Zen Cho, the author of fantasy novel The True Queen, lists her favourite underappreciated supernatural beings…
The great advantage of writing fantasy is that you get to include dragons in your books. (If you need to ask why this is an advantage, you probably aren’t a fantasy fan … ) As a Malaysian writer I also get to draw on a wider pantheon of imagined beings. Here are five of my favourite supernatural entities that you probably haven’t heard of:
I know what you’re thinking. “You think I haven’t heard of dragons? Do you even go here?” But wait, hear me out! Western dragons are all very well – some of my favourite characters are Western dragons – but fantasy has given less screentime to Asian dragons. My favourite is the Chinese 龙 or lóng, whose cousins include the Vietnamese rồng, the Japanese ryū and the Korean yong. A symbol of good luck and general excellence, the lóng flies in the heavens and has power over water. It has antlers, whiskers, a beard, a mane, and an eminence upon its forehead. Chinese dragons rule undersea kingdoms, quarrel with gods and get turned into horses. There’s no end to the purposes to which you can put them, as storytellers from Wu Cheng’en to Disney have found.
2. Celestial fairy
“Celestial fairy” is a misleading translation of 仙女, because they’re not much like fairies. But it was the term of choice in the English subtitles of the Hong Kong fantasy TV series I watched as a kid, so I’m stuck with it forever. Maidens in attendance at the heavenly court of the Jade Emperor, celestial fairies are sort of discount angels, generally attired in period Chinese clothing (flowy robes, giant sleeves, cool hair-sticks). One often hears of them getting into trouble, usually by contracting unsuitable passions for mortal men.
One of the many gruesome female monsters native to Southeast Asia, the pontianak is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. She’s pale, dark-haired and red-eyed, given to preying on men (revenge) and pregnant women (jealousy?). Pontianak are often likened to vampires, only it’s your guts they want rather than your blood. If, on a fine night with a full moon, you smell the scent of frangipani, or hear a dog whimper or a baby cry, she may be nearby…
Another Malaysian hantu or demon, the polong is a captive spirit conjured up by black magic for wicked ends. To make one you must obtain the blood of a murdered person and put it in a bottle. Chant the appropriate incantations. In good time the spirit will make its presence known to you and you must feed it your blood. Once you have thus sealed the bond, you can send it out on such errands as attacking your enemies (if you are vindictive) or possessing people so you can turn up and charge a fee for exorcising them (if you are greedy).
5. Datuk Gong
You’ll see altars to Datuk Gong all over Malaysia. They’re an interesting syncretic outgrowth of the country’s multiculturalism. Datuk Gong are local guardian spirits, worshipped by the Chinese who have lived in Malaysia for several generations. But being spirits of the land, Datuk Gong are themselves Malay Muslim – an acknowledgement that it was the Malays’ country first. Offerings to Datuk Gong include items associated with Malay culture, like sirih and pinang (betel leaves and areca nuts, traditionally chewed). Pork is never offered, since it is not halal.
Some of these beings appear in my second novel, The True Queen, along with European fairies, Malay witches, scandalous sorceresses, social-climbing society matrons and more. To find out which, you’ll have to read the book, out now from Tor UK.
The True Queen by Zen Cho is out now from Tor UK. Get all the latest fantasy news with every issue of SciFiNow.