A writer’s delicate sense of the terrifying

Column box-Tito Genova Valiente-Annotations

IN Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz’s world of terror, memory is an insidious instrument. Houses ancestral are remembered, deaths of loved ones are recalled but it is in the remembering that the past haunts not as a metaphor but as the present accommodating what should have been gone, or vanished. And so we meet once more those who have long ago died and we see those that are supposed to be unseen. The terror is in the fact that our logical way of perceiving is not only put to task but also tested for applicability. Thus, in the narrators presented by Romana-Cruz in her collection of gothic tales, there is always a person whose claim to reality is impeccable but is nevertheless forced to admit that there are separate realities beyond what has been taught to us by our teachers or confessors. And these are nice, normal people.

Like Stephen King, Romana-Cruz does not “write about the old standard where some rotten guy gets chased by a mean spirit that gets him in the end.” She is like King who would “rather write about nice people that are menaced from outside by some sort of evil power and who sort of slug it out.” The only big difference is no character from Romana-Cruz’s oeuvre ever fights the phantasm or the ghost except for one story, the first in the collection. Titled Restless Spirits on the Hill, the story contains a suite of appearances in a house and closes with the episode on two helpers, Dodo and Crisanto. Dodo died of “bangungut” and, “Crisanto was shaken by Dodo’s death because he had been asked by Dodo that evening to rouse him, should he start talking or groaning in his sleep. Crisanto did hear his gasps that night but chose to ignore them. And Crisanto found himself with such a burden of guilt after that.” The last line in this paragraph is first-class terror: “Dodo never made him forget that he had been let down.” Guilt scares.

Romana-Cruz continues with the story of two helpers: “Two weeks after Dodo died, Crisanto was also found dead in his quarters. And when discovered, Crisanto’s position, with arms poised in self-defense and his eyes wide open in shock, was sufficient evidence that Crisanto was frightened to death.” In this episode, the unsaid—did Dodo really believe it was Crisanto’s fault that he died in his sleep? Did Dodo attack Crisanto or simply scare him?—is the source of true terror.

The second story is about the ghost of an American soldier who comes back to haunt a place, which turns out to be the site where he was murdered. The killer is a Filipino. Conflating war history with the macabre imaginary, Stephen Davies, Death on the Campus, fleshes itself through a series of seances and parapsychological processes. Said sessions would yield “facts” verifiable against data pertaining to the last world war, where American soldiers died in the Philippines. The sessions are so successful that even the date of death for the soldier is specified and the cause of death (“struck on the head by a piece of wood”). The murderer is identified as well. Unexpected in the tale are human emotions expressed by souls roaming, it seems, for eternity, because of unfinished business. In one session, the medium through which Stephen Davies speaks, gives the reason for his manifestations: “I want to be remembered. I miss my family. I am lonely.”

Love is not the only element that reaches from the great Beyond; enchantment is also a thread that weaves throughout the narrative of this book called The Uninvited Guests from Bikol. Gothic Tales

The cultural anthropologist and folklorist will be amused at the tales contained in this book as the elemental consorts with the spirits of the dead, the poltergeist or trickster ghosts work with the poised white lady. It is true what Claude Levi-Strauss and the other structuralists say about myths: the elements may change but the structure remains the same. We encounter goblins or duwendes but we also apprehend souls of grandmothers refusing to leave the house. While the prospect of witnessing a relative long dead watching over an infant is grimly horrible, we can always step back and read such action as ancestors welcoming into the clan a new member! In a dark manner.

Still on the structure: ancestral homes are not always the de-facto haunting ground of spirits because even newly constructed bungalows are possible hosts for ghosts. In Romana-Cruz’s reframing of these stories, the coziest places become the breeding ground for ghastly apparitions; gardens with orchids and huge trees cease to be pastoral settings but territories demarcated by those beings who were there at the same time as the ancient trees. Not ancient ruins. Not cemeteries. Not abandoned villages.

Where lies then the horror of these modern gothic tales? They are in the realization that these beings or spirits are there without any invite and yet they demand respect and ritual obeisance. The notion that in your room is an invisible force, or that gracious orchids hide malevolence doubly invoke fear.

Where lies the splendor of this rendezvous with the unexplainable? They are there in the readiness of humans to coexist with the “non-humans.” As the narrator in Strange Air in Bel-air says, “Besides, we would rather be on friendly terms with these spirits.”

Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the author, is a noted journalist and writer and former Chair of the National Book Development Board. The illustrations for the book are by John Sherwin Acampado, the resident artist of Savage Mind Bookshop. His charcoal drawings invoke the ephemeral in images that anytime can vanish into thin air or fade into darkness.

The Uninvited Guests from Bikol. Gothic Tales is published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press. Cover and book design is by Ryan C. Cuatrona.

E-mail: titovaliente@yahoo.com

Image credits: Jimbo Albano


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