“Laal Andhi” is an intensely dark and unsettling story about childhood, loss, and the meaning of horror. Tell us something of the inspiration behind the tale.
This story had an interesting journey in the making. I first wrote a version of it in Urdu when I was nineteen. It was published in a Pakistani pulp horror digest called Darr, based in Karachi, and it was my second adult fiction publication (no payment either time, if I remember correctly). Months later, I translated it into English and it was accepted by a Canadian anthology Thirteen Stories (I subsequently discovered that Michael Kelly and John Mantooth also had stories in it; John sent me a picture of it in 2014 when he found a dusty copy in his garage).
But there was something missing in the story. I thought it had potential and that it was better in my head than on the page, so after I had begun developing my voice a bit more post-Clarion West and made a few pro sales, I decided to try my hand at it again. I wrote several drafts, changing the story and significantly altering some of the thematics, and this was the one that stuck.
At the end of the day, the story, like much of horror, is the mirror maze in which we see uneasy pieces of ourselves. I saw in it the fears and loathings of a city haunted by its inhabitants.
Horror often explores the dark, secret places where children may well lose themselves on their way to becoming adults. Here, such places are revealed by corner store rituals, grim shadow games, daring the dark forbidden places. Your descriptions and pacing stir the shadows, bringing those heavy, smothering fears to life, whether through the eyes of the child becoming man or the man trapped by the memories of childhood. What is it about childhood that appeals to you as a horror writer?
I suspect I’ve been writing about childhood for a long time now. Many times nostalgia, sometimes pain, occasionally terror corral those memories into fictive corners. Most of what we are is a child in the shape of an adult woman or man. Often the child is lonely and frightened and often the sins of the grownup visit the child. Horror assumes its most ferocious forms thus. It would be difficult to explore the child’s present without reaching out to the moments that reared her.
Your prose in “Laal Andhi” weighs down on readers and characters alike, smothering hopes and dreams for the future. To me, this is the mark of quality horror writing, where the writing walks hand in hand with the plot to drive home the rusted spike of dread. How do you define quality horror? What makes a horror story sing to you?
It really depends on what the story is trying to do, I guess. Aickman does things very differently from Clive Barker. Naiyer Masud aims for uncanniness, while Stephen King goes for the avuncular campside mode. Richness of prose, the writer’s vision for the trope (or not) of his choice, believability of character drivers, and setting—these, for me at least, are the unifying forces for good horror.
From horror to fantasy, your stories draw on your experiences as a Muslim and a Pakistani writer and reader. In 2014 you led the first speculative fiction workshop in Lahore, Pakistan. You have made every effort to reach out to other non-Western writers, seeking to encourage their efforts and promote their works. Why is it important to you as a writer and human being that these voices be heard? If you could speak directly to those who feel diversity is unnecessary and harmful to SF/F/H, what would you say?
I remember being a child and dreaming of some day meeting Stephen King or Clive Barker, of telling them how much their work has meant to me. I wanted to find my town, my people, my city in the stories I read. There were none, not in my preferred genre at least. Without a precedent, most of us have no conviction, no guiding light to steer us toward our dreams. I’ve been fortunate to have had some success, and I dearly want others in that part of the world to believe they too can tell their stories.
It is impossible to speak to you about horror fiction and not address “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family,” winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement In Short Fiction, a story commented upon by Samuel R. Delaney during Clarion West 2013. Has your approach to writing in general, and horror in specific, changed since winning the Stoker Award?
I think I understand the process of writing a bit better. “Vaporization” was written more instinctively than cognitively. Neil Gaiman once said sometimes we write first drafts to discover what the story is about, and I suppose that was true for “Vaporization.” Subsequently, though, most stories I’ve written I’ve more or less understood what I was attempting to accomplish with them, even if the attempts fail, as they many times do.
What’s next for Usman Malik? What’s up and coming for readers in the next six months?
While I haven’t been writing much recently, my novelette “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” in Paula Guran’s The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu did just come out in May 2016 (“Ruins” is cosmic horror set in Sind, Pakistan).
I have a story nearly accepted at a decent anthology (can’t give details yet) and “Vaporization” will be translated into Hungarian, from what I’ve been told. After that, it’s likely going to be nonfiction, academic articles for me for the next two years that I will be in school.
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