On Horror and Identity

I love speaking at conventions. This whole career as a sinologist started with talks to anime crowds about the films, foods, myth and music of China. In the midst of the buzz around my upcoming collection, Sinophagia, I was excited to be included on the panel of “Horror and Identity” as part of this year’s Flight of Foundry, especially with such a diverse collection of fellow guests to talk about the genre, and how our lived experiences and outlooks informed it. 

We discussed why we work in the horror genre, what drew us to it in the first place, and how our backgrounds, and personal viewpoints influence the way we engage with the genre, and what fear means to us. 

I have always been drawn to Horror as a genre. I remember loving ghost stories when I was very young, and the strong feelings that certain dark villains at the theatre invoked in me. China as a whole though, draws different boundaries around the genre, and has a very different relationship with things like classic ghost stories, which I remember watching adapted on TV, where they aired well before my bedtime as a young child. On the subject of Fear, I found my unusual experiences have very much shaped my own ideas, and my mishmash of cultural identities have certainly influenced my views on horror. Apart from the old Chinese supernatural tales of my childhood, there were the Victorian mysteries of my adolescence in Britain, and the gothic fiction I studied at university. I went on to fall in love with the modern Chinese oral traditions, the Hammer Studios films, and rekindle my connection with the 1980s Hong Kong zombie movies, all whilst digesting the contemporary world of horror cinema and comics I have been enjoying as an adult. The hodge podge of social groups and subcultures I have found myself feeling at home in, have shown me the shapes of their fear, which, whilst I may not necessarily share, I have grown to understand and empathise with. 

We also spoke, in the panel, about the challenges of working on horror within our own identities. So much of horror is closely related to identity and as a minority, and person of colour, I feel very fortunate to be writing and translating in a post-Peele world, where there is increasing social acceptance of stories that hail from very different viewpoints to the European and white American experience.  

There are of course, challenges of presenting traditions of horror that are strange to an Anglophone readership, though this sense of otherness could turn out to be a blessing. For readers that want to experience fear in new ways and learn about different cultures, new horror traditions could offer new settings, perspectives and a different tempo in storytelling. Even if the trigger for the horror element is culturally specific, there is a way that fear manifests in literature, a certain rhythm in the text, an unheimlich feeling, that is universal to us all. Often this is sufficient for experiencing the fear the author intends to generate, but should the reader be interested in finding out about the roots of a fear that is alien to them, I usually contextualise it for them in the commentaries I include in my anthology collections. 

Another challenge I have to face, which is specific to my cultural identity, is the current taboo in China around horror writing. The genre last flourished during the early 2000s, both in written fiction and cinema, however, after a tragic series of incidents related to certain films and novels, the government began discouraging writings in the genre. It takes education and counseling to prevent further tragedies, not censorship, but still, many writers began to veer away from the subject. Those who continue to create horror are still finding plenty of material for inspiration, and their stories have been well received online, despite the genre still being viewed by the majority as ‘trash fiction’. The challenge is great from within. With Sinophagia, which gathers three generations of writers and web novelists, I intend to help initiate a change in attitude. The Anglophone horror market is a lot more mature, and it is often when you are distanced from something that you begin to appreciate its appeal. 

We also discussed physical horror, which seemed to get the most traction, versus mental horror, as well as ways in which traditional concepts of horror can be broadened. While there is nothing wrong with the entertainment value of adrenaline-peaking jump scares and gore fests, what I have always found more frightening is the eerie, creeping kind of fear. There can be a difference between a scary movie, a ghost story, and a horror story. Holding no aversion to any genre, I have tried to take a broad view of it, and whilst most of the works I have curated for Sinophagia, fall into the psychological horror category, there are a few that offer pretty gory affairs, and plenty of jumps.  

After decades of political strife, and rapid economic development, writers and artists are finally examining the consequences of these events and changes, resulting in some fantastic social horrors, even under the current censorship of the genre. I am seeing a lot of blending of genres, which definitely widen, and sometimes defy categorisation. While there are still the traditional ghost stories and survival horror in contemporary Chinese fiction, authors are also combining science fiction with gothic horror, xianxia and folk horror, and so forth. 

As the panel came to an end, some lighter questions were asked. 

What do I think about happy endings?
I would always aim at good endings over happy ones, which are often unresolved, or leave you perturbed. 

What would you like to see more of ?
I would like to see more horror fiction dealing with China’s modern history. 

What would you like to see in the next five years?
Honestly? I want to see things I couldn’t possibly comprehend. I want to be as surprised as anyone.


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