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. [X]
I don’t usually start reviews like this but if you like horror: I cannot recommend this book enough! It is so good, I almost want to read it again, so soon after reading it for the first time.
If the summary does not convince you … actually, I am not sure why it didn’t. Did you read the part where the protagonist is a dead girl who murders murderers? I mean, how can you go wrong with a premise like that?! Well, okay, some writers may not be able to work with that, but Rin Chupeco’s writing puts the awe in awesome. And I mean that in the way that the Romantics meant it- The Girl from the Well is a sublime horror experience, if that makes any sense.
It is quite rare the the monster of the piece is written as the protagonist, or even as the (anti?)hero- but Chupeco does this convincingly. The thing about The Grudge (and really most horror movies) is that if the antagonist happens to be a female ghost/spirit/ghoul, even if she was wronged in her past life, she is written with very little sympathy or empathy. She is, typically, the antagonist through and through. She is the monster for the protagonist to do battle with. There is no redemption for her. Rin Chupeco painstakingly spends the entire novel overturning this trope, except that it reads like she did this quite effortlessly. The proof lies in the various tiny details in the language and the story-building. The girl from the well may be a monster now but she used to be a human girl and that fact is not forgotten. While this humanity is denied to her, certain aspects of that life is still accessible to her if she chooses to acknowledge it. It is also interesting that in death, the girl receives these incredible powers, along with the ability to choose how to use these powers. Even more interestingly, strength and agency are both things that were denied to her while she was alive.
In a way, her turning into a monster actually allows her to deal with her traumatic life and right from the first page to the very last we see how this is an ongoing process. (Even realistic fiction fails to depict this sometimes!) This process not only makes her personality “realistic” (she’s a dead girl, I dunno, it feels like that should be in quotes), but also makes for an interesting characterization wherein her humanness puts her monstrosity in sharp, shocking relief. So, even when there are moments when readers feel like they understand her, there are also moments that scare us and remind us that she is not quite the familiar figure we may have hoped she would become.
On a related note, the style of writing is fantastic. Chupeco does an incredible job of increasing the tension. She plays on the girl’s compulsive counting of objects, her ability to hide (and the inability of victims to see her coming) and Chupeco does all of this in simple ways. In the case of the counting, she interrupts the narrative by adding the count in brackets and in the case of the latter, Chupeco uses the positioning of words to prolong the tension of the scene:
“Son of a bitch,” he says, kicking it for good measure. As punishment, the noises stop and the television flickers back on, but the man telling jokes is nowhere to be seen. Instead, for a few seconds, something else flashes across the screen.
It is a wide, staring
and it is looking back at him.
– Page 5, The Girl from the Well
Lastly, the supporting characters are fantastic. I know the summary focuses on the boy a little, but it is really the boy’s cousin that is quite important to the story. Even though he is the one who has a stronger link to the spirits around him, she (the cousin) is, arguably, the hero of the story. Saying anymore would ruin the experience of savouring a truly good ghost story, so I’ll stop here.
Why You May Not Like It: It is horror. Like, real, hide-under-your-blankets, sleep-with-the-lights-on kind of horror. There’s a reason I mentioned The Grudge in this review. Also, no romance whatsoever. (Perhaps this last point belongs in the section below as well …)
Why You May Like It: Chupeco, in case it isn’t already clear, is an intelligent and talented writer. She knows what she’s doing with this horror story. She subverts the misogynistic tropes within the horror genre and conserves some of the more fun ones (children who see dead people, woo!). There is a fair amount of folklore references, a good deal of diversity, even a bit of old-fashioned fantasy, and er … no romance? If that’s good for you? Anyway, it is thoroughly enjoyable.
All Hallow’s Read? Yes. This is definitely the book for October.