Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Review: Philippine Genre Stories, Issue One

Having read the first issue of Philippine Genre Stories, I figured that it would be best to send a personal response to each author on the skill and execution of their works. I've tried to be as honest and as subjective as I can regarding each story. These reactions may be accurate, or they may not... but at least they're honest, and I hope that these reviews from a humble reader are taken in good faith.

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'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.
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.)

Thriller (written by Andrew Drilon)
Dear Mr. Drilon,

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...
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.

The Middle Prince (written by Dean Francis Alfar)
Dear Mr. Alfar,

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. :)
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.

Insomnia (written by Joseph Nacino)
Dear Mr. Nacino,

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.
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.

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,

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.
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.

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.


Don said...

err..pretty long post. hehe. LJ-cut nga! Lol

But anyway, I thought "Insomina" was the best of the stories and yes, Wail of the Sun the least. I thought Insomnia gave a good ending because it left the ending to the reader's imaginatio, whatever we may cook up, it'll be more frigtening than the writer coupld imagine because it's patterned to our of definitions of fear. But that's just me. I thought if there was an "ending" we might be left disappointed because it wasn't what we hoped for.

"The Wail of the Sun" had some pretty good moments...on it's background. As you said, it isn't really a stand alone story. It's more like an appetizer to a much bigger story.

"The Middle Prince" was well written but it was just that. It didn't leave any mark in me. Again, well written but forgettable. Eventhough it tried to subvert the usual conventions of a faery tale.

Thriller. Cute. Yun lang. Heheh

"Inhuman". Second best. Like you said, well researched but I still liked "Insomnia" better. I'm not a a really big fan of exorcisms because, after The Exorcist, well, what's left to be dealt with? It's just that. The least we can hope for is a good background story and Inhuman gave none of that.

Sean said...

Fuhrer: I think that I went a little too heavy on the characterization requirement for this one, and thus looked for it in each of the stories. It's not a necessarily correct practice, but more of a personal thing.

"Insomnia" didn't get me to conceive of any supernatural possibilities, to be honest. All I did during the ending was wonder just what was really happening, and as a result it left me more confused than anything else. I can see where you're coming from on the "personal definitions of fear" angle, though.

It's good to see that we're more or less agreed on "Wail of the Sun" though. It's, well, it's... an appetizer, as you said. It would be enjoyable under different circumstances, but I don't think that these were those circumstances.

Sean said...

Bit of an addendum, though: I'd still be willing to read up on Mr. Simbulan's Forlorn cycle. That's really where "Wail of the Sun" succeeds, after all.

Don said...

So true. If he could publish some series of sorts, maybe The Forlorn Cycle could get better. That's why "The Wail of the Sun" is still in my honorable mentions list. It has something going on in there. I hope it doesn't disappoint (Gah, I really have to send Vin that promised response to Wail! Heheh)

Alex Osias said...

Hi Sean,

I already responded to you in e-mail, but I wanted to touch on the issue of "lifting from a religious record".

I wish to stress that the story should NOT be used as a "how-to" for exorcisms. There are many traps, pitfalls, variants, and dangers involved in exorcisms that I didn't cover in Inhuman because they would make it far more "far out" than it would seem to most people. This variance is part of the reason that exorcism was made a rite, not a sacrament in the Catholic Church - so that the exorcist would be free to alter and adapt to the needs of each exorcism.

To make a long story short: it's a work of fiction - kids, don't try this at home!

To Der Fuhrer - to those who don't like horror stories, all horror stories are the same. Me, I'm a fan of exorcism stories and have tried to read all I can on the subject... bit of a nerd on it really.

I highly recommend Malachi Martin's book Hostage to the Devil which recreates, based on Church records and his own interviews with the exorcists and people involved, five successful exorcisms and one unsuccessful one. Frightening and uplifting at the same time. Kudos to him!

I also recommend the once-banned novel "The Devil in Connecticut" for one of the scariest accounts of possession and exorcism anywhere.

Sean said...

Fuhrer: I had problems putting all these reviews together, and at the eleventh hour I even ended up questioning whether or not it was right for me to send these reviews to the respective authors. The way I see it, you have more experience writing reviews like these, and therefore should be allowed to take your time. :)

Alex: I'm pretty certain that most people -- much less me -- have no plans to use your story as a guide to the rite of exorcism. I meant to point out that the description was so detailed that the whole thing just made me wonder.

All the same, though, I thank you for the disclaimer. Mr. Osias's work is one of fiction only, and should not be considered an actual, real-world guide or reference. (I've never seen any other work require such a disclaimer before, though.) :)

Don said...

Alex: Will try to loo for the stuff you recommended. :D

Sean: Nah, I'm a beginner with these things so, things can get doubtful and mucked-up. Heheh

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments on the first issue of PGS. Wondering what you think of the cover and Dfictive Life?

Sean said...

Fuhrer: Well, you've sounded more experienced than me so far... :)

Jane: I'm not as good when reviewing artwork, to be honest. Writing is just far more familiar to me, that's all. Nevertheless, let me see...

I take a conservative standpoint with regards to book covers. I prefer the minimalist style, if only because I think that it's more effective considering the presence of all the designs out there. PGS's cover is neither conservative nor minimalist, but it does illustrate a key point in "The Middle Prince" without giving much of anything away, so I suppose that it's fine. It did get me curious as to what the story was about, so it succeeded in that aspect. I think that it accomplished its job, and that's that.

D'Fictive Life, on the other hand, was really subtle in its humor, and I found that pretty good. It was just really, really subtle. I also found it to be remarkably intelligent, although I feel that Mr. Medina needs to come out with more strips before we can get an accurate assessment of the comic as a whole.

Alex Osias said...

heh, sorry. I'm kinda paranoid about that.

Anyway, I look at my story with similar concerns, and wonder if it would have been different given more revisions and more words in the word count. Perhaps someday I can expand it further, but for now I'm experimenting a lot so it may be some time before I return to it.

Sean said...

Alex: ...Or you can write another story. :)

banzai cat said...

Hey Sean!

Thanks for the review, I really appreciate it. After all, you know what they say in writing (kinda): any review is a good review. (And your praise for my writing skills still has my ears a-tingle.)

However, I do think I have to issue a clarification to what you cited as the 'weakness' of the story. So I hope you won't mind or think that I'm whining. (I really don't like it when authors/writers go into these long-winded rants defending their works, i.e. if you don't understand it, then you don't 'get' it. But I digress.)

I will split the said 'weakness' into two:(1) the ending, and (2) the horror. To explain (1), I have to start with (2).

First of all, I wrote this piece as a homage to H.P. Lovecraft and this is very evident. Lovecraft, after all, created a different kind of horror story, i.e. the "unknowable horror." It is this idea that my story revolves around: the idea that there are some monsters that are unknowable, and that only a hint would terrorize and horrify us. Most of Lovecraft's stories are like these: the monsters are either gods of outer space or the inner depths of the seas. Both kinds warn that to attract their attention is detrimental to one's sanity.

Moreover, a number of Lovecraft scholars criticize pastiches of his stories because they are not faithful to his idea of horror: that to elaborate or explicate these horrors reduces the said horror to something that is understandable. Which is not Lovecraft's point at all.

Now, with regard to the said 'ending', I have to point out that most of Lovecraft's stories don't have a "resolvable" ending. Most of them end with the protagonist escaping barely with their lives and the knowledge of the horror under wraps because of the government or because the horror has gone. This I applied to my story because, after all, to apply a ending that has a resolution would mean that an understanding of what the horror is has been reached-- which I don't want.

That's one explanation about the lack of resolution; the other is that there is no hard-and-fast rule that a story has to have a resolution. I like my readers to think: What happened? What was the horror? And this is one way to keep the reader at it.

In the end, I would like to think that my story was scary not because people die but because you don't know why people die. And that (considering our own short mortal lives), is the scary thing about life.

Anyway, thanks again Sean! See you one of these days! :-)

P.S. Yes, there are eggs attributable to Lovecraft in the story. "Kadath" is one. But easier is the "L.Craft". Has anyone spotted the third? ;-)

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Yes, Lovecraft dealt with endings that didn't exactly hold fixed resolutions; Moreover, I perfectly agree with the point that true horror should not necessarily be understood -- in fact, we've seen that certain stories are far more effective when the audience doesn't realize what's going on.

What I felt about "Insomnia", however, was that it came up short with the degree of its revelations. Lovecraft took his fear to a level where we at least had a slight understanding of what was going on, and that was how he was able to scare us. "Insomnia", on the other hand, only gives us scattered details -- strange voices being heard, the image of a pit of snakes, an ancient language older than Latin. Although these details do succeed in creating an atmosphere of dread, we never receive any activity from them. As a result, I couldn't unconsciously tie these supernatural occurrences with whatever happened to the characters; The notion of otherworldly influences thus didn't end up scaring me.

On the other hand, this could simply be because I've read too many horror-genre stories to be scared, well, just like that. The audience out there is probably just more receptive than I am. :)

I haven't been able to figure out the easter egg that's supposedly in your bio, to be honest. Anyone know what it is?

banzai cat said...

(Heh good to know you know your horror! Still, at least my last comment will inform those who frequent your blog about Lovecraftian horror.)

I see your point though I think it's still debatable. However, personally, I've always had a problem on writing whether I should be subtle or state something outright so that could also be the problem. And given my newly-found task to introduce what is essential Filipino to the trio of genres, this may come out short to those already knowledgeable on the matter. Ah well, next time...

As for the egg in the bio, well, the clue is in my picture. Google "sleep of reason" and you'll see what I mean. ;-)

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: I like Lovecraftian fiction too, you know. :)

If the picture is that third egg of yours, then it turns out that Kenneth already told me all about it. I didn't believe him at first, though. :)

andrew dr!lon said...

Hi Sean! Thanks for the review of PGS, and for your kind comments on "Thriller", hehe! I'm glad you liked it! :D

Sean said...

Andrew: I can never take zombies seriously ever again, and I officially blame you for that. :)