In the previous parts of this short series, I provided some background on my Malay Mysteries series and how this specific episode—The Dark Colony, book 5—came to be.
Now let’s look at the fun stuff: how it all came together into what we might actually call a book.
As I revealed last time, the original story for The Dark Colony was much more elaborate—so much so that I kept getting hung up on research and how to build my two main characters into the story. I knew at that point in the story that I needed a mystery that took place somewhere in Jogjakarta, a kingdom in central Java. Jogja’s ancient monarchy is filled with ghost stories and lore connected with the families of the sultans who have ruled it since the 8th Century. What better place to set a mystery in a series set at the end of the colonial period in that part of the world?
Unfortunately, a courtly mystery made little sense, at this point in the series anyway. My characters have been seen in villages and various locales around the Indonesian Archipelago, but they weren’t fitting well in an urban setting. A chance encounter with a weird story about beehives going horribly wrong—along with a long-standing interest in the subject of bees and the risks we’re running as a society by destroying them—suggested a different, even more peculiar story to me.
Malay spirituality revolves around the idea of a balance between light and dark forces. An even exchange and healthy coexistence of the powers associated with both result in well-ordered natural forces. Malay belief holds that when magic and misdeeds—even unintentional ones—pull light into dark (or vice versa), or change the distribution of the two and put them out of balance, unnatural events proliferate. These take the form of ghosts, forces that personify aspects of nature, monsters and, quite often, births that go somehow wrong. All this forms the core of Malay folktales that persist even in the world’s most populous Islamic country, interwoven with a religion that eschews such indigenous beliefs and condemns them as superstition.
The simpler version of my story, once I got rid of all the courtly intrigue that held up its previous incarnation, took only a few days to outline and block out. Like many episodes in the series, it’s a tale retold, in this case, twice retold. My two main characters, the schoolteacher Hidayat and the medicine woman Marsiti, arrive in Jogja and admire the goods in a particular shop, one that sells batik cloths. The batik artist, working on her cloths next to a pot of boiling wax, invites them in and offers them a story in exchange for their company.
The batik artist, Lastri, tells Marsiti and Hidayat that the story was told to her by a traveling mystic. This mystic had gone through an abandoned village once and found himself troubled by the place. (This is not the first time I’ve used this particular device in the series; but while it may seem convenient to introduce this sort of deus ex machina, trust me, that region is full of mystics who wander about sharing stories like this.) The mystery of what occurred in the abandoned village comes to the mystic first in a series of dreams, then in waking visions.
The story concerns a woman named Madu (which, in Malay, means, “honey”). She’s a strange, lonely little girl, whose only friend is a beekeeper uncle who teaches her how to care for bees. As Madu grows up, her parents, eager to get rid of her, marry her off to a lazy slob. The Malay Mysteries are my chance to examine a number of cultural conventions, both those that are beautiful and worth preserving, and others that offend our modern sensibilities. Arranged marriage has its detractors and proponents, but in this story, it was an effective way to show the aimlessness of Madu’s life and her alienation from anything conventional. She goes along with the marriage, not knowing what else to do, to the obvious relief of her parents.
Madu quickly realizes that her new husband, obviously no prize from the second she encounters him, is incapable of lifting a finger to do any work, so she turns to the knowledge imparted to her by her uncle and supports them by raising bees. Her hives flourish immediately, and she’s able to sell the honey and wax in the town market. Even here, her fellow villagers gossip about how strange she is, but no one can argue with the quality of her goods.
To say much more beyond this and the hints in my previous columns would ruin the story (and I want you to read it properly), but from this point a series of events takes place that makes its way to a very ambiguous conclusion. Suffice it to say that Madu’s hives start behaving in a very unusual manner and it’s clear that they’ve been taken over by some sort of evil force. I’ve worked with mysterious endings elsewhere in the series, and it was fun to introduce it into this episode of the series. The characters listening to the batik artist Lastri’s story speculate about what might have caused Madu’s hives to become unnatural, evil things, but none of their theories seem to explain everything about what happened. Moreover, we’re asked to trust not only the wandering mystic who imparted the story to Lastri, but Lastri’s retelling of it, as well. Something important may have been left out of either version, out of fear or for some other motive, that might have explained the whole thing, but we never find out whatever it is.
As the author of the story, I have some ideas what may have happened, but it was more fun for me to let events unfold in a way that actually had multiple explanations. At the end of Lastri’s story, my dedicated ghost hunters leave (buying one of the batik cloths as a memento), off to their next adventure.
No discussion of this series would be complete without some glowing praise heaped upon my collaborator, M. Reza Aribuwana. I found Reza when I was working on the third book in the series, Island of Glass and Ashes, which he illustrated in its entirety. He also illustrated the framing story of the fourth book, Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories. He’s done an exceptional job on this book, which is about two thirds complete as I write this (watch this column for information on how to pre-order the book or buy it when it comes out in late November). Reza is trained as an architect, and lives in Bandung, a city in Indonesia a couple of hours’ drive from Jakarta, where I was first introduced to all these Malay ghost stories as a teenager.
I’m very excited about this book and, for me, the most fun part of the process is watching the artwork come in. Few are lucky enough to see their vision realized by such talented collaborators. I hope my readers get enjoyment out of these books too.