Friday, September 12, 2014

"Radiant against colossal dark"

"...a privilege of the haunted, radiant against colossal dark. Loud as can be."
I only knew Karl R. De Mesa because he was the lead editor for the Filipino horror fiction anthology from the Strange Series trilogy, Demons of the New Year. This is the first time I have ever read a fiction work of his though I've seen two of his collected essays in the shelves of the nearest bookstore from where I work. I've already been captivated by a certain Filipina fictionist (Eliza Victoria) since last month, and I figured that I could still make room for one more, especially since De Mesa has a very intriguing literary background (he works as a journalist and is also a musician), and seems to share my passion and almost scholastic interest for tarot card-reading. This collection of his is composed of four novellas, each mind-boggling and intricately written, all of them somehow interrelated with one another.

The first noticeable thing about De Mesa's prose is that it more than matches the strangeness and otherwordly quality of his plots and characters. The descriptions are potent and have a hard edge to them are not always a pleasant or an easy thing to peruse through. From the very first story entitled Angelorio, De Mesa's world of fiction seems to be overcrowded with unknowable creatures, each with a unique perspective to share. I haven't read a story as fun and yet just as confusing as this one, honestly. I was taken into very surreal landscapes and seemingly paranormal events as seen through the eyes of two characters; a rich man/former junkie with a terminal illness who wishes to make an unexpected deal with the creature that lives in this mysterious club called Club Angelorio; and a veteran photo journalist, hoping to make a comeback by capturing some of the club's more prestigious and even mythical aspects.

I have enjoyed reading this story a lot even if the last few scenes leading to that anticlimactic ending were confounding. It certainly felt like I was missing something (which, luckily enough, was a purposeful direction by the writer himself. The next stories have a vague connection with this first story).

Still, there was no reason for me just yet to connect things yet. The second story, which is the titular New of the Shaman of the collection, was probably the most interesting of the bunch, given its literary style where De Mesa made use of fictionalized radio interviews, television news coverage, newspaper clippings, etc. as the vehicles to tell the story. I have never read anything like if before save perhaps Chuck Palahnuik's Rant (which, from what I recall, is composed of pages of pages of witness accounts about a certain person of interest) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (on the aspect where the events unfold in Gotham through the news coverage to give the effect of urgency and realness as the violence escalated in the city, as if the readers are the citizens themselves). That's exactly how the second story made it seem and it was a very invigorating reading experience because of that, considering I myself have a broadcast journalism background, so it was fun for me to read a fiction story through the use of scripted dialogue alone.

Basically, News of the Shaman follows the media coverage of the trial concerning a very famous 'shaman' (medicine man) named Don Cruez who allegedly murdered the legal representative of a certain powerful business corporation (that was also clashing with said shaman because Don Cruez is a self-proclaimed freedom fighter and activist who had been trying to take down said corporation). The most stand-out aspect of this story had to be the radio interviews hosted by a leftist station who seemed to politically align themselves with Don Cruez. I think it's safe to say that this story is the one with the most striking style because it wasn't prose which made it really enjoyable to read.

The third story once again featured the photo journalist from the Angelorio story as its sole narrator. I must confess that as disturbing and grim as Faith in Poison was to read, something about its overall appeal did not click with me. It's probably because I never liked the narrator in the first place, although very interesting and gruesome stuff happen around him and to him as I read this story. Something about it feels very out-of-place though but it's by this story that I also made some connections with the first two (though News of the Shaman feels like a story written to establish the setting and socio-political atmosphere that De Mesa imagined the Philippines has become; where shamans and occultists have become a sort of separate entities of the state who would challenge corporations and even the government itself; a very beguiling concept but I only wished it was established more).

It was only by the last story that made me change my mind about my rating for this book. I originally wanted to give it three stars and two of those are mostly for the second story which I maintain had a great sense of style with its experimental take on telling a story through the use of scripts and interviews alone.

Now Bright Midnight mixes both prose and that said style. We get excerpts from a certain biography which included interviews and then we move ahead with an actual story in prose format. The story follows the rise, fall and reunion of a rock band called Shadowland (they were featured in one of the radio interviews in News of the Shaman where the lead singer Miguel showed staunch support towards the shaman Don Cruez). What I loved about this story is the fact that I finally cared about the characters. Each band member was put in a spotlight and it certainly felt like I was watching one of those VH-1 documentaries about fallen musicians who were so talented and yet so tortured all the same. The tortured artist in question is the lead guitarist Joaquin whose death was such a personal blow for the band and its members on varied personal levels. It was beautiful and sublime, the way this particular story built up and unfolded. There were genuine moments of sadness, loss and discord among its characters that I truly felt for, so I was very much invested when they decided to do a reunion concert for their fans and as a tribute to the late Joaquin whose music had a that kind of magic (both as a metaphor and a literal manifestation) which had touched their lives in ways that can only be expressed through a performance of the lifetime.

De Mesa, a musician with an indie band himself, showcases his understanding about this kind of life and career choice, which made his characters very easy to relate to and sympathize with. He also took the time explaining the wonders of musical instruments and the people who have the skill to play them, infusing both informational texts and literary interpretations with a a delicate, symbiotic balance.

In a nutshell, News of the Shaman is quite exceptional in its storytelling and definitely something you must read if you're into quirky, experimental speculative fiction. I'm definitely interested enough to check out the author's other works.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"We are doomed because we are connected"

I first encountered Eliza Victoria in her short story submission for the Filipino horror anthology Demons of the New Year entitled Salot and it was a piece that stayed with me because of its ambiguous ending and fascinating characters whom I wished she expounded on some more. Heck, I even personally tweeted her one time and asked if there is a sequel because I couldn't get enough of it and she responded that there was no more that she could offer me. I was heartbroken but it also ignited my interest further so I ventured on to discover more of her fiction.

She once again dazzled me for her submission in Alternative Alamat entitled Ana’s Little Pawnshop on Makiling St., and eluded me for her submission in the fantasy anthology The Farthest Shore entitled The Just World of Helena Jimenez which I had to read twice to fully understand.

So, as you can see, my first impressions of the work of this authoress have been quite intoxicating. Now you can just imagine my glee once I was able to purchase this novella of hers--and was absofuckinglutely blown away by the simplicity yet elegance of her plot and prose.

Surprisingly yet admirably enough, Dwellers only has less than two hundred pages and yet that very length is something Victoria made the most of. The story is about two cousins with the power to inhabit the bodies of other people of their choosing. That's how the story starts, with these two men right after they freshly occupied the brothers Louis and Jonah and began settling down in their new home. The novel is written in the first-person perspective of the new Jonah who is from here on serves as the eyes of the readers as the story unfolds.

Part of the ongoing mystery is that we never learned about the cousins' real names to the very end yet perhaps it's not what really matters at all.

In addition to this, Dwellers operated in a two-fold level of storytelling where we get the main plot which is about the mystery surrounding the lives of the brothers they have inhabited--especially once they found out one night during a blackout that the brothers have stored a dead body in the freezer down the basement. On the other hand, the secondary subplot starts in the middle of the novel where we get a flashback story concerning the cousins' tragic lives permeated by a complicated family history, and why they chose to run away from it all.

What I enjoyed most about Dwellers is the amazing pacing and direction of each chapter that both relish on keeping the readers on their toes as we ourselves slowly uncover the dark secrets of the brothers Louis and Jonah alongside the cousins. I also easily developed great sympathy for the cousins, particularly the one who is narrating everything as the new Jonah. Victoria has gracefully wove a psychological mystery novella with an unmistakable poignancy pouring out from the confines of its narrative which in turn speaks of the darkness and desolation of human struggles and conflicats that more often than not will always weigh down our lives.

One of the chief villains of the story even makes this big speech that truly drove the theme home: "We're doomed because we are all connected. But alone, we won't survive. Even if you all follow the rules, someone, somewhere, won't and it will be the end of you...We are infinitesimal. We are too small and our lives are too brief to make a difference."

I can't give away too much of the story anymore but I can guarantee that everything about the tone, atmosphere and theme in Dwellers will chill you to the bone. This is a marvelous novella that further seals the impact of Victoria's literary style. She certainly has a fondness for ambiguous endings where she never gives us a fixed resolution of her equally thought-provoking and surreal stories. In fact, once you turn the very last page, you are left with a feeling of emptiness and perplexion but, personally, it worked quite well.

It has certainly made the entire novella a painfully unforgettable one that is open to many interpretations.

*Darkly sublime and unforgivably enticing with its layers of mystery and drama

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"Upon new landscapes and escapades"

Published by the University of the Philipppines Press, the Strange Fiction series is a trilogy composing of anthologies on the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres. I finished the horror anthology entitled Demons of the New Year last month and it was an absolute favorite volume of mine. For this fantasy collection composed of twelve stories, there are so many imaginative and intriguing worlds here that I found myself very fortunate enough to explore; while there are a few others that I just couldn't connect with in a deeper level. Still, what each writer brought to the table is commendable; their lush descriptions of landscapes, characters and themes truly gave life to the pages they were written in.

Edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Joseph Frederic F. Nacino who are actually certified speculative fiction authors themselves, The Fathest Shore is a hefty exploration of mythical and fantastical stories that can be distinctly Filipino or generally otherwordly. The stories that for me illustrated captivating and vivid tales are Alfar's Strange Weather whose lyrical prose is both hard-edged and tender in scope, demonstrating the author's great command of language and symbolism; Nikki Alfar's Emberwild which tackles the indulgences and ills of societies, particularly how women have to be in servitude of such bad habits; the uncomfortably piercing satirical piece by Eliza Victora entitled The Just World of Helena Jimenez which readers need to pay close attention to in order to fully enjoy the story (As a growing fan of Victoria's work, I was surprised by this piece's verbosity which is so unlike her usual style, yet ultimately it worked wonders for the story).

Finally, my most favorite piece has to be Light by Kate Aton-Osias which stayed in my mind for days because of the potent nature of its prose. It's about anthropomorphic beings in league of Neil Gaiman's character Dream from The Sandman, and the whole thing definitely leaves readers wanting for sequels. It's simply one of those short stories that warrants an expansion, possibly into a full-length novel. It was that intriguing and multi-dimensional. 

Notable stories that I enjoyed are Queen Liwana's Gambit Rodello Santos (which was an amusing take on making deals with devils); the feminist deconstruction of a fairy-tale-like story, They Spoke of Her in Whispers by Bessie Lasala and Vincent Simbulan's poignant In the Arms of Beishu. Unfortunately, I found it often difficult to fully engage with the rest of the stories (such as Crystal Koo's Wildwater and Rite of Passage by Dominique Cimafranca, whose brevities felt slightly anticlimactic; and the equally confounding stories, Spelling Normal by Mia Tijam and J.F Nacino's Brothers in Arms). I would admit that though Siege of Silence by Paolo Chikiamco had a daring premise, my interest started to dwindle as the story progressed which is a shame because I did want to enjoy this story but certain details just take me out of it.

Although the last batch of stories received quite a lukewarm response from me, they may be your cup of tea so you might as well check them out as well. But I assert that Strange Weather, Light, Emberwild, and The Just World of Helena Jimenez for me are the best that the anthology has offered. Now I'm pretty excited to read the last volume of the Strange Series trilogy which covers science fiction written by Filipinos.

Crafted with a variety of purposeful and mediative literary styles, each story featured in The Father Shore is delightful and sublime in their own special way.