The Mark – Inspirations, Gratitudes

A couple of months ago, I clicked into the Aurealis Awards website to check out the shortlist for 2019. To my utter amazement, my psychological horror story, The Mark, was amongst the nominations for Best Horror Short Story.

The Mark is my second publication. In June 2018, I toddled along to the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne, where I came across the Monash University Publishing stand. I chatted rather nervously to one of the editors, Amaryllis, who was lovely. The theme for the next issue of Verge clung to me like a sticky film: uncanny. I loved it. Amaryllis encouraged me to make a submission.

My short story process could perhaps be compared to a ripening fruit. An idea drops into my head, but it’s a formless thing at first: smooth and hard and hidden within itself, like a curled-up bud. Then, one day, with the right dose of sunlight or water, it blossoms, ripens, sheds dried petals, and swells to bursting.

It’s at the bursting part that the words flow best.

For The Mark, the time from seed to overripe fruit was short. The seed was the Capgras delusion: a phenomenon I’ve always found fascinating, complex, and haunting. I wanted to delve into, and wrest back control of, the loneliness, grief, and powerlessness of the underrepresented, marginalised, unseen woman.

At the time, I was inspired by works like The Yellow Wallpaper and Alias Grace, both of which challenged notions of womanhood, social roles, unreliability, and madness. I was also deeply moved by women I’d encountered in my life and my work, who’d experienced subjugation in ways large and small, and crafted their own subtle resistances.

Verge accepted my piece, and it appeared in the anthology in June 2019, alongside a host of experimental, brilliant, uncanny works (I highly, highly recommend the collection). For the acceptance, I’m immensely grateful. For Stephen Downes’ editorial hand, reading recommendations, email discussions about the uncanny, and general encouragement, I’m also extremely thankful.

All in all, I feel very lucky to be on the list next to some very established names in Australian SFFH. I look forward to the results of the Aurealis Awards later this year. And as I feel like I’m still very much at the Starting Tavern of my Meandering Adventures in Writing, I look forward to engaging more with the spec-fic community, reading, squee-ing, learning, and waiting for more crazy idea-seeds to explode in my little, nutty head.

Hunger, fury, and lessons learnt from a short story

Yesterday, I finished editing the Malaysian Chinese gothic ghost story that I’ve been working on, tumultuously, with a fair amount of hair-pulling, for the better part of two months. Writing this piece was a great deal more challenging than I expected at the outset. I thought I’d share about what I struggled with, and consequently what I learnt about the craft of writing and about myself.

The first challenge I had to wrestle with was trying to write it ‘right’. All possible accusations of fraud leapt out at me. How can I claim to be a horror writer, when I’ve only ever written one other horror story (The Mark: and that was not with the explicit purpose to frighten, but to unsettle)? Who am I to write a Chinese ghost story when I’ve hardly lived in Asia and I have to reference-check every Chinese word I use? And how can I dare to label it as gothic when I had to spend an afternoon self-consciously Googling elements of gothic literature?

[It’s dark, it’s uncanny, it’s sensual, it has omens and spirits, it’s set in the 90s and there’s terrible phone reception—so, heck, I’m just gonna roll with it.]

Eventually, I figured out that I just had to write it ‘right by me’, although that in itself is much easier said than done. I had to focus on exactly what I was trying to convey, and shave away any pretence of being something else. My and my mother’s hazy recollections of talismans and spirits and superstitions are enough. The inspirations and influences from various things I’ve read, and places I’ve travelled, are enough. It’s enough that I’m emotionally honest with the reader.

The second challenge I had to overcome? My fear of being too…weird. What did I expect, really? In writing a story about suppressed hunger and fury, I found myself struggling with my own suppressed hunger and fury, wondering if I was coming across as too angry, too twisted, too much.

My story aims to be metaphorical and impressionistic, not explicit and didactic. I’m not trying to impart any particular lesson, but to inject you, the reader, into Fen Fang’s body: so that you can feel her feelings, grapple with her reality, and scramble as it distorts. I enjoyed this exercise immensely—using Fang’s senses, her behaviour, and even the form of her language and thought, to shape the narrative experience. It’s certainly the most metaphorical and twisty thing I’ve written so far.

Plus, yeahhhh, there’s a ghost in it!

I hope that I can share it with you soon.