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Legendary Singapore horror writer Russell Lee is back with the latest entry of his beloved book series. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@RL.ANGSANABOOKS

Fallen Soldiers, Pontianaks & The Threat of "Wokeism": True Singapore Ghost Stories Book 27 Review

Reading Russell Lee’s beloved True Singapore Ghost Stories book series during morning assembly in primary school is one of my core memories. I’m not kidding when I say literally everyone from my generation grew up on his books. 

Since its very first entry, back in 1989, TSGS has sold over 1.5 million copies, not just in Singapore but around the region as well. I even have this vivid childhood memory of coming across a copy in a random MPH bookstore in Kuala Lumpur and poring over its pages on the 8-hour bus ride back.

Each collection consists of ghost story submissions from readers and a deep dive into a supernatural topic by the author. Sometimes there would even be interviews with paranormal investigators or everyday people who had a spooky encounter to share. I remember an earlier entry in the series where Lee recounted his first hand experience witnessing an exorcism and how it gave me nightmares as a child, thinking that such things exist.

A literary legend in Singapore

If you grew up in the early 90s, the name “Russell Lee” can be considered a local institution. His True Singapore Ghost Stories series was ever-present during the reading period among my friends, almost to the point where each release was eagerly anticipated. 

According to the National Library, it is one of the most popular local literatures in history, having been borrowed millions of times collectively. It is not hyperbole to state that, at their peak in the 1990s, these horror books could rival Harry Potter in popularity, at least here in Singapore.

Throughout the years, the enigmatic author has kept his identity a secret, sporting a signature trench coat hat and ski mask for public appearances and book signings, which probably enhanced his mystique and legend further.

The nostalgia is real

It was a complete coincidence when I found out Russell Lee just released Book 27 in late 2023. I was browsing the shelves of my neighbourhood Popular bookstore with no intention of buying anything, to be honest, when I came across the latest edition under the “New Releases” section.

There it was, those iconic cat eyes from the book’s cover staring back at me. I could literally feel a wave of nostalgia hit me as I thumbed through the pages. As the first release from Lee in almost three years, he had no problem hyping up its significance. He even took to Instagram to proclaim, "This is the most important TSGS book I have done in almost 35 years."

The selling point for me was an entire “Russell Lee Investigates” section on whether “wokeism” is the new cult and the sinister undertones behind this Western movement. Consider me intrigued. 

Other highlights include "Pontianak of Changi Point” (self-explanatory), “Fallen Soldier” (a ghostly encounter with a World War II spirit), and “Mona Fandey’s Ghost” (a popular Malaysian singer turned bomoh turned convicted murderer).

So, is it worth the purchase?

There is a reason why Russell Lee has been a literary constant in Singapore for almost 35 years. Not only do his books tap into our universal fixation for the supernatural and occult, they also explore the intersection of faith and culture, which makes the stories even more uniquely Singaporean.

Book 27 is no different. I mean, where else can you read stories on Teochew opera ghosts, terrifying taxi terror tales, and susuk (related to Malay black magic) all in one book? 

Despite their popularity, one of the biggest criticisms of the True Singapore Ghost Stories series is that they are not particularly frightening. I do admit that, in terms of the scare factor, not all the stories land. Lee welcomes submissions from all ages in a bid to make the book as accessible as possible, with the youngest writer being 13 on “I Want To Pee!”. But Lee doesn’t necessarily rely on cheap thrills; some tales have a moral lesson behind them. 

For example, “Fallen Soldier” and “Little Japan” reflect on the human cost of World War 2, especially for the soldiers who have to engage in it. Meanwhile, “The Phantom of Teochew Opera” laments the disappearance of uniquely Singaporean cultural traditions. 

Another great trait about Lee’s books is that he curates stories that are highly localised, paying tribute to both the current and past eras of Singapore. His stories harken back to simpler times. So I can resonate with the stories even more, seeing how they are a love letter to our little island.

I’ve always enjoyed Lee’s sharp commentary, theatrical prose, and insightful anecdotes. He uses ghost stories almost as a vehicle to explore taboo topics in society. After 27 iterations, this formula is still highly effective.

Boy, oh boy, his deep dive into woke culture in this edition is especially thought-provoking, whether you agree or disagree with his conspiracy theories. Lee argues that behind the facade of this recent phenomenon, “there’s a spiritual fight going on that’s at the root of the general woes facing the world.” He compares it to a “titanic battle between the forces of good and evil.”

Dramatic statements aside, Lee builds a compelling argument around how “cancel culture” and mob justice might be the work of the devil. While I have no dog in the fight, I raced through this particular section in one sitting and was left wanting more, such was its entertainment value.

Also, one thing I wanted to highlight was that the price of the books has remained unchanged at S$9.90 for the past 35 years (GST excluded). He truly is the people’s champ, as is his dedication to making his books accessible to people of all ages. The connection I have for these books feels reinvigorated with the latest entry, and I can’t wait to revisit my past collection for old-time’s sake. Definitely worth the read for old-time fans and horror newbies looking to dip their feet in the genre.

Come support Singapore’s horror icon in person

Regardless of whether you believe in ghosts or not, Lee always makes it a point to entertain and educate his readers. He considers himself a true believer, and that comes across in his writing. 

Russell Lee is an iconic figure who has entertained generations of Singaporeans and Malaysians with his “The Almost Complete Collection of True Singapore Ghost Stories” series, even before “Incredible Tales” or “Mr Midnight” was a thing.

While his identity remains a mystery, Lee’s love for ghosts and all things local is palpable. He is “as Singaporean as the five stars and crescent moon," as he puts it on his website bio. Perhaps that is the secret ingredient to his enduring success.

If you want to meet the living legend in person, the masked author is holding additional book signings at various stores around the island at the end of January. I’ll definitely be in the queue, hoping to get my Book 27 copy signed!

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