Like most readers, I have my favorite books, authors and genres. It’s super easy for me to get into science, speculative, fantasy, historical, satirical, political, and popular fiction; and basically any type of creative nonfiction. How about other genres? Sure, I’ll give it a go. Well-written literotica? Yes. Romance, “mommy porn” and chick lit? Fuck no.
Horror? Until last month, I couldn’t answer that question. I’ve read some volumes of Goosebumps at my elementary school library, owned a copy of Anne Rice’s Taltos and Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot in high school, and got through William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in college. Then I tried out Filipino mythology-oriented graphic novels some years back, and had a bit of a fixation with the undead before that. It took me a while to finish Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, but that’s because that novel was at a different level of gross.
Overall, that’s about as far as I got with it. If I can count how many times I read horror lit, it means I haven’t read enough of it. That had to change, and with November being the informal month of horror, it was the perfect time to read three horror books I had on my shelves. In the process, I learned the following lessons I can apply if and when I decide to write horror stories, too.
It’s all about fear, not (just) gore
The foreword for one of the books in this review, Summit Books’ All that Darkness Allows: 13 Tales of Horror and Dread, had this to say:
Horror can’t exist without fear — they are close cousins entangled in a morbid embrace.
Guess that is true in many ways. When I hear the word “horror”, I think of slasher films first, like the Scream, Saw and Hostel franchises. Magandang Gabi Bayan‘s yearly Halloween episodes come at a very close second. Therefore my idea of the genre was pretty simplistic: it’s always bloody and gory, with overacted deaths, strewn human entrails, and heavy doses of spookiness.
But other people fear different things, and fear can be subtle or unnoticeable at first. For readers of books like Japanese horror writer Otsuichi’s Goth, it could be the idea of fake normalcy in a nondescript town, and you have to go to such an extent to look and behave like everyone else. Of course, the fictional crimes committed in Goth are bloody and gory, but I found the narrator’s off-putting behavior and cold, impersonal way of thinking more horrifying. The thought that people like the narrator (whose name I won’t mention so I won’t spoil the fun) actually exist gives me goosebumps. The horror here is psychological; no obvious twists and jump scares needed.
Demons of the New Year and All that Darkness Allows go for more conventional types of fear. It could be found in freakish occurrences, Philippine myths and religion, murky personal histories, dark and off-limits places, and shady characters. Stories like Marguerite de Leon’s “K-10 Mushroom”, Marla Miniano’s “The Invite”, and Weng Cahiles’ “Fire Tree” truly scared me. I could relate to the former story because I’m an atheist who spent 12 long years in a Catholic school, and the two other stories because the writers paced them just right and hit a good balance of action, dialogue, and exposition. Hindi bitin, hindi OA, at hindi sellout.
Horror can also be hilarious
What I didn’t expect was to find some of the stories funny. (Then again, I laugh at highly inappropriate moments.)
Carljoe Javier’s “Demon Gaga” elicited the same happy reaction from me as his previous story “The Day the Sex Bomb Dancers Came” (in Diaspora Ad Astra). Rommel A. Santos’ “Best Served Cold” amused me because of his premise of demons selling insurance-ish products to human beings, with a delightful twist at the end. I also found Joseph Nacino’s “The Skip” a super-fun mashup of Godzilla (2014) and Anaconda‘s visual cues and vibe.
Mind tricks give good kicks
When it comes to mind tricks, Otsuichi easily owned everyone else here. He started every story with a clear murderer, motive, and plan seemingly in place, with his descriptions of his only real friend Morino seemingly echoing the template descriptions in the Sweet Valley book series. Then he messed with them by the third of the chapter, and dismantled everything he built by the end. Sure, his stories require a huge suspension of disbelief, but you’ll always end up being surprised after each one.
And then he has some stories that completely fuck with you from the first sentence. “Dog” and “Voice” are notable in that he threw in a few extra huge curveballs that change your entire understanding of the story and where the narrator stands throughout the whole book.
Horror tropes and Pinoy quirks
I find that Filipino horror writers have an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to horror fiction. They still rely heavily on tropes and sudden plot twists for their stories, the buildup isn’t steady, the tone seldom shifts, and the surprises are minimal.
What I do like about these two local anthologies is that it tries to represent everything we know and expect of horror. Everyone will find something they like. The aforementioned “The Invite” has (Western) ghosts of schoolgirls past. There are dead babies in Kenneth Yu’s “Little Hands, Little Feet” and Mich Lagdameo Roque’s “Mama’s Here”, and zombie children in Dean Alfar’s “Brother and Sister”. Yvette Tan’s “Grotesquerie” has a Westworld-ish feel to it. Eliza Victoria’s “Analemma” has nerd-speak, murder, and time jumps. Catherine Batac Wilder’s “The Kambubulag” makes road trips sinister. Houses literally move in Tyron Caliente’s “Dark Moving Houses”. A goat tattoo comes to life in Anton Umali’s “Inked”, and Kara Ortiga’s “Going Down” reminds me of Baguio in the ’90s with its thinly veiled references to the Hyatt Terraces Hotel and the 1990 earthquake.
And the bitin factor I kept complaining about in previous reviews is still evident here. I think Demons of the New Year has most of the bitin stories in this trio of books, namely the aforementioned “Brother and Sister” and “Grotesquerie”, Eliza Victoria’s “Salot”, and Karl de Mesa and Gani Simplicio’s “The Magdalene Fist” (or is it “The Fist of the Magdalene”?). I found the epitaph in Tan’s “Little Hands, Little Feet” unnecessary. Wilder’s “The Kambubulag” has too much exposition and unrealistic dialogue, and the two female leads talk in the same Wikipedia-ish manner. In All that Darkness Allows, Chiara Cui’s “Sunshine” and Nicole Ignacio’s “Dalaw” started off well enough, but left me wanting a lot more, too.
Then there were three particular stories I didn’t understand and couldn’t get into at all. I’ll have to reread Don Jaucian’s “The Different Degrees of Night”, Chinggay Labrador’s “Stigmata”, and Karl de Mesa’s “Phantoma, Towards a Pharmacology” again. Then again, it’s OK not to get them. Kanya-kanyang trip, bes.
If you don’t want to (or don’t have the time to) read the books from cover to cover, here are the stories I think you should go for first.
Goth: “Dog”, “Memory/Twins” and “Grave” — the best and saddest stories in this six-story compilation
Demons of the New Year: “Best Served Cold” by Rommel A. Santos, “K-10 Mushroom” by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon
All that Darkness Allows: “The Skip” by Joseph Nacino, “The Invite” by Marla Miniano, “All the Birds” by Yvette Tan, “Fire Tree” by Weng Cahiles
Demons of the New Year: An Anthology of Horror Fiction from the Philippines, Karl de Mesa and Joseph Nacino (editors)
Paperback, University of the Philippines Press
Buy: UP Press | Book Depository
All that Darkness Allows: 13 Tales of Horror and Dread, Anton D. Umali (editor)
Paperback, Summit Books/Summit Media
Buy: Buqo | Amazon