Night Time Logic is the part or parts of a story that are felt but not consciously processed. Those that operate below the conscious surface. Those that are processed somewhere, somehow, and in some way other than… overtly and consciously. The deep-down scares. The scares that find their way to our core and unsettle us in ways we rarely see coming…
In this column, which shares a name with my New York-based reading series, I explore this phenomenon, other notions of what makes horror tick, and my favorite authors and stories, new and old with you.
My previous column back in October 2021 with author Inna Effress concluded with an examination of evil, and crime, and the point of view of bad men as Inna mentioned. Bad men, and crime, and evil are all present in the work of Venita Coehlo, even though most are half a world away. In her short story collections Venita gives us feminist stories and stories arising from and intersecting with the headlines in India
Venita’s stories are filled with ghosts, of the kinds that Western readers might find familiar and many that they might be encountering for the first time. I had a chance to speak with Venita about the ghosts in her work in December 2021 at the New York Ghost Story Festival and this spring.
Your most recent book of short stories from Penguin Books is called Dark Tales: Ghost Stories from India. What kinds of stories, in general, are in this book?
VENITA COEHLO: These are all supernatural stories based around actual events in India. I have added the uncanny to the newspaper headlines. The stories use the array of ghosts and demons that haunt the length and breadth of India –– and we have a whole army of them unique to our country.
How are the stories similar and how do the stories differ from your previous collection of feminist ghost stories, The Washer of the Dead?
The Washer of the Dead was a collection of feminist ghost stories. I told the tales of the ghosts that are uniquely associated with women. India has a whole collection of folklore based around ghosts of women who have died in childbirth or who have been ritually killed. I wove these ghosts into stories that also tackled feminist issues like female feticide and dowry deaths.
Setting-centric fiction excites me. Can you tell me about some of the settings and locations of the stories? How do these locations affect the story and the characters?
The settings for stories in this collection range from the big cities of Mumbai and Delhi, out to rural India and to the heartland where the police are fighting running battles with communist-backed local uprisings. I always feel that India is a country in which various eras live simultaneously. You can find the absolutely modern cheek-by-jowl with the medieval. It’s like several Indias share the same space. I tried to pick a range of settings that would give you an idea of just how vast the distance between the various Indias is as well. We have a modern young girl returning from a rock concert in one story, and a girl murdered in a honor killing in another.
It was wonderful to have you as one of the guests of the NY Ghost Story Festival. In our conversation you mentioned that “ghosts are everywhere in India.” Can you tell us more about that and share with us something about a few of those ghosts and people’s attitudes towards ghosts in general? Please feel free to put it in the context and share with us of some of the aspects of life in India.
India is vast. We have no less than 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects. And in each tongue there are ghost stories. I have been collecting them for years as I travel. Many ghosts are rooted in local customs. For example, in Bengal, there is a ghost called “Jhok.” It is the ghost of a child that was killed by a rich landowner so that it’s ghost would guard his buried treasure. This was an actual custom at some point, thankfully extinct now.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to Washer of the Dead that names some of the many ghosts that haunt my country:
India is a land that has long been haunted. Each region has its own legion of those that return. Their names spill like an incantation, a sacred litany, a roll call of the restless. Firelight dances, their names are whispered with many a look over the shoulder and the living rub up uneasily against the dead.
From Assam comes the enchantress with her voice of desire. She calls hauntingly through the night, laying such longing against every syllable of your name that you are wrenched from your lonely bed. In Uttar Pradesh, they tell of the changeling. Left in the cradle it is a silent child that never smiles. But on full moon nights you have to stop your ears because it will sing – strange twisted little melodies that can drive a listener mad.
In Lucknow they tell of ghosts that love music, poetry, and the good life. They have haunted the halls of Nawabs, sat aching to the sound of wistful shairi, listened to the voices that rang through the blaze of lights and gems. Here a poet, a singer, a musician is counted great only if he is summoned by a midnight knock on his door to sing at the court of the dead. Sometimes as the music moves them, the gathering will accompany the singer with rattling bones, beating complex tattoos on smoky skulls, singing in faded voices.
The ghats on the banks of the Ganga are haunted by the dancing Churails, with their feet set backwards and their voices that squeeze through pinched nostrils. The many levelled wandering lanes of Hyderabad and Allahabad are a Djinns’ delight. They wander wistfully from one tilting terrace to the next, looking for women with long black hair and tiny white hands. Hurrying through the forests of Himachal Pradesh at dusk, you will hear a child crying, abandoned and alone. If you pick it up and turn for home, with every step the child will grow heavier and heavier, but you cannot put it down because it clings with hands that no mortal can unknot.
Can you tell us in detail one of these real-life ghost stories that stands out to you?
Our family always had its whispers about a maternal aunt of mine. She was a nurse at the government hospital in a small town. She was a strikingly good looking woman with long hair that fell to below her knees. It was said that she would wake up every morning to find a leaf cup on her doorstep that held fragrant jasmine and a gold coin. While she sat combing her hair on the terrace, a passing Djinn had fallen in love with her. Only when an exorcist was called in did the gifts cease. She had the coins melted and at family weddings would be seen laden in gold jewelry. When I was a teenager, I had hair to my knees and everyone in the family would warn me never to comb it in the open and tell me this story. I myself suspected that the aunt actually had a secret love life and a great alibi for gifts of gold from a very real lover. But as a writer — how could I not love the explanation of a love-lorn Djinn?
I have a spoiler warning to any readers with my next question about the story “Devdas.”
The story “Devdas” feels like it could be a modern ghost story from the West. Our main characters are criminals and we encounter them in the aftermath of a crime. Can you tell us about the ghosts in the story? Could you also share with us the wonderful twist in the story?
When I was working at my very first job in Mumbai in 1993 the city was ripped through by 12 bomb blasts. 247 people died in those terrorist bombings, and I have always wondered whose hands made those bombs, placed in lunch boxes and toys. What did they think while they did it? Along with the rest of the world, I was bewildered by the twisted logic of random terror attacks. In “Devdas” I extracted my own quiet measure of revenge. We hear the story from the point of view of two terrorists who are holed up in a safe house making bombs and are shaken by the arrival of a ghost they nickname Devdas. At the end you realize that Devdas is very real. It is the terrorists who are the ghosts, blown up by a bomb of their own making.
Real world events are also present in the story “Devdas” and in many of your stories. While not in the foreground the presence of events and real-world happenings and things I find grounds your stories in place and time. Can you tell us more about some of the events and politics that can be found on the borderlands of your stories?
While writing these stories I decided to be ambitious. I wanted to scare the pants off India. So I looked at events that had sunk into the psyche of the nation and left it scarred. There was the terrible “Nirbhaya” case where a girl and her fiancé boarded a bus, only for her to be raped in the most brutal manner for hours while the bus drove around the capital city. Uphaar cinema had a full house when it caught on fire, trapping and killing people in the blaze. It took 18 years for the court to pass judgement on the rich builders who owned the hall. Perhaps the case that most shook me was the Nithari killings. Children from the villages around the outskirts of Delhi had been missing for years, but the police refused to register any cases because the children of the poor do not count. 17 skeletons were found under the basement floor of a local businessman. The official body count is 31 but the unofficial count is thought to be much much higher. Not only did he and his servant abuse the children, speculation is that they sold body parts as well. There are no lack of horrors in the headlines. I took these and added to them threads of the supernatural. I wanted the fear to come home to those who read the stories. For them to be haunted by much more than the headlines.
I did not look up what kind of being has “feet pointed backwards” but I recently learned of the Kuru’pir from Brazilian folklore which also is a being with feet turned backwards.
Can you tell us about the character of Maya in the story “Last Local Home”? What kind of supernatural being is she?
Maya is based on the figure of the “churail,” a supernatural being who has a most poignant story. The Churail is the ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth. Such women are buried face down in thorns, with iron nails through their feet, or their feet mutilated in some way. Folklore has it that their ghosts rise, still yearning to hold a child. But a child approached by a churail can always escape if he runs fast enough. Their feet are turned backwards, and they can only lumber along. Interestingly enough, this motif of the feet pointing backwards also occurs in Malaysia, in China, and, now you tell me, in Brazil.
What is life like in Goa? How does it the place affect your writing, your art, your creativity, and creative process?
I moved from the hectic pace of a life in the world of film in Mumbai, to the quiet serenity of Goa where a siesta is traditional. It made all the difference to my creativity. Writing for film and television is forced along by deadlines and is very toxic — you have to deliver, no matter what. But living in a quiet village, beside a drowsy river I learnt to slow down long before “slow living” became a thing. My creativity grew deep roots. My stories began to grow organically rather than being thrown together hastily off the framework of The Hero’s Journey to meet a deadline. I began to explore traditional Indian storytelling structures that went beyond three-act structure. I began to paint and that opened up a new way of thinking in movement. I learnt to move from just telling a story to holding deeper conversations through the medium of story. Above all, living in a village, I had to learn to live imbedded in a community. It made me totally change the way I viewed the world. I see it as a web of relationships, and when COVID came along, how beautifully that web held people together in the village. So –– phew! That move changed everything. It grew me and my creativity in a whole new direction. Deeper roots. Reaching upward towards more light. And so many new branches of interests. Slow fruit and, hopefully, tastier for that.
Here is a short excerpt of dialog from the story “The Lost Children.” The characters are talking about a terrible series of murders they discovered.
“Why did they do it?” asked Anand.
“Because they could. There is nothing one man will not do to another if he can. That is who we are.” Shekhar had long since lost faith in humanity.
Can you tell us about the ghosts in this story?
This is the story based on the Nithari killings. The children are just names and numbers to the police. They mean little in death. They meant little in life when the police refused to register missing cases, when the killer took child after child without it mattering to anyone. I wrote this story partly to shake people awake to the fact that the case is not just shocking for the numbers of children who were killed. But for the fact that they were children who had parents who cared, who had siblings they fought with, toys that they loved. They should have mattered. So, the ghosts in this story are the ghosts of the children. They appear to the main investigating officer, tugging at his hands, trying to tell him what they want.
Some ghost stories are about the unresolved wishes of the ghosts. In great ghost stories, like this one, the ghosts can be catalyst for the human stories and human choices. Also, although it ventures into spoiler territory can you tell us about the character of Leena, and what she does?
The investigating officer is struggling with the case while dealing with personal grief of his own. His wife has just miscarried their child and been told that it will be impossible for her to have another. The officer copes with his wife’s grief even as he tries to understand what the children want from him. At the end, he discovers that they want what any lost child wants. They want a mother. And his wife longs so desperately for children.
What does the term “Manhoos” mean? How does it a part of local folklore?
There actually isn’t an equivalent word for Manhoos in English. While on the surface it means “unlucky” it actually goes much deeper than that. It has connotations of bad fate, ghastly things happening, awful doom brought down on those around you. A girl can go unmarried her whole life if she is tagged “manhoos.” She could even be sacrificed by her family. It is like a demon of bad intent possesses her. In my story that becomes an actual demon.
Some horror stories are about what I refer to as “bad things happening to bad people.” Gil from the story “The God of All Drunks” certainly is not a sympathetic character and a prime candidate as being referred to as one of these bad people.
Would you please tell us about the tantrics that appear in the story and the god named Bhure Baba.
Let’s leave Gil’s fate as something for readers to discover when they read this story!
One of the non-fiction books I have written is about the sacred geometry of the temples in India’s most holy of cities –– Varanasi. The funeral pyres here are lit by a fire that has been kept burning continuously for several centuries. It is said to be the oldest city in the world. While researching it, I kept bumping into Americans doing the quick tour –– completely oblivious or interested in either the history, the culture or the spirituality of the place. Finally, totally exasperated, Gil the loud American tourist leapt off the end of my pen.
Tantra is one of the branches of yoga. It is known as the “left hand path” and part of the philosophy is to do all the things that are considered taboo by society. By breaking all the rules to break through to enlightenment. Since all tantric rituals are highly secret and they are such an anarchistic cult, over the years all kinds of rumors and beliefs have come to swirl around them, including accusations of cannibalism. The gods that Tantrics worship in secret are also said to be immensely powerful and you never ever insult them. Bhure Baba who appears in this story actually exists. He is a phallic stone in a tiny temple on the outskirts of Varanasi. The only offering made to him is liquor. When you pour it on the stone, the liquid vanishes into it. Well, Gil in his drunken state offers something other than liquor. And we certainly can’t expect Bhure Baba to forgive that insult!
A tantric also appears in the story “The Good Wife.” The following line adeptly captures on of the themes I see in it.
A woman should be entitled to some peace after killing her husband to get it.
The story wonderfully explores the notion that ghosts will do in death what they do in life. I was particularly engaged in the turn of events where the Tibetan Shaman gives the main character the non-mystical, real-world advice “to just move out.”
Would you please tell us about the ghosts in this story and how they and the characters relate to these notions?
My father retired and decided he had to do something. So, he decided to supervise my mother. It drove her nuts to have him peering over her shoulder all the time! And this seemed to be the experience of all the women around me with retired husbands. Luckily, mum didn’t reach for the drastic solution that the women in the story did. As a woman in India you see too many women tied into the role of home maker and basically powerless. I felt like giving them some agency. Sometimes you could just kill for a new life.
As a reader what is it about stories of the fantastic that appeals to you most?
I think stories of the fantastic operate in an imaginative space where you can ask “what if?” and allow yourself to shiver in delight at the fantastic answer. It steps out of normal reality and allows us to walk with ghosts.
As a writer what is it about stories of the supernatural and ghost stories that calls to you in your creative process?
I find that people are haunted by ghosts of their making. I am also fascinated by how ghosts of folklore tend to condense around very real social injustices. This excerpt from Washer of the Dead actually says all that I believe.
Why do they return? What do they seek, all these troops of phantoms, these vast shuffling crowds of hollow eyed and rattling spectres? Something they have lost? Something that was theirs in life and which they are now sundered from by all the dry weight of phantom decades? Do they seek revenge for betrayal? Balm for pain? Cool water for healing?
I think perhaps they turn restless on the high wind of the centuries because they are still searching. Searching for all that they never had in life. For happiness, for warmth — for love. Love not as they had in life. Not love garotted against the throat. Not love sharp as a knife that stabs and stabs through welter of nerves arteries veins. Not love lying coiled in green poison. Not love twisting and writhing in the heat of flames. But love like a benediction. Like the smile that of a child. Like cool water and blowing grass and slow trickling sunshine.
Many of the living are haunted even as they breathe. We all carry the wraiths of secret dolorous sorrows, intimate creaking deceptions, raw and reeking betrayals. Each of us rattles our own collection of hollow bones, awake sleepless at nights.
In the kernel of each of our lives lies the making of a ghost. Sleeping in each of us lies the void that they wander, voiceless till we will them to speak. In each of us lies the timeless chasm that stretches blue and aching across the years. The need that hungers on.
Do you have a favorite ghost story? What is it about the story that you connect to?
I am a huge fan of MR James. I love the atmosphere he conjures up. But the single short story that wrings my heart comes from Neil Gaiman and is called “October in the Chair.” It tells the story of a child called “the Runt” who runs away from home. He encounters another little boy who thinks his name is “Dearly.” As in – “dearly beloved.” Do read the story. It conjures up both atmosphere and a heart-rending twist. I can never read it without both tears and a shiver.
Venita Coelho is an artist, writer-director-producer, and author who lives in Goa, India. In addition to her work in film and television she is an award winning author of seven books.
Daniel Braum’s stories often explore the tension between the psychological and the supernatural. He is the author of the short story collections The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance eBooks 2016), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions 2017), the chapbook Yeti Tiger Dragon (Dim Shores 2016) and the novella The Serpent’s Shadow (Cemetery Dance eBooks 2019) His third collection, Underworld Dreams, was released from Lethe Press in September 2020 and is out now as an audio book. His novel Servant of the Eighth Wind is coming from Lethe Press in Summer of 2022.
He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the Shivers 8 anthology edited by Richard Chizmar to the Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow. He is the host of the Night Time Logic series, and the annual New York Ghost Story Festival. Please subscribe to his YouTube channel DanielBraum where you can find free streaming versions of Night Time Logic interviews, readings, and more. He can be found on social media and at bloodandstardust.wordpress.com
About the New York Ghost Story Festival
When the year grows old and December’s daylight departs too soon it is time to fill the dark nights with stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The New York Ghost Story Festival is an annual event of ghost story readings and discussion hosted by Daniel Braum founded in 2021, featuring authors of the uncanny, strange and fantastic from New York and around the globe.
Stay in touch at the Daniel Braum or Night Time Logic pages on social media. Visit http://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com for information and dates of the December 2021 Festival.
Visit the DanielBraum channel on YouTube to tune in live to the 2021 Festival (and other content) or watch it later at your leisure.