The most shocking thing about the best horror writer in the country is how she isn’t scary at all in real life, as readers who meet her for the first time can attest.
“My being normcore is intentional,” says Yvette Tan. “I used to be goth in college. I’m in disguise now. In honesty, it’s amusing, but I also want people to understand that just because one consumes horror, it doesn’t mean they have to look a certain way. I guess this is also why I don’t like dressing up for Halloween. I’m already always in costume.”
What the 47-year-old Tan is is the queen of the scary short story. In 2009, her debut collection from Anvil Publishing Inc., “Waking the Dead and Other Stories,” brought a new sophistication to a genre form. Yet that wasn’t what she originally set out to be.
“I actually started out as an artist and used to draw a lot, except I was told that my art was bad, so I stopped.”
But books proved to be her escape—and writing her personal form of sorcery.
“Pain, loneliness, anxiety and wanting to express my feelings, even if they wouldn’t be seen by anyone, were my reasons for writing. I wrote for myself. I honestly had no idea that other people would appreciate my work, because I come from a background where no one did. So I’m very grateful to be where I am now, and am extremely honored to have the readership and support that I do. You have no idea.”
Tan earned her Bachelor of Arts in Film and Audio Visual Communication and Master of Arts in Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She won awards for her horror stories, including the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, and these early stories went into the cauldron of “Waking the Dead.”
There are so many unusual facts about Tan. For one thing, her day jobs are agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin and editor in chief of Agriculture magazine. In fact, she scares quite easily in real life.
But Tan is casting her spell again after more than a decade with a new book of horror stories from Anvil, “Seek Ye Whore and Other Stories,” launched Oct. 25. The new book summons 10 stories, including everything from a brothel in Poblacion you might want to avoid (“Her Room Was Her Temple”), a girl and a ghost helping each other (“Fold Up Boy”), zombies attacking Angeles City (“Fresh Fruit for Rotting Corpses”), all leading up to the excellent titular story that redefines the very idea of “mail-order bride.” In each of the 10 stories (same number as in her first book), Tan illuminates how horror can be subtle, spare, stylish, beautiful and ultimately, Filipino.
“There are many reasons people choose to summon demons,” reads the introduction. “Some use demons to take revenge on their enemies. Others use them to acquire wealth and power in the mortal realm, while others use them for more mundane tasks, such as gardening. Whatever your reasons, we salute you and wish you well.” Just think of this book as a collection of 10 different demons.
Lifestyle interviewed Tan via email. Here are excerpts:
What drew you to writing horror?
I get asked this question a lot, and I still don’t have an answer! My favorite movie genre is actually comedy, and that’s very hard to write! What drew me to horror fiction was the language and imagery used. I love the way the words used in the genre flow together—they make the darkness very enticing. I’ve also always been interested in the supernatural and paranormal as things that can one day be proven with science.
I’ve always written stories that I’ve wanted to read, and other people have classified them as horror. There are two early instances: one is fellow horror author Karl de Mesa literally having to explain to me that what I wrote fell under horror. The other is of my mom’s churchmate telling her that my story gave her nightmares.
To this day, the most common feedback I’ve gotten is that my stories aren’t scary while you’re reading them, but they stay in your head for a long time after. This is fine because the reaction I want to get from folks who read my books isn’t “Natakot ako,” but “P____g i_a, ano nabasa ko?”
Is it harder or easier to stage your stories in a Philippine setting?
It’s easy because it isn’t something I have to think about. I grew up listening to grownups tell supernatural stories as if they were gossip, and also saw it given the same gravitas as hard news on TV, so to me, it’s actually like writing fiction based on reality. Some people have called it magic realism, but I disagree. If you live in the Philippines, chances are this is reality.
Have you ever been approached by a production company with the intention of adapting one of your stories for the screen?
Yes, but nothing’s materialized so far.
It bears asking, as clichéd as it may be: Are you a particularly spiritual person? Do you believe in the supernatural?
I’m a skeptical believer, which means that I’m willing to believe something as long as all possible scientific explanations have been exhausted. I wanted to be a parapsychologist when I was younger, so I’m always looking for a scientific explanation to both rule out physical explanations and hopefully explain supernatural ones.
That said, I’ve become sensitive to the supernatural by accident, and I can’t find scientific explanations for my experiences, so I’m just taking them as they are for now.
On the side of levity, are you someone who is easily scared or impossible to scare?
I tend to get scared easily, but I also know that most of it is in my head. This doesn’t help things, unfortunately. I also tell people that I don’t like watching horror movies, but I find myself watching horror movies alone a lot, so I don’t know how to answer this question anymore.
What was your scariest experience ever?
My scariest experiences tend to make the most fun stories. I’ve written about some of them on my blog, yvettetan.com. Not scary but fun was the time a couple of sensitive friends and I decided to walk down Balete Drive to see if there really was a white lady. We didn’t find presences on the road itself, but one of the houses had a lot of activity and there were more beings along the side streets than Balete Drive itself.
Your new book has come out more than a decade since the first one. Why did it take you so long?
I don’t have time to write as much fiction as I want because I need to make money. This is also probably why I haven’t written a novel. Perhaps someone would like to sponsor me?
What would you say are the differences between the stories in your first book from those in your second book?
In my first book, stories that were GP (General Patronage) and PG (Parental Guidance) were jumbled together. We didn’t think this would be a concern because I always thought I was writing for adults (even though “Kulog” won a Palanca award in the Children’s Fiction category), but we got so many questions about which stories were fit for kids and the book apparently resonated with a lot of young adults. I don’t claim to write for kids or young adults as that involves certain responsibilities I don’t think
I’m ready for, but I’m glad that they like my stories. This is why we have the demon summoning chapters.
I wrote “Demon Summoning Made Easy” for 8List as part of their Halloween offering where they had different horror writers write short short pieces and read them out loud, so that was part of the original collection. When “Seek Ye Whore” was being conceptualized, my editor, Anvil’s Arianne Velasquez, hit on the bright idea to separate my GP stories from my more mature ones, so she asked me to write another “Demon Summoning” chapter to mark the beginning of the darker stories.
I think my second book also has more human activity in it. It isn’t just about supernatural creatures, but also focuses on the choices humans have and tend to make when given access to preternatural abilities or personalities.
When you started out, it seemed like hardly any Filipinos were writing serious horror fiction, so you are a pioneer in that sense. But it seems more writers are writing horror now. Why do you think this is?
I think young people are trying to find their identities as Filipinos and folklore is one way to go about it. It’s great because I come from a time when people looked down on folklore and horror and “genre” was a bad word, and now, that’s not the case. That said, there’s still a lot of prejudice about horror. For example, a lot of people think that only jump scares qualify as horror. I had someone “womansplain” to me that horror comedy did not qualify as horror. I’ve had someone rudely ask why I write horror, as if it were a bad thing. A lot of Christians still think that horror fiction is the work of the devil. A lot of people don’t understand that good horror isn’t just about getting scared.
It can be an examination of the human condition. It can be an exploration of history. Behind every haunting is a story, and it can be a good or bad story, but it’s usually a tragedy. Horror thrives on uncertainty and sometimes desperation, and both can make people do weird, unsettling, monstrous things, or show a capacity for compassion, humanity, and love. Another reason could be that studies have shown that belief in the supernatural tends to rise during times of uncertainty, and this is where we are now.
You are the editor of the agriculture section of a newspaper. Do you find any kind of connection between agriculture and horror?
I’ve always been interested in food, something that started in childhood, and agriculture was the next logical step for me. Even before I became agriculture editor, I was a food writer. The short version is this: What pushed me toward agriculture was the over-commodification of food, how it became something “cool,” to the point that people wanted to get into it because it was in and not because they really had a passion for it.
I sort of grew up on a farm and am familiar with failure in the agriculture industry. When you think about it, folklore is humans’ very first attempts to tame uncertainty, and a lot of it comes from agriculture. In fact, there’s a whole subgenre around it called folk horror. Stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and movies like Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” revolve around this. What are you willing to sacrifice to ensure a good harvest?
But also, my interest in food security comes from my love for food, and not wanting people to starve. I could go into the systemic problems we have in the industry both locally and worldwide, among other things, but that’s not what this interview is about.
What are you working on now?
I don’t know. Hopefully another book, whether it’s another collection or a novel.
Will we have to wait another decade for your next book?
Probably, but I hope not!
Finally, what would you like readers to take with them after reading “Seek Ye Whore and Other Stories”?
I hope my readers enjoy the stories. I’m very grateful for their support, and I’m honored that they appreciate what I write. Also, since the holidays are upon us, I hope they enjoy them enough to consider giving both my books as gifts to their loved ones who appreciate dark tales.
“Seek Ye Whore and Other Stories” and “Waking The Dead and Other Stories” are available at select National Book Store branches, Lazada and Shopee; visit anvilpublishing.com, nationalbookstore.com.