Yvette Tan likes the macabre. Along with Budjette Tan’s Trese and other exponents of the genre we should now probably term Filipino Supernatural, she delivered her 2009 short story collection Waking the Dead, full of the gruesome and local, all in one package.
Now comes Seek Ye Whore, a second collection of stories, the title of which, after a few utterings, will render itself as “Siquijor,” the fabled island playground of occult activity and witch covens.
Just in time for All Souls’ Day, we have a new collection of stories about zombies, lethal mail-order brides, aswangs, Chinese ghosts, and Filipino mythology revolving around the Bakunawa, moon-eating dragons who inhabit the subterranean levels of Earth.
Tan is a tight prose writer who approaches her conceits—sometimes gory, sometimes musing and lyrical—with equal skill. Your tolerance level for stories such as “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Corpses” (an allusion to a Dead Kennedys punk album), with its focus on gruesome Filipino dishes, may vary depending on whether or not you just had lunch yourself. But there’s a quick energy and black humor to her storytelling that makes it all go down, well, quite easily.
There’s also a Twilight Zone omnibus feel to this collection, as story after story is unfurled in a different or parallel supernatural universe in which every possible horror is allowed (or conjured, you might say). This freedom gives Tan some wings, as a writer.
You can leap from the Black Mirror premise of “Lost Girl,” a dreamlike tale in which a young woman recalls the first time she discovers a portal in time and space linked to her Epileptic seizures, to the more gothic horror of “Her Room Was Her Temple,” in which a scared father-to-be indulges her friend’s favorite brothel and finds he’s the victim of a manananggal (as near as I can tell).
Male lust is usually the driver of such nasty fates in Tan’s world (“She looked at me from under long lashes, so near me yet not touching, so near that all I could smell was clove and cotton candy, sweet and cloying, slowly covering my mind with a lust-induced fog”). No wonder the guys usually end up shrieking in horror.
There’s a thread here of sex workers and women treated as objects, either mechanical or maniacal (in one, “The Club,” the woman literally offers up her heart from inside her chest). Sex and violence are linked in a way that seems to dwell in the subconscious, and it’s a disturbing ride at times.
And perhaps Tan can come off as relying on gimmicks, in stories where the men seek out carnal delights and are ritually punished in gruesome ways. (In fact, not to overgeneralize, but the women characters here usually find salvation or redemption of sorts, while the men find only damnation. You can draw your own conclusions.) After all, we live in a violent society, and terrible things happen. Who are we to not indulge in a little revenge fiction?
But this doesn’t account for the more poetic musings in stories like “All the Birds,” or “Fold Up Boy” (an elaborate, almost sentimental encounter between a Chinese girls’ school student and a long-dead Chinese-Filipino boy), or the brief “Ronnie Joins the Band,” all 116 words of it a tribute to Filipino musician Ronnie Dizon who passed in 2012.
In fact, this may have been an opportune time to use supernatural fiction as a lens through which to reflect on the broad swathe of loss that COVID has inflicted on us all; but that would have been a very different collection. Indeed, the plague we just endured (the traces of which still linger, even if only mentally) could be rich territory for local authors to mine. With its recurrence in history, plague horror is certainly in for a reevaluation. (Hello, Camus! Hello, Stephen King!)
Instead Seek Ye Whore has a structure that revolves around two sections: “Demon Summoning Made Easy” and “Advanced Demonology Booster Pack.” It recalls the opening song of Leonard Cohen’s final album: You want it darker? We kill the flame. (Or rather, maybe: We bring the pain.)
Tan goes ever deeper into the horrors that exist around us, but the coup de grâce is typically delivered by supernatural beings. It’s a neat system: the spirits are there to clean up the mess. And the game goes merrily along.
At times, her style reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates, no stranger to gothic horror stories. There’s an imbedded consciousness you can almost read behind the story lines: a pulsating, quickening heart. But also, it must be said, a certain chill resides there: a writer/editor’s careful control; always control. Irony is a very lethal axe she wields. She definitely knows her territory.
Seek Ye Whore is the longest tale, and it again charts the fate of lust-driven men who treat women like mechanical sex workers (literally, in this case; and for a change-up, they’re American dudes who can’t find a wife to make them roast beef sandwiches and plop down on their junk every night). It’s not a pretty world Yvette Tan depicts, but it does register with the times.
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Seek out Seek Ye Whore and Waking the Dead at select National Book Store branches, www.anvilpublishing,com, Anvil Publishing, Inc. and Shopee and Lazada stores.