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Fear factor
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Singaporeans love to be scared. At least that’s what the sales figures of local ghost story books are saying.

NO DEAD END: Books by Singaporean authors usually get a dead response from readers, but not ghost stories. Some titles have even sold more than one million copies. Why the hunger for ghoulish tales, and what’s the trick to penning a winning title? — LEE CHEE CHEW, DESMOND FOO

IT IS past midnight and you are driving along a deserted stretch of road when you stop to give a lift to a beautiful girl with long black hair.

As she enters your car, you smell frangipani.

If you know that this story does not have a happy ending, you’re probably familiar with tales of the pontianak: A woman who dies during childbirth and returns to terrorise the living in a vampire-like form, according to local lore.

Pontianaks are one of the many hantu-hantu (Malay for ghosts) that feature prominently in local ghost stories, and these spirits sure have a busy afterlife.

Though sales of local literature are usually tepid, the local spooky story industry has made a killing.

For example, the nine-year-old Mr Midnight series sells more than a thousand copies a week, and has sold 1.5 million copies in total.

The horror series for children and young teenagers, written by author Jim Aitchison under the pen name James Lee, has sales figures comparable to the Harry Potter books here, and translated editions are sold in the region and even China.

Then there’s the iconic True Singapore Ghost Stories series written under the pseudonym Russell Lee. The 16th volume will be out next month, and the series has sold over 850,000 copies so far. The stories are even being made into a 13-part TV series.

The authors interviewed declined to say how much they get from the sale of the books but, depending on their arrangement with the publisher, royalties can range from 1 to 15 per cent.

More cash registers are expected to ring with the launch of yet another spooky series yesterday.

The Souls series of ghost stories, which hogged bestseller lists 10 years ago, has been resurrected by its creators, Ramesh Kula and Hamzah Alsagoff, with Souls: Back From The Dead.

The new book contains accounts by the duo of all things weird and otherworldy, from a museum exhibition in Malaysia of indigenous demons to an interview with a deity known as Tua Ya Pek.

The creators say that they initially retired the series after releasing seven books between 1989 and 1997 and selling tens of thousands of copies because Kula, an entrepreneur, went into the nightclub business, running The Chocolate Bar in Boat Quay, while Hamzah, an advertising executive, got married.

Kula, 41, says: ‘It also got ridiculous as everyone was doing ghost stories. There were no new ones on the market.’

But he recently decided to leave the nightclub scene and return to his first love, publishing, by setting up Blackcherry Media last year. He and his friend decided to give the local horror scene a shot in the arm.

Besides Souls, they are concurrently releasing a graphic novel titled What Happened To The Old Kampong Spirit, inspired by 1950s and 1960s Malay horror movies produced by Cathay Keris and Shaw Brothers.

The duo hopes that their books – which bear the warning ‘For Mature Readers’ on the covers – will put the horror back in the horror industry.

As Hamzah, 41, puts it: ‘Sadly, the whole horror thing has become a bit of a joke, something you find in the children’s section.’

Some readers agree. Civil servant Joel Tan, 25, who recalls reading True Singapore Ghost Stories when he was in school, says: ‘A good ghost story has an ingenious element that makes you believe that there is malevolence in the world. But those books only made me believe that there is bad writing in the world.’

Others, like biotechnology researcher Li Huiling, 28, have fonder memories.

‘I remember one of the books being passed around in camp back in secondary school. The writing was a bit formulaic, but it still managed to help us scare the hell out of each other,’ she says.

Fatal attraction

LOVE them or hate them, there’s no denying that these stories have their place in the public imagination.

Theatre practitioner and supernatural buff Jonathan Lim, who wrote Between Gods And Ghosts (2005), the first in a non-fiction series examining supernatural elements in local society, notes that Singapore is particularly rich in such lore due to the confluence of several cultures.

‘We boast of a rich and dense supernatural heritage. The supernatural is even a way of life. This is a country where we burn offerings to the dead in the streets,’ says Lim, 32, referring to Taoist rituals.

Publisher Alex Chacko of Flame Of The Forest, which publishes both Mr Midnight and True Singapore Ghost Stories as well as Damien Sin’s Classic Singapore Horror Stories, attributes the popularity of these titles to a universal human fascination with the unknown.

Mr Chacko, 50, says: ‘What we don’t know about death terrifies us, whether you like to admit it or not. The ghost story is an attempt to fill that void. Besides, at a very basic level, we love to be frightened.’

Many horror stories also make strong emotional connections with readers, adds Sin, 42, who plans to publish Book 5 of his Classic series soon.

He says: ‘There are real intense feelings of hate, envy, greed, retribution, justice – all the stuff you pay psychiatrists to repress. My stories help people recognise and face the inner demons that lurk within us.’

And still others find themselves drawn to the subject out of a kind of nostalgia for the stories that left the deepest impressions during childhood.

When the Souls team was brainstorming ideas for a book back in 1988, it discovered that what got everyone excited were ghost stories.

Kula says: ‘We sat down with two to three friends and discussed what we enjoyed reading, and we kept going back to the campfire stories about ghosts. Those stories are not only a way to connect with people, but are also a part of our history and culture.’

And entertainment aside, there’s also the tantalising prospect of the true ghost stories being, well, true – at least, that’s what the writers themselves seem to believe.

The person who answered LifeStyle’s e-mail as Russell Lee, the nom de plume of the reclusive writer or writers behind the True Singapore Ghost Stories series, asks: ‘Do you believe? If you don’t, there’s nothing I can say or do to change your mind.

‘If you do, you’ll be able to understand perfectly the spirit in which my books are written. Sometimes, in matters of the afterlife, faith is the key that unlocks a whole new world that’s at once fascinating and frightening.’

Others say that the facts will speak for themselves. The Souls team, for one, says that it tries to verify stories as much as possible.

Hamzah says: ‘For all our books, we speak to dozens of people and cross-reference stories. If we hear a certain story mentioned quite often, there is a high probability that it really happened.’

Readers, however, are less picky about the veracity of the tales.

Student Flora Yeo, 20, says: ‘I don’t know anyone who actually believes that the so-called ‘true’ ghosts stories are true. But I guess that when I’m actually reading the stories, I wilfully suspend my disbelief. Being scared is fun.’

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