Strange Horizons, April 1, 2019
Reviewed by Tara Grímravn
Strange Horizons kicks off the month of April with a fascinating look into Malaysian folklore. The featured horror story “What Cradles Us But Will Not Set Us Free” by Nin Harris explores traditional monsters like the penanggalan and the pontianak. Harris doesn’t do this from the usual point of view, however. Readers won’t find these horrifying creatures chasing after the living. Instead, the haunted protagonist is a monster herself, only she doesn’t want to admit it.
The house in which Kamala lives is beautiful. She remembers that, as a child, she had lived with her parents in this same idyllic colonial mansion hidden by tall hedges and surrounded by flowers and lovely arches. And she’s always known that the house’s beauty hides a dark secret: monsters dwell within.
When her parents divorced, Kamala and her mother had moved elsewhere. Now an adult, she has returned to the house with its familiar monsters, such as the three pontianak sisters and Kamala’s were-crocodile lover. She doesn’t fear any of them, though. In fact, they’ve protected her since childhood and, even as a child, she preferred them to her own family. Despite her attachment to them, however, she can only dimly recall any encounters with them. When she does, the memory quickly fades, taken from her by the house, itself a conscious entity.
From the outset, Kamala is suspicious that the house has changed her. She fears whatever it is that she’s become as much as she fears the sense of guilt that she can’t quite explain. So, she chooses to remain uncomfortably yet willfully ignorant until Sister Penanggalan forces her to come to grips with herself and what she is.
I’ve had the opportunity to read a few short stories by Harris before and I’ve always enjoyed her explorations of mythology and folklore. This was no different and, really, the focus on Southeast Asian legends was a nice change from the usual Western monsters or aliens one often finds.
For those unfamiliar with the Malaysian legend, the penanggalan is a type of vampire who, by day, is a normal woman. At night, however, her head detaches from her body, leaving her entrails dangling below the neck. Thus freed, she goes off into the darkness in search of food, preferably children. The legend often tells of ways a woman can become a penanggalan and so it was really interesting to see Harris tackle this story from that angle and show us that transformation.
In terms of narrative, the story isn’t necessarily fast moving or action-packed. Instead, it flows rather slowly, almost dreamily. Even the murder scene was almost languorous. Harris’ use of shorter sentences here didn’t really lend the scene the sense of urgency that usually comes from that device. But given the atmosphere in the tale, vigorous action would have been out of place. And regardless, the story itself was enough to keep me interested and invested.
On a final note, readers should keep in mind that Harris’ story is definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s a little gory and touches on taboo topics such as cannibalism and child abuse but, if you don’t mind such things, it really is well worth a read.