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 Yi Izzy Yu. A former translator and professor in China, she immigrated to the US in 2011 and earned a PhD in Applied Linguistics. Since then, she has worked as a DJ, taught Chinese, English, and Cross-Cultural Communication in high schools and colleges, and published a wide variety of creative work. Her most recent book-length project is The Shadow Book of Ji Yun, a collection of translated Chinese weird fiction and nonfiction.
Her essay in Unquiet Spirits “The Substitute” is a personal reflection on cycles of trauma, repetition-compulsion, and her great-aunt’s suicide via the figure of the tisigui, the substitute ghost.
Kendall Reviews: What is it about horror that appeals to you?
Yi Izzy Yu: First off, horror is one of those most deeply hard-wired, universal, primal, and fundamental of genres. You can directly draw a line from it to common features of dream narrative: its haunting atmospheres, symbolic density and metaphorical logic, its constant transformations, and its foregrounding of anxieties, fears, threat rehearsals. It’s no surprise much canonical horror was inspired by dreams, such as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or that you so frequently find horror and dreams paired together in storylines, for example the Shinya Tsukamoto’s Nightmare Detective movie series, Junji Ito’s “The Long Dream” and “The Sandman’s Lair” manga, or several of the episodes of the Mushi-shi anime. In a sense, writing a story is like having a lucid dream.
Another thing I like about horror is how it peers beneath the polite masks we wear in public to explore our hidden vulnerabilities, shames, desires, griefs, fears; taboo ideas and philosophies; and what Stephen King calls our “anti-civilization impulses.” It’s very “warts and all” humanistic, rawly so. If you’re a lover of human psychology, complexity, or paradox, there’s no more interesting place to be, at least for me.
Finally, more than anything, it’s probably the fact that horror creates a large space for the exploration of occult, mythopoeic, and metaphysical ideas that attracts me the most. This has much to do with its roots in religion and mythology, two areas I’ve always been drawn to by personal inclination and by virtue of growing up in the folklore-rich, shamanistic culture of China.
KR: Please tell us about the supernatural, superstitious, or spiritual aspect that was the focus of your essay. What made you choose it?
YIY: My essay is about the tisigui, a suicide ghost that endlessly repeats its tragic end and that also tries to trick others into ending their life in the manner that it did so it can be released from its fate. To get its victim to do this, it makes use of illusions: say making a noose look like an open window or, if the victim is driving, a brick wall look like open road. Or it might simply whisper and make the victim feel so much shame and guilt that they want to take their life.
As for why I chose it, I’ve always found it an incredibly rich figure. Its illusion-creating aspect reminds me of all the false things we chase, mistaking them for quite different things—something both Buddhism and Taoism warns against. And its compulsion to inflict its fate on others in an ill-fated attempt to free itself reminds me of all manners of cyclical phenomena and repetition. These include samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth due to karma; cycles of nature, abuse, generational trauma, and also our need to reproduce our ideologies and languages in others via custom and tradition. You can’t wade into Asian horror very far without giving the concept of cycles a lot of thought.
KR: What do you hope readers will take away from your essay?
YIY: So many things. That’s one of the great beauties of the rich, montage-ish “messay” form that editors Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith chose as the template for the personal essays in Unquiet Spirits. It braids together a lot, just like our lives.
Above all, I want the reader to know my great-aunt Wang Peiyu’s name and to think about the lives of forgotten women like her and the injustices done to them. In this, “The Substitute” is a bit of a shrine. I also want to bring attention to the lives of immigrants and all the ways human beings are reborn into new lives: via new countries and states, new names, new jobs; via injury, marriage, and parenthood.
I hope some of the rich Chinese folklore in the essay stays with the reader too—the function of murder bones and ax talismans; Taoist apocalypse narratives, urban legends about substitute roads, and the tragic backstory of the canonical long-haired Asian ghost with the hanging tongue.
In a geekier vein, I hope readers appreciate the zhiguai form in which the essay is written. It’s a classical Chinese genre going back to works like Gan Bao’s In Search of the Supernatural and is very “messayish” in structure via its melding of folklore, metaphysical philosophy; and historical and personal anecdote. My essay also melds together the Chinese and English language, and each of its segments is entitled with an English word and a Chinese ideogram. The Chinese ideograms taken collectively deliver a second “shadow” narrative.
Via the zhiguai form, I nodded as well to several concepts from Chinese philosophy, for example, the Chinese concept of li—those basic structuring principles that underlie and archetypally resonate across different layers of reality: the macro and the micro, the social and the individual, the supernatural and the natural, the strange and the mundane, the symbolic and the literal, the material and the immaterial, and so on.
Finally, as in all my work, I tried hard to work against either/or thinking and to champion instead Asian both/and thinking. For example, I want readers think about the ways in which the natural world can seem quite supernatural. So I also included thoughts on Richard Dawkin’s theory that memes are mental parasites bent on propagating themselves in other humans and details about the parasitic behaviour of the aquatic horsehair worm which reproduces itself in crickets, hijacks their nervous system, and causes them to drown themselves—all part of a quite bizarre cycle of reproduction. There’s that old saying that life is far stranger than fiction. By the same token, I think the natural world is every bit as strange as the supernatural one. And maybe they’re not so different. This is an idea that Asian culture is very friendly toward.
KR: Any Asian/Asian diaspora creatives you’d like to give a shout out to?
YIY: The Black Crane sisterhood, spearheaded by Lee Murray, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Geneve Flynn is reshaping horror on a global scale for the 21st century, so I’m in awe of them individually and collectively. I urge all readers to seek out the three books of their co-edited horror anthologies (Black Cranes, Tortured Willows, and Unquiet Spirits) and read the work of every woman in there. They have published some of the most exciting books in the horror genre in the last few years.
Other anthologists who are introducing important Asian creatives are Xueting C. Ni, Regina Kanyu Wang, and Ken Liu. There are so many great webtoons out there too. Tales of the Unexpected and Sweet Home are two of my favourites. I love what’s happening in K-drama in the last few years as well. Shows like The Alchemy of Souls, Kingdom, The Guest, and All of Us Are Dead are incredible. Finally, I love the Yao-Chinese folktales animated series, especially the very weird and quite brilliant “Goose Mountain.”
KR: An excerpt of “The Substitute”:
In the old days, women sometimes tried to become substitute ghosts on purpose. It was their only shot at power, and so they prepared carefully.
First, they acquired a red robe. Red is the color of yang energy, a kind of spirit camouflage, a color that fools household gods into believing that ghosts are nothing more than the astral-projecting souls of dreamers which flutter thick as moths at night.
Next, the women picked an auspicious night.
Not much after this except the knotting of a rope. Except courage and determination. Except rage and despair.
The women climbed on what they needed to climb—say a stairwell, a chair, a roof. Then just like that, they jumped into power.
Jumped to emerge something different and terrible. Something unstoppable. Something no one owned.
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.
You can buy Unquiet Spirits from Amazon UK & Amazon US
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