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REVIEW:  The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

REVIEW: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

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Dear Ms. Chupeco,

Maybe because fall is fast approaching (where did the year go?), I find myself in the mood for a horror novel. Something like Anna Dressed in Blood or The Waking Dark. When I saw your debut, The Girl from the Well, I was excited. Horror influenced by J-horror movies? Sign me up! Alas, I think being such a huge J-horror fan ended me working against me here.

Okiku is the titular girl from the well. She’s a vengeful ghost who travels the world, bringing justice to slain children by killing their murderers. But one day she finds herself drawn to a half-Japanese (living) boy named Tarquin who has mysterious tattoos on his body.

The tattoos are actually seals binding a very dangerous spirit, and they’ve started to break. But because Tark is still a child, his well-being actually falls under Okiku’s purview. (She brings justice to wronged children, remember?) So now she, along with his cousin Callie, must find a way to save him before the other spirit destroys him.

The book opens with a fantastically creepy and violent scene in which we see Okiku delivering justice. It was very reminiscent of a horror movie, and I loved that. But maybe this raised my expectations to an unrealistic degree. Instead of focusing on Okiku and her afterlife of vengeance-seeking, the book detours into revolving around Tark. And while he’s nice and all, the book is called The Girl from the Well, not The Tattooed Boy with a Masked Demon Bound to His Soul.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the writing style. I didn’t mind it, but it is a bit more experimental than you normally find in YA. It’s kind of like a House of Leaves-lite. Nothing as remotely rigorious as that novel, but there are stylistic tricks that some readers will find annoying.

While I don’t often consider characterization as important in a horror novel as I would in other genres (like contemporary, for example), it was lacking here to a distracting degree. Tark is the weird boy with the weird tattoos whose mother is crazy (more on that later). Callie is the Concerned Cousin who drops everything and travels halfway around the world to help him even though I didn’t believe their relationship was so close that she’d do this in the first place. Okiku was the most interesting character, in my opinion, and the novel wasn’t actually her story! (To my regret.)

So back to Tark’s mother. Yes, she’s the crazy mother archetype, because YA needs more of these figures, I guess. But it doesn’t last long because you’ve watched enough horror movies, or read enough fiction in general, we know what happens to mothers of angsty boys, don’t we? I just wasn’t thrilled by any aspect of this subplot: the execution, the portrayal of mental illness (even if it was supernaturally induced), what ultimately happened to her, etc.

My main difficulty with this book, however, stems from the fact that I am such a big Japanese horror fan. By this I mean that I can tell where all the influences come from. The girl from the well — it’s hard not to think of Ringu (aka The Ring). A lot of Okiku’s portrayal reminded me of Ju-On (aka The Grudge). Yes, both of these movies tap into the onryo figure but it goes beyond that. Female ghosts in white with long black hair who hang upside from the ceiling? That’s a visual straight out of Ju-On. The rituals surrounding Tark? Reminded me of Noroi. I can’t believe this worked against me here because that’s never happened to me with horror, but it did.

Despite a promising beginning, The Girl From the Well didn’t live up to its stunning first scene. It’s a fast read but I think ultimately readers will be left unsatisfied. C-

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

REVIEW: The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman

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Dear Ms. Wasserman,

Even though there are so many YA novels coming out every month, I personally think there is a dearth of books in the horror subgenre. Yes, I know. Horror is out of fashion, having peaked in the late 80s and early 90s. But I loved Anna Dressed in Blood and wished there were more novels like that one. Alas, I didn’t even have much luck, not even with its sequel. So even though I was lukewarm on your previous novel, I decided to give your latest effort a try. It sounded like the kind of horror I grew up on and have missed all these years.

Oleander is a small Kansas town. It’s the kind of town where families have lived for generations and everyone knows your business. That all changes one day when, without explanation, five people go on homicidal rampages. We’re talking opening fire on the customers in a drugstore, running someone down with a car, and crucifying a parishioner and setting a church on fire. Four of those people killed themselves. The fifth tried but failed. She’s now locked up in what she believes to be a high-security mental institution.

One year after that fateful day, Oleandar has settled back into a — while not entirely normal — regular routine. Unfortunately the events of that infamous day come back to haunt them when a tornado tears through town and reveals its secrets. As Oleander descends into madness, only five teenagers are left unscathed, wondering what is happening to their relatives and neighbors. What do they have in common? Four of them are each the sole survivor of the rampages from one year ago, and the last is the lone perpetrator who survived.

Readers who love Stephen King and his brand horror and are interested in a YA take should absolutely pick up this book. The storytelling style is strongly informed by his books, right down to the retrospective narration of the characters:

Later, after he’d trashed his bloody clothes, and stood under the cold shower long enough that the water circling the drain had gone from red to pink to clear, Daniel Ghent would wonder if some part of him had known what was to come — or should have. If there had been something false, something crafty, in Gathers’ crookedly welcoming smile, or some too-still quality in the air, like the pressure drop before a storm. He would wonder if there was some reason he had walked into the store on exactly that day, at precisely that time, if despite all previous indications to the contrary, he had been meant to be a hero and save the day. He would wonder whether, if he had seen it coming, he could have done something to stop it, or whether he would simply have backed out of the store and run away. But that was later.

For me, this is what horror is. It’s not the violence and gore — though that certainly can be present. It’s the dread of what’s to come. It’s the tension that increases with each second as you wait for the axe to fall.

The classic staples are all here. Small town. Ragtag band of unlikely allies who, in each their own way, are outcasts even if it’s not immediately obvious. An inexplicable madness sweeping over a town, changing its inhabitants — or revealing their true natures. A mysterious government agency who may or may not be involved. In another book, these elements could have been cliche but they worked well here.

People used to the deep introspective characterization of many YA novels might be taken aback by the distant POV here. It’s not entirely omniscient but it’s close. Again, I thought it was well-done and suited the style and tone, but it’s not every reader’s bag. Subtle, multilayered characterization is not this novel’s strength but it’s also not the point. I wouldn’t call the character’s shallowly characterized because the way everyone changed after That Day and when the tornado tore up the town, told me a lot about these people.

At its heart, The Waking Dark is a novel about the darkness that lurks within all of us, just waiting to come out. In many ways, I thought the concrete explanation behind Oleander’s disintegration was a little too neat, a little too handwavy. Part of that is because up until that reveal, the novel had been grounded in solid reality, with everyday mundane explanations for the horrible things that happened. Everything was possible in real life without the help of any outside paranormal force, so the true cause jerked me out of the book.

But as Jule, one of the core group of teens, says: It’s easy to blame that outside cause. To place entire blame at its feet. In that way, people can absolve themselves of their guilt and pretend they bear no responsibility for their actions. But what if that cause doesn’t make people do terrible things? What if, instead, it simply lifts the inhibitions and morality that prevent people from doing awful things? In the end, it’s still your finger that pulls the trigger, not some mysterious paranormal force. That’s the question. Which is stronger? Impulse or morality?

Having been disappointed by recent YA horror before, I approached The Waking Dark with cautious hope. I’m glad to say it exceeded my expectations. Because of this book, I’m looking forward to future novels and excited to see what the future may bring. I recommend The Waking Dark to all horror fans and especially to lovers of Stephen King. There’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this one. Oh, and don’t worry. Despite what I said earlier about gore and violence not necessarily being the defining traits of horror, like many Stephen King novels, the body count is very high. B

My regards,
Jia

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