Arabian Nightmares: How a Lebanese publisher is reviving Arab horror with a new anthology

The project has already surpassed its $10,000 Kickstarter goal, indicating a marked appetite for scary stories in the region

Daniel Habib is a co-founder of Nightmare Curator Publishing, which is raising funds for the anthology on Kickstarter. Photo: Nightmare Curator Publishing
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Horror is a relatively unchartered genre in Arab literature.

Of course, that is not to say that is a wholly unexplored realm. The region has been scared stiff by trailblazers including the late Egyptian writer Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, whose Paranormal novels inspired a Netflix series in 2020. Ahmed Saadawi, meanwhile, turned to the surreal to explore individual experiences in a war-torn Iraq. His Frankenstein in Baghdad won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 and has since been translated into English to critical acclaim.

Despite these marked accomplishments, literary horror in the Arab world is a case of few brilliant examples rather than a steady stream of output. As a whole, it feels like we’ve only just begun to venture into the pages of the ghastly and the ghoulish. This diffidence is somewhat surprising. For a genre that is often employed as a warped mirror to the human condition, or as a cathartic medium that channels sociopolitical anxieties, the Middle East offers a trove of materials for horror writers to reflect on.

This untapped potential is precisely what inspired Lebanese writer Daniel Habib to spearhead Arabian Nightmares, an English-language anthology of short horror stories by authors from the region. The project is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. It has already surpassed its $10,000 goal, indicating a marked appetite for horror in the region.

Yet, it didn’t always seem so. When Habib launched the project last year, he wasn’t sure how writers would respond to the call, or whether he’d even have enough stories to compile a book.

And for a while, Habib struggled to find stories that fit the anthology’s ambition in quality and in subject matter.

“There aren’t a lot of voices out there [that write horror],” Habib says. “I was kind of disappointed.”

Yet, Habib wasn’t deterred. The co-founder of Nightmare Curator Publishing began reaching out to writers who wrote outside horror, and asked them if they’d like to try their hand at the genre.

“I started finding these writers, most of them are not horror writers, one of the is a YA writer, one of them is a scholar, who teaches writing,” he says. “I found them and asked if they were interested in writing a short horror story that’s representative of [their] Arab experiences. They jumped [at the opportunity].”

Soon, the stories began streaming in. As Habib read through the submissions, his blood positively curdled and he knew he finally had an anthology in his hands. In the end, he had 10 stories to work with. The writers, who lived in the Arab world or were part of the Arab diaspora, each brought a unique twist to the concept of horror.

Among them is Zamil Akhtar’s The Tale of the Beggar and the Strange Journey. The story follows a polymath from Baghdad’s House of Wisdom as he tries to retrace his son’s steps to an unmapped island on the Indian Ocean. In Phantom Limb by Camille Cabbabe, a young woman seeks the help of a supernatural being to find the man who assaulted her. Mona Kabbani’s The Seams, meanwhile, evokes the ambience of horror within a corporate setting. Layla Goushey’s Properties of the Seer follows a village healer’s son as he retrieves a mystical rotting eye that his father had placed in a farmer’s socket.

Habib himself has a story within the anthology. Titled The Beekeeper, the story revolves around Maya who ventures to her husband’s estate to finalise their divorce. “[The story] is very modern Lebanese, because I wanted to represent my Beirut, it’s set in 2020 and it has Covid in it. It’s true horror and crazy horror.”

Emirati horror filmmaker Hana Kazim is also featured with a story titled Inner Earth, which revolves around a group of scientists who travel to the Himalayas to study a new crevice. “Unbeknown to them, centuries-old creatures lie beneath, ready to be unleashed into the world,” the story’s teaser reads.

The range of subject matter and themes within Arabian Nightmares makes the anthology one of the most interesting collections to look out for. For those who want a physical copy that stands out on the book shelf, Nightmare Curator Publishing is also releasing a deluxe hardcover edition that is bound in faux leather and has silver gilded page edges.

“Since it's the first ever Arab [horror] anthology, we wanted to make this epic deluxe edition,” Habib says. “We wanted to [offer] that piece of resistance on your bookshelf or on your coffee table.” There will be a limited run of these hardcopies available, Habib adds. “Once that batch is sold, we're never going to do it again.”

However, even after the Kickstarter initiative ends on May 15, Habib says the book will probably be published regularly as a paperback. Plans for a regular production were in part motivated by the Kickstarter’s response, as backers came not only from the Arab world, but from the US and UK as well.

“There are no Arab voices out there talking horror this loud. I’m proud to have got [diverse] voices,” he says. “We have Egypt represented, Saudi, UAE, Palestine, Lebanese-French and Lebanese-American. We even have a writer from Pakistan who lived in the UAE.”

Besides being significant for its own sake, Arabian Nightmares has also become a flagship project to Habib's newly founded imprint Nightmare Curator Publishing. A scriptwriter by profession, Habib says he was often tempted to try his hand at writing fiction in book form. While working on Arabian Nightmares as well as his short story The Beekeeper, he was inspired to take his ambitions further, founding Nightmare Curator Publishing and writing his debut novella Under the Vile Moon.

“I thought it was gonna be one and done,” Habib says. “I finished writing my short story last summer, and I was like, man, that was fun. A script is a very different animal. I can write a script in two hours but I was scared of literature. I started writing about a serial killer. We don't have iconic serial killers that are written by Arabs. I started writing Under the Vile Moon, and there I was finishing 300 pages and I’m like ‘this is a series, I don’t want to end it here’.”

The first instalment of Under the Vile Moon was released in December. The next novella in the series, Bleeding Sun, is scheduled to come out in April, with a new instalment being released “every two months”, Habib says.

“They're all novellas, small reads,” he says. “Maybe in the end, I’ll wrap them in one compendium.”

Updated: May 07, 2024, 3:35 AM