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★★★☆☆ Book Review: Taiping Tales of Terror by Julya Oui

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The ghosts and legends of Southeast Asia come to life when a group of boys share campfire tales. 

While we may not have grown up in an environment where campfire ghost stories were the norm, Malaysian author Julya Oui certainly takes us right to that setting with her short story collection Taiping Tales of Terror. 

Rather ironically, ‘Taiping’ literally translates to ‘peaceful’, while the stories contained within this collection are anything but. Using the framing narrative of a group of boys exchanging spooky, supernatural tales around a campfire in the dark of night, Taiping Tales of Terror acts as the perfect primer for anyone wanting to get acquainted with Malaysia’s most famous ghosts and monsters.

Each story in the collection is self-contained, making this book worthwhile to hold onto for revisiting your favourite story as and when you want. And as much as it markets itself as ‘tales of terror’, what makes these stories stick in your head is the emotional grip they tend to have. Taking place across various timelines, most of the stories are characterised by undeserved violence towards innocents, unresolved guilt and grudges that cause spirits to remain earthbound, or outrightly a source of fascination with the sheer number of monsters that are introduced, more often human than paranormal.

Standouts from the collection include the incredibly sad ‘Jaga Jaga’, where a young student is saved by the ghost of a janitor haunting the school; the uplifting ‘Curse of the Papaya Tree’, where a tussle over a hefty inheritance leads to an arboreal enchantment; as well as ‘The Confessions of a Gambling Man’, where a little greed and spirit summoning gives some gamblers a lot more than they bargained for. Those who love a twist ending are also in for a treat by the time they reach the end of this novel, with a rather satisfactory surprise as to the fate of the storytellers.

While it is a little disappointing that the stories aren’t scary enough to make your heart beat faster or fear looking behind you, what makes these particularly strong narratives is how Oui’s writing is quintessentially relatable. Characters are presented as realistically as possible, caught up in ordinary tales of argument and strife with only the hint of the supernatural coming in to right the wrongs done to them. Even if you’ve never been to Taiping or lived in a small town, Oui’s descriptors of the various landmarks and locations evidently come from a place of familiarity, and there is a tenderness to the way she writes each story that makes Taiping Tales of Terror feel like a love letter to her hometown.

Rich in imagination and accessible enough even for those who’re easily scared, Taiping Tales of Terror will find a place on your bookshelf as a selection of Asian ghost stories that’ll possess you with their uniqueness, exorcise your ennui, and above all, convince you that horror has a heart.

Recommended for: Readers looking for a slice of Southeast Asian horror that’s not too scary, and who love ghost stories that’ll pull at their heartstrings. 

Taiping Tales of Terror is published by Penguin Random House SEA, and available at major bookstores. For more information, visit their website here

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