by Allana Luta

THE STORY

In this collection of short stories, Alina R. Co conjures the monsters and other worldly creatures we’ve seen as children. These are characters that have piqued our bottomless pits of imagination, both real and imagined, and friendly and frightening.

Here are winged creatures in cereal bowls, a man who collects suicides, a mysterious elevators and its hidden doors, and a grandmother whose obsession for long, lustrous locks of hair drives her to madness. Here, she also tackles life’s everyday horrors, hardly macabre, but things that makes us confront the deepest recesses of our beings—a taboo love, mental illness, the loss of innocence, and extramarital romances. Everyone has their monsters and Co’s prove to be both terrifying and forthright, with a healthy serving of whimsical and fascinating in this mix of horror, tragedy, romance, comedy and thriller multi-genre.

To purchase the book or contact the author, you can check out the Facebook page for MICB here.

WHAT I LIKED

I’m not much of a fan of horror fiction but I can take them in small bursts. And in Monsters in the Cereal Bowl, Alina Co provides us with 13 of them!

I liked how Alina made the seemingly mundane seem creepy by pointing out certain aspects that, if exaggerated, suddenly become horrific, like people’s obsession with hair. Other times, she put in fantastical elements to everyday situations, like eye exams where, when asked what she wanted to see, the protagonist responds with “everything” and see everything she does, even those that aren’t mean to be seen. As a glasses-wearer myself, I don’t think I want my vision to be that clear.

I also appreciated the stories about real horrors that can scar someone for life—parents fighting, an extra-marital affair, accidentally dropping in on your friend having sex. Just like how some heroes don’t wear capes, not all monsters have claws or live in the dark. Like what Alina said in “Stitches,” “the most gruesome of horrors can happen when there is light.”

The shortness of each story made it easy to read and left a lot to the imagination. Some will leave you wondering what the hell the point was but then life is like that. I know there are people who like having closure and might find unsolved mysteries unsettling but that’s also the fascinating thing about unexplainable events in the human experience. Some things just happen for no reason.

HOWEVER

The inconsistent verb tenses throughout the book really pulled me out of the stories. My brain struggled to place whether the events happened in the past or in the present or if it was a flashback but told in the present tense. This was probably my biggest pet peeve while reading.

tl;dr

If you want a quick read with monsters you can still face in the night, this might be for you. But verb tenses are inconsistent throughout, so you might want to look out for that.

We also asked Alina a few questions about the background behind MICB and her personal monsters. Read on to get to know the author!

Hi Alina! Congratulations on publishing Monsters in the Cereal Bowl. We just wanted to ask a few questions to help our readers get to know you more as a person and an author.

Hi Allana, thanks so much! I’m so nervous for the Saturday launch! I’m an extrovert but not really into facing a crowd and public speaking! Haha.

I’m sure you’ll do great! I really liked the concepts behind each story in MICB and was wondering if any of these were influenced by stories you heard when you were a child. What was your favorite scary story growing up? It doesn’t have to be a book, maybe it was something your parents or guardian told you and it just stuck.

There used to be a vacant lot beside our home, na medyo magubat. And our yaya used to scare us, don’t go there, baka may nuno sa punso.

I don’t remember my dwarf friend anymore, what he looked like, what he said to me. Only what my mom and yaya said. I had a dwarf friend daw named Morphan, who I visited and talked to at the vacant lot. Yes, it was a he. Medyo nakakakilabot. Did we play? Did he do magic over me? I don’t know!

I was scared of kapre, too. My yaya said there was one in an old tree in that same vacant lot.

Also, I used to be scared of mangoes. Medyo weird because my mom ate a lot of yellow mangoes when she was pregnant with me. But I think there was an incident that made me scared of mangoes. We were having dinner, my parents were eating mangoes. Right after that, right after they finished dessert, they started fighting. So that made me associate mangoes with fighting. And for a year, I think I didn’t eat mangoes, believing it makes people behave badly.

In your introduction, you mentioned you had been writing on and off for 15 years as a creative outlet. How has your writing style evolved over the years? Were there any stories that did not make it into MICB?

The greatest challenge for me was compressing or rewriting most of the stories in this collection. I’m not a very patient person, I’m kind of like “tapos na, ok na! happy na’ko!” so I found the revising, rewriting part really hard. Kasi nga parang therapeutic lang siya sa’kin.

But then I asked some friends and even a well-known speculative fiction [writer] to take a look at some of the stories. He recommended tightening the stories. That’s the main thing that changed. I learned to rewrite, to revise. You know how at your first draft, you’re smug and content. But I learned to kind of forget the story, bury it at the back of my mind. Then when I’m ready, I’ll read it again with fresher eyes and see how I can improve it.

Yes, there were some stories that didn’t make it. One of them was “The Predicament of Mr. and Mrs. P,” which my husband felt wasn’t strong enough. Another one was “The Maiden,” an old story from 2005 or 2006, about an old maid. I really love that story, but it contained similar elements to “Ice Candy Love Affair,” so I had to drop that. “Playing in Hotels” also didn’t make it. It was about my experience as a child living in hotels. My mom used to run away from my dad a lot and I was her preferred companion.

Originally I was also planning to include essays, but I realized it would deviate from the overall theme of the book.

What has been the biggest “monster” you’ve faced, whether real or imaginary? Was this incorporated in any of the short stories in MICB?

Hmm… biggest monsters. I would have to say issues in our family. You’ll see this in “Middle Eart” and “Mistress & Machang.” I have a brother who has a mental illness. For a time, he had trouble distinguishing between what’s real or not. It’s really an uphill battle. Our family found it hard to accept it at first. That time there wasn’t a mental health bill yet, wala pang mental health awareness month and advocacies. So we had to deal with it ourselves. We had to keep it a secret. But now, iba na, a lot of people know that it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s a real disease and it can be treated. And the first step is acceptance.

Also, as a child, I witnessed the crumbling of a marriage. That kind of shatters your ideals, especially when you’re a Disney and fairytale fan. You meet your prince and you will live happily every after. Pffft!

When you’re a clueless kid, those family problems become your world. Thankfully, I’ve grown up. Ganun talaga, life is not perfect. It becomes part of you, and you become the person that you are because of these flaws.

You also said that you had not intentionally sat down and wrote with the goal to publish a book. Had you decided to publish MICB before you attended Mina V. Esguerra’s seminar or was it a result of attending that seminar? What changed your mind?

When I attended Mina’s seminar, I had the intention of publishing the book already. Learned a lot from the seminar. Sabi ko, yes, kaya naman pala! I thought kasi before you need to have a big publisher backing you. 

As a first-time self-published author, what have been the challenges you’ve faced? What can you advise to authors who want to be independently published as well?

At least in my circle, a lot of people have great stories to tell and they tell you they intend to write a book soon, or a manuscript is in the works. But to actually push through is a different matter altogether. To actually go ahead and take the plunge was the biggest thing for me.

I have a very demanding job, so this passion project tends to get sidetracked, hehe. But I didn’t want to be one of those people na “may balak siya gumawa ng libro.”

Also, since it’s self-published, the challenges are how to fund it and how to market it. Funding, kinaya naman. I get a lot of Producer projects and I was paid well. Marketing na lang, how do I market this? Wala naman ako sa National (Bookstore). Thankfully, there are a lot of people who want you to succeed, such as Bookbed. This feature is such a big help, thank you! For me, I just want to tell my stories, and to be able to find a reader base, however small, is a win in itself!

Advice: stop planning and dreaming and just go ahead and DO IT! Huwag puro “balak” or “wala akong oras.” Be that kind of person that when you look back, whatever the result is, I effin’ did it, no regrets. ☁️

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