Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
What got me interested in Karl R. De Mesa's fiction was the praise our editor-in-chief at work gave with regards to his upcoming novella collection, News of the Shaman. Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic-Punk is a a slim (under a hundred pages), four-year-old short story collection. My first impression is that the book is an example of an amateur author's mistake with regards to collections: instead of waiting until the writer has developed a series of strong short stories, this is instead a compilation of the author's recent work (at that time).
There's a lot of lackluster stories here--competently written but predictable and doesn't deliver anything new in terms of narrative. The problem could easily be the flash fiction format, as De Mesa doesn't have a strong handle on what makes them effective. Stories like "Bernardo, His Fortune", "The Lovers, A Symbol of Pain", and "Miguel, Librera Me" simply don't pack a punch. The agenda is clear--to deliver one dominant emotion--but it's unfortunately not impressive. The flash piece where it works is "Isabel, The Damaged", wherein the author creates this bizarre environment and setting.
As for the longer short stories, they are unremarkable. De Mesa is obviously not a "description" writer, although he does try to elaborate on some of the more gruesome scenes. The problem here is that he doesn't really compensate for it in other areas. I'm not looking for a lyrical narrative, but De Mesa is simply too plain, whether it's in structure or in plot. "Turn Loose the Angels" for example is competent, but doesn't do anything for me with regards to the twist at the end. Nor does the characterization of the protagonist make sense for me: he has an unquenchable desire to fly, but it's not revealed why he has this dysfunctional craving. "Lily, Faith and Disease" treads into the transgressive genre territory, but other than the sheer taboo of the acts perpetuated in the story, there's no other reward to be found. "Desiderio, The Afflicted" had a strong opening, but eventually crumbles towards the end.
That's not to say this collection is irredeemable. In the longer forms, De Mesa manages to churn out decent fiction. "Violet, Her Love for the Quick" follows conventional horror tropes and delivers a satisfactory, albeit mediocre, read. "New Wilderness" juggles too many elements but that doesn't make this a bad story, simply one that could have been tighter. There is one story that really impressed me, and hopefully De Mesa comes up with more of these: "Cortez, The Lamb of God" hits all the right beats, from the characterization to the unique Philippine setting and the psychological horror. The author successfully strikes a balance between all the elements of a short story, and while the ending is predictable, it fits the theme and build-up.
One pet peeve of mine is the use of terms in a book's title. In this case, the inclusion of Gothic-Punk draws unnecessary attention to itself and makes this reader question whether such boasts needs to be mentioned. I would have been content with Damaged People: Tales but Gothic-Punk honestly feels unwarranted.
Overall, it's not that De Mesa is a bad writer, but this collection is honestly filled with a lot of disappointments. One terrific short story and one good flash fiction piece is not worth wading through the rest of this muck.