Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, and for horror, BØDY by Asa Nonami. Artists: Hisashi Otsuka, Ruth Asawa. Designers: Vera Wang, Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Anna Sui, Laura Kim. THE MEDIUM (2022) is a grisly fantastic Thai horror film. Thai crab with glass noodles is my favourite dish, as well as anything to do with red bean or matcha. My favourite dessert flavour is pandan. It is a very unique Asian flavour I’ve not tasted in the West. Japanese sushi and Polynesian poke are also favourite dishes. If you’re ever on vacation in Thailand, I have to recommend a visit to Chiang Mai in the north for the incredible views and then the south for some diving in and around Phukhet and the Phi Phi Islands, but be cautious of every lionfish species known to man and the strong currents. You also can’t go wrong with any of the Society or Hawaiian Islands.
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?
RM: Mae or Nang Nak (Lady Nak) is as Thais believe it, a true story about a good wife who dies during childbirth. After local villagers warn her husband Pee Mak (returning from war against Burma either in the late 1700s or mid-1800s) that his wife and child are dead, she a malevolent ghost and attacks and kills a few of them. It’s still a very powerful story to this day in Thailand. Operas, numerous plays, and several movies have been made from it. The highest-grossing Thai film ever made is PEE MAK (2013). It’s Mae Nak’s story but told from her husband’s point of view. I chose her for my essay because she is the most famous ghost in Thailand and one I know very well because it was ingrained in me by my mother when I was growing up. I’m currently working on a screenplay and novel that involves an encounter with Mae Nak from a Westernized point of view, but I’ve also written other stories about Chinese ghosts and demons. My short story “Jaded Winds” was reprinted last year in Flame Tree Press’s Asian Ghost Short Stories. It’s my homage to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and I use several ghosts and supernatural entities to forewarn the antagonist. More recently, I have a hard fantasy horror short story “Tiger Claws and Crocodile Jaws” to be published in an upcoming swords and sorcery anthology. The title is taken from a popular Thai proverb—Escape a tiger, meet a crocodile. I utilized a Thai folktale nocturnal spirit and sorcerer, Krahang, as the villain. He’s able to fly by flapping rice baskets strapped to his arms and rides around on a giant pestle and is known to attack women in villages.
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?
RM: Yes. A lot of my work does include Asian myth and folklore, even if it’s not readily apparent or intended. Sometimes I make a conscious effort and sometimes I don’t. My first novel, The Evolutionist, is about feeling othered in a kind “Stepford/Valley of the Dolls” community, but I never went into any detail regarding my main character’s ethnic background or appearance. In Weird Tales Magazine Issue #364, I wrote the story “To the Marrow” where the main character, Tala, is Filipino, but I never make her heritage obvious other than in her name. Tala in Tagalog means bright star/is a mythological goddess of the stars. She was a good goddess, but Western influence turned her into something more sinister. “To the Marrow” is about a woman who becomes trapped in a mountain yet travels the stars to a strange distant place and then madness ensues. Another more recent story I wrote, “Earth Smothers Fire” has to do with Western influences of religion and the conflicts they present in a supernatural character with an Asian heritage.
KR: Here is an excerpt from Rena’s essay in Unquiet Spirits:
Every recollection of the lore I’d heard focused on Thai women who’d been good girls, good women, good sisters, wives, and mothers who had done everything right in life. Then a random tragedy would befall them, causing them to become angry, vengeful, frightening—turn evil. Men in these stories played a lesser protagonist role, their parts often short-lived once they discovered the angry ghost and then got rid of it and became the hero, or died and became a martyr.
These archetypes have long been told and written of in Asian stories, most recognizably in Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a collection of fantastical and supernatural tales where women in one form or another are to blame for the plights of honest men.
KR: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you. Any news you’d like to share?
RM: I’m busy helping with promotion for Unquiet Spirits and also the re-release of my first novel, The Evolutionist, mentioned above. It’s tentatively scheduled for publication in April-May for its ten-year anniversary through Encylopocalypse Publications. I’m excited to share the new cover and interior layout. I’m also working on revisions for my next novel, a short story, the screenplay mentioned above, its novelization, and I’m already looking ahead at my next several novel projects, one of which is a YA romance series written under a pen name, and an urban-ish dark fantasy horror series. And yes, just briefly thinking on it, they all have Asian or Asian heritage main characters.
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.