Trigger Warning: Child murder, torture, gruesome descriptions of violence, a mother attempts repeatedly to kill her child, mental institution setting, and repeated descriptions of corpse mutilation
Last week I completed the “retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge by reading The Girl from the Well by Chinese Filipino author Rin Chupeco.
Those who have watched either Ju-On or the American remake The Grudge will be familiar with the protagonist of this story, Okiku. Okiku is the vengeful spirit of a murdered young woman who now goes after murderers of children and kills them in gruesome ways. The iconic horror figure of the dead woman with long hair who makes creepy gurgling sounds is the reader’s POV throughout the novel. I’ve never read a young adult horror novel or a novel where the protagonist and viewpoint of the book is the ghoulish anti-hero. The author presents Okiku’s vicious acts, and her own feelings about her acts, as matter of fact without remorse. I love a remorseless anti-hero, particularly one who is seeking vengeance on behalf of herself and other victims of injustice.
The main plot surrounds Okiku’s interactions with a boy named Tark, his father, and his cousin Cassie. Tark and his father have moved to be closer to his mother who is a patient at a mental institution since she tried to murder the teenager. Okiku is drawn to Tark because she can tell there is another entity attached to him, something dark. As the secret behind Tark’s strange, sigil-like tattoos and what they’ve bound to him is revealed, Okiku and Cassie become Tark’s allies in saving himself and many others.
As I said earlier, this is the first book of its kind that I’ve read so it already has my interest and appreciation. I’ve read criticisms of the book not being scary but I don’t expect horror to be scary necessarily. It is horrifying, the actions described are graphic and haunting, but the figure that is doing most of these actions is one whose head you’re in so you understand the reasoning. I didn’t find the lack of scariness a bad thing by any means. It was a genuinely entertaining read and I was invested in the characters and how the issues would be resolved.
I am not a fan of the use of the mental institution in this story, but I’m torn about this as well. If someone tries to murder their child while screaming that they have to do it to save them and acting in delusional ways, they would probably be hospitalized. But the description of the hospital is very archaic asylum Ken Kesey-esque except even Ken Kesey acknowledged that mental illness doesn’t mean you’re always acting out in outrageous, spooky scary ways. In the brief tours we get of the mental hospital here every mentally ill person is a caricature of insanity. And I don’t say that meaning that the way characters behave aren’t ways that real people can behave with certain conditions, I just felt that Chupeco was relying a little too much on the stigma and stereotype of the mentally ill patient to do the grunt work of setting the scary tone. I also always grow a little wary of plotlines where the “insane” person is actually right and it’s the world that just doesn’t understand. It feels dangerous to me. The history of mental healthcare is, to say the least, fraught with issues and unjust hospitalizations and cruel, inhumane acts. But there are times a person needs to be hospitalized for their own safety. I don’t know you guys, it just didn’ts well with me. I know I have my personal biases and issues with this topic that others may not have. Also, Chupeco doesn’t really present Tark’s mother as someone who should be out of the hospital as she is clearly a danger to herself and others. So I have to give her that.
Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy YA horror and aren’t troubled by descriptions of graphic violence or child murder/endangerment. It’s a compelling story and a new take on a classic figure in horror. I can’t speak to the accuracy or care of the setting or the belief system represented in Japan and would be interested in perspectives on this part of the book. I may pick up the second book in the series, The Suffering, but it won’t be for a bit because I do need a palate cleanser after this one.