Book review: The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand - chills for thrills
The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand
by Jim Algie
Asian horror fiction is an expanding, yet still relatively unknown genre. Its rise follows the trend for Southeast Asia noir, and an increasing number of movies that use Bangkok's sultry streets as a backdrop for tales of crime and the supernatural. But Jim Algie's short-story collection, The Phantom Lover and Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand, aims to go further, tapping into the deep vein of superstition that runs through Thai society and blurring the line between precarious reality and a disturbing dream world.
Algie's stories are not for the squeamish. A failed snake handler, body disfigured by cobra bites, ruminates on life's disappointments, while a Bangkok bar girl takes out one of her customers' eyes with her stiletto heel. Most gruesome of all, a high-society model and actress undergoes an interrupted abortion, leading to a nightmarish tale of abandoned foetuses, a bird-eating spider and prayers to arcane medieval spirits.
Some of the stories are inspired by true-life crimes that still resonate today. Algie's account of an immigrant rickshaw driver from Hainan turned notorious serial killer, who cannibalised his victims in 1950s Bangkok, doesn't pull any punches.
Yet for all the surface shock, and occasionally clumsy prose, Algie is attempting something more sophisticated. His stories read almost as fictionalised journalism, as if mere reportage cannot convey the multiple layers of Thai society that are mostly shrouded from outside eyes, or adequately reveal the true nature of the lives of the foreign chancers, and worse, who are drawn to Thailand.
Algie makes this explicit in Tsunami, the concluding story, which feeds off his own experiences working as a journalist and then a volunteer on a Thai island hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He takes some bitter swipes at the short attention span of today's media, and the agenda of official aid agencies.
Tsunami brings together the most memorable characters from some of the preceding pieces - the Bangkok hooker who attempts to keep her unsavoury world at bay with her Buddhist beliefs, two burned-out journalists, the one-time snake handler - and weaves their fates together in a mostly effective and satisfactory fashion. Like the best of the writing in the collection, it's lifted by the fact that Algie knows Thailand intimately, and is both stern and sympathetic with his damaged characters.
At times, the book feels like a lament for the Thailand Algie moved to in 1992, which is now long gone. He manages to be both clear-eyed and nostalgic in his descriptions of the unchecked boom town Bangkok was before the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
But The Phantom Lover is above all a horror show. Fans of the genre will be satisfied, while for everyone else the stories offer an authentic, illuminating and often unsettling ride through Thailand's underbelly.