“Where are you? Damn it, couldn’t you at least have waited until we got there to protect you like you’ve always protected us?” I focus my attention on Kagura’s face, trying to envision what her expression might have been before something twisted her features.
As I do, something moves behind Kagura.
It opens its eyes and looks at me.
Crap, crap, crap, crap.
Life’s been pretty tough for Tarquin Halloway. But ever since he’s met Okiku—a Japanese ghost murdered many centuries ago and now a spectral avenger of murdered children—things have been better. He’s gotten rid of the horrible, terrifying spectre that used to ride his body—the masked woman—and started training so that he can face rogue yūrei, bind them, and banish them before they can do harm to others. Sure, Tark can’t really have a “normal” teenage life, but sharing his body with a ghostlike Okiku isn’t all bad—plus, Tark’s always found that normalcy is overrated.
The downside to Okiku’s constant presence? Tark must help her feed her darkness whenever they cross paths with a murderer of children. Not only does Tark feel responsible for Ki’s brand of deadly vigilantism, but he and Ki can’t be separated by too great a distance (or else other ghosts start to notice Tark’s ability to see—and worse, host—them).
Despite these ghostly challenges, things are looking up for Tark. His relationship with his father is on the up and up, and even though he has issues with racist moron jerks in his class, Tark is able to carve out some semblance of friendship with others, including a really awesome girl named Kendele.
But then….things go bad.
Okiku preemptively kills a boy in Tark’s class who hasn’t yet become a killer, prompting a rift between ghost and host. Then Kagura, Tark’s friend and mentor (not to mention someone he owes his life and sanity to), disappears while leading an American ghost-hunting TV crew through Aokigahara—the infamous suicide forest at the base of Mt. Fuji. Kagura and the crew were looking for a rumored cursed village that lies somewhere beneath Aokigahara’s sea of trees, a deeply haunted, evil place where ritual sacrifice of young girls has defiled the earth and threatens to open a gate of power and darkness to hell. It’s up to Tark and Okiku to find Kagura and save her (and the hapless television crew) from this darkness before it’s too late. But Aokigahara is hungry, and the ghosts who lie in wait in the village are so very strong….
The follow-up to 2014’s The Girl from the Well, Rin Chupeco’s The Suffering is another delightfully spine-tingly novel that skillfully blends historical Japanese folklore with modern day life. Unlike The Girl From the Well, The Suffering is told solely from Tark’s perspective, which is a nice narrative touch. While Okiku’s poetic, jagged narrative with her stream of consciousness–style rage and vengeance was incredibly effective and atmospheric in Book 1, Book 2’s focus is much more on empathizing with Tark as he grapples with his ability to see ghosts and his obligation and relationship to Okiku. Tark is very much an outsider and straddles two worlds—not just the worlds of the living and the dead. He also struggles to find acceptance in his own home with his father gone all the time, and at school as the standoffish lanky half-Asian kid with blue eyes and a spooky reputation. Tark is relatable, and understanding his complicated feelings, especially his unique relationship with Okiku, is pretty neat. (Plus, Tark has a tendency to make jokes during moments of high tension which is a nice break from the onslaught of rampaging ghosts and possessed dolls.)
Of course, the real reason why The Suffering works is because of the ghosts. Aokigahara, the very real forest in Japan where many go to commit suicide by hanging or drugs, is a malevolent presence in this book, hiding a cursed village of very angry dead people—there are girls who have been tricked, sacrificed, and made to suffer because of the greed of a single man, and, ritual having failed, these ghost brides are hungry for blood and pain. The ritual that killed them and binds them to the dark forest village is nearly complete, and Tark and Okiku could tip the balance, either ending the cycle of death, or making it infinitely worse.
The book is actually very video game–esque in its storytelling and setup—there are six dolls and ghosts that Tark (and Okiku and Kagura) must find, bind, and banish. There’s a rough map of the village, with clues and limited supplies along the way. And, once those checkpoints and levels have been cleared, there’s a mega-boss fight in the subterranean shrine of darkness at the heart of the evil village, where Tark must close the gate once and for all. I love survival horror video games, and reading The Suffering (incidentally, the name of a survival horror video game franchise for original Xbox back in the day) put me in that wonderful, violent, terrified state of mind.
If you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. There are some pacing problems, sure, and lots of unresolved, half-examined plot threads (most importantly, the threads of preemptive action and vigilantism versus legal action are sadly abandoned). But once Chupeco leaves America for Japan and it’s sea of trees and ghosts, that’s when the good stuff happens.
The Suffering is perfect for Halloween, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to be scared this weekend.
In Book Smugglerish: 8 possessed hanayome ningyo (bridal dolls) out of 10.