Sunday, December 14, 2014

"You take up a summer job and trip into a conspiracy"

Eliza Victoria has consumed me wholly this year though our love affair as authoress and admirer has been, on some occasions, an infrequent and most unsure relationship, but I take comfort in the private knowledge that our rendezvous point will always be located within the rich tapestry of  her stories. The gift of her prose and imagination has revitalized the way I look at certain areas in my life, and I'd like to believe that she is my own Neil Gaiman, since I'm aware that Gaiman is a lot to his fans simply magical, and Victoria is the same for me as well.

This is the third work of hers that I read and reviewed for this year and it's a science fiction novella that had a lot of promising potentials to become a full-length novel if Victoria ever decides to pick this up again and go in that direction someday because I believe it's not too late, and I know a lot of readers share this opinion. I also believe that some of them might criticize this novella's brevity, particularly on the aspect of world-building which most sci-fi novels often entail with in order to be considered a very nuanced reading experience. Personally, I think that this was a more self-contained piece than anything, so I can understand why the setting was only discussed in context of the characters who live in that time and place which was a futuristic Philippines where robotics have advanced and have become prominent machines used in law enforcement. This was what the focus of the book; what the Philippines would be like if menial jobs are given to machines. 

In Victoria's Project 17, policemen have been replaced by model units called sentries while domestic helpers and prostitutes are replaced by cleaners and dancers respectively. As a futuristic world, Victoria created something memorable in the sparse 169 pages of the book and it served its purpose well enough for a character-driven story that was at its core a mystery to be unraveled and solved by the teenage protagonist Lillian and her friends Max and Jamie. A seemingly harmless and ordinary job, Lillian was hired by a man named Paul Dolores to take care of his mentally unstable yet heavily medicated brother Caleb which she was reluctant to take up at first. As soon as she got involved in the brothers' pattern and routine, she became intrinsically attached to the lives they lead, particularly when she began to suspect that they were not who they say they are. With the help of her hacker friend Max, Lillian begins to pull at the threads until she uncovers a disturbing secret that could shake up the very fabric of the reality they have cozily lived in for so long.

I have enjoyed Victoria's stylistic language for this book which had always been economical and brisk, and poignant when it needs to be. It superbly suited the story it was telling because we readers are able to wrap ourselves in the enigma that the lead heroine is solving before our own eyes as we closely follow her discoveries. This was a great first effort for a science fiction novella though I still believe Victoria's strength as an author is more fully embodied when she's composing speculative and metaphysical fiction like the stories collected in her anthology A Bottle of Storm Clouds. I also still consider Dwellers as her more superior work, but comparing Project 17 to that is truly a matter of apples and oranges. Despite of the difference in genre, what they do share is Victoria's penchant for writing "siblings with a dark secret" angle. Other than that, Project 17 has amusing, witty and relatable protagonists in Lillian, Max and Jamie who we trust as the story unfolds, and this never wavers until the conclusion of the book itself. Said conclusion is more definitive than Dwellers which was formulaic enough to be acceptable but not as haunting as the latter's own conclusion that is open to interpretations.

I liked this book a lot. It was a fun and fast read with delightful character interactions as much as heavily emotional ones, and a mystery that had surprising twists and turns. The world Victoria created for this book that was filled sentries, cleaners and dancers was descriptive and believable enough in the context of the plot. However, this was a lesser work for me than Dwellers and A Bottle of Storm Clouds because it just didn't resonate as much as those works did. Still, I expect greater things from this authoress and will continue look forward to her future projects.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Just Orsk us!" says the beehive worker

Since earlier this year, I have enjoyed and consumed a strange quantity of downloaded horror game walkthroughs from YouTube vidders who post their gameplays online for the general masses of people who can't afford or have the time and commitment to play such games, but are nonetheless interested enough to submerge themselves in another person's virtual world that are mostly filled with deaths, macabre and creepy backstories. I've enjoyed gameplays for Alice: Madness Returns, two Outlast games, five Silent Hill games, Among the Sleep, Slender Man the Arrival, and other delightful array of indie horror games. The reason I bring this up in a book review is because Grady Hendrix's novel HORRORSTOR is amusingly reminiscent of this type of games in the most disturbing way imaginable in prose form and that is why reading its content was hypnotic and spooky in a very visceral level.

This is the most appealing aspect about Horrorstor for me: Hendrix's precise and lush prose was able to create and sustain the atmospheric horrors that such survivalist games aforementioned are initially built on--then magnify that effect and turn it on its head as the story progresses. Everything about this book is a visual assault to the senses in narrative form which produces some of the creepiest and most memorable situations in a reader's imagination as he or she browses not only through the plot's events but alongside the accompaniment illustrations of a variety of Orsk furniture which are gradually transformed into a catalogue of torture devices as soon as the characters find themselves exploring the darker dungeons of the seemingly harmless retail store.

Just like any good premise for a survival horror game, Horrorstor introduces us with easily relatable characters as its core players; the typically apathetic twenty-something Amy who never gets too involved with people, let alone commit to her job at hand or make any kind of definitive long-term plans; Matt and Trinity, a pair of adventurous slackers with loftier ambitions who want to capture ghost phenomena on tape, believing it's their ticket out of small-town obscurity; the decisively responsible yet traditional Basil who takes his job way too seriously, almost in a religious way; and the kind and sympathetic friend-to-all Ruth Anne whose unwavering concern and devotion to her job and co-workers was the singular most heroic quality that actually endangered her in the end.

Next, we are sampled with the workings of a well-constructed setting where all the terrors and nightmarish encounters will revolve later on: the Orsk retail building with floors containing different ensemble of furniture choices and other interior-design selections. As the night deepens, this location will slowly but surely fuck with their minds as they find themselves navigating through a chaotic labyrinth that seems to stop them from leaving at any cost. Not only is the author's prose and story engaging, but the visual design of the book itself allows readers to feel as if they are a part of the world (each chapter break contains a full-page illustration of a furniture  plus a descriptive sales caption, until the next ones devolve into torture devices).

Much like a scary video game, Horrostor relies on the overall visual layout to heighten the spookiness value of its story and to drive home that nagging sense of dread and anxiety as we keep exploring its corridors in spite of our better judgment. However, unlike a video game, this is still a novel so it has to be consumed through reading, and Hendrix does a fabulous job making readers like me care and invest emotionally on the safety of its characters, much like any good work of fiction has to do. This book was compelling, hard-edged and at times very disconcerting indeed so you better have a strong stomach and a slight smidge of masochism to get through some descriptions.

I would also suggest that you buy this as a hard copy rather than read this in a device because holding a tangible one in your hands as you turn the pages will make the reading experience even more uncomfortably real as it was intended by its author. You will also be able to look through some of the finer details in the layout that you might miss if you browse this in an eBook reader.

This was a brilliant piece of narrative that will appeal to you well enough if you enjoy a good scare every now and then. The novel also has an ending that is begging for a sequel. I read somewhere that this might get a cinematic adaptation soon, and I have no doubt in my mind that it's definitely fit for visual enjoyment on screen. Hell, they should make a video game for this. I'm not going to be able to play it myself but I will most definitely watch the gameplays in YouTube!


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Build replicas for your kingdom and pack for the moon"

Just like with Eliza Victoria, I encountered Dean Francis Alfar with his story Strange Weather in the Philippine fantasy anthology The Farthest Shore which was also a collection he edited himself. One day, I was browsing through the shelves in my local bookstore when I came across this collection and I was very interested already at this point especially since the title has 'terra incognita' in it, which has been the name of my column in my college paper back when I was the literary editor, and I also kept that same title when I became the associate editor.

By definition, 'terra incognita' is a Latin phrase that means "uncharted territory" which was used in cartography to describe regions or lands that have not been or have yet to be documented on maps and geography. I decided to use it because my aim was to touch upon certain topics that have not been discussed before, mostly of the whimsical variety. I thought that such a phrase would be the most appropriate description of the content I used to write about then.

In Dean Francis Alfar's anthology How to Traverse Terra Incognita, the speculative fictionist took it to the next level using the same thematic approach. His twenty-one stories were divided into five categories where Alfar deliberately placed his readers as first-time tourists visiting unknown lands of his creation, while he serves as their tour guide, offering five fundamental advices on the best way to navigate these distinct places. Every story is a journey after all, and Alfar's theme of terra incognita has only enhanced the metaphor in the most enduringly creative way possible.

For the first category Research your Destination, my two most favorite stories have to be Simon's Replica and The Face. The former tells the story of a dying queen's request to her favorite architect where she tasked him to build a replica of her entire kingdom; while the latter is a tale of a desperate woman hoping to save the family business both through the power of prayer and science. These stories were memorable simply because Alfar conveys sadness and longing on paper with a sharp edge that makes readers feel as it was their world too that was ending alongside these women. I had the most painstakingly enchanting experience while reading these two stories.

On the second category Take Appropriate Precautions, I was incredibly disheartened by the tales characters in Ghosts of Wan Chai have to tell, where grieving people are unable to move on from their losses and have therefore began to haunt places where their loved ones were last seen; and the whimsy yet heartbreaking Packing for the Moon where a young girl with a terminal illness bravely counts her priorities in both a surprising and expected maturity.

My favorite category has to be When Traveling with Children, Be Sensitive to their Needs. Composed of five stories, three of them really stood out for me. First is the spooky story Bruhita where two boys encounter a strange girl of the namesake; Azamgal where an obsessed fan writes to a fantasy writer he idolizes to give him some notes about his ongoing novel series, but then his letters became increasingly demanding; and, finally, Sunboy which was far too close to home for me; a man has to take care of his mentally-challenged younger brother who is fixated on the sun. It was a story that was challenging to read because of how the lead character's feelings and thoughts about his younger brother closely resemble mine which made it so uncomfortable for me.

The later stories surprised me because I did not expect for some of them to be...smutty and erotic but that was also quite a pleasant shift of narrative focus. In Understand the Culture, Alfar gave us the satirical fairy-tale pieces East of the Sun, and Ever After. The former was something exceptional where a young girl was kidnapped and raped by a half-horsed man (tikbalang from the Filipino folklore) and was determined to make something of a happy ending for herself in spite of all this. We also have Messiah which is a play on the Gabriel and Virgin Mary story, and The Many Loves of Ramil Alonzo which makes use of both prose and poetry to account the narrator's misadventures with women he loved and lost.

Get to know the Locals, the last of the categories, featured two stories I have read before from other anthologies: Strange Weather which is the very first Alfar tale I encountered where two weather gods battle it out; and the excerpt from A Door Opens: the Beginning of the Fall of the Ispancialo-in-Hinirang. There are other stories in the categories mentioned for this volume that I didn't care to mention because they weren't favorites but they could be your cup of tea.

Vividly crafted and irresistible, How to Traverse Terra Incognita is a rich tapestry you will have the utmost pleasure navigating. A few of the volume's stories will enchant and intrigue you while others you didn't take that much time to contemplate at all will suddenly creep in later in the day, and will make you want to know more about their characters and places. That certainly happened to me and it's probably why I believe this anthology is something I will re-visit again. Perhaps by that time the uncharted territories herein will finally make themselves known to me and become my home.