We all know that monsters TEND TO BE hairy and ugly. They have the appetites of vultures and pointy teeth and bad breath. They’re creatures of dark corners, shadowy woods, and moonless nights. Monsters are criminals, killers, and demons. But what do we make of a ghost who is also a protector? Can we still call her wicked? What if hideous exteriors house kind hearts? Two new titles for young adults challenge readers to reexamine their ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT MONSTERS, AND THEMSELVES.
In Rin Chupeco’s gruesome page-turner, “The Girl from the Well,” the ghost narrator knows that she is evil — but was not always so. More than 300 years ago, Okiku was a servant girl working for the lord of Himeji Castle in Japan; she was alive and in love. But a murderous betrayal turned her into what she is now: a yuurrei, “a spirit that cannot rest.” Okiku seeks violent vengeance for wronged children. “I exist in a state of dreamlessness,” she says, “a series of finite instances where I think little of things and dwell on the wonders of nothing.”
Though she is merciless in her vendettas, Okiku develops an uncharacteristic softness for a tormented American teenager, 15-year-old Tarquin “Tark” Halloway. Before Tark’s Japanese mother, Yoko, went mad, she marked his body with mysterious tattoos whose meaning seems as threatening as the evil spirit that resides within him. Okiku becomes fascinated with Tark and his cousin Callie. And even though it is against her yuurrei nature, she protects the two as they strive to understand the demon inside Tark and how to rid him of it. Ultimately, their quest takes them to Yagen Valley in Japan where Yoko once served as a miko, a powerful exorcist.
Chupeco’s debut is based on the same Japanese legend that inspired the Japanese horror movie “Ringu” as well as the American remake, “The Ring.” The novel’s weaknesses (e.g., the dialogue can be stiff and too packed with information, and Tark and Callie are overshadowed by more interesting characters) are easily overlooked. The most fascinating scenes contain darkly mesmerizing characters, such as a little girl named Sandra who can see ghosts, a psychopath called the Smiling Man, and the miko of the Chinsei shrine. Chupeco gives her best and most rhythmic passages to them and Okiku, who draws readers into the narrative with the depth of her broken soul and the majesty of her hard-won strength.
Like Okiku, the creatures and people who populate the stories in “Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales” resist easy categorization: They are sometimes good, sometimes villainous, sometimes in between. The kraken in Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Moriabe’s Children” devour sailors and ships, but they also SERENADE and comfort Alanie, a fatherless and hopeless girl. Allison, the daughter of a theomancer, causes death and chaos in Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Diabolist,” but does so out of loneliness and confusion.
The other 13 tales in “Monstrous Affections,” which include a graphic-novel style story by Kathleen Jennings, are similarly provocative. One would expect no less from veteran anthology editors Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, who introduce their latest collection by asking, “Doesn’t everyone wonder, at some point in their lives, if they are monstrous?”
M.T. Anderson’s “Quick Hill” is one of the more original tales. World War II is killing the young men of an unnamed New England town abroad and a maleficent force is murdering men, women, and children at home. Does it make the townspeople selfish and vile because they ask teenager Don Thwait to sacrifice himself to save many? Is the spirit who calls herself “Mom” and haunts four teenage girl Korean adoptees in Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” purely malevolent? Or is it possible she’s benevolent, too?
Beautiful language keeps many stories from bending under the weight of the sad events at their centers. In G. Carl Purcell’s “The Mercurials,” America is a dystopian wasteland. Young Blank finds solace from the ugliness and banality of his life by searching for treasures (rubber gloves, a dead clock, etc.) in ruins. Most people would look at the inside of Blank’s neighbor Nit Steven’s house and see a mess of junk. Not Blank. For him, the collection of “critters” and bric-a-brac makes the place “. . . a marvel of beautiful scavenge.” In Nalo Hopkinson’s “Left Foot, Right” Jenna is mourning for her sister Zuleika who died in a car accident. “In Jenna’s dream, she drowns with her sister. Every night, she drowns.” Heartache, guilt, loss, grief, these things, too, are monsters.
Not all the tales of “Monstrous Affections” are well written, but even the disappointing ones explore brave themes, raising questions about sexuality, secrets, violence, and identity. “So maybe it’s not a bad thing that monsters exist,” write Link and Grant. “Maybe the world should be different. Maybe we ought to spend more time being monstrous, being strange, being different.”
Chelsey Philpot’s YA novel, “Even in Paradise,” was published in October. Connect with her on Twitter @ChelseyPhilpot.