Kumpulan Budak Setan is some kind of a tribute to Indonesian horror fiction writer Abdullah Harahap. The three renowned contributing authors—Eka Kurniawan, Intan Paramaditha and Ugoran Prasad—have recreated and re-represented Harahap’s famous narrative in their own styles and with their own ideas. First published in 2010, the anthology delivers a total of twelve short stories bearing each writer’s typical character of storytelling.
Eka Kurniawan is the first to deliver his horror stories, starting with a mystery-wanna-be tale Penjaga Malam. The idea is actually there and pretty convincing, about four men on duty guarding their village in the middle of the night and later finding each of themselves vanishing without trace. The problem is, it seems to try so hard to emanate darkness and fright but fails halfway. It’s a mystery yet somehow unable to even say that it is mysterious. Strangely, or luckily, Riwayat Kesendirian, Kurniawan’s third contribution here, has more of that mysterious vibe to it. It may not have the best or the most unusual idea—a man being haunted by the ghost of a woman he had ever helped in the past—but it is definitely better written that it will surely make the reader’s hair stand on end. The last one of his part, Jimat Sero, relies much on our traditional superstition that we can entirely rely on a particular jimat to get luck. Unfortunately, this must be paid in return with something so dear to us.
Intan Paramaditha is the second to present her tales. As we know, she is apt to write stories centering on women and gender, so it is no wonder that all four of her contributions talk about women and their issues. The first horror story she tells us is about a dangdut singer. Generally speaking, (female) dangdut singers do not have a very good reputation, especially those entertaining the lower class. They are both loved and hated, admired and despised. But most of the time they are the scapegoat for men’s improper desire, for they are not only singing, they are dancing—in an erotic way, usually. So Salimah, a dangdut singer in the piece entitled Goyang Penasaran, has to find herself gotten rid of from her home village for making a man unable to control his desire while she is singing on stage. That’s not the real problem here, however. As she comes back years later, she knows how and whom she must take her revenge on—the one respectable, yet hypocritical, man who set his male gaze on her years before and let his lust show but still had the audacity to claim himself to be a religious man and condemn her profession.
“Tak ada iblis lebih ngeri dari yang menyaru sebagai nabi.”
(No evil more sinister than those wearing the mask of a prophet.)
And that’s not it. The last of Paramaditha’s contributions, Si Manis dan Lelaki Ketujuh, is even more sinister in every aspect. What’s so outrageous here, if we want to say so, is not the idea of having a man as a sex slave, but having a man as a sex slave to a super rich woman with a badly disfigured face and a penchant for sadomasochism. It challanges the beauty standard, reverses the power play, and questions the sexual, normal norm. And interestingly, Paramaditha doesn’t focus on how the ugly woman thinks or feels about their relationship (though she can be said to be the female/reverse version of any common male lead character of this type), but she displays—describes—ever so blatantly the man’s feelings and how they develop through the sequence of their sexual encounters. The man realizes that he’s been addicted and cannot let himself go off of the entanglement, that he’s sort of tempted to accept the woman’s offer to leave his wife and have an adventure together, living the life of folk tales and unimaginable stories.
Among the three contributing writers, Ugoran Prasad might prove to be the one with the most standout pieces of all. No, he doesn’t write about bloodshed, bloodshot ghosts with chilling diction to frighten readers. His stories are more profound than that. Two of them even ring with gender issues, or something like that. Hantu Nancy, where he talks about the aftermath of the murder of a beauty salon owner, subtly shows how a beauty standard can be as dangerous as the murder itself. Meanwhile, in Hidung Iblis, Prasad seems to want to employ a different angle to deliver a story on sexuality.
In this last piece of the book, Sujatmoko, the main male character, appears to point out that all men with “normal” genitals (and thus normal sexual desire) are evils prowling innocent women. Trying to “protect” his wife from those evils, he is then intent on a killing spree. Readers might think he’s just doing it for having his manly pride hurt and merely to vent his anger on other, “normal” men. They might also think that he’s such an arrogant prick seeing a wife as a property hence the need for protection. And he might really be. But what’s so intriguing, and probably important, is the fact that his wife is not what he thinks she is. She’s beyond that. She doesn’t need protection, because “danger” is something she actually ventures into, something that she likes.
On the outside, Kumpulan Budak Setan appears to be a collection of horror stories. But while that might be true, there is something more to it than merely tales of ghosts, murders, or even love and sexual slavery. Deeper, it might be a series of elaborations of how we, humans, are actually the slaves of evils (just as the book title literally translates)—we rely so much on them, we do what they say, and we are even addicted to them and the sly tricks they play on us. We apparently cannot live without evils beside us. Maybe it’s just the human nature. So it can be pretty understandable that the writing styles employed by those three contributors do not exude horrific vibe or fright or anything that will make the reader so much as believe what they give us are horror stories. They are probably not at all.
Though a little bit disappointing in some aspects (i.e. the lack of fright some readers might seek for), Kumpulan Budak Setan is basically not a bad anthology. The writings are profoundly good, the ideas are not cliché, and the characters are all deeply dug up. It is some sort of proof that the three contributors—Kurniawan, Paramaditha and Prasad—are truly great writers we have today. If only it could be a little bit more frightening, that would be better.