Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Definitive SingLit Genre


SingLit. Singapore Literature. Literature by and for Singaporeans. Every year, the publishing industry and the Establishment team up to push homegrown literature. Every so often, the media reports on SingLit specimens gone global. Most of these SingLit stories are mainstream fiction. The Lit in SingLit. Stories that touch on relationships, culture, drama, life in this tiny city-state, or otherwise themes relevant to a Singaporean audience. But such stories aren't the quintessential Singaporean genre. That honour goes to another genre altogether.


Horror is embedded in Singaporean culture. In shadowed alleys and decrepit flats, in abandoned shophouses and lonely roads, you will find a side of Singapore you rarely read about in the press—and yet, it is also a fundamental aspect of Singaporean life.

Singapore is a secular society. But scratch the surface and you will find a keen awareness of the supernatural. The dividing line between the world of men and the world of spirits is blurred in the best of times, and for one month a year, disappears altogether. The ocean of the supernatural washes up against the urban jungle, and every so often, leaks through. Fear and respect for the unseen isn't mere superstition—it is lived reality.

Singapore is the crossroads of the world. Successive waves of trade and immigration brought the myths, folklore and faiths of East and West to its shores. Every major world religion can be found here, and they all brought with them their ideas of gods and demons, ghosts and ghouls. Feng shui, astrology and divination are commonplace. If you know where to look, you can find oracles, shamans, sorcerers and talismongers plying their trades, waiting for the right customer to come along. Western magick via Aleister Crowley or Peter Carroll; New Age practices with crystals and channelling; Chinese spirit possession; Buddhist rites; sorcery from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand; stranger rites from stranger places; seek, and you shall find it. If you dare.

National Service is the a rite of passage for every generation in Singapore. Every Singaporean son must serve two years of full-time National Service, then ten cycles of reservist training. Ghost stories abound in the uniformed services, transmitted from senior to junior in an unbroken chain for years and decades. Here is a locked room that no one must enter, over there is haunted ground that issues screams and laughter late at night, this place should always be avoided when out in the field, that place requires extensive prayers before you are allowed to carry out training. Fail to observe a taboo, and weirdness will befall you. Every National Serviceman knows someone who knows someone who has first-hand experience with the supernatural, or else is that someone with that first-hand experience.

The civilian world has many supernatural stories to go around too. Construction sites experiencing delays, equipment breakdowns, even injuries and deaths until certain rites are performed. Disembodied heads floating through the air. Creepy hags showing up at your doorstep, demanding entrance. Careless mortals accidentally offending unseen spirits, bringing down their wraths on their heads. Gods possessing humans to dispense advice to worshippers and lend their power to petitioners; demons and hostile spirits being exorcised from innocent souls.

Society itself makes many adaptations to the otherworld. Offertory bins are a common sight in public housing estates, most often used during the Seventh Lunar Month to burn offerings for the dead. Look carefully at the sidewalks and you'll find offerings of incense and food, especially on religious occasions. Generation after generation carry out time-worn ceremonies, either appeasing or driving off unfriendly spirits. Shrines can be found in the unlikeliest of places, dedicated to divinities famous and obscure. Shops selling religious paraphernalia are in every major neighbourhood; strike up a conversation with their owners and they will transmit the ancient lore of self-defence against the unseen. Modern-day spiritual workers advertise their services openly on the Internet, combining ancient wisdom with modern tech and savvy—or so they claim.

In the West, such a rich multicultural tapestry would be the perfect backdrop for an urban fantasy series. But Singapore is too boring to sustain an urban fantasy series—at least, one that a Westerner would find enjoyable.

Urban fantasy is chockful of conspiracies, secret societies, entire underworld nations. Singapore's so-called 'secret societies' are little more than street punks. The hard-charging action hero(ine), armed to the teeth, is the staple UF protagonist. Strict weapons laws and low violent crime rates make this unbelievable in Singapore. Western society celebrates the mavericks, the cowboys, the street knights who do whatever it takes to get the job done. Singapore condemns anyone who even remotely steps out of line, making it nearly impossible to transplant the Western UF protagonist archetype into Singapore. In other words, Singapore is too bland to support an urban fantasy series written along the lines of Western urban fantasy tropes.

Which makes Singapore perfect for a supernatural horror series.

Gods and spirits from every major regional religion and folklore haunt the streets. Sorcerers, shamans, faith healers, exorcists, spiritual workers of all stripes offer their services to those who run afoul of the supernatural, but there is no industry regulation to speak of. Sorcerers wage shadow wars with black magic and demons, unseen by mortal eyes. The kind of people called to such a life will never be able to fit into conventional society. On one hand, they face the crushing weight of isolation and social rejection. On the other hand, they place their very souls on the line.

This is the backdrop that informs my next series.

Horror holds a respected place in SingLit. Singapore's most famous horror series is Mr. Midnight. Aimed at children, it boasts 128 entries in the series, and has recently been adapted for Netflix. True Singapore Ghost Stories is its nonfiction counterpart, which document allegedly true ghost stories in Singapore and the region. In fact, these two series are arguably the best-selling Singaporean book series of all time.

What I am planning to do with my series goes far deeper than what these series have done.

In the Western tradition, horror is a morality tale. It shows the consequences of violating a taboo, which is a proxy for moral norms. Those who violate moral norms will be destroyed; those who uphold it survive. This line of thinking runs through my horror stories. I'm not so much interested in gore and disgust as I am in the moral consequences of one's actions.

Nonetheless, my horror is aimed squarely at adults. There will be adult themes in my horror books. At the same time, these themes are aligned with an authentic vision of Singapore. You won't find the high-octane action and prolonged firefights here as you would in my previous books—at least, not in the scenes set in the physical plane. The main conflicts in my upcoming works are primarily moral, spiritual and psychological.

Which is not to say there won't be physical action—it's just that fight scenes are not the true focus of these works. Physical violence is an exclamation point; it is not the point.

Mr. Midnight is most assuredly fiction, and I will not comment on the veracity of True Singapore Ghost Stories. As for my works, I will say this: writing is the pursuit and communication of truth, and I have always set Truth as the standard for my writing, both fiction and nonfiction.

And there is more truth in my future horror stories than my previous fiction entries.

Stay tuned.

My upcoming horror works are going to be a departure from my established brand. If you'd rather something more akin with my previous work, check out Babylon Red here!

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