By Rana Khaled
“To the voice that kept whispering to me when I was writing this trilogy, I’m so grateful that you stopped!”
With these mysterious words published on the cover of his latest novel, leading horror writer Hassan El-Gendy raises controversy and ambiguity around himself as usual. Although he was asked many times to explain the meaning of this vague sentence, he preferred to keep the answer for himself.
With Om Kalthoum’s classic songs playing in the background and a cigarette between his fingers, El-Gendy resorts to his room, closes the doors and isolates himself from the outside world for long hours. He uses his laptop as a mediator, that enables him to release dozens of confused ideas that overcrowd his mind every day.
In 2009, El-Gendy cooperated with a number of horror writers to publish their first short story collection “O3zoreny and Other Fears”, which was one of the most notable cooperative experiences between young Egyptian writers during the past few years. Within the same year, he published his first novel “Ibn Ishaq’s Manuscript, the City of the Dead”, which mixed thriller, mystery and horrific conjuring with some historical information. After less than a year, he released his second novel “Half-dead buried alive” in which he shed lights for the first time on many controversial corruption issues regarding trafficking corpses and Necrophilia disease.
In 2011, he published the second part of “Ibn Ishaq’s Manuscript”, under the name of “The Apostate” or “Al Mortad”. Moreover, 2012 witnessed the release of his fourth novel “The Butcher”, in which he presented the crime literature genre revealing how the deadliest torture some citizens suffered from in police stations could turn them into criminals and killers seeking revenge. Within the same year, the 25-year-old writer presented his second collection of short stories titled “Interview with Horror Writer” followed by another collection called “Hekayat Farghaly El Mestekawly”, in which he presented the sarcastic horror genre mixing laughter, jokes with breathtaking terrifying horror. In 2014, he released the last part of his trilogy “Ibn Ishaq’s Manuscript, The returning” to meet the demands of the awaiting audience who are looking forward to knowing how the story will end.
In his interview with Daily News Egypt, El-Gendy discusses the obstacles he faced to publish his first novels, revealing the other side of his mysterious personality and the sources of the ideas of his remarkable novels. He also provides some exclusive information about his future novels and projects for turning them into movies.
When did you start writing? And why did you choose the horror literature genre in particular?
I was drawn to writing since I was 16-years-old. I started by writing “Ibn Ishaq’s Manuscript, the City of the Dead”, which I finished when I was 17. In fact, I believe that the writing talent is always associated with the accumulation of experiences and the excessive reading of different kinds of literature, and it needs the writer to be keen to improve himself and develop his style to get out of the primitive talent scope to the wider reality.
I chose the horror literature because I realised that I can get rid of all of my fears on the paper. When I write, I pour my fears and concerns on the paper in front of me. Over time, I started to use horror as an exciting cover for any literary work I want to present in order to attract the attention of my readers and prevent them from being bored.
Why did you decide to study comparative Jurisprudence after finishing your philosophy studies in the faculty of arts? And why did you move to memorise the Bible after that? Don’t you see any contradiction in these shifts?
I was always attracted to the religious studies because I was taught by many scholars from Al-Azhar during high school and university years. Because I’m so curious, I started reading the Old Testament and its different explanations paying special attention to the historical facts in the Jewish religious theatre. I moved to reading the New Testament, with its different texts and illustrations.
In general, I enjoy reading about religion, as it satisfies my curiosity and helps me create a general combined perception for religions which I intend to use in my upcoming novels. I believe there isn’t any contradiction between studying the Islamic comparative Jurisprudence or reading the bible or the old or New Testament. I don’t even mind to study some books about the other eastern religions such as Zoroastrianism. In my opinion, all religions have identical ideas with very close goals and methods because all of them were actually affected by each other in a way that most of us can never imagine.
Although many young horror novelists came to light lately, you managed to create a unique innovative route for yourself. From your point of view, what distinguishes you from the other authors who write within the same genres?
I don’t think I have anything unique, but I’m always trying to be specialised in the local horror. From the very beginning, I decided to get away from the popular western patterns of horror that many Arabic writers were fascinated by including werewolves, vampires and ghosts. I preferred to create something close to the mentality of the Egyptian and Arabic readers.
How did the idea of publishing a collective short story collection “O3zoreny and Other Fears” first came to your minds as young horror writers although it’s something new in our Egyptian book market? And did you face any obstacles when you decided to publish it?
The whole thing started when I knew about a group of writers who published a collective book called “Noata w Men Awel el Satr”. I suggested the idea of collecting the short stories of some of the horror writers in one book on a forum on the internet. I was surprised when I found that many writers were interested to join, and some of them created a team responsible for classifying the stories writers sent and submitting them to a committee of other writers for assessment. The committee selected three writers, Shimaa El-Syofy who wrote “O3zoreny”, which the collection was named after, and the writer Alaa Mahmoud with his novel “It Happened in the Evening”, and I was also selected.
We sent the collection to many publishing houses that refused the idea from its roots. However, we didn’t give up and we kept trying until we found another house that accepted our idea. We divided the expenses of publishing the book among us equally and could finally publish the collection after a lot of struggle.
From where did you come up with the idea of your first novel “Ibn Ishaq’s Manuscript, the City of the Dead”?? And did you have to read any old manuscripts talking about conjuring the demons and spirits before?
When I was writing this novel, I was so interested in reading the spiritual manuscripts and deciphering them with the help of many sheikhs from inside and outside Al-Azhar. They taught me how to classify and understand the talismans of such scripts. I was actually fascinated by this huge heritage and I wanted to convey it to the Egyptian writer who has never read anything like this before.
Why did you give up hope and decided to publish the novel on the internet although its print issue achieved high readership rates when it was released after that?
I lost hope when I sent the novel to dozens of publishing houses who met me with sarcastic look on their faces. During that period of time, pocket books were more popular and the concept of horror novel wasn’t introduced to the market yet. Many people asked me to leave the horror genre and turn into writing the mainstream pocket books, but I refused. When I published the novel on the internet on one of the literary forums, I was surprised by the large numbers of comments and the readership rates the novel got. That opened the door for releasing the print edition of the novel after that.
In your novel “Half-Dead Buried Alive”, you shed light on some corruption issues many prefer to stay away from. Talk to us more about this experience and the messages you wanted to convey through this novel.
In my opinion, the literary work presents a lifetime experience for its characters allowing readers to stay side by side with them, feeling their emotions and going through their daily events and circumstances. I didn’t intend to shed light on any social issues but I aimed mainly at providing the reader with a chance to experience the events as if he’s part of the story. I wanted him to feel life and death, horror and happiness, sin and repentance. I wanted him to think of everything he was afraid of thinking of before.
In your second and third short story collections “An interview with a horror writer” and “Hekayat Farghaly El Mestekawy”, you introduced the comic horror genre using slang. How could you blend breathtaking horror with sarcastic comedy? And did it require exerting any special efforts?
In these collections, I wanted to make fun of the Egyptian horror icons by mixing fear with situation comedy. I asked myself what would happen if someone conjured a jinni who loves popular songs?! I think this was the first experience of its kind in the Arabic market although this genre was popular in western countries since long time.
I heard that you received a lot of calls and messages from readers asking for the phone numbers of some of the characters in your novels and when you told them that they weren’t real, they insisted that you hide them for security reasons. To what extent can a writer weave factious stories in a realistic way that gives the reader an impression that they were inspired by true events?
Many people have called me after the publishing of the second part of “Ibn Ishaq’s Manuscript”, as they were fascinated by a certain character who could harness demons and jinn to serve him. When I told them that this came from my imagination, their minds refused to believe this answer, because the novel depended on many real cursives and written legends and mixed them with fiction so it became so hard for ordinary readers to separate fiction from reality.
In your blog, you mentioned the different kinds of horror literature and the importance of choosing the most suitable kind for the target audience. So what’s the most suitable kind for Arab society, in general, and the Egyptian society, in particular? And who are your favourite horror writers?
The writer must choose the most effective types of horror according to the surrounding environment the target audience live in. For example, for our Egyptian university students, the idea of using Ouija to call spirits isn’t acceptable but calling them by using talismans or mascots is more convincing. Our Arabic reader won’t accept the idea of zombies or vampires but will accept a story about jinn and spirits.
As for my favourite writers, I prefer to read for Yehia Haqy, Naguib Mahfouz, Kamel el sehnawy, Alaa El Aswany, Ibrahim Aswan, Bahaa Taher in general. I read for all of the horror writers to learn from them but I prefer Stephen King, Sheridan Le Fanu and Richard Matheson.
How do you see the future of the horror literature in Egypt?
After less than two years, the readers will be able filter the existing writers and choose certain writers to follow. This happens all the time. As for the horror writers, I think they will struggle to improve their ideas especially when it became possible to turn their novels into movies or TV series.
What are your future novels and do you have any intentions to turn any of your literary works into a movie or a play?
In 2015, I will publish seven relevant books titled “A Night in Hell” followed by another trilogy called “Maria”. As for cinema projects, I signed a contract to convert “Hekayat Farghaly el Mestekawy” into a movie and there’s someone who’s working on the scenario right now. My novel “Smile, you’re dead” will also be turned into a movie after few months, God Willing.