Book: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

"My Best Friend's Exorcism"

High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade. But after an evening of skinny-dipping goes disastrously wrong, Gretchen begins to act…different. She’s moody. She’s irritable. And bizarre incidents keep happening whenever she’s nearby.

Abby’s investigation leads her to some startling discoveries–and by the time their story reaches its terrifying conclusion, the fate of Abby and Gretchen will be determined by a single question: Is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?

You know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, I bought this one because of its cover. Designed like a home video release of a b-movie, the novel really stood out on the table of featured books. So, amazing work to cover designer Doogie Horner and illustrator Hugh Fleming.

Now as for the content…

My Best Friend’s Exorcism reads like a novelization of a horror film from the mid-nineties. It was reminiscent of The Craft, a film about teenage girls dabbling in witchcraft. And I honestly can’t tell if I like it, the book, or not. I was entertained, for sure, but beyond that–

I only remember parts of the book after putting it down. I remember not finding the characters very likeable. I remember the strange exorcist and the even stranger exorcism. I remember the things Gretchen had done to their so-called friends… I remember parts that stood out, but the book as a whole felt like a retread of things that have already been done. Things I have already read or seen. And, obviously, that’s not good.

I liked how the book tried to explore the sensibilities of the eighties, and how universal denial and blame is. I liked how the main character wasn’t confined by the perceived limitations of her gender, that she kept attempting to solve her problems. And I liked the glimpse of megalomania in the exorcist–which I felt could’ve been explored more–

But I didn’t feel like the book did enough for these things I liked. Just when I thought the book was going somewhere interesting, it would hold back. It would go back to being a b-movie novelization.

Or maybe I kept hoping for it to become something that it wasn’t. Maybe it really wasn’t more than just a story about best friends dealing with the demonic possession of the other. I guess I should just be thankful that the book was entertaining. Because I don’t regret buying the book, and I don’t regret the time I spent reading it.

I just wish it were more.

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Book: The Fireman

"The Fireman"

No one knows exactly when or where it began. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one… Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that tattoos its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks–before causing them to burst into flames.

Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse treated hundreds of infected patients before contracting the deadly virus herself. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper now wants to live–at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term.

Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their once-placid New England community collapses in terror.

But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger, a man wearing a dirty yellow firefighter’s jacket and carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known simply as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted…and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.

Halfway through The Fireman, I was already starting to piece together what my eventual blog post about the novel was going to be like; about the monstrosity in human beings, and the humanity that can be found in those perceived as monsters. This thesis stuck with me until I put the book down.

The thing is, when I started typing the book’s synopsis for this post, I found myself wanting to write about the synopsis instead. Because, while interesting and intriguing, the book synopsis is also misleading as to what the novel is truly about.

In it, we get a sense of the Fireman as this truly mysterious being whose presence will dictate whether the world would survive or fall to ashes. But The Fireman is about so much more than The Fireman, or Harper for that matter.

Imagine the comic book series of The Walking Dead. Imagine that you didn’t have to wait a month for each installment of the issue. Imagine the series if it weren’t being stretched out to last for as long as possible. (No shade. I still find The Walking Dead comic book series interesting and entertaining, unlike it’s television counterpart.) Imagine having an ending for The Walking Dead. Now take out the zombies, but keep the apocalypse, the factions, and the conflicts in what it takes to be human. That’s The Fireman.

It’s a study on humanity and monstrosity, and how we usually mistake one for the other because of appearances.

Joe Hill is a master at painting this world with just his words, all the while putting meaning behind the visuals he is drawing up for the readers. The way he describes the characters, their changes, and the relationships they create continuously push his message of solidarity, of compassion, and of so many other things.

Then you finish the novel and go back to the synopsis, and you can’t help but wonder: why the focus on just that? I understand the novel is called The Fireman, but why focus on just one aspect of his being? Why box Harper to just her relationship with Jakob?

Sure, Harper’s failed marriage with the unhinged Jakob plays a big part in how everything unfolds. And yes, the Fireman does have a big role in the story that is being told. But to limit the scope of the novel to just the two is doing the novel a disservice. Harper’s pregnancy and her relationship to Jakob, and the Fireman aren’t the be-all and end-all of this novel.

To anyone who has yet to read the novel, don’t bother reading the synopsis. The novel is wonderfully written, and is, in my opinion, Joe Hill’s most mature work yet. You won’t regret cracking the tome open and entering this world.

Book: 20th Century Ghosts

"20th Century Ghosts"

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past…

I picked this book up because I thoroughly enjoyed NOS4A2 and Horns, and I realized: I still have yet to pick up any other Joe Hill books. So when I saw a copy of this anthology at Forbidden Planet while on the lookout for something to read during my almost twenty-hour flight back home… Well, I just had to pick it up, right?

Now, here’s the thing: Joe Hill writes horror stories. And although I love reading and writing horror stories… I kind of scare easy. And when you’re thousands of feet up in the air, reading an anthology of scary stories is the last thing you want to do.

Except– It’s not really an anthology of scary stories. It’s a collection of horrifying tales, yes. And sure, one of them gave me nightmares (My Father’s Mask)– But, take the 20th Century Ghost story for example. It wasn’t written to strike fear into readers’ hearts, but it was written with a lot of heart. And you have got to read the story in the Acknowledgments section.

Then there’s The Widow’s Breakfast that gives you just the right amount of goosebumps, and there’s The Cape that does horrify readers for a different reason. But some stories, like You Will Hear The Locust Sing, that made me scratch my head. (Although, I confess, I’ve never been a fan of films like The Fly, so I might not be the intended audience for this particular story).

It’s an eclectic collection. Each story will strike a different chord of thrill or fear in your spine. If it doesn’t, it’s probably busy plucking at the strings of your heart. But at the end of it all, it turns out that 20th Century Ghosts isn’t really an anthology of horror stories. Just stories that are supposed to horrify.

And I could’ve survived reading it up in the air with no fear of goblins appearing on the wings of the plane.

If you’re not familiar with Joe Hill or his works yet, I suggest you don’t acquaint yourself with his works through this collection first. Read one of his novels and then find your way back to this anthology instead.

Movie: Haunted Mansion

"Haunted Mansion"

Ella is a girl who can see dead people–a fact that does not go unnoticed by the ghosts of a retreat house where Ella and her classmates have to spend a weekend reflecting on their lives. When her schoolmates try to discover if the horror stories about the retreat house are true, they unwittingly awaken an evil being bent on keeping an old family scandal a secret. And it us to Ella to stop the evil from killing her schoolmates one by one.

First, I want to get something straight: I’m a fan of Jun Lana’s independently-produced films. They’re smart, heart-tugging, and inspiring for a storyteller like me. Which brings me to the reason why I need a disclaimer in the first place: I don’t understand how a brilliant mind like Jun Lana (in directing and writing) can produce something like Haunted Mansion.

Of course, I know that this is a Regal film. I know I shouldn’t expect something earth-shattering. But Regal Films is the production outfit that produces the Shake, Rattle, and Roll franchise! At the very least, they should know how to do horror right. But, alas–

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Let’s start with the main reason why I don’t think Haunted Mansion is a good horror movie: the story is too complicated. Every single thing has to have an explanation. Why is this ghost doing this? Why is that ghost going there? The flashbacks, the segues, the expositions–instead of feeling like natural progressions for the story, they feel like sandbags that weigh the movie down. And the characters don’t even work for these information–they’re all handed to them by peripheral characters!

And then there’s the disconnect with the main character. Ella is supposed to be the person that the viewers will root for–but her muddled characterization makes it hard to even understand what she wants. She has issues with the way her father died. She can see dead people. She has a crush on a popular guy. Her best friend just told her that he likes her– So many things are happening, and the only important thing here should be her father issues. Which I feel was sidelined by the love triangle that feels forced anyway.

It doesn’t help that Ella’s actress, Janella Salvador, only shines when she’s fighting back against her oppressors. Well, the fighting back scenes and the ones she share with Jerome Ponce. It’s obvious that the actress has a preference as to which love interest she wants to end up with.

Then there’s the casting of Ingrid dela Paz as the rival. I don’t know if this was a given, but they should have picked someone else to play the popular girl who has it in for the underdog. Mostly because Janella is prettier than her and has better fashion sense. Also, she’s nice. Anyone who has gone through high school knows that those three things will instantly make you more popular than the bitch no one wants to cross. They should have gotten someone who was prettier. Or, at the very least, not used the very tired trope of the popular mean girl.

Now, if they were bound by the casting of Ingrid, the film’s wardrobe department should have intervened. What was so difficult about making Janella more dowdy, and putting Ingrid in more fashion-forward clothing? The characters keep saying that Janella’s character is a weirdo no one wants to hang out with, but nothing about her bearing and clothing reflects that.

A horror film works when it is grounded in reality. When it feels like it can actually happen. Seeing as the casting already made the film unrealistic, you would hope that at the very least, the logic behind the haunting would be sound. But, no.

The great evil of the house is supposedly a ghost but they suddenly becomes corporeal. And then, just to add the implausibility of it all, they are revealed to be a practitioner of the dark arts. Nothing leading to that reveal will prepare you for it, and it feels like it was only included to make it logical for said evil to be as powerful as they are.

Oh, and let’s not forget the opening scene that has no connection at all to the rest of the film: a kid and his mother finds themselves stranded by the retreat house, only to be killed by dark forces. And it is never mentioned in the film again!

Don’t even get me started on the out-of-the-blue scare that was supposed to establish Ella’s ability to see dead people. Because it’s such a perfect set-up to actually head into the scares, but is wasted when the movie goes back to setting up the unnecessary love triangle.

Nothing in this movie makes sense.

Haunted Mansion offers nothing more than cheap scares and shock factor. If you’re looking for something with more substance… Look elsewhere.

Movie: Buy Now, Die Later

"Buy Now, Die Later"

BUY NOW, DIE LATER is a compendium of five interconnected stories, each one representing one of the five senses. The stories featuring ODIE, ATO, CHLOE, PIPPA and MAITA will remind us that every bargain comes with a price.

I really wanted to like this film. Especially because out of the three films I’ve seen so far off this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival entries, this has been the best. But being better than My Bebe Love or Haunted Mansion isn’t really something to be proud of.

Buy Now, Die Later suffers from putting style over substance. The film is, for the most part, beautifully lit and shot. There was obvious thought put into lighting the scenes, in the camera’s movements, and in blocking the scenes. But the same thought wasn’t given into casting two of the main leads, because I completely do not understand why the producers of this film thought Alex Gonzaga and Vhong Navarro were right for the roles they played here.

Let’s start with Vhong. The actor’s swagger did not fit the underdog character he was meant to portray here. Based completely off the events and the dialogue, you’re supposed to feel that the character is meant to be looking to escape the shadow cast by a too famous father. Unfortunately, Vhong’s portrayal only made him out to be a fame-hungry bottom-feeder who wants the easiest way to get into the spotlight. Which would’ve been a fine character on its own, if it weren’t for the fact that this doesn’t fit his character’s actions and dialogue in the second half of the film.

And then there’s Alex. I don’t know if it was a conscious effort on her part to emulate the speaking and movement of certain local celebrities, but it was a little too over the top for me. It certainly didn’t help that she would jump from one emotion to the next without any nuance, making her character feel like she’s suffering from a psychological disorder.

Which makes me feel bad for the rest of the cast, Lotlot de Leon and TJ Trinidad most notably. You can see that these two made an effort to make their characters breathe and be real. I actually feel especially sorry for TJ Trinidad because the director or the producer subjected him to wearing an awful mask that was completely unnecessary. It’s like they didn’t trust that he could bring the malevolence needed to make his character work, when his character was actually already scary enough–until the mask appeared and made his character look like a joke.

Story-wise, I must commend the film for trying a different kind of story-telling from what the masses are used to. Especially during the Metro Manila Film Festival season. But I think they bit off more than they can chew with this one. Especially when it comes to logic and continuity. The biggest flaw in the story-telling comes near the end of the story when Lotlot’s character is seduced by the promise of youth–during the time when she’s worried about her daughter’s safety. It should make sense, but the dialogue given her does not–and neither do the scenes that follow after she succumbs to the devil’s bargain.

Then there’s the foreshadowing of how the devil’s items work; they used three characters to underline the fact that the magic of the items don’t affect those who have been cursed. Except one of the three characters hasn’t even been cursed yet. That’s a problem someone in editing, or the writer himself, should have been on the look out for.

And speaking of editing– I don’t know who was in charge of trimming down the movie, but the latter half of Buy Now, Die Later suffered from a lot of cuts that didn’t make sense–leaving characters finishing lines of dialogue that viewers never saw start in the first place.

Don’t even get me started on the garish music video that jolts viewers into the second story.

So would I recommend this movie to anyone? I want to say yes, if only for Lotlot de Leon and TJ Trinidad–but Buy Now, Die Later is really only entertaining two-fifths of the time, so I would say no. If you want to support Quantum Films so they could make more films, watch Walang Forever instead.

Book: Bits & Pieces

"Bits & Pieces"

Benny Imura’s journey through the Rot & Ruin is well known, but who were the others navigating the ravaged, zombie-ridden landscape? Jonathan Maberry returns to fill the gaps in what we know about First Night, surviving the plague, and the land of Rot & Ruin.

Comprising brand-new short stories from Nix’s journal as well as previously published short stories, this collection shows a side of the Rot & Ruin series readers have never seen before.

I didn’t know I missed the Rot & Ruin until I cracked this book open. And I’m never getting tired of saying Rot & Ruin is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Ever. Even when the succeeding books didn’t turn out to be as heart-wrenching as the first one, the series continued to tug at the heart strings. As the characters grew up in the Rot & Ruin series, as they lost their innocence, so did we, the readers. Bits & Pieces allowed for the innocence to come back.

And Bits & Pieces broke another piece of my heart… In a good way.

Guided by journal entries from Nix, this collection of short stories present new facets to the events of the Rot & Ruin series. We meet other characters who had their own adventures alongside the ones Benny and his friends were having. And, and this is the best part for me, we get some back stories on some of the characters we met in the series.

The book does a great job at coloring outside the lines of the series without feeling like it’s just reliving the glory days. The stories are new, as are the insights. And the best part? The characters we revisit, in different eras of their lives, never feel off. They help the character grow–and the situations they are placed in add to our understanding of who they came to be.

Jonathan Maberry built a really solid house with the Rot & Ruin saga. Bits & Pieces is just the fixings that adds to the beauty of the house–emphasizing and accentuating, without changing what the house looks like.

My favorite in the collection has to be the story of Rags. Or should I say the stories of Rags? There’s two. One told a a year after the events of First Night, and another one unfolded during the events of the first book. They very different stories with one single message.

Hope doesn’t die.

And I’m now holding on to hope that Jonathan Maberry would continue revisiting the world he created with Rot & Ruin. Because I feel like there are more stories from this universe that still wants to be told.

Book: Tabi Po, Isyu 2

"Tabi Po, Isyu 2"

When I read Tabi Po the first time, I was amazed by the art that I didn’t really give the story a lot of thought. The story entertained me, and made me think–and that was enough because the drawing and the colors evoked emotions–and horror–splendidly.

But I don’t think it will be fair for the second issue of Tabi Po for me to continue waxing poetics about the art. Especially since this time, we finally see that the story does plan on going somewhere; and the destination looks good.

In “Isyu 2” of the series, we don’t immediately start with Elias–the main character we met in the previous issue. Instead, we are introduced to a different monster; a monster familiar to a lot of people, whether they believe in the supernatural or not. And, for the first time, we get to see Elias as something other than just an Aswang.

Elias continues to be a monster, but he is not THE monster in this story. That role falls to new characters who are a little familiar to anyone who has had to read Jose Rizal’s works: Pade Damaso, Padre Salvi, and even Quiroga. Characters from Noli Me Tangere.

Now, I don’t know what writer/artist Malonzo’s reasons were in deciding to use these characters, but it does ground the story in a very specific timeline–with a very specific political air. And putting the three Aswang we got to know in the first issue smack dab into a familiar tale, is very intriguing for me. Especially since they’re starting to have different views on how they should survive–without turning their backs to who they really are.

I am definitely very curious to see where Malonzo takes this story from here, but I’m sure that the road there will be very interesting.