Review: Philippine Genre Stories brings pre-Christmas creepiness

Review by DAVID DIZON/abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Dec 10 2008 06:39 PM | Updated as of Dec 13 2008 09:33 AM

If you’re looking to add a little gristle to your holiday reading list, you can’t go wrong with The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories (PGS) special Horror Issue. The issue, which comes out in major bookstores soon, is edited by the Philippines’ undisputed horror doyenne Yvette Tan and should be a perfect breather in between screenings of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

In an e-mail interview, Tan says she and PGS publisher Kenneth Yu received numerous submissions for the horror issue enough to fill even a second volume.

“We were very lucky because horror is such a Pinoy thing. There was no common theme, which shows the high and varied level of imagination that Filipino writers have. There were surprisingly few people who submitted stories that involved horror staples like vampires and werewolves. I don't think anyone submitted anything about zombies,” said Tan.

She said readers of the PGS Horror issue are in for a surprise as the stories were chosen because they signified a different way of looking at horror.

“The genre doesn't have to always be serious, moody pieces about spooky castles. Horror can be funny. It can be about children, or about technology, or about strange, unexplainable things. What's important is that the reader gets a sense of uneasiness while reading the story. If the story keeps the reader up all night, even better,” she said.

Going by that definition, it’s easy to see why some of the stories in the latest PGS collection don’t always fit in the traditional mold of scary stories.

The first story, Dominique Cimafranca’s “An Unusual Treatment”, was good for a couple of belly laughs. This story of a most unusual possession and its equally unusual cure is a good opener for this collection and sets us up for the horror that is to come. While his style is a bit workmanlike, Cimafranca’s story is much better than his submission to last year’s Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume III. I expect bigger and better things from this writer soon.

Tech Support” by Sean Uy has a strong premise but fumbles in the execution. I had high expectations from Sean because I felt his story in the second PGS issue (“The Final Interview”) was the most professional of the bunch and near flawless in execution. This story felt half-baked. The idea of a possessed computer seems tailor-made for horror and the idea of an exorcism service offered by Convergys or Teletech feels like something Egon Spengler would think up.

The problem with Tech Support is that the setup seems rushed. The idea of an inanimate object being possessed by something other would have been more convincing if there was more detail on how the possession started in the first place. Did the computer owner browse through a file-sharing site where he accidentally downloaded a “brand new virus?” Or maybe a business rival sent a Zuni fetish doll with its own nasty surprise (wait, somebody already got that idea). Maybe the possessed computer starts spewing pea soup at the user instead of just resetting passwords or reading e-mails. The litany of technical glitches experienced by the computer user in the story seems less of a supernatural occurrence and more like the handiwork of Chinese hackers or Windows Vista without the patches. More spice on this one, waiter.

A touch of Bradbury

There’s a bittersweet quality to Alex Paman’s story "Same Time Again Next Halloween" that starts from the very first sentence and permeates the narrative all the way to the chilling ending. While trick or treating may not be a practice that’s entirely familiar to a majority of Pinoy kids here, we have enough Western TV to know how it’s done and have our own local version when we used to go carolling before Christmas. The story of two kids who reunite every Halloween for a night of childhood games is positively Bradbury-esque in tone with a nasty surprise at the end. While not wholly remarkable, Paman’s story nevertheless keeps up with the issue’s theme.

The Haunted Man” has a title that spoils the story’s twist from the get-go but leaves a chill in its wake. Author Raymond Falgui uses an anectodal style that’s less fiction-like and more at home in those confessional-type horror books with titles like True Multo Stories or something. Does the writing style detract from the horror? Not a whit. This is a story that triples its scare factor when read alone at night.

According to editor Tan, she chose The Haunted Man as the issue’s title story “because it was the one that Filipinos would best relate to.” She says Nelz Yumul’s cover depicting Falgui’s story is pretty disturbing.

“It looks like a Valentine's Day card gone wrong,” she said and I would certainly agree.

For some reason, I didn’t much care for Joseph Nacino’s “The War Against The City.” Maybe it’s because the story felt like a riff on another story by Brit author Neil Gaiman (about a man who wakes up in the dreams of a city and can’t get out) but with less than stellar results. Maybe it’s the writing style that plainly breaks the rule of “show, not tell.” Yes, we are told that the main character, Ramon, hates the city but we are never shown what fuels his hate even before the tragic death of his would-be girlfriend. The story of the malevolent city has been done much better and in a broader canvass such as Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. Even Nacino’s imagery feels flat and fails to engage; the description of the animate Metro Manila with the Iglesia ni Kristo cathedral on its head sounds like something you get from a comic book. Nacino’s story in the very first PGS issue (“Insomnia”) was the one that most excited me about the mag’s potential as a source of quality stories. Unfortunately, his latest offering in PGS is a bust.

If there is one story though that should justify people’s purchase of the magazine, it should be Charles Tan’s “The Jar Collector.” Tan’s story about one man’s transformation from keeper of dirty secrets to something akin to omniscience gripped me from the first sentence in. The premise is certainly intriguing enough – what if you had the ability to know people's deepest, darkest secrets? The potential for horror is certainly there and Tan touches on that fear for a moment before expanding his idea further. Similar in theme to Gary Braunbeck’s “Rami Temporales”, my biggest complaint to this story is that it ends too soon and too abruptly, as if the writer had no idea how to end his story and simply leaves it hanging. Perhaps Tan could find time to expand on the story’s themes and provide a more satisfying conclusion to an already good narrative.

Tips for future horror fictionists

Yvette Tan, whose latest collection is being released by Anvil Publishing, also dished out the following advice to the aspiring horror writer.

1. Read a lot of horror.
Read for style and content. Find out what's being written out there and how things are being said. Find word combinations and sentence lengths that best support the feeling you want to convey. Pacing is extremely important in horror fiction, and what better way to learn to pace yourself but from the works of others who have gone before you?

Read a lot of the horror masters like Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, etc. Even the classics that you were forced to read in school are really horror stories. Anything by Edgar Allan Poe. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." Nick Joaquin's "Summer Solstice." F. Sionil Jose's "God Stealers." As for new(er) guys, I like Joe Hill and Chuck Palahniuk. Even some of the Harry Potter series can be considered horror.

2. Write a lot of stories.
Unless you're a genius, your first one or two horror stories will probably be duds. I know, I had to go through that as well. Just keep writing. You don't even have to consciously write horror. Hopefully, you're reading as much as you're writing. The more you write, the faster it will be to get the duds out of your system.

3. Don't hang with the haters.
Don't listen to the people who try to bring you down. People (maybe even your teachers) will say that horror is not a worthy kind of literature to pursue or even worse, say that you can't write it at all. Don't listen to them. Do what makes you happy, but continuously improve your craft. Find like-minded people who will encourage you and give you constructive criticism.

4. Always be on the lookout for inspiration.
The great thing about beng Filipino is that we're hardwired to, if not believe, at least take interest in all things supernatural. Carry a pen and some paper with you and be ready to jot down ideas as they occur. It could be a story your tito told you, or a local legend attached to a particular tree. It could even be the wonky signal your cellphone has been experiencing. Write down words that stirke your fancy. You might be able to use some of these later.

5. Write for yourself.
Write stories that you want to read, not what you think other people want to read. If you want to write to please others, you belong in showbiz, not writing. If you please yourself, chances are other people will be drawn to your story as well.