Noted below are the exact same letters I've written and submitted to each author regarding his corresponding work. I don't pretend to be a qualified literary critic, but I do try to call them as they are. Feel free to comment or argue on my opinions if you feel like it; I'm not the last word on critiques like these.
If you haven't picked up a copy of the publication yet, I strongly suggest that you do so before reading further. Regardless of what I may have written below, I think that it's a fairly good issue, and well worth the one-hundred-peso price tag. (I mean, would you rather spend up to five times that amount for a foreign-published novel? I'd be more interested in saving my money here.) While I've tried to keep as many details under wraps as possible, some spoilers may still abound.
Wail of the Sun (written by Vincent Michael Simbulan)
Dear Mr. Simbulan,I felt that despite the presence of some fluid storytelling, "Wail of the Sun" ran into a problem that is common to many fantasy epics: The individual short stories can't stand by themselves. Something always feels missing, especially considering that important details on background and setting aren't repeated from one story to another. (Mind you, this is also why you can't submit the first chapter of a massive storyline as an English assignment and expect to get a good grade.)
I'll go right out and say it, I suppose: Out of the five pieces in Philippine Genre Stories' first issue, yours kind of fell to the bottom of my list.
I don't think that it's a bad story, though. In fact, I think that it would make for a pretty good installation in a long-term fantasy epic. Unfortunately, most of that long-term epic hasn't quite materialized yet, and I don't feel that "Wail of the Sun" can hold its own as a one-shot.
The story has quite a few good moments. First of all, the background and setting sounds fully realized -- it looks as though everything takes place against an already-established history and political structure. Second, the story manages to take many of these details and present them in a way that makes them more familiar to readers; It's really easy to imagine what the "Ebonnite Grostequeries" are, or what a "Bone Warden" looks like. Finally, it does something that many attempts at fantasy don't touch on: It presents its characters as less iconic figures and more as ordinary humans with all the corresponding weaknesses. (I particularly loved the fact that the heroes of the realm were known by some very superhero-ey names, especially when Redenthor's character made their humanity all too obvious.)
Despite these qualities, however, I felt that the greatest weakness of the story lay in its characterizations. I found myself not being able to empathize with any of the characters, and therefore couldn't look upon their experiences with the same sense of suspense and urgency. It could just be me, I suppose, but I think it would help if the conversations were a little less expository and little more empathic -- less words about the fact that Redenthor is drinking himself to death, for example, and more words on why everyone thinks that that is the case. I suspect that there's a bit of baggage involved here -- that anything not revealed in this story is revealed in other parts of the epic -- and it hurts the story to stand alone as a result.
Ultimately, while I think that "Wail of the Sun" is a fair addition to anyone's fantasy collection, I also think that it needs some more work in order to stand on its own. It lightly touches on history and familiarity, yes, but I feel that it needs to take them a bit further in order to become a truly effective tale.
Thriller (written by Andrew Drilon)
Dear Mr. Drilon,I'm serious about that recommendation at the end. You have to read Andrew Drilon's story, if only to see how he blends song into fiction. It doesn't even matter whether you like Michael Jackson or not -- you have to read Drilon's work to believe it.
I found "Thriller" to be unique. I haven't been able to read any piece of fiction that incorporates a comprehensive set of song lyrics -- much less Michael Jackson's -- into its narration yet, and I suspect that there's nothing else like it out there. Regardless of anything else, I feel that it's a very, very original approach.
The story itself was actually a little "here and there" for me; I thought that it was admirable for how it set up its story against the lyrics (and vice-versa), but I'm not certain if I find it to be truly great. It's good, maybe, but not great.
For one, it's remarkably readable. At first, I expected the story to be little more than a cheap knockoff of the "Thriller" music video. However, it ended up taking a distinctly different direction, atmosphere and flavor, up to the point where it hardly needed the lyrics in order to stand by itself. In addition, it's got everything that I like to see in a zombie movie: desperate struggle, resourceful initiative, and a once-ordinary person wielding a frickin' big gun. It even had humor in some of the most unexpected places: I mean, good God, could your male protagonist have had a more ironic name? And are those zombies saying what I think they're saying?
If there was a flaw in the story however, then it was something that I would expect to see in anything written based on a set of song lyrics: It started sounding forced after a while. I hated the dream sequence, for one -- it felt as though it only got placed in the story in order to fit excerpts of Vincent Price's speech. And the characters banter about various lines of the Michael Jackson song, which felt as though they were places where you couldn't think of any logical way to use the lyrics.
I think that "Thriller" is a cute story, though. I think that it's oddly innovative, and that it clearly shows the effort that went into making it a plausible tale. Heck, I'd go at it with a highlighter just to see if I can spot every single reference you put in. I don't think that it's perfect, yes, but I'd gladly recommend this to people while we're waiting for the next perfect story to come along...
The Middle Prince (written by Dean Francis Alfar)
Dear Mr. Alfar,The first issue's feature story did not disappoint me. There are serious questions that have to be posed once you tackle a plot idea where the main character is doomed to failure, and I feel that this work answered all of them without overtly changing the requirements and circumstances involved. As you probably already expect, the ending isn't a stereotypically happy one. It did leave me happy for the Middle Prince, though.
To put it in straight terms, I liked "The Middle Prince".
One of the things that I normally look for in a story is an innovative plot idea, or one that takes any established standard and turns it on its ear. This was definitely one of those, and it referenced something that I've asked since I was old enough to read: What is it about the youngest prince in a brood of three, and why is he always the successful one? No one seems to have any sympathy for the older princes, much less the middle one, and it feels good to finally see the spotlight trained on him.
Halfway through, I found that the story takes another interesting turn by giving the middle prince an awareness of his own intractable situation. He knows that he's not going to succeed, he doesn't want to risk his own skin for a quest that will be won by his youngest brother anyway, and he'd much rather be left to his own devices, thankyouverymuch. This is one of the best characterizations I've seen in a "traditional" tale, and it makes perfect sense in the story's context.
Apart from the premise and the characterization, I also admired the story's atmosphere and setting (which had that odd magical realist quality from folkloric tales). It even had all the elements that one would expect to see from a fairy tale -- talking fish, Grand Viziers, enchanted artifacts, princesses in towers, and a lot more besides. My only issue with the story, in fact, was that there were altogether too many of these details (perhaps implying a bigger universe, though), and the ending left me with a sort of "unfinished" feeling -- an inner voice that told me that there were a lot more loose ends to wrap up. I would assume, of course, that these would be more relevant to the struggles of the youngest prince, but this doesn't come out well in a story that's only supposed to pay attention to the middle one. (And even then we don't know what happens to the middle prince beyond his sailing away; This is a story that thrives on loose ends, it seems.)
But I liked "The Middle Prince", mind you. I think that it's high time he got his due without necessarily stealing the spotlight from his youngest brother. That's actually enough for me to overlook the loose ends and cheer him on. :)
Insomnia (written by Joseph Nacino)
Dear Mr. Nacino,Is it wrong to have a horror story that doesn't leave you with the trembling feeling that comes with being scared? Or is it wrong to judge something as belonging to the "horror" genre, and then berate it for not scaring its readers properly? This is what mucked up the math for me with "Insomnia", to be honest. I couldn't decide if it was good or not at first, although after a while I went for the more positive route.
I thought that "Insomnia" was fairly good. It holds a number of elements that combine for a nice piece of suspense; you could easily shop it around to a few literary classes to show students how to create a good sense of atmosphere. I feel that it contains a major problem that compromises its quality, though.
To start with, I loved the approach. Telling the story in terms of journal entries, interview transcripts, medical notes and other forms of indirect narration greatly helped the sense of uncertainty that the story wanted to build up. It didn't even stop there, as jumbling up the order of these entries served this purpose even further; The entire exercise literally forced me to ask what the hell was going on. On a more minor note, it helps the characterization as well: Amy and Reggie obviously play at good cop / bad cop respectively, Peter and Dr. Gutierrez's respective analyses sound like two totally different points of view, and Eden's voice is unique despite her only having a minor role.
Ultimately, the suspense was executed very well. You know that something's happening, you know that it's left five people dead, and you know that Peter's insomnia has something to do with it, but you don't know what the hell is going on. Every time the story reveals a major plot point, it forces you to ask more questions: What language was Peter speaking? What were those figures who showed up on the video? And what horrible truth did Eden discover that doomed them all?
Unfortunately, I feel that this is where the story runs into its major problem. I think that if "Insomnia" has any weakness, it's in the ending: We never actually get a satisfying answer to any of the questions that the story asks. We just get a little more death, and that's it. We don't realize what's really happening, and I feel that that is an important element when putting together a horror story: Uncertainty is a valuable tool when it comes to building up to the climax, but when that point finally comes around, then the story has to scare us. The revelation has to scare us. Regretfully, I feel that "Insomnia" had neither the point of revelation, nor did it have the scare.
I'll have to say that I liked the story from a technical point of view, if only because I think that it does a lot of things right. I'm not certain if I like it as a story, however, and that's only because I didn't like how the ending ultimately turned out. As it stands, I think it's fairly good. But I think it could have been better.
You have some very interesting Easter Eggs, though. Kadath... heh.
Then again, there's also the possibility that the feelings of uncertainty throughout the story were sufficient enough for readers to follow. We can go on and discuss this all day, I fear.
Inhuman (written by Alexander Marcos Osias)
Dear Mr. Osias,This is the other "must-read" of the issue for me, and it's more because of the level of detail that went into writing the story than for anything else. I hesitate to call it "horror" because I didn't empathize much with the situation of the characters, but I will call it a morbidly fascinating read because, well... it just is.
I don't intend this as a pun, to be honest, but I thought that "Inhuman" was one hell of a read. I thought that it was extremely well-written, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that this was because it was extremely well-researched.
The research, in fact, is what makes the story shine. I have never seen an actual exorcism, mind you, but the story presents the experience in such detail that it seems quite realistic. More than once, it made me wonder as to whether or not you witnessed or participated in one yourself. (Heck, I even asked myself if it was possible that you copied the text from some religious record... but I'll trust you on this one, I suppose.)
Beyond the research, however, I marveled at how your narrative did not even attempt to soften or sugarcoat the experience. There are literally no points in which a reader can catch his breath -- only areas where he could become complacent, and therefore be taken completely by surprise as to what Marcel would do next. It takes the obvious "exorcism" plotline a step further by giving readers the impression that this is not just some walk in the park. This is an experience that is mentally, physically and supernaturally draining; It can go as far as to kill people, or at least leave some terrible scars. I have yet to read or watch anything in the same sub-genre that will give me a similar impression.
For all its qualities, however, I feel that there are a few flaws. Having been caught up in the vicious struggle that was the entire rite, I didn't feel much in the way of empathy with the characters. The story doesn't reveal much in the way of background that didn't involve the origins of Marcel's possession or Father Patrick's death, and I think that this resulted in my viewing the story from a rather detached position. I went through the sequence of events and was impressed by the developments; I didn't experience them along with the characters themselves. If anything, the exorcism itself simply steals the show from everything else.
I think that "Inhuman" is clearly a good read. It's vicious, it's compelling, and it demonstrates a masterful knowledge of its subject matter. I'm not certain if it rises beyond that, however, and I would have liked to see more of a personal angle to the entire thing.
I'll say it again, though, and I still don't intend to pun: I think it's one hell of a read. I mean it.
The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Issue One
I have one last set of comments to make, and they're for the issue as a whole. I'll make this as short as possible, seeing that I've taken up too much space for everything else already.
The digest came out okay, I think. I mentioned earlier that I think it's worthwhile for its one-hundred-peso price tag, and I'll stand by that opinion. If there's a problem, however, it's that I didn't feel that any of its pieces allowed the digest to eclipse that price tag. In a sense, the collection is okay... but not remarkable. (I have some high standards for anthologies, though. If you don't believe me, you can judge by yourself. The issues are pretty low-priced to begin with, anyway.)
I think it does a good service to its readers, though, by allowing them direct contact with the writers for potential opinions and critiques. While there's the possibility that we'll be running into some pretentious trolls on the way, it's hard to deny that this will be good for the writers in the long run. Not only that, but it also holds the possibility of weeding out the people who can't take honest criticism -- it's easy, after all, to balk at the possibility of readers breaking down your e-mail with demands to write better-quality works.
If I had to make one change with the digest, though, I'd find a way to shorten the intros that appear just before each story. One or two short paragraphs would be fine, I think, but as it stands, reading three long italicized paragraphs merely left me clutching onto my bag of popcorn and wondering when the movie was going to start, if you get my drift.
In short, the first issue of the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories was much like the stories in its collection -- definitely not perfect, but holding a lot of potential to get there. I'm willing to sit back and wait for the second issue to come out... and then, I suppose, we'll see if the publication will start getting better with experience.
That's it, ladies and gentlemen. Now that I'm done with my piece, feel free to sound off.