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Sunday 28 December 2008

Never Ending Nightmares by Pael Khugan

December 28, 2008

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin

Book Review - Malaysia - Fiction (Horror)

Malaysia: Never Ending Nightmares, a chunky ghost story invented in the vein of a true blue Malaysian flavour by the country's resident, Indian writer, Pael Khugan and published by SKB Publishing House in Klang, is a commendable first effort.

The complexities to a thick unfolding plot demand that a fair amount of labour is called upon to snatch the hours. It is clear that Khugan delighted in painting a vivid gloominess that lined picturesque scenes like a bleak eye-catching canvas; if only to create the unholy resurrection of a virginal female apparition. The incubus had once before and because of a surgeon's carelessness, died tragically on the operating table.

In this sense, it served as fairly remarkable to watch Khugan having enjoyed the script's nemesis that appeared determined to haunt her in return with its daunting challenge of a twisted conflict.

The countless mixed scenes of scenery and action plus romance and horror thrown together liked a colourful bonfire and meant to strike up a sparkle indicates that the writer has savoured mulling over her craft and toiled over it with the same degree of disciplined fortitude and leisurely contemplation. For that alone, her creation of this work of fiction is deemed admirable.

However, on the flipside, a future writing progress demands that Khugan may have a way to go yet. Some parts of the book worked very well while other important sections stretched itself out too thinly and so shifted into boredom. Also, the manuscript stayed painful if not somewhat dodgy to the common everyday usage of the basic English Language; more importantly, tripping up on simple grammar rules that resulted in faltering tensing throughout the book. For this alone, much of the quality of the fiction was severely and needlessly demolished along the way.

Arul and Ava are a young couple who meet and fall in love in India. Both strike the reader as beautiful people. Ava is a brainy student and Arul a promising surgeon. Soon they will marry and leave a familiar homeland to live and work on an isolated island hospital in Malaysia. Dark secrets lurk under the paradise of a jewelled sea and shore. The happy couple jump at the prospect of a beautifully furnished bungalow. However, the luxurious seaside residence is haunted by the wife of a previous owner, who died suddenly in an accident. Still, another far more dangerous apparition tails Arul from India. Thanks to a careless surgical sin, the incubus who was once a lovely betrothed young woman, is adamant at destroying Arul with the aid of a violent vengence. He is offered no forgiveness by this evil force. A series of nightmares and other ghastly visions set the scene.

Two loyal friends, a Malay servant, Noraini, whose mother was famous for casting out 'incurable' spells and the driver Faizal are destined to help Arul and Ava overcome their demons, and this too, with the ingenious guidance of an insightful, quick-witted *mak cik.

Indeed, Never Ending Nightmares served as a cleverly crafted plot, bending on a gruesome horror made up of psychological word play and frightened feelings a-plenty. With such well-defined characteristics, the story could if Khugan wished, be easily adapted for the stage.

Set round a table, the four fictional characters readily come into their own. Each with their respective tastes, inner questions, strengths and flaws, lay bare the ghosts that wait before them. Relationship ties are especially called into question by an astute Khugan. Arul and Ava provide legitimate puzzlement over their difficult marriage. Noraini must decide if she wants to follow her mother's calling for performing exorcisms, a gift that had been passed down to her. easily enough. Faizal represents the qualities of goodness and sincerity, evident in the selfless human being.

A few striking bizarre scenes were cleverly narrated by Khugan. Noraini sensing a ghost in the laundry room and her interesting reactions to it, followed by the spirit's retaliation, was one. A ghoul in the house, hanging upside down with long outstretched hands with which to greet Ava, was another.

Khugan also spots a talent for laying out a seemingly effortless conflict. She is able to plant clues with dexterity at the start of the book and connect them to solutions in the later part of her novel, employing startling revelations that would beguile the reader and make perfect sense. For example, there is good reason and this unknown to the unsuspecting reader, that the ghost would hang about a laundry room.

However, there were several weaknesses. The description of Arul and Ava felt too beautiful to be true in the first instance. The reader senses that they may just have been models plucked out of a magazine shot. The story also tended to veer too much towards a romance. Khugan seems in the book not to have decided if she would rather have written a romance over a ghost story and appears torn between the two. If she meant a smooth combination, then it must be observed that one genre failed to marry the other.

It is perhaps, an easy realisation that Khugan intended to reveal how easily visions of beauty could dissolve in the face of fear. But despite the courageous experimentation, the description of both Ava and Arul's picture perfect appearance at the start, were too artificially-inclined to be taken seriously.

Writing a ghost story demands a dramatic pace with suspenseful overtures. In this aspect, Khugan failed her carefully manouvered plot which she slowed down tremendously through overly-long and tedious lines. This often made reading Never-Ending Nightmares an uphill task. A 300-page book could well have been served as a 200-page book.

For instance, "...she frantically looked around for any plastic wrapper that may have been thrown around the floor of the jeep. Luckily, being a new jeep, part of the plastic seat cover was still stuck under the driver's seat. She pulled it out and wrapped the kemayan in it and then stuffed it back into her jean's pocket." - Never Ending Nightmares - Pael Khugan

Wouldn't it sound so much better just to say, "Frantic, she rummaged about the new jeep for a plastic wrapper. The kemayan had to stay dry. Finally, she spotted the remnants of a plastic seat-cover. The kemayan was now safe." - suzan abrams

The idea is to not break a fast-paced mood and perhaps when writing a ghost story, especially as a first effort, it's best to cut to the chase to keep the reader hooked. You don't want to bore the reader with the cumbersome motions of everyday living. At the start, Khugan took great pains to describe the beautiful bungalow that Arul and herself, had been offered by the management but the ghost hardly touched the facilities. This created a loose connection between the bungalow description with the ghost story and so proved fruitless and unnecessary.

One suspects too, that Khugan would be better honing her hand at general fiction rather than literary. With serious literary fiction, it's a case of Many are called but few are chosen.

The pursuit of indulgence in long frivolous lines, in an acute ambition for perfection or a glossy first impression, should not be undertaken until a fluency with the basic grasp of the English Language has been accomplished.

As it is, what held back the plot was the constant mixing up of tenses, present continuous against past continuous, can for could and will for would or singulars instead of plurals which made reading some parts of the book itself a nightmare.

These primary errors never seemed to end. This reader half-suspects that the manuscript may never have been edited in the first place, or otherwise while in a hurry to be printed; treated in nothing more than a mediocre fashion as a finished work.

One unnecessary ghostly scene to an otherwise fine plot was when the ugly apparition masqueraded once more as a beautiful girl with which to seduce Arul. For a while he stayed hypnotised and was willing to die for her. This emerged as the imitation of a common plot; one that has gone many times before in films and books. It was totally ill-fitting with the course of the tale. Also, the idea of a woman first squatting on the ground and then rotating about in sudden flight, assumed the soppy air of melodrama and so too, the apparition crawling on all fours. This reminded me of female ghosts in those famous Japanese horror films that notoriously crawled out of telly sets and such. Khugan was insistent in her studied attempts to offer the reader a hopeful scare.

Also, poor conversational techniques didn't help matters. People don't speak as they would write say, a letter. The ghosts spewing out writerly English lines seem to veer towards silliness with their threats and tirades. At times, this reader felt that Khugan married the supernatural and the mortal world together; unable to draw a fine line between the two.

One example of an excellent dramatic pace and scene lay towards the end as all four characters met with the wise old Mak Cik who would lead them in an exorcism. Without giving anything away as spoilers, the plot was fast-paced and even-tempered with just the right balance of emotion and haphazard events to wind down the rambling tale.

Words like clambered over, ponder and merry birds chirping also lent a slightly childish Enid-Blyton tone to the story. Words like these went out of fashion in modern contemporary British fiction a long time ago.

As a parting shot, this pocket book had good production value, was well-produced and reminds me of Singapore's Times Publications novels once-upon-a-time in the early 90s.

*Mak Cik in the Malay language, meaning a female elder to whom respect is given or otherwise, called auntie

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