If you’re ever wandering in the woods and you happen to spot a maiden bathing in a river or stream … stop. Resist any curiosity (or hormones!), turn the other way and flee. And in no circumstances should you ever try to marry this maiden. It will end tragically.
This is one of the lessons I’ve learnt from Nights Of The Dark Moon, a fun little collection of dark folktales from Asia and Africa. (Another lesson is never to harm trees.)
Mysterious women at bodies of water form the plot of two (OK, technically three) of the delightfully macabre stories contained within this book.
They’re in fine company: peruse the stories within and you’ll encounter vampires, zombies, ghosts, witch-men and, perhaps scariest of all, smart-alecky little boys.
It’s a book perfect for reading to children at bedtime – although be warned, some of the spookier tales may keep children up instead of sending them to sleep.
Nights Of The Dark Moon is the ninth book by local author Tutu Dutta, a modern-day Scheherazade whose previous titles include Eight Treasures Of The Dragon (2011), the two-book Jugra Chronicles, and Phoenix Song. Most of her works revolve around folklore.
In her latest book, Dutta retells 13 traditional folktales. According to the author, these stories were all extensively researched, to make them the most complete version ever published.
In keeping with her Gothic theme, each contains either an element of dread or mystery, or some deep tragedy at its root.
The stories are a good mix: while there are some popular tales, like the tale of Hang Nadim (or as I like to call it, how NOT to make Singaporean shish-kebabs), most of the stories in the book are a little more obscure. Well, to me at least – I hadn’t heard of most of these stories before.
Geographically, thestories have diverse origins, with China, India, Korea, Vietnam and, of course, Malaysia, all contributing tales. Only two of the stories are from Africa, which is a bit sad – surely the region has many, many dark folktales? Hopefully, we’ll see more in a later book.
Highlights of the collection include “The Tiger Of Flower Hill”, which has a strange sense of humour lurking throughout; and “The Curse Of Miryang”, a Korean supernatural crime-romance that would make a fantastic K-drama adaptation. And Betaal, the monster at the heart of “King Vikram And Betaal The Vampire”, is delightfully creepy.
Also interesting is “The Strange Tale Of Chief Naam”, which is a Minangkabau zombie story. Yes, you read that right. Minangkabau. Zombie. Is that not the most awesome concept ever? Eat your heart out, The Walking Dead!
My personal favourite in the collection, however, would have to be “The Seven Princesses Of Ulek Mayang”. I’d heard this Malaysian tale before but not in the way it’s told here: Dutta frames it as a clash between two nations, with a doomed romance at its heart. Compelling stuff, especially when combined with the number of deaths, which would make even George R.R. Martin nervous. (Heads up local filmmakers.)
As these are, at heart, ancient folktales, many of them use “folk tale logic”, and you will sometimes question the decisions that the characters make.
Also, some things are left unresolved: “The Shapeshifter Of Co Lao”, for example, seems to end just as it’s about to escalate, while “The Tiger Of Flower Hill” changes main characters halfway. And one story has a climax at a riddle contest but we never learn the answer to the final riddle! All quirks of the folktale, I suppose.
Language-wise, Nights Of The Dark Moon is written in a simple yet engaging style.
Given the nature of most folk stories, there are elements of death, violence and sensuality, but nothing is ever too explicit or graphic for young readers. Older children and teenagers would probably be this book’s ideal demographic, although adult readers should also enjoy the delicious darkness and strange twists these tales have.
Nights Of The Dark Moon
Author: Tutu Dutta
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Editions, horror fiction