The Suffering is the second book in a loosely connected duology of YA horror novels that I would honestly never have picked up— not normally being interested in horror—if Thea from The Book Smugglers had not written such a fantastic review of the first book, The Girl from the Well. While The Suffering is the logical continuation of the The Girl from the Well, the two books read more or less like standalone novels—you get a bit of benefit from having read the first one, but it’s not entirely necessary to understand or enjoy the second. (Nevertheless I will technically be alluding to characters and situations from the first book that will count as spoilers.)
It’s been two years since Tark and Okiku exorcised the malevolent spirit entrapped within Tark’s body, and the two of them have formed a close, intimate partnership. Tark keeps in practice exorcising spirits, and he helps Okiku fulfill her own ghostly compulsion to kill murderers to avenge their victims. Tark is not entirely comfortable with Okiku’s need for vengeance or the pleasure he takes in dispatching souls, but Okiku keeps him safe, and he trusts her with his life.
Meanwhile, Tark receives a message from Japan. His friend Kagura had been helping some hosts of a popular “ghost-hunting” television show investigate the rumor of a lost village in the middle of Aokigahara, known as the Suicide Forest. Despite Kagura’s misgivings, they all went into the forest to investigate, and none of them have returned. When Tark and Okiku arrive to help find Kagura, they find themselves trapped in the forest as well with a host of malevolent spirits, some who want to kill them and others who want to use them to complete the unfinished gate that will open the hell’s gate and grant unimaginable power.
As I wrote earlier, horror novels aren’t my usual jam, yet I enjoyed reading The Girl from the Well last year more than I expected to, and The Suffering is as equally well-written and ghostly as its predecessor. Rin Chupeco is skilled at writing creepy, nerve-wracking atmospheres where you don’t know when the other shoe is going to drop and grotesque imagery in the form of the malevolent ghosts. The danger these ghosts pose is real, and Rin Chupeco’s writing of the exorcism battles that Tark fights possesses a cinematic quality that makes the choreography easy to visualize and his struggle to protect his body and soul all the more scary in how viscerally immediate it is. Chupeco writes at a brisk clip that keeps the action moving while still making an impact when it comes to setting the scene for its ensuing horror.
I did miss having the story told from Okiku’s point of view, since her otherworldly, inhuman perspective was one of the best parts of The Girl from the Well, but Tark’s frank, honest, and believably teenaged voice carried The Suffering pretty well. A biracial teen (Tark’s deceased mother was Japanese and his father is white) who spent the majority of his life as a living doll keeping a particularly powerful ghost entrapped, at the beginning of The Suffering Tark has regained a semblance of normal—if you call ghost-hunting with a vengeful spirit normal. The bond he and Okiku first formed two years ago has deepened in strength, causing Tark to worry just how far Okiku will go to protect him from harm and what sorts of rules govern their relationship. I loved the palpable, mixed feelings of affection, wariness, and ultimately trust the two of them feel towards the other, that Tark has to struggle with what it means for Okiku’s actions and motivations to be defined entirely by her death, and yet they each undergo change at each other’s hands—even 300-year-old, constant Okiku.
I also loved getting to hang out again with Kagura, the miko from The Girl from the Well who’s since taught Tark everything he knows about ghost hunting. The casts of characters in these two books are female-heavy, which I wasn’t expecting but very much appreciated.
The Suffering’s story doesn’t start properly until Tark and Okiku arrive in Japan to search for Kagura in Aokigahara. The first several chapters prior take place in and around Tark’s high school and include interactions with various high school characters. I did struggle with the subplot concerning Okiku’s spirit-driven, vengeful desire to murder one of Tark’s classmates—a serial rapist who had not yet murdered anyone but, according to Okiku, eventually would—which Tark objects to on the grounds that he’s not (yet) a killer. The fallout necessitates Tark wrestling with if his own sense of “right” and “wrong” are becoming warped by aiding in Okiku’s killings. Tark has dealt with this by assuring himself that he and Okiku are doing a good thing by ridding the world of murderers, but Okiku’s going after a would-be murderer throws his assurances out the window—did the classmate deserve to be murdered? I’m a bit uncomfortable, in light of the current political and social climate in which rape cases are adjudicated, with the use of the rapist character being used in this instance to wrestle with the question of judgment and punishment. (The classmate’s actions as a rapist are wholly condemned within the narrative, which makes me feel a bit better.)
Overall I enjoyed reading The Suffering, and I recommend both The Girl from the Well and The Suffering to anyone in the mood for well-written, straight-up YA horror ghost stories rooted in Japanese history and mythology.