I’m a fan of j-horror. I’m happy to admit that right off the bat: there are very few forms of popular horror that really get under my skin, especially in film, and the few that do tend to linger. Even as a rational, sensible, mostly practical adult, there are a few scenarios that follow me into bed at night, and have me glancing down a darkened hall, or under my sheets, imagining I can hear that telltale throat-rattle of Kayako from The Grudge (or the Japanese franchise of the same name, also directed by Takashi Shimizu, Ju-On.)
J-Horror in Film
My exposure to j-horror actually began with The Ring, however, and it’s at the bottom of the well that I encountered my first revenge spirit, Samara Morgan. (In the Japanese franchise, Ringu, the onryō goes by Sadako.) In a few ways, The Ring was a much more intense experience that scarred me even deeper than The Grudge — probably because Samara was a child, probably because when you start hurting children in fiction I’m even more uncomfortable, and probably when the children come crawling out of televisions — I lose my shit. I appreciate how The Ring was cut — the jump scares were screaming and inescapable, and timed in such a way that you couldn’t brace for them. They happened so quickly and so viciously, that they seared the inside of your skull a little with an after-image that followed you through an unsettling discourse about the unexplained deaths of several teenagers who were unlucky enough to have seen a cursed videotape.
Japanese Revenge Spirits – Onryō
I wrote an extended piece about onryō — Japanese revenge spirits — for The Midnight Society, which would act as a good primer for what I’m about to talk about. Despite my affection for revenge spirits, I watch j-horror films rarely, and read books with this subject matter even more sparingly.
Truth is: I’m trying to prolong my sensitivity. The more you experience, the less affected you become.
(I hear this is particularly true of people who’ve been enjoying horror media for a long time: after a while, it just doesn’t have the same thrust; it takes ever so much more to scare a person.)
J-Horror in YA Fiction
My last foray into young adult fiction with a j-horror thrust was Girl of Nightmares from Kendare Blake, which features Aokigahara Forest prominently, and is the sequel and conclusion to the seminal YA horror novel, Anna Dressed in Blood. (Anna is often credited with dragging YA horror back into the spotlight, and arguments against that statement notwithstanding, it is an excellent example of contemporary young adult writing for the darker set. I loved it, and I still frequently recommend it.) You might have heard of the suicide forest in passing, as it’s the central setting for that movie with Natalie Dormer that no one wants to talk about anymore.
In The Girl from the Well, Rin Chupeco plays with some familiar themes: revenge, a haunting, madness, and murder, and caps it all off with a trip to Japan.
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco follows a young boy, Tarquin, and his cousin Callie, through the eyes of a dead spirit who has wandered the earth for roughly three hundred years. The spirit’s name was once Okiku, and if you’re familiar with your Japanese folklore, is based on a much-beloved legend: Banchō Sarayashiki.
The folk version of Okie’s origin, according to Wikipedia, goes something like this:
“Once there was a beautiful servant named Okiku. She worked for the samurai Aoyama Tessan. Okiku often refused his amorous advances, so he tricked her into believing that she had carelessly lost one of the family’s ten precious delft plates. Such a crime would normally result in her death. In a frenzy, she counted and recounted the nine plates many times. However, she could not find the tenth and went to Aoyama in guilty tears. The samurai offered to overlook the matter if she finally became his lover, but again she refused. Enraged, Aoyama threw her down a well to her death.
It is said that Okiku became a vengeful spirit (Onryō) who tormented her murderer by counting to nine and then making a terrible shriek to represent the missing tenth plate – or perhaps she had tormented herself and was still trying to find the tenth plate but cried out in agony when she never could. In some versions of the story, this torment continued until an exorcist or neighbor shouted ‘ten’ in a loud voice at the end of her count. Her ghost, finally relieved that someone had found the plate for her, haunted the samurai no more.”
Okiku has wandered the earth, taking revenge on the murderers of children as is her occupation as a revenge spirit, until she sees Tark: a boy with a peculiarity about him — he has a spirit of his own bound to him; a woman in black. Tark’s mother has been in a mental institution for some time, having attempted to kill the boy on several occasions. Tark doesn’t understand why, but he still loves his mom, despite her murderous outbursts. Okiku follows Tark and his family, presenting herself as both the girl she was, and the vengeance spirit she’s become, but Tark’s time is slowly running out, and not even the spirit can help him.
Post Mortem: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
There’s something about watching the danger unfold from the eyes of the most dangerous thing in the room that is a little bit romantic, and a little bit detached. Okiku feels compelled to watch over Tark because he’s the victim of a much stronger curse, and she protects him accordingly, but the element of fear in watching through an almost omniscient point of view leaves the reader feeling a bit removed that dilutes the horror of the creature… because you’re seeing things through her eyes.
It’s a manageable sort of terror. It puts the reader in a position of power when the ghost isn’t coming after you, so to speak. You’re safe, while Okiku’s victims are not.)
Given that this is my only real criticism shouldn’t be overwhelmingly negative, but my expectation going into this was to experience the same sort of scare as watching Anna from Anna Dressed in Blood raise through the floorboards. With Okiku on your side, you’re doing a bit better for yourself, than, perhaps, hunting a ghost of the same caliber… or being hunted by a ghost of the same caliber, who doesn’t really distinguish between good or bad intention. They’re just pissed following their own trauma, so they kill indiscriminately (i.e. the revenge spirits of The Ring or The Grudge, or even Anna Dressed in Blood.)
The Girl from the Well is definitely a new take on the Japanese ghost stories we’ve become accustomed to, and it offers a glimpse into the ritual and practice of exorcisms and the spirit world — something new and interesting that we don’t often see in YA. There’s a heady supernatural element that exists alongside the practical, bloodthirsty, and murderous, which does lend a Dexter sort of vibe to the telling.
There’s a degree of reliance on the reader to understand the conventions of a Japanese haunting — so reading the descriptions of Okiku when she transforms into her bad self is buffered helpfully by the images we’ve seen in popular culture: the white shroud, pale face, lank hair, neck broken, skin falling away, etc. If you find that sort of disturbing, Rin Chupeco offers that sort of imagery up on a platter and lets you feast. If you’re new to it, I expect it’ll give you nightmares.
Overall, I enjoyed the book: there were fresh bits of legend and history, and while a little unclear in places at the onset, I found myself concerned for the characters, and hoping that Okiku would eventually move on from the earthly plane. At the end, however, Okiku’s job isn’t finished, and I expect we’ll see more of her and Tark in the future. The setup is pretty clear: now that Tark is part of Okiku’s world, he’s about to apply the lessons he’s learned in some foolhardy heroism in the book’s sequel, The Suffering.
I’m excited to read it: I found it satisfying that by the end, neither Tark nor Callie were the victims of their own circumstances. Give your characters agency, and see how they screw themselves over, is my motto.
About The Girl from the WellThe Girl from the Well (The Girl from the Well, #1) by Rin Chupeco
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 5th 2014
Check it out: Goodreads
You may think me biased, being murdered myself. But my state of being has nothing to do with the curiosity toward my own species, if we can be called such. We do not go gentle, as your poet encourages, into that good night.
A dead girl walks the streets.
She hunts murderers. Child killers, much like the man who threw her body down a well three hundred years ago.
And when a strange boy bearing stranger tattoos moves into the neighborhood so, she discovers, does something else. And soon both will be drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan.
Because the boy has a terrifying secret - one that would just kill to get out.
The Girl from the Well is A YA Horror novel pitched as "Dexter" meets "The Grudge", based on a well-loved Japanese ghost story.Buy on Amazon