by Shiv Ramdas
Supernatural Or Super Unnatural—an Examination Of Postcolonial Horror
(This article originally appeared in The SFWA Bulletin #215.)
When analyzing postcolonial horror in the context of the supernatural, it’s striking how disparate the terms “postcolonial” and “supernatural” are within the genre. On the one hand we have postcolonialism which finds itself standing beside the word “horror” infrequently at best. While academic studies and explorations of science fiction in this context abound, one must look harder to find similar focus on postcolonial horror specifically.
What is postcolonial horror? While the neologism would seem to have a fairly straightforward definition, encompassing the universe of horror stories that explore postcolonial themes, neither postcolonialism nor horror have definitions that are neat around the edges.
Juxtaposed with this is “supernatural,” a term which finds it hard to ever disengage itself from its association with horror in the speculative fiction context, even though its historical proximity to fantasy is just as strong. Yet today we market no “supernatural fantasy” books, we call them paranormal or something else. There is historical reason for this, particularly when what was known as supernatural fiction began to meld with psychological fiction around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving horror free to make the term all its own. The relationship between the supernatural and horror has been much written about and studied. Lovecraft even went so far as to open his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” with the claim that the strongest fear known to humans was the fear of the unknown, a point we shall revisit shortly.
To turn our gaze back towards postcolonial horror, the most significant challenge we encounter is the one that most scholars of postcolonial literature in English have encountered at some point: a large number of works in the field are done in such a vast array of languages that there exist huge gaps in what even makes it under the microscope. This problem is exponentially magnified when one adds in oral and folk stories, many of which have encompassed strongly postcolonial themes and yet present a far vaster problem than written literature, for we now enter a world of stories told via dialect and pidgin and creole as well. The lack of equivalent research on oral storytelling remains a glaring academic oversight, no less so one dealing with the trifecta of postcolonialism, horror and supernatural stories. For the most part, this essay will regretfully also fail in this regard. In terms of the postcolonial horror stories we can easily access and analyze, the easiest way to view them is by broadly classifying them in separate groups (a historical truth known all too well to these storytellers).
The first and perhaps most subtle of these groups contains the stories that deliberately turn their gaze inwards. These stories, which may in fact form the largest body of postcolonial horror, tend to eschew the more popular “foreign” tropes in favour of traditional/local themes. This is reflected in the role played by the supernatural within the narrative structure, even if that structure itself is experimental. They typically approach this in two ways: either by ignoring nontraditional influences entirely, or by incorporating elements from more globally recognizable tropes into traditional narratives. Sometimes this takes the form of examining a state of a postcolonial society. The Japanese film リング (Ringu, 1998), examined the craze for technology among the Japanese youth by transforming everyday technology (videotape, phone) into objects of horror. This is combined with that staple of traditional Japanese horror, the curse. It is also interesting to note the ways in which the characters were drawn differently in the Japanese and English versions. For instance, both Reiko and Rachel are strong women, but what is used to depict that strength is clearly delineated differently on a cultural basis. In India this phenomenon finds expression in myriad ways. The Hindi children’s horror film मकड़ी (Makdee, 2002) takes the famous The Boy Who C ried Wolf fable and gives it a local twist, with black magic, witchcraft, and a missing twin as commentary on superstition and traditional fears. In parts of rural Western Uttar Pradesh we see the phenomenon manifest within oral storytelling, as with the relatively recent Captain Baba stories. These are based on an English soldier who died in the region and became the focus of stories depicting him as a ghostly saviour from older horror legends like the Muhnochwa (Face Scratcher) or a horrific spectre in his own right. Meanwhile, further south, the Malayalam film മണിചിത്രതസു (Manichitrathazhu, 1993), based on local folklore, tells the story of the dancer killed by a feudal lord whose spirit now stalks his family. The film’s very narrative seems to err on both sides, first pandering with an American saviour, but then subverting the trope by having that character defer to local tradition when the time comes to perform the final exorcism. Korean cinema, trendsetters of global horror filmmaking in the current era, tends to favour more human elements, so that even supernatural tales like 장화, 홍련(A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003) have a strong psychological horror component.
The second large category of postcolonial horror fiction consists of those stories that directly engage with their colonial heritage, confronting its legacy and contemporary impact head-on. This category shows the greatest contrast with Lovecraft’s hypothesis (the fear1 of the unknown is the greatest human fear). Here, the difference between the literature of the colonizer and the colonized are thrown into sharpest relief. Where Lovecraft’s fear is alteration of the status quo, the horror in these stories comes from that status quo itself. Indeed, his very contention that such fiction requires imagination and detachment from daily life in order to appeal comes from an entirely more privileged place. Detachment is hardly an option for the colonized in these stories, nor from those events for the descendants writing about them. Neither is the attachment to symbology and the need to preserve the gods of one’s golden age as the deities of one’s dotage. Welcoming change, however gradually, as opposed to being destroyed by it, marks one of the larger contrasts between these two conversations. The commentary contained in these stories can be very nuanced, addressing not just the colonial project itself but also its carry-on effects. Nibedita Sen’s Ten Excerpts From An Annotated History On the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island uses an unorthodox structure to critique and question the reliability of narrative, not just of history but academia on history written from the perspective of the colonizer. Sometimes the critique is in direct terms, as in Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women. While this work is classified as historical fiction, its unflinching, often brutal gaze at 18th century Caribbean plantation life and the commodification and sexualization of slave bodies make it nothing less than a horror story, while its look at the interplay between the different marginalized groups makes for some fascinating postcolonial subtext.
On other occasions, the critique is not just of the colonial projects that came, but what will come. One of the best-known examples of the subgenre in English, Octavia Butler’s novelette “Bloodchild” (1984) examines the relationship between human settlers and a race of giant, sentient centipedes called the Tlic. The humans, who live on preserves, are protected by their planetmates on condition each family present a male child to serve as an incubator for a Tlic egg. The story can and has been read as body horror set within the framework of what might otherwise be a typical space colonization mileu, with humans settling a world while not even realizing the native inhabitants are sentient. The very reverse “colonization” of the human body by the Tlic functions as a subversion of the classical trope. Reading the story in the 21st century produces a whole new layer of postcolonial context in the startlingly direct parallels the Tlic-human relationship holds to the modern human surrogacy industry, which has been described as exploitative, unethical and an example of modern colonialism. Most surrogacy tends to consist of poor women in the global South providing the “service” to rich families in the West or even their own countries. It should be noted that Butler probably did not intend the second of these readings and disputed the first, characterizing the story as one of symbiosis and love across species. That interpretation in itself might bear some scrutiny, the unequal power dynamics between the two species in this instance seemingly contraindicative of a relationship being conducted on equal footing. The willingness of the human character Gan to continue the arrangement and the love he professes for his Tlic mate have echoes of the ways in which segments of colonized society over time grew to empathize with their colonizers, what has been called the “Brown Sahib” syndrome. Yet even if approached as Butler intended, “Bloodchild” still subverts the typical colonization narrative, so no matter which way you read it, the story functions as postcolonial commentary, although in the context of her explanation, the horror may have to depend on how far the reader subscribes to the doctrine of death of the author.
All of this is not to say that postcolonial horror doesn’t have its own internal challenges to confront. Internal conflicts, majoritarianism and injustices, the drain of resources and land from Indigenous peoples, all have continued beyond formal decolonization, whether their roots lie in that past or not. The third of our categories is comprised of that significant body of postcolonial horror that addresses these issues. For instance, the British-Nigerian writer Nuzo Onoh’s The Sleepless juxtaposes supernatural terrors like a cursed house, a secret voice and a ghost with the horrors of the Biafran War. In Latin America, a local supernatural legend like La Llorona appears in several films, the most relevant of which to our discussion juxtaposes the ghost story with that of Guatemala’s “Silent Genocide” against the Mayan-IxiI.
Other works take on the twin task of addressing both the ramifications on the past from within and without the affected group. Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians does just this, using the motif of an elk to create a horror tale that takes a deep look at cultural identity and examines the cost of breaking with traditions while still managing biting commentary on the stereotyping and caricatured notions and depictions of the colonized. Sometimes the commentary manages one much better than the other, such as the Hindi Netflix series Betaal, which tells of a paramilitary force tasked with clearing out tribal villages for a development project, including a group of tribals protecting a tunnel. The tunnel is home to undead English soldiers who go on to possess the leader of the paramilitary. When making its commentary Westwards it lands, with biting lines like, “These English took our jobs, our gold, our country and now they are taking our evil spirits too!” It fails however in how it subsumes the struggle for tribal emancipation into a larger national integration narrative that works only for those already subscribed to that ideological project.
As mentioned earlier, these categories are by necessity broad and the overlaps are numerous. Several stories, including a great many not mentioned in this essay, could easily be classified in multiple categories. Which brings us to the cusp of a realization: Postcolonial horror may well be the exciting front in a resurging genre. And the truly daunting and exhilarating thing about it is that we’ve barely begun exploring. Like the first deep sea scientists, we’ve dipped our toe in the water, and we came back up with more than we could have ever dreamed existed.
The treasures still waiting undiscovered in that vast ocean of creepy, poignant, meaningful horror out there, now that’s the truly exciting part.
Shiv Ramdas is an Indian writer. His short speculative fiction has appeared in publications like Strange Horizons, Fireside, Podcastle, and others, and has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Awards. He currently lives and works in Seattle, WA, USA. You can find out more about him at shivramdas.net or find him tweeting as @nameshiv.