By Bryan Thao Worra
Some of my earliest exposures to Lovecraftian horror and the Cthulhu Mythos came through the work of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror, among others. Of course, for a young Lao boy, there was also the sword-swinging fantasy work of Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Terry Brooks, and the many writers who brought the world of Dungeons and Dragons to life.
Europe, or pseudo-Europe, surely doesn’t have a monopoly on the fantastic. But we rarely see fantastic horror that authentically or effectively blends the themes of Lovecraft or Howard with the perspectives of Southeast Asian cultures. It is, as the hoary cliché goes, “a puzzlement.”
I don’t believe that should be a serious barrier. Readers can wrap their heads around seneschals, dukes and earls, katanas and the glaive-guisarme. They can accept rampaging orcs, hobbits, and great Cthulhu himself. So, an able writer should be able to present epics set in ancient Lane Xang as heroes live by their wits and a big, sharp dap nyai.
In the future, quixotic as it may seem today, I hope readers and writers take an interest in the potential of Fantastic Laos. Connecting tales of ancient, weird, eldritch horrors who abound in Lovecraftian fiction and those of Lao folklore is not a grand stretch.
Take, for example, the Lao phrase for “lunar eclipse” or “gop kin deuane.” This is quaintly translated as “frog devouring the moon.” It’s not that hard to imagine a rich Mythos twist from there.
Once known as the “Realm of a Million Elephants,” Laos today is home to over sixty different documented cultures, each with its own languages, epics and customs. A nation the size of Great Britain, Lao geography is 70% jungles and mountains, with many ancient temples and ruins, even the mysterious Plain of Jars, filled with giant urns of unknown purpose.
There are plenty of beings from the Cthulhu Mythos created during the 20th century who’d fit right into a Lovecraftian Lao horror story. Consider the Tcho-Tcho and the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep, Yig, the Father of Serpents, elephantine Chaugnar Faugn, the serpent people, or freshwater Deep Ones plying the Mekong before swimming into the cryptic depths of the Pacific.
Plenty of figures from Lao legends more than fit the bill as Lovecraftian entities. The Lao regard the Nak, or Naga, as sacred protectors, particularly of the teachings of the Buddha. These are shapeshifting, serpentine beings imbued with magic powers and a capacity for terrible vengeance on anyone who despoils their sacred streams, rivers, lakes, or hidden caverns. But I advise you to treat them respectfully within your story.
There are also the Nyak, who have their roots in the rakshasha legends of India. They are giant, horrific anthrovores of remote wildernesses. Some swore to protect the teachings of the Buddha. Others have far, far different designs. Lao legends are filled with legends of terrifying roaming weretigers, half-bird women, hungry ghosts, flying horses, and mystic hermits. With a little digging, a writer finds amazing opportunities.
The Hmong in Laos have numerous entities who invoke dread and fear, such as the poj ntxoog, a nightmarish malignant hag hungry for human flesh. One forest spirit is known to approach mountain farmers at night, its arrival heralded by poultry exploding or pigs turning inside out. The classic Hmong legend of “The Orphan and the Zaj,” an aquatic dragon-like being, was retold in the early 1980s as a comedy, but, when read correctly, should more likely be interpreted as a terrifying adventure with Lovecraftian undertones.
So, how would a writer begin to seriously delve into Lao fantastic horror?
Historical Lao fiction is hard because there are so many gaps in the record. But oddly enough, those gaps are also the very same gaps that give a Lao fantastic horror writer tremendous latitude to craft a story. “That didn’t happen that way!” complains one reader. “You mean, that probably didn’t happen that way, since there’s almost nothing in the historical record to either prove or disprove it,” the writer replies.
Around the beginning of the 17th century, the three-hundred-year old kingdom of Lane Xang split into three and began a series of underdocumented conflicts, wars and skirmishes lasting until recently. Many accounts were destroyed in those three centuries. The majority of fragile palm-leaf manuscripts surviving are untranslated or unread to this day in Buddhist monasteries. Who knows how true any one particular account really is?
Most traditional Lao epic myths are poorly translated into English, seemingly inconsistent, incomplete and even contradictory. Sometimes, they’re horribly abridged; other times they’re incoherently voluminous. For the Lovecraftian writer, this should be rather familiar and almost reassuring territory to wade into.
An excellent online resource for Lao folktales can be found at Northern Illinois University, which houses a free archive of many English translations of Lao legends and myths.
I would particularly highlight the translation of Phra Lak Phra Lam, which is a Lao take on the Indian epic of the Ramayana. Featuring warrior monkeys known as “vanon,” titanic nak kings, mermaid generals, shapeshifting monks, villainous giant nyak on an island fortress and spells aplenty, it would be simplicity itself to set a sword and sorcery tale within this story, especially one with the classic trappings of the Mythos.
Phadaeng Nang Ai is another tale with significant potential. It’s a love triangle between the nak prince Phangkhi, a human princess named ‘Aikham’ and the human king Phadeng. The aspect of interest for Lovecraftian writers is the revenge of the nak king, Suttho, who leads an army of nak to kill everyone in King Phadeng’s realm for eating Prince Phangkhi. The nak king seizes Princess Aikham to live in the fabled underwater nak city of Badan. King Phadeng’s solution is to end his own life so he can become a ghost king who rallies a ghost army to seize his beloved back. If you can’t work with that, turn in your elder signs.
In print, Wajuppa Tossa and Kongdeuane Nattavong’s classic, Lao Folktales (Libraries Unlimited, 2008) is only available in hardcover or a rather pricey Kindle edition, but the editing is better and includes many other cultural footnotes that may be of assistance to people who have only a beginning understanding of Lao culture and traditions. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than many others.
Legends of the Lao (Geodata System, 1993) by Xay Kaignavongsa and Hugh Fincher was an early and well-illustrated text covering a remarkable amount of territory. This rare text is marred by an unfortunate tendency to interject European-American sensibilities, which gets very distracting and could lead to anachronistic errors in character reactions.
But this is just a starting point for writers to consider. If there’s anything Lovecraftian writers have found over the last century, it’s the truth of the classic rule: “What works, works.” Don’t be afraid to try something new among the ancient legends of Laos.
Submissions for our Sword and Mythos anthology open on January 15, 2013.