The Manila Film Center is a national building located at the southwest end of the Cultural Center of the Philippine Complex in the Philippines. It is said to be haunted due to the accident that took place in the construction of the structure back in 1982. One Hundred Sixty Nine (169) workers were trapped in quick dry cement when the scaffolds fell. It has been stipulated that due to the 9 hours that passed before rescuers were allowed in the site, some of the workers were entombed alive and that the bodies were left on the hardened concrete slabs.
It is this urban legend that is the foundation of Coronel’s Tragic Theater. Enticed already by the idea of a story written around this legend almost as old as I was, I was further convinced to buy the book by the synopsis that read:
“In February 1999, a group of spirit communicators attempted to exorcise the then-abandoned Manila Film Center of ghosts…Unknown to them something had, long ago, taken sanctuary inside the building feeding on the anger and misery of the victims’ souls.”
Urban legend plus spirit communicators and top it with a malevolent entity is, I believe, the perfect recipe for a scary story. My expectations were high. I bought the book on Halloween as my day’s read. Yes, I celebrated Halloween by reading a scary, close to home book.
The first few sentences of the book was promising, however by the second page I was fearing the book was indeed going to be tragic. It was painstaking to go through the first few chapters of the book. The author dedicates two pages of the book to the curriculum vitae of Ann Marie Francesco. The author details her relationship history and work life. While this could be vital, setting it on the first chapter and in such a run-down manner felt like other literary techniques could have been used to present it. Further, into the third chapters I am faced with two issues. One is the author’s tendency to editorialize and put in unnecessary dialogue.
“Father, ” Marlo continued, “what do you think? Why did they suddenly refuse to communicate with us? Was it—“
“No, it wasn’t”
“I don’t know.” Fr. Marcelo sounded slightly annoyed. It’s not because of Marlo’s persistence but, rather, his own inability to come up with an explanation.
While the explanation to Fr. Marcelo’s annoyance isn’t that big of a problem, I felt, it could be left unsaid. Coronel could have given his reader more credit in terms of deducing that. The dialogue exchange, while a normal exchange in a conversation, was unnecessary to the storytelling. Dialogue must sound natural, but it isn’t. It is used as a device to reveal something relevant to the plot. On the above example the “Then what?” and “I don’t know” could have been skipped. The author repeats this on the following page with Ann and father meeting at home:
“you alright?” he (father) asked, as she got in.
“Yeah,” Annie answered back without looking.
“You look haggard”
“Want something to eat?”
“No.” She proceeded to the stairs
The exchange I felt was a poor use of dialogue. It’s existence can be justified as a means to show the strained relationship between Ann and her Father which the author expounds on a few chapters down. There were too many adverbs floating about in the book. While there is generally nothing wrong about using adverbs and hanging the every useful ‘-ly’ (i.e lovingly), it gives an expression of laziness to expound on description. Over criticality aside, after you’ve read the first three chapters the momentum picks up. I even forgot that those chapters existed. There were moments I felt my eye twitch at certain turn of phrases, but nothing could prevent me from getting engrossed in the unraveling of events inside the Manila Film Center.
The scenarios aren’t particularly original. The possession, the exorcism, and even the aftermath weren’t particularly new to fans of this sorts of stories. At times I felt they were copied straight from a movie. However they still had some impact. I can only suppose that you can’t go off base too much from the process of demon possession.
The story can be at times hair raising. To my vivid imagination I can picture everything clearly enough. The detailed discussion on the process of séance was interesting, even the experimental method (i.e. multiple possession) was interesting to me. It was dubbed as an experimental method by the spirit communicators. I found myself holding my breath, crossing my fingers, and hoping that they succeed.
Of the 245 pages, quite a few pages of the novel were the prayers of exorcism. The prayers alternated between what was happening and what the priest was praying. The most interesting part of the exorcism was the refusal of the demon to tell the priest his name. Of the little I know of exorcism, it is important that the priest officiating the exorcism to know the name of the demon so that he may command it to leave. Peaking my experience further was the fact this particular demon was previously encountered by the exorcist. Which leaves me wondering: Don’t they ever get expelled from the world?
The book read more like a movie. Let me rephrase that. The book was written like it was a movie. The styling, the scene sequence and even the dialogue was so much like a movie as opposed to a book. You may ask: Is that a bad thing? Yes and no. Yes, because writing requires a different style or means of delivery. No, because it all depends on the reader’s preference.
Now, you must think I probably didn’t like the book with the overly critical review. In terms of entertainment and scare, Coronel delivered. This being Coronel’s first novel I felt it had a lot of potential for something more. His imagination, pushed further with his writing skill could deliver something more disturbingly scary. Tragic Theater, if anything, is a beginning for Coronel and I hope that his next novel retains that imagination and potential while improving on the writing.
I love the fact that these books—local authors—are getting more opportunities to be heard and I’m going to keep watch for Coronel’s next novel. To fans of urban legends, exorcism, the paranormal and Filipino literature you should add this book to your collection. For those from UP, you might like the reference to the UP chapel and the reference to Abueva’s sculptured cross.
Gilbert M. Coronel is a first time author with no literary background to speak of other than a genuine love of reading and a passion for writing. Coming across back issues of Writer’s Digest a few years ago started his writing career. A couple of previous personal encounters with the paranormal convinced him to pursue the horror genre. He believes that stories to tell and experience to share are best put in written words.