Saturday, May 1, 2021

An Interview With Lee Murray – Talking Magic & the Supernatural In Her Short Fiction & "Taine McKenna" Series

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Introduction

Today I’m delighted to welcome fellow New Zealand author, Lee Murray, to the Supernatural Underground today, to share her insight into the magical and supernatural elements of her writing.

Lee has carved out a significant name for herself in the Horror genre, both with her Taine McKenna novel series and the recent short fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, as well as a considerable number of journal and ’zine publications.

On first reading Into The Mist (Taine McKenna #1) I enjoyed how Lee wove the New Zealand landscape and Māori myth into a fast-paced, military action-based, “creature horror” tale – a tradition continued in the subsequent (also standalone) novels. I am also impressed by the way Lee’s short fiction blends the traditions of her Chinese-New Zealand heritage with Maori mythology and mainstream NZ settings, all in a compelling and (as is only fitting when writing horror) unsettling way.

So I am delighted to welcome Lee to the Supernatural Underground today, to talk the magical elements and supernatural influences in her work.

Lee: Thank you for having me, Helen. Delighted to chat with you.


Welcoming Lee Murray: In Conversation on "Fear Beyond Boundaries" – Magic & the Supernatural In Her Writing

Helen: So what is the place of magic in the Horror genre, in your view, Lee? And what makes the magic of horror unique?

Lee: What’s interesting about horror, unlike fantasy and certain other speculative subgenres, is that it doesn’t have to incorporate magical elements at all. Horror, by definition, describes work that instills feelings of fear, the intensity of which appears on a spectrum that extends from vague unease all the way to bone-rattling, white-knuckle terror. But the elements that make up our horror stories, the things that contribute to those feelings of fear, can either be anchored in reality or imbued with supernatural elements according to the needs of the story and the preferences of the author. For me, magic and the supernatural are a natural way to approach horror, partly because in New Zealand myth and monsters hover just beyond us in the shadows.

The Māori term “tipua”, for example, relates to ‘uncanny’ and inexplicable things, like a log which refuses to sink, or the mists of Te Urewera National Park which obscure the mischievous patu-paiarehe (fairies)—these aspects of our landscape are imbued with their own unique power. The fauna isn’t exempt; I’ll admit to getting goose bumps when a little morepork owl, a harbinger of death, hoots from the shadows, or to feeling a connection with the pīwakawaka-fantail as it flits back and forth on a forest trail, carrying its messages from the gods. And, of course, we have our legendary monsters. There are the ferocious taniwha-serpents, which reside in our rivers and inlets, and the maero-ogres which dwell in a caves in the Waikato region, for example.


For New Zealanders, these magical places, objects, and creatures are afforded a place in our everyday. NZ’s Māori people, when they introduce themselves, do so by invoking their ancestors, which are the very mountains and rivers which surround us. And it isn’t just the Māori who feel this way. Consider this passage from The Woman at the Store (1912), a short story by iconic New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield:

“There is no twilight in our New Zealand, but a curious half hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw. Sitting alone in the hideous room I grew afraid.”

The other reason I turn to magic and the supernatural in my horror is because fantastical elements offer a way of addressing some of the hardest themes through metaphor and allegory. For example, the theme of sexual abuse of a teen in my Bram Stoker Award®-nominated story, Dead End Town.


In another example, The Good Wife, a Chinese-New Zealand fairy tale which appears in Weird Tales 364, a neglected Chinese woman must save her miner husband who has been captured by a fierce taniwha-serpent. Set in New Zealand’s Arrowtown in the 1800s goldrush, as well as revealing the quiet power of Asian women in the face of systemic oppression and abuse, the story juxtaposes New Zealand and Asian notions of the dragon to highlight the character’s feelings of otherness and isolation.

Helen: How do you see the magic elements of the Horror genre evolving currently?

Lee:  Putting the supernatural aside for just a moment, 2020-2021 has been an apocalypse bingo card of real-life possibilities for horror writers. In the past 14 months, we’ve dealt with forest fires, a global pandemic, floods, storms, economic collapse, even Asian murder hornets. And the themes on offer have covered issues like racism, isolation, poverty, and loss—complex subjects that lend themselves to magical approaches if only to create some distance from the enormity of the challenges we’re facing.



My debut horror collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, for example, features a monster theme—the perfect metaphor for our fears, as Literary Hub contributor Erica Swyla writes in an article released last year: “Monsters are stand-ins…for all the things we cannot control. I’ll never outgrow them the way one can never outgrow the outside world.”

I agree with her entirely: “…comfort arises from the power of capturing those monsters on the page,” I told the Gingernuts of Horror in a piece titled
In Defence of Monster Stories. “When we set our fears down on paper, we introduce an element of distance, of safety. And it’s from that place of safety that we can reflect, analyse, evaluate, perhaps even devise some viable solutions to the things that haunt us. In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories gird us with hope.”

In fact, given recent world events, there is so much scope for fresh horror that the genre has experienced a renaissance of sorts, with writers taking advantage of the isolation to knock off that dusty writing project. The demand by consumers has also exploded as noted in the opening comments of a Library Journal article by my colleague Becky Spratford:

“Horror surrounds us this year, both on the page and, in so many gut-wrenching ways, in the real world. While life amid a pandemic has wreaked havoc, it has also been a boon for the genre. … As David Pomerico, editorial director for Harper Voyager U.S., notes, ‘The biggest trend in horror is that horror is trending. … What we’re seeing is that there’s desire for more stories, and room on the shelves for them, too.’”

That said, the literary horror community has been affected by the pandemic downturn much like everyone else, with several small presses folding, and others being forced to push back projects until there is more economic certainty.


As for my own horror writing, it is also evolving, with my work on Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (currently Bram Stoker Award®- and Aurealis Award-nominated and listed on the Locus Recommended List) resulting in a deep desire to investigate the monsters of my Asian heritage further, particularly on the themes of otherness, tradition, and expectation. 

The Black Cranes anthology includes two of my stories, both of which tease at the magical traditions of my mixed heritage. In the first, Phoenix Claws, I draw on the name and the mythology underpinning the famous dish, which is made from steamed chicken’s feet. In the story, the perpetual resurrection of chicken feet is a metaphor for the ever-present prejudices which arise on both sides of mixed-race partnerships, and how, if left unaddressed, those same small things that might have seemed charming can become overwhelming.

In the second, Frangipani Wishes, a story plucked from my own family diaspora, I examine the hungry ghost mythology, the voracious monsters typically portrayed as greedy women with extended necks and bloated distended bellies.

Later this year, I’ll be taking up residency in Auckland as the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021, where I’ll be working on a prose-poetry collection with the working title Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud. The work will explore the Asian diaspora in New Zealand as it applies to women through the various interactions of a shape-shifting fox spirit. I’m also working on a non-fiction title called Unquiet Spirits with my fellow Black Crane, Space and Time publisher Angela Yuriko Smith. We expect this work, an exploration of Asian monsters through a series of essays and responses, will be released in late 2022.

Helen: Your work draws on Māori myth and legend, the magical themes of your Chinese heritage, and also the Western European tradition. Do you find it easy weaving all three magic traditions together? Or have there been challenges, unexpected or otherwise?

Lee:  Do I find weaving magical traditions from various cultures easy? Sometimes. Like all authors, occasionally I am blessed with a story that spools onto the page, lazily, like the curls of steam from a teacup. But that’s rare. Mostly, I smack my head repeatedly against my desk and over several days the story might seep through the cracks in my skull.


As I noted earlier though, given the blending and confrontation of ideas that occurs at the intersection of culture, myth, and magic, there is so much to explore here in New Zealand that I don’t want for homegrown ideas. Perhaps that’s why I tend to think of myself as a New Zealand storyteller ahead of a horror writer, speculative writer, poet, or any other classification.

Of course, it’s always important to remember that one person’s mythology is another person’s faith, so as writers we need to ensure that, when it comes to the supernatural, our work is as authentic as possible. This means reading widely, consulting actively, researching deeply, and approaching the writing with sensitivity and compassion. It means being prepared to revise our work when our privilege and our biases are exposed. In some ways, poking at the intersection of supernatural beliefs held by people of different cultures contributes to the essential growth that authors experience even as their characters evolve. All creativity is discovery after all. Just as there is no story without conflict.

In terms of craft, I think selecting the right perspective can be a helpful tool in overcoming the challenge of blending magical systems from different cultures. First person and second person narratives, while they have their limitations in terms of breadth of view, offer readers an intimate exploration of a character’s core belief structures, magical or otherwise. Third person limited perspectives, coupled with skillful use of close internal thought, can offer similar insights to various characters’ beliefs.


With the Taine McKenna series, where the novels typically include a cast of thousands, I’ve found the mosaic, or ensemble, method of telling a story via various perspectives to be especially helpful, since any prejudices, superstitions, and beliefs can be revealed for what they are, from the characters’ perspectives, and, ultimately, it’s up to the reader to make up their own minds. Of course, whether we employ dual or multiple perspectives, or any other technique for that matter, authors have a certain responsibility to guide their readers towards inclusivity, understanding and tolerance, but we can only go so far. The reader will bring their own experience, their own prejudices, and we can only hope that, through reading, they’ll be moved to greater understanding and respect.

I’ve also been fortunate to co-write the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series with Wellington writer Dan Rabarts (Ngāti Porou), in a he-said she-said brother-sister narrative. In that series, we each brought the magical underpinnings of our personal heritage to the narrative: my Chinese upbringing and Dan’s Māori background. The skies are bright with the fires of ancient Polynesian explorers who made it to the southern ice, and the ground rumbles the discontent of Rūamoko, the god of volcanoes. We layered in Egyptian notions of the supernatural too, drawing on the parallels with the Māori sun god Rā and his famous Egyptian equivalent.


The series of is a smorgasbord of supernatural, the collaborative nature of the series giving us confidence to explore and blend the myth and magic in ways which, I believe, hadn’t been seen before in New Zealand fiction.

Helen: Given the diverse traditions that inform your work, Lee, and your international engagement in the genre, do you feel there is a unique, Antipodean flavor to Horror writing – or is it a case of books and writing not having or requiring passports?

Lee:  What an excellent question. I do feel my work represents a very Antipodean response to horror. For example, down here in the Shaky Isles there’s an underlying anxiety that at any moment the country will be torn apart by a pending earthquake. Just look at
the tragedy that took place on New Zealand’s Whakaari (White Island) only two years ago, as well—proof that the danger is simmering ominously beneath our feet.


Perhaps, that’s why my Taine McKenna novel Into the Ashes appealed to local readers in the same way Jane Harper’s The Dry, with its ever-present threat of drought and forest fire, resonated for our Australian neighbours. However, whereas Harper’s work is based firmly in the real world, the Taine McKenna series draws heavily on local supernatural lore. My hero, Taine McKenna, a New Zealand Defence Force sergeant who is also a Māori matakite or seer, speaks to the spirit of his mentor, Temera, through various means, but most often through the resonance of a pūrerehua-bullroarer. The main conflict of the story involves the eruption of Lake Taupo’s super-crater prompted by the legendary love triangle between ancestor mountains of the central plateau, with McKenna and his section caught in the crossfire.

That’s not to say traditional gothic horror—the stuff of graveyards and haunted houses—doesn’t feature in antipodean horror texts, but our unique geography offers different terrors. For anyone interested in reading Lovecraft works from Antipodean authors, I recommend IFWG’s Cthulhu Deep Down Under series (Volumes 1-3), and, in particular, Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud.


Interestingly US colleagues Carina Bissett and Hillary Dodge are currently curating an exciting anthology called Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas, based on the geography and folklore of the Americas. I’m expecting the work to reflect a different set of fears derived and inspired from that unique landscape. (I lived for four years in the American midwest, so I’m hoping to draw on my experiences during that time). Nevertheless, your comment about writing not requiring passports is insightful. There are some things which engender terror no matter the place or the people. Universal fears, like dark places, uncertainty, otherness. Persecution. Suffering. Death. Those kinds of fears don’t respect boundaries.

Helen: Thank you so much, Lee, for sharing your fascinating insight into the Horror genre and the unique “Kiwi” (New Zealand) perspective your writing brings to it, including that of your Chinese-New Zealand family heritage – all of which I’m sure readers appreciate greatly. The best of luck, too, for the outcome of the Bram Stoker Award® nomination, your forthcoming Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, and Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.

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About Lee Murray
Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a five-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. A third generation Chinese New Zealander, her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories

Lee is proud to have edited sixteen volumes of speculative fiction, including several international award-winning titles. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud

To find out more, please visit Lee at leemurray.info or on the following sites:


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Previous Posts: 

January 1: Happy New Year – Ushering In A Year of Friends, Fellow Authors, & Magic Systems

January 5: 
An Interview with AK Wilder – Talking Magic In Her New-Out Crown Of Bones (AMASSIA #1) 

February 1: An Interview with T Frohock 
– Talking Magic In A Song With Teeth & The LOS NEFILIM Series


March 1:  An Interview with Courtney Schafer – Talking Magic In The "Shattered Sigil" Series


April 1:  An Interview with Kristin Cashore –Talking Magic In Winterkeep & The "Graceling Realm" Series

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About The Interviewer:

Helen Lowe's first  novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The second,The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, and the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood (Book Three), was published in 2016 and Helen is currently completing the final novel in the series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and tweets @helenl0we