Russell Lee during a book signing. Photo by FOTF1989 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
What Ever Happened to…? is an investigation into the whereabouts of former pop culture icons, political figures, and urban legends. This week, we’re diving into True Singapore Ghost Stories writer Russell Lee.Huddled around a desk in an empty primary school classroom, my classmates and I exchanged excited yet hushed whispers. Our voices strained, we fervently sifted through the pages of dog-eared books. The shouts of our classmates playing in the tennis courts just outside seemed a thousand miles away; we paid them no mind. We weren’t doing anything illegal, of course. The fear wasn’t of lawful consequence. It was fear of a more primal nature, fear of the unknown, the supernatural, of spirits and the occult.
In between the group of four hunched 11-year-olds were books numbered from 1 to 12. A pair of cat-like eyes printed on each cover stared at us, almost threateningly. And like a prey being stalked by a predator, we were all braced for a shock. It was a set of True Singapore Ghost Stories, many Singaporeans' favourite guilty pleasure.Talk to Singaporeans and Malaysians who grew up in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and most of them will surely go into an enthusiastic recap of how they owned any number of these horror novels.First published in 1989, each book consists of a collection of ghost stories, taken from across Singapore, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. They were parcelled as submitted stories from actual people who claimed to have witnessed paranormal events, with their name, age, and occupation written along with their testimony. Even though the stories reportedly came from people all over the region, the books were credited to one person in particular — Russell Lee.A quick Google search comes up almost empty, save for a few pictures of a man in a ski mask, covered in black from head to toe, not a single flake of skin showing. He shows up to book signings in his classic jet black outfit, posing for pictures, talking to fans, and signing autographs, all without revealing a shred of information about who he is. It’s impossible to make out any discernible features and if it wasn’t for the endorsement of his publishers, it could be anybody under the mask.
Like his appearance, his name is also shrouded in secrecy. It turns out that “Russell Lee” is a pseudonym and, to this day, his real name remains a mystery. The only known facts about him are the following: He is a man, he is tall, and he is Singaporean.I have not read a True Singapore Ghost Stories book since 2006 so, while reminiscing about my childhood, I wondered where Lee was now. I did my own ghost hunting, not of actual ghosts, but of ghostwriters.Like all good mysteries, conspiracies abound. Some say the man behind the pen could be none other than Mr. Mystery Novelist James Lee, a fellow author under the publisher Angsana Books.Others speculate that Russell Lee is not one person, but many, different authors who pick up the mantle where the previous left off — like James Bond, or Doctor Who, except not British. Each incarnation practises the author’s signature by heart, to keep the spirit alive (no pun intended).But instead of following a trail of clues leading to an international conspiracy, the reality is that Lee, faithful to his fans of three decades, turns up year after year, still faithful to anonymity.In 2015, he collaborated with Universal Studios as a Halloween haunted house consultant (Yes, it’s a real job!). In 2017, he released his 25th book in the series, and surfaced again in 2018 in an interview with Time Out Singapore.“The challenge is to make the latest book the best in the series. One day, however, I will have to take off my mask, put down my pen, get out of the Russell Lee regulation black outfit, and finally call it a day,” he said. But to this day, he has not done so. He was last seen in a book signing in Malaysia earlier this year.
To say that I was pleasantly surprised that Lee is still out there, keeping the mystery alive, is an understatement. He was the sole reason I had such a fascination with the supernatural as a child. I still remember devouring his books the moment they came out, begging my mom to buy me the next instalments.As terrified as I was, I endured the cold sweats and sleepless nights with a morbid fascination that kept my face covered and my blanket tucked high.I still follow some of the rules laid out in the books. I never sleep facing the ceiling, for fear of waking up to eyes looking down at me. I never turn to look behind me when I walk alone at night, fearful of getting slapped by something following me home. I never whistle in the forest, lest something whistles back.There's something much deeper about the stories Lee collects. He bounces from prose to prose with an urgency, like there was a need to tell the story before it was too late, a cautionary tale where every sentence was a warning, every word a wagging finger. His stories make you tuck your feet up from over the couch, and keep your eyes open while washing your hair.I can’t wait to catch up with the series and bring back the wide-eyed little boy, terrified of his own shadow, from nearly a decade ago.