Tropical Gothic

Caroline S. Hau


Artwork by Francis Estrada

The tropic gothic genre holds up a mirror to the country’s so-called best and brightest. What do we see?

The Sky Over Dimas.

By Vicente Garcia Groyon

Manila: De La Salle University Press, 2003. Reprinted by the University of the Philippines Press, 2011.


It was Nick Joaquin who coined the term “Tropical Gothic” for his 1972 collection of short stories. The volume contains some of Joaquin’s most memorable work: “May Day Eve,” a tale of love and disillusionment, the central conceit of which is the age-old superstition that one can see the person one is to marry by looking into the mirror at midnight; “The Summer Solstice,” in which Doña Lupeng, encased in the decorum of her privileged, Hispanized upbringing, is empowered by the pagan Tadtarin fertility rites to compel her macho husband to submission, forcing him to kiss her feet; “Candido’s Apocalypse,” The Catcher in the Rye in Philippine suburbia, circa 1965, where everyone appears as a walking skeleton to gun-toting outlaw Bobby Heredia and is guilty of terminal “overacting”; “Doña Jeronima’s Cave,” about a cleric who sacrifices the woman he loves to his worldly ambitions; and “The Legend of the Dying Wanton,” in which a shipwrecked Spanish wastrel receives absolution from no less than the Virgin Mary Herself off the coast of Mindoro.

Gothic elements are in full flower here. Lush prose. Check (and check out the opening and final paragraphs of “May Day Eve”). Melodramatic situations. Check. Folklore and centuries-old Catholic rites. Check and check. The Spanish colonial past in all its baroque splendor and excess. Check, check.

Stock characters such as madmen; beautiful, entrapped women; tyrants of the state, the church, and the house; Byronic heroes; heretics (“The Order of Melkizedek”); and magicians (the magus Mateo Maestro in “The Mass of Saint Sylvestre) populate these pages. Even animated skeletons, props much favored by Gothic horror, execute their dances of death.

These stories are unabashedly nostalgic in their evocation of the Philippines across centuries, where precolonial, old-world, and Catholic rituals are enacted side by side and time has a telescoping effect on objects, events, and memories. But it is not nostalgia that propels the plots of Tropical Gothic. Rather, Joaquin’s unerring sense that he and his readers have lived through, and will need to live through, periods of momentous events and social transitions galvanizes these gothic tales.

We need not look farther than Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere (1887)and El filibusterismo (1891)to see how fertile the Philippine ground has been for tropical gothic as a literary sub-genre. These two obras maestras incorporate a number of key gothic themes: 

1) family secrets, as the fates of several of the novel’s characters are linked by a chain of events, beginning with specific acts of injustice and abuse inflicted by Ibarra’s great-grandfather and grandfather on other people

2) inheritances, not just wealth, ill-gotten, later hidden under a balete tree, dug out, and multiplied by nefarious means to fund an uprising, but also  sins of the fathers 

3) a strain of anti-Catholicism that traffics in power-hungry and lascivious monks and tragic nuns, for who can forget Padre Salvi’s voyeurism, or the dark, stormy September night when a keening woman in white appears on the ridge of the nunnery roof, and materializes days later before a government official, and, “all wet and torn, with tears and tales of horror beg[s] the man’s protection against the outrages of hypocrisy”?

4) doppelgängers Ibarra and Elías, who, despite differences in their backgrounds, engage in long, impassioned conversations that sound like the erudite author debating with himself 

5) mysteries surrounding the death of Ibarra’s father; Maria Clara’s curly, “almost blond” hair; and Elías’ search for the descendants of the man who falsely accused his grandfather and caused all the misfortunes of his family

6) arch-conservatives’ hostility to new ideas and new technologies, as Ibarra learns soon enough when he attempts to open a school for children (that he had intended the school as a “gift” for his bride-to-be must surely count as one of the most unusual love offerings in literature)

7) metaphorical, if not actual, revenants, a.k.a. Elías, a kind of avenging spirit who “comes back” to Ibarra to settle scores from the past, except that the Noli’s twist ending transmutes vengeance into self-sacrifice that midwives the literary birth of the Filipino nation

In the postwar era, there have been other notable works of tropical gothic. Bienvenido N. Santos’ Villa Magdalena (1965) is a hothouse tale of greed, forbidden passion, decadence, and madness. The novel follows an ambitious young man, Fred, as he moves out of the squatter area to work for a distant relative, Don Magno Medallada. Rising through the ranks until he becomes the old man’s right-hand man, Fred further secures his future by marrying Nora of the Condé family (the name in Spanish means “Count”).

Villa Magdalena employs a mirroring device to link the main characters. Like Fred, Don Magno had used his marriage to Doña Magdalena to get his hands on what remained of the Condé fortune. Don Magno expands what is now called the Medallada holdings by buying up land and establishing a big leather company. One of the Condé women, Nora’s aunt Isabel, chooses self-imposed exile in Japan by falling in love and running away with Sol, the son of the housekeeper of the Condés, and one of the major plots centers on Don Magno’s attempt to get Isabel to sign away her rights to the Condé property. The scandal of the Sol-Isabel elopement is then repeated by the affair between Nora and her erstwhile childhood sweetheart Nick. Fred takes up with his niece by marriage, Eliza, the daughter of Isabel from her first marriage, after Nora flees the house. In the meantime, Doña Magdalena, in sexual thrall to Don Magno, descends into madness, assuming the persona of her dead sister Asuncion, who had always despised Don Magno for being an upstart, and starts to despise her own husband.

Here, the stink of the leather, of “rotting animal hide, nauseating” —Fred spends the better part of the novel trying to learn from the Americans the best tanning process to remove the smell—becomes a metaphor for the human flesh, its drives (ambition as well as sexual passion), and its mortality. But there is also a class element in the correlation between leather and flesh, as seen in the contrast that the novel draws between the classic upstart Magno, fiercely ambitious, acquisitive, and the aristocratic Condés, “beautiful, proud, and doomed” (to quote the book cover description). Don Magno, “dark and demonic”, with his earthy, uncouth ways and his naked ambition, is scorned by the Condé family for being déclassé.

Fred, following in Magno’s footsteps, finds himself at the end of the novel strangling in the solitude of the decaying monument that Don Magno had built, the eponymous Villa Magdalena, a haunted house indeed: “I can’t breathe…Open all the windows. Why do you shut up the Villa like a tomb?” he tells the servants, echoing Don Magno’s very words. In a final gothic flourish, a servant addresses Fred as Don Alfredo while a dying Magno lies masturbating in the next room.

The latest novel to embrace the tropical gothic sensibility is Vicente Garcia Groyon’s The Sky Over Dimas. The novel opens years after the sugar industry in Negros has collapsed in the last years of the Marcos regime. The island of Negros is gothic terrain par excellence, with its history of fabulous, rapine fortune and conspicuous consumption, its abject poverty and mass starvation, its private armies and state-sanctioned massacres, and its feudal barons and gambler's mentality.

The patriarch of a prominent Negros family, George Torrecarion, “convinced that his future was shot,” “behaved like he had none and became the local troublemaker,” leaving the new generation to pick up the pieces. Aware of public disapproval of his father George’s image as an absentee, decadent hacendero, brother Rodel reinvents himself as a hands-on, hard-working “middle-class landowner,” while protagonist Rafael takes a job in Manila selling real estate.

But the eccentric George is actually busily at work writing his family history, to “set the record straight.” The elder Torrecarion has only harsh words for people of his kind, the Negrense elite:

We’re evil, greedy people. We don’t care much about the rest of the country or any people who aren’t like us. All we care about is that we’re rich. In fact, we’re so rich that Negros could be a whole separate country by itself.  

The means by which the Torrecarions acquire their fortune are typically dirty: Although Faustino Torrecarion y Santander was “never to the manor [sic] born,” he had succeeded in annexing his neighbors’ lands. Faustino killed a recalcitrant neighbor and then pledged his son Eugenio in marriage to the daughter of the man he had killed. But then, he himself married Dolores, even though the children she would go on to bear were not his, but Eugenio’s. Faustino lived to see his actions paid back when his son Eugenio was cut down by the eldest son of the widow of the man Faustino had killed in Panay.

The “sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons” as the Torrecarion family history yields its vast sediments of secrets. Readers learn that Faustino first acquired huge tracts of land following the “disappearance” of the entire Maghat indigenous tribe. George himself would be guilty of running over the family driver, his wife Margie’s lover and the real father of elder son Rodel. In a fitting form of justice, George cuts his foot on the bones of the murdered driver as he attempts to dig up the remains, and the wound develops gangrene.

 George tells himself:

The good news is I’m not really responsible; it’s my nature. The bad news is I’m not really responsible. It’s my nature. I’m facing up to it: I’m telling the truth. I’m going to bring everything out into the light of day and then maybe I can be at peace.

Son Rafael, in contrast, defines his life as one of flight from his origins. The novel is replete with images of distancing, beginning with the title “The Sky over Dimas.” Rafael prefers “to live in a set of rooms raised high in the sky, as far away from the smog and filth of the earth as possible, in a tower of concrete, steel and glass that lifted him up and away from the source, for everything, the soil, the earth, had to be shut away, insulated, cleaned.” Rafael views Negros and Hacienda Dimas as sources of corruption; his eyrie up above Manila by contrast is a haven, a refuge of sorts.

This anti-pastoral tale casts the island of Negros as a place of “deliberate isolation,” whose inhabitants have a propensity for traveling abroad. This isolation is also isolation from national and international affairs, a matter of existing “on a plane that seemed totally separate from the rest of the world.” It is also a form of solipsism, a narcissism in which “Bacolodnon ignored national and international events until they began to notice an effect being wrought on their lives.”

Rafael, who does not think that Filipinos are worth “writing and reading about” (let alone worth dying for), “later saw that thinking this way had numbed him to the significance of events and kept him from participation in anything at all.” At the University of the Philippines, where the intellectual and political ferment is strong, Rafael similarly feels that “activist passions eluded him.” Aware of his “forgetfulness” and “tendency to pass judgment from a distance, or a great height,” he experiences the “EDSA revolution” at a remove, his “parents talking to the Chinese neighbors they despised, laughing together,” “the sound of several thousand islands reveling in the strength that people had found together, but without him.” 

Sealed in his own cocoon of distance and indifference, he views himself as “persistently alive, as though the lesions of the Torrecarions meant nothing to him.” And if he bothers to remember anything at all, he finds that he can only recall “maddeningly inconsequential details. This, to him, was the apotheosis of indifference.”

The novel seeks to annul this (willed) amnesia by placing George’s written history in Rafael’s hands. Even though he knows the family history, Rafael cannot read the book because it is in Spanish, “so it remains closed. His hands rest on it, as though to keep it closed.” The family secrets remain secret from the public, locked away in a language that fewer and fewer Filipinos can understand. Nevertheless, they haunt Rafael’s private thoughts: He “knows the contents of the book well enough to go over the story in his head when sleepless, which is often.”

The final section of the book reinforces this willful, self-chosen alienation from everything around him:

He has to wake and descend to the city that he loathes but tolerates for its absence of interest in him, in his story, which he keeps to himself these days, guarding it jealously, taking comfort in the desperate faint hope that it had to fit, had to belong to a larger narrative, one that he wanted no control over, because if this were true then he didn’t have to worry about what happens next.

 The dream of flight, of disappearing into the anonymous big city, involves the repudiation of an elite lifestyle in favor of a professional, middle-class one, but the repudiation of elite centrality in the affairs and destiny of the nation appears disingenuous, since the novel itself provides that very “grand” narrative—a Palanca-prize-winning one no less—that focuses exclusively on the tale of the Torrecarions. But it is a symptom of how little legitimacy the Filipino elite enjoys today that the story the novel tells is not one of triumph and resilience, but rather, one of anhedonia, of being “persistently alive” in the knowledge of how much suffering and damage, violence and dispossession, one’s family has visited upon the lives of others.

Rafael’s efforts at self-effacement come to nothing, as his family story is doomed to be read over and over by anyone who opens the book called Sky Over Dimas. Rafael acknowledges to himself that he has no control over the “larger narrative” into which he nevertheless seeks to be written. The novelremains the very thing to which it denies its protagonist access—the “larger narrative” in which the Torrecarions have starring roles as figures in a national tragedy, largely of the elite’s making.

The tropical gothic novel has been one of the genres that Filipino writers have productively used to explore issues of economic and social inequalities, violence and injustice, the situation of women, and the social and political upheavals that have made Philippine society what it is today. They have marshaled an army of motifs, devices, and conceits—familiar to readers of literature produced, for example, in the American South, in Latin America, and in Europe over the past two or more centuries—to hold up a mirror to the country's so-called best and brightest, to show them what the Philippines has come to, who have been the authors of its plight, and why things need to change.

Tropical gothic novels offer invitations to the Philippine nightmare. They explore all kinds of anxieties experienced by people in the cusp of change without necessarily issuing wake-up calls. Nonetheless, as with any decent tale of terror, tropical gothic is engrossing, and people come to the end of the story with a sense of release not unlike the feeling of having survived a dark, stormy night in September.