Karl De Mesa’s non-fiction collection, Report from the Abyss, offers plenty of terrifying tales that will make you want to lock yourself up in a fortress or in a brightly lit room. Far from the full-on phantasmagoria of his fiction (the novella collection News of the Shaman, and the short story collection, Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic Punk), De Mesa’s latest tracks down horrors that we encounter every day. These are stories that you’ve heard of in the news magazine shows, ripped from the hazy corner of a yellowing tabloid.
It’s easy to slide into pulp territory given the slippery nature of these incidences (indeed, two of the essays in the book are written in attention-grabbing tabloid vernacular) but De Mesa wraps them all up in crystalline prose while still thrumming with the eerie spirit of the weird and the occult.
For about half of the book, De Mesa takes us on a tour of his life and how each incident revolves around his manifesto to write about the horror and the macabre. Each part of his world that he lets us in harbors unique forms of terror that are far more harrowing than the supernatural. He reports from conflict zones; from his room while held up with a bad case of the flu (which becomes a brief rumination on how we transform after each disease that occupies our bodies); from a cramped prison camp where dreams are dissolved into transgressions and despair.
It only makes sense that the deadening brunt of the real world pushed De Mesa into writing horror. In his account of his coming of age in the Philippines starting from the pre-martial law era—an exorcism of a childhood spent in secrecy, communicating in codes and shuffling from one house after another — he lists his father’s incarceration as the primary reason for his shift from writing fantasy to horror.
“I wanted to draw the attention of the reader to real life, albeit indirectly, in a manner as subtle as an acupuncture needle being thrust into skin. I didn’t want escape; I wanted confrontation. Horror had it in spades. Plus, I was naturally drawn to the occult, the macabre, and mysterious. I dabbled in witchcraft, magick, psychic powers, energy healing, conspiracy theory, alien abductions, minor spells, conjurations and such esoteric stuff,” De Mesa writes.
See, unlike the coup of characters that wade in the charm of fantasia, ghouls, bloodsuckers and flesh-eating manifestations of fear can only drive us to face the monsters that we harbor within ourselves.
These creatures do appear, although briefly, in the book, and it might just be potent enough like the old world ghosts of a Lovecraftian tale. In “Adventures in the Heart of Darkness,” De Mesa talks to Tony Perez’s Spirit Questors about some of the most interesting cases that they’ve encountered. First, there’s the case of the Spanish poltergeist, which employs some basic scare tactics—doors slamming, footsteps on the floor, glass breaking—but still spooky enough for a haunted house account. Then there’s the case of the tikbalang familiar, something that followed Perez from a previous quest: an angry, 10-foot-tall creature that has the torso of a man and legs of an animal with horns and red eyes. Read it when the light of the day is fading with Eyedress’s ‘Nature Trips’ on loop and you’ll feel trapped in the most disturbing horror film you can imagine. And worse, it lives in your head and lingers long after you’ve turned the last page.
But the most interesting stories in Report are the ones that live on the streets. In the chapter “Friends in Bat Country,” De Mesa walks us through Quiapo, twice. First, at the tumult of the feast of the Black Nazarene, a microcosm of our country’s society and devotion to a higher power; and then in the stalls and vendors of amulets and talismans where people ask for powers that take them beyond this world. He also leads us into the cockpits of Manila, where superstition is a currency and science commingles with the Old Gods.
We Catholics live in “God country” and it isn’t surprising that different forms of magic make their way into our lives until now. The plethora of anting-anting vendors just within reach of a Catholic church do say something about how we turn to folk wisdom and the old world when things stop making sense.
Ultimately, Report confirms that ours is a colossal world of hurt and decades of gore and horror films have taught us that the ills that we encounter on the page and on screen are powerful reflections of turbulent times. De Mesa understands this and his documentary work is a testament to the strange conventions of the reality that we have to live in.
This article was originally published 12 October 2013 in The Philippine Star.