World of Horror: Interview with Neil D’Silva
Neil D’Silva is an Indian author known for his books such as Maya’s New Husband, Yakshini, and Playthings among others, all of which have hit the #1 spot on Amazon India charts in multiple categories. His work includes co-authored works such as Haunted and The Spirits Talk to Me with noted paranormal investigators Jay Alani and Sarbajeet Mohanty respectively. He is widely published with over 12 books with publishers such as Penguin Random House, Hachette, Rupa, and HarperCollins among others. He writes predominantly in the horror genre.
Along with his writing work, Neil is also a TEDx speaker and features on major podcasts in India. His podcast with BeerBiceps went viral in 2022, hitting over 2.7 million views. Neil also mentors upcoming writers. He has served as a mentor with the Scholastic Writers Academy.
Neil is the founder of two literary festivals, Litventure and FrightVenture. He also promotes the horror genre at various prestigious litfests across the country. He has been a panelist at the Times Litfest, Shimla International Literature Festival, Pune International Literature Festival, and ScareCon among several others.
Currently, Neil is engaged in writing projects for screen, with two soon-to-be-announced shows under development. His books Maya’s New Husband, Yakshini, Haunted, and Ringa Ringa Roses have been optioned for screen as well.
Neil is a member of the Horror Writers Community and leads the HWA India Chapter. Previously, he has served as jury member and jury chair for the Bram Stoker Awards®.
Neil resides in Mumbai with his wife, Anita, and two children, Gilmore and Felicia.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
My fascination with the horror genre grew quite naturally. There was no censorship in my house for reading, and I used that to the hilt! I read Dracula, Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, and most of Poe’s works including The Tell-tale Heart while I was still in school. It was Poe who inspired me the most. Soon, I began to fantasize about creating such gothic worlds myself.
The 80s were a lonely time for the kid to grow up. Along with his day job, Dad was a freelance translator for movies (he translated Hindi movies to English for the foreign market). Among the movies he translated were the legendary movies of the Ramsay brothers, who are considered to be the pioneers of Indian horror films. I used to sit beside Dad and watched his fingers flying on his Remington typewriter as he translated the scripts of these movies, and the pictures of the monsters on the covers of their songbooks. That was where I began to understand the specific elements of Indian horror.
As I grew, my reading moved from Western authors (Poe, Stoker, Stine, King) to Indian ones, and I became acquainted with folklore and our indigenous creatures and entities. I was amazed by the richness of our folklore! But one thing rankled me — that there was no contemporary Indian author who did justice to the genre. There weren’t even enough Indian horror books! Maybe the thought of writing my own horror stories germinated somewhere back then, when I was still in school.
These parallels — my passion for writing and my love for horror — grew simultaneously. Fostered by countless movies and books (both from India and the West), I developed a deep love for the dark and the gothic. When I wrote my first novel in 2014, I did not even have to think about what kind of novel I’d write. It was horror, of course; the genre had become my default.
Is there a horror tradition in your country, in your culture? A taste for horror, a market? Not necessarily literature; perhaps oral tradition too.
Yes! India has a very rich tradition of horror in various forms. Being a country with so many diverse cultures, one also finds tons of local horror stories, folklore, legends, myths, and even poetic forms such as odes and ballads. The oral telling of horror stories is a very popular pastime in India. People often sit in groups and listen to creepy stories. Elders tell scary stories to their little children, though they are made more appropriate with morals and life lessons. We have our own boogeymen too and cautionary tales for young men and women who might be prone to undertaking needless risks such as going exploring in the dark forests.
It probably starts from our epics itself. Our two most revered epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata have mentions of asuras (demonic beings perpetually locked in a fight against the gods, the devas). A popular classic is Vikram aur Betaal, where Betaal, one of the protagonists, is the undead spirit of an unsatisfied and vengeful young man. We have flesh-eating ghouls (pishachas), giants (rakshasas), demons (daanavs), and female undead monsters such as chudails, daayans, yakshis, and so many more. In the notes that I have collected, there are around two hundred such entities that are spoken about in Indian lore.
This was about supernatural beings. Our paranormal world has grown in recent years too. There is a revived interest in exploring the world of the dead. We abound in reputedly haunted locations. I have had the pleasure of co-authoring books with two noted paranormal investigators, Jay Alani (Haunted, Penguin Random House, 2019) and Sarbajeet Mohanty (The Spirits Talk to Me, Hachette, 2020). Both books tell stories of their real-life exploits. The kind of popularity they have on social media is an indicator of the growing popularity of the horror genre in India.
Who are some of your favorite characters in horror, internationally and/or in your own culture?
I am quite fascinated by Indian horror lore. As we move the vast length and breadth of our country, we come across many local tales of supernatural and paranormal entities. Some of these are well-known, but many are unknown to the outside world. More so because these are conveyed through oral traditions of storytelling and there’s no literature on them.
I’ll point out a few Indian horror legends that caught my attention. Chedipe, the undead spirit of a woman prostitute who now rides the jungles on a tiger and targets virile men to satisfy her lust. Rantas, a witchy hag living in the Himalayas with wizened skin, slanted eyes, and pendulous breasts, can shapeshift into a beautiful woman and marry young men and create havoc in their families. Baak, the spirits of fishermen who lurk in silent lakes and sometimes attack lonely boat travelers and take them to the depths of the lakes. Chakwa, a mysterious forest spirit who will mislead you in forests and cause you to lose yourself and never get out. And, of course, Yakshini, a demigoddess who is often propitiated for boons and blessings by an elaborate ritual called a yakshini sadhna, but if anything goes wrong, the invoker will have literal hell to pay. My novel Yakshini (Rupa Publications, 2019) tells the story of one such being.
Do you make a conscious effort to include characters and settings from your country in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
Yes, my stories have been based on Indian lore so far. I have published over a dozen books so far. My debut novel, Maya’s New Husband (2015), dealt with the cult of aghora, whose practitioners (aghoris) are basically sadhus who live on cremation grounds and eat, drink, and wear only the belongings of dead human beings. Also, apart from Yakshini, which I mentioned above, I have written Pishacha (2017), which is our Indian version of a flesh-eating ghoul.
I want to delve into the vast richness of Indian lore. Our horror tradition is colossal but not well documented. Through my stories, I make a modest effort to tell these tales. Some of my novels, especially Yakshini, have worked well outside India too and they gave readers a glimpse of what Indian horror is about. I want to bring more of our local entities into the limelight. While Korean and Japanese horror has become a global phenomenon, I wish Indian horror would catch up too. We already have the material. What we need are good stories to tell these tales.
If you are not a native English speaker, but write in English, do you first think of horror in your native language or English? How do you draft them in your mind, in English or your mother tongue?
English has always been my first language, both at home and school. It is my natural language of thought. It helps me write my stories better. Presently, I am writing stories for an Indian web series, which will be eventually made in Hindi and some of our regional languages, but when I write the first draft, it’s in English.
That said, I bear in mind that I write stories for an Indian audience, and many of us aren’t quite conversant with the subtleties of English. There are times when I bend a few rules of grammar or allow colloquialisms and slang to seep in. It makes the writing more natural for my readers. At times, I also add a few lines in Hindi or Marathi, or another regional language suitable to the story to give it that local flavor. I find it makes the story so much richer and unique. In fact, there’s a term for the kind of English we use in India. It’s called ‘Indian English’.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Oh, loads of things! Firstly, horror writing has made me less fearful of things. So, as a child growing up in the 80s, in a secluded colony and with an overactive mind, I was frightened of all sorts of things. Be it bugs and lizards, the dark rooms, or a death in the neighborhood, I’d be a bundle of nerves. This, despite the fact that horror was a commonplace genre in my home among my Dad’s books. Gradually, I attempted to read them, participate in my Dad’s film translation work, and eventually write it. That’s where my catharsis began.
When I wrote Maya’s New Husband, I tackled some very severe horror themes — black magic, occult, cannibalism, and the overall emotion of being trapped in a claustrophobic relationship. I described gore without compunction, to the minutest details. I was scared writing all that bizarre stuff, but I felt something happen — that I was also getting bolder. I have seen that happen with avid horror readers too. There is this indefinable boldness in them that is seen at times. But, whether the horror genre makes them bold or their boldness leads them to read horror is something that can be debated.
Over time, I have seen that horror is a genre we all need so very much. Even when we are reading the goriest stuff, we know in the back of our mind that this is fantasy, that this is an author’s imagination. The same applies to films. To be honest, the real world is filled with much more depravity than we can ever write in our books. Maybe — I know this is a big thing to say — reading and watching horror helps us be prepared for the horrors of the real world, and there is no escaping those.
On a personal note, writing horror gave me an identity here in India. It feels great to represent Indian horror on so many platforms and to be recognized as an author of the genre. I have been a constant on almost all horror literature panels in the country. I owe so much to the genre!
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve, both in the US and in your country?
When I wrote my first horror novel in 2015, there were not many horror books by Indian English authors. In a way, as many of my reviewers mention, Maya’s New Husband was India’s first novel for contemporary horror. It was also perhaps one of the first books that made horror more psychological. Previously, our horror (in films, there were not many books out there) dealt largely with the supernatural and was more of a fantasy populated with grotesque monsters in gothic mansions.
Later, the horror genre picked up in India. Now there are about 20 Indian horror authors whom I know personally and are dedicated to the genre. We have begun exploring more subgenres within horror. The horror stories no longer look like they are all of the same kind (which was the case with the Indian horror movies of the 80s), but they provide rich literary experiences to the readers. We have veered away from being known only for supernatural fantasy horror to writing horror that is more character-based, psychological in nature, and carries themes that weren’t seen here before, such as sci-fi horror. We still have a long way to go for horror to become mainstream, but the trends have begun.
Internationally, I think horror is right where it should be — a genre that takes itself very seriously. I was on the jury for the Bram Stoker Awards® for two years and it was a monumental task to make our selections. I think the reason behind this is the popularity of indie and self-publishing. Free from the diktats (and censorship) of traditional publishing, our horror stories are becoming more unfettered.
How do you feel the international horror writing community has been represented thus far in the market and what hopes do you have for representation going forward?
Not so well, to be honest. Indian horror readers, of which there are many, are largely hooked to stories of Indian origin or stories that speak of Indian culture. The only exception is Stephen King. King’s books are big hits in India and there’s a legion of his fans here. Also, R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series is something every Indian horror buff has read while growing up. In fact, it was the initiation of horror to many of us. The classic authors are known to us — Poe, Lovecraft, Shelley, Stoker — and a few of their stories are in our academic curriculum as well. But only a very serious horror reader would know of a Matheson or Barker or Rice, or any of the contemporaries.
Yet, as the genre grows in India, there is more appreciation of international horror. Horror movies are usually big hits here. The Conjuring, Insidious, and Hereditary are a few of the American movies that were big hits in India among the horror-loving crowds, and these people eventually become readers of American horror authors as well. In addition, Asian horror has a cult following in India. I feel this will grow when international organizations such as HWA make their presence felt in India; we are on a cusp right now as far as the horror genre is concerned.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Not advice, but here’s something I have been observing. If we see the Bram Stoker Awards® over the last few years, there is some great learning there. All these stories have brought up new themes of horror. While the structure of these stories, most notably Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, is conventional in its structure, the true horror comes from elements that haven’t been explored before. I guess readers of horror are looking for that—horror comes from themes that haven’t been explored before. There was a time when a zillion stories of the same kind (read: vampires, zombies) worked, but aficionados are now looking for something that well and truly startles them. Horror in commonplace situations arising from relatable circumstances—that’s what seems to be working right now.
And to the writers from India out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
I’d just ask my new horror-writing friends here in India to be brave and stick to their guns. Horror is not everyone’s cup of tea and there will be some criticism and “well-intended” advice from people around us to steer clear of horror and try some other genre. But don’t let that deter you. If you have a fantastic story, write it well, and the readers will come. Horror has a precious readership that is extremely loyal to the genre.
The time is right for Indian horror to go international; let’s do it together!