Friday, April 24, 2020

Rio, Who's There? (2019)

Dimas Rio, Who’s There? Self-published, 2019. Pp. 182. ISBN 978-1-67617-410-3. £5.98.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

I have to get this out of the way. When I received my copy of Who’s There? it arrived nicely gift wrapped and with a personalized note thanking me for reviewing it. And while I am not about to let that influence my cherished objectivity as a reviewer, it was a really nice touch that gave me a smile when I opened the package. So, thank you for that, Dimas.

I love a good ghost story. Who doesn’t? It’s nice, especially these days, to find something to be scared of aside from… well, reality. And I personally love exploring horror from different cultures. I had my glut of American horror through my adolescence; seeing how fears varied throughout the world remains one of my chief delights. So when I was offered this slender little volume of ghost stories from Indonesia I pretty much jumped at the chance. And honestly, I’m glad that I did. Who’s There? is a short but effective little collection of horror stories, all dripping with atmosphere and the rich culture of the Indonesian Archipelago. The text also includes quotes from Indonesian poetry and helpful footnotes translating bits of local slang or terms that your average English speaker might not be familiar with.

I will note that this little anthology is translated from Indonesian, and that is reflected a bit in the stiffness of the language and a few (very minor) grammatical errors. However, since I received my advanced reading copy a new, updated translation has been released. This new version smooths over some of the rough edges and fixes the vast majority of the errors, making for an overall better and easier read. Note that I say “some”; Rio’s use of language is a bit unrefined. Some of that, like the dialogue, may be the translation, but some of it is not; for example, he seems to have an odd drive to give us the exact dimensions of particular locations. Personally, I don’t care that the hotel room had an area of precisely 43 square meters, but maybe that’s just me. As a result, the first few paragraphs of the book were a bit of a bumpy ride for me.

The more I read, however, the more I enjoyed myself. Once you grow accustomed to them, the rough-around-the-edges writing style and sometimes odd descriptive choices become part of the overall charm. The whole book, from the coarseness of the language to the lurid eye-popping pink and black cover to the quick pace and grisly subject matter, reminded me of the ghost story collections I read and loved as a child. I mean that in the best possible way; you want to huddle under the covers with this book and a flashlight and read until your eyes hurt. It’s great fun, all of it.

Part of what I enjoyed so much about the anthology is its variety. The book consists of only five stories, but each has a very different feel and subject matter. The titular story, “Who’s There?”, is a Tales from the Crypt-style tale of a violent boyfriend getting his just desserts. “At Dusk,” the shortest story, is the one that would be most at home in one of those ghost story collections for children, featuring an old man telling the story of how his childhood friend disapppeared into the woods. “The Wandering” leaps into the modern urban setting of an office building, and is both my favourite and the most frustrating of the five. This story is the richest and most atmospheric out of them all, and has a creeping, building suspense that makes it a genuinely tense read. The way the mystery gradually unfolds and the way the main characters develops is nothing short of delicious. With the setting and the subject matter, it reminded me very much of one of my favourite sequences in the film Ju-on, better known in English as The Grudge. Again, I mean that in the best possible way. I white-knuckled my way through 66 of 70 pages.

In order to explain why it was the most frustrating, however, I need to go into some spoilers, so let this be your warning.

Spoilers begin here.

With how the story played out, the slow revelations about the main character, his fiancée, and the ghost woman, I fully expected the fiancée to turn out to be some supernatural temptress. Some Indonesian version of a succubus or siren, a demoness luring good men away from their families and bending them to her will. And I was on board. The story was so well-written I was absolutely sold on the idea of this poor bastard being ensorcelled by some siren, only for his faithful lover back home to die of a broken heart and be out for revenge from beyond the grave. But no, the big reveal at the end was that the fiancée was a completely normal (if horrible) woman, and the main character just a jerk who abandoned his faithful beloved… and then forgot about her. Completely. Forgot her existence, forgot the village they grew up in, forgot his parents and the uncle he’d come to the city to care for, even forgot his own name. Now that, dear readers, I do not buy, and that’s where the so far excellent story fell completely flat for me. The ending was still well-written and tense, but I was so irritated by this complete abandonment of logic that I really couldn’t enjoy it. But at the same time, I cannot deny the power and exemplary craftsmanship of the vast majority of the tale. So, both my favourite, and the most frustrating.

End spoilers.

The final two stories of Who’s There? make a sudden about-face in terms of tone, from dark and forboding to sweet, almost warm. “The Voice Canal” is a gentle story about an overworked young student and how he keeps in contact with his beloved father. And finally “The Forest Protector” tells the tale of a mother and her young son fleeing from her abusive husband. This last story is, in many ways, my least favourite, as it kind of meanders its directionless way to an unsatisfying conclusion. But I have got to give Rio props for his description of the young son’s favourite cartoon superhero: Mahardika, the Forest Protector, a character I was honestly both disappointed and impressed to find out does not come from pop culture (at least as far as Google can tell me). Impressed, because it shows a lot of creativity on Rio’s part, and disapppointed because I seriously wanted to watch that cartoon. Check out this theme song:
Born out of the flame of the forest,
Sting like a tarantula,
His eyes as sharp as the King of the jungle,
Here comes Mahardika the Forest Protector
Ooh… Mahardika, the Forest Protector

Oh hell yeah, nine-year-old me is totally snuggling in front of the TV with my pyjamas and sugary cereal to watch that every Saturday morning.

Despite these few missteps, overall this is a solid little collection of ghost stories with a delicious Asian flair to them. Readers who love creepy stories and are looking for a little something different could do a lot worse than to pick this title up. So, Dimas, thanks for this one, and I am genuinely looking forward to whatever you come up with next.

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