Horror author Lee Murray is NZ's Stephen King

Kiwi bestseller Lee delights in making readers feel uncomfortable

She may be one of New Zealand's most successful writers, but chances are you haven't heard of Lee Murray.
There's a reason for that, says Lee. The 57-year-old believes it's because she writes horror fiction and there's a perception that these stories are all about "gothic backdrops, haunted houses or chainsaws dripping blood" for readers who like gore.
But, Lee stresses, horror stories aren't just about things that go bump in the night.
"They're actually about real-life things that frighten us – technological and social change, fears about others and otherness, persecution and marginalisation."
As a third-generation Chinese New Zealander who's experienced racism and feels riled about social injustice, writing horror allows Lee to explore these issues, and exorcise demons that might otherwise
manifest in the depression and anxiety she has lived with for many years.
"It's a very Asian thing not to speak out," she says. "You're quiet and you subsume certain issues, but I am determined to be unquiet now by giving a voice to those things and telling my stories.
"There's a lot of power in being able to express yourself, so I feel very privileged. I'm talking about these things on the world stage, at international conferences, and that is an incredible privilege."
But there's no doubt Lee has a special knack for "stories that make your knees knock and your marrow melt". She has just been named winner of this year's Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, an award given by the NZ Society of Authors for an unpublished manuscript. That winning work, Fox Spirit of a Distant Cloud, will be published next year.
Last month, she flew with husband David to the US to attend the world's most prestigious horror writing event, the Bram Stoker Awards. At the ceremony, she collected her fifth coveted title. Previous winners include Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates.
The write stuff! Lee and her 2023 Bram Stoker Award. Amazingly, it's her fifth win.
She's well-known around the world and is soon to have a US documentary crew visit her at her Tauranga home. Rather than a castle fallen into creepy decrepitude or a stone cottage with thorny roses and broken paths, Lee works from a modern, open-plan Welcome Bay home she shares with David. She works in an office which overlooks grazing cows.
Her first idea for a horror thriller came to her in 2010. "I was running through a forest with friends thinking, 'I wonder what else might be out here?' I love research and falling into rabbit holes. My brain is like a browser with 50 tabs open.
"My academic background is research, so I always find it fascinating to follow those rabbit holes. I might see a paper or research article that spurs an idea. I'll see something and ask, 'What would be the consequence of this technology or this piece of research?'"
Before she became a writer, Lee was a scientist who lived and worked overseas, including seven years in France, where she was New Zealand's energy advisor to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) for a time. She, David and their two children, Robbie and Céline, also lived in Wisconsin, US, for four years before returning to Aotearoa.
Lee started writing classes and published a romance, but although it received good reviews, it wasn't the genre for Lee, who found horror took her toward issues that resonated.
Many of her stories take place in rugged New Zealand settings against a backdrop of local culture and myths. They include military thrillers where Taine McKenna, an NZ Defence Force sergeant, faces off against mysterious forces in our national parks. "I would love to see him on screen one day!"
Then there's The Path of Ra crime thriller noir series co-written with Dan Rabarts, where Asian scientist Penny Yee and her Māori half-brother Matiu solve supernatural crimes.
Lee with her impressive list of titles.
"She's an Asian scientist, uptight – that's me – and he is Māori, smouldering – that's Dan. So there's one foot in the magical realism of Māori culture and a nod to my Chinese heritage, which is such a beautiful combination. We're probably one of very few writing duos. I don't know of any others writing Kiwi fiction like this.
"There is some absolutely amazing work being written by our writers and it is fresh. It has that unique New Zealand perspective, which is so sought after overseas but here, people don't take it seriously. We're not seen as real writers."
But that may be changing. Lee is one of the lead writers on the horror film Grafted that's filming in Auckland. She sees our film industry as one that can offer inspiration to the literary sector.
"Aotearoa is a centre of excellence for dark and brooding works, and stories of isolation and otherness, and also quirky horror," she explains. While thefilm industry has understood that, in literature and publishing they haven't quite got there, yet we have so much to offer."

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