I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on October 11 2016
Genres: Adult, Horror
Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric and creepy ghost story that kept me turning the pages, but ultimately suffered from awkward writing and plotting.
I thought it would be nice to close out the month with a ghost story, especially since today is Halloween! I was initially drawn to The Graveyard Apartment because of the chilling cover art, depicting an apartment building set against a stormy sky, smack dab in the middle of a cemetery. The book was originally published in Japan in 1986, and this is the first English translation, so right away there is an old-fashioned vibe to the story. Koike has a fantastic set-up for a horror story: a young married couple purchase a large apartment in a building that is, unfortunately, right near a cemetery/crematorium/Buddhist temple. And while there are plenty of chills and lots of suspense, this was ultimately a mixed bag for me. I had some issues with the translation and writing, which affected the pacing and interrupted the flow of the story.
Teppei and Misao Kano have just purchased a large apartment that appears ideal. Despite being located next to a graveyard, the park-like setting is just what the young family was looking for, with plenty of room outside for their dog Cookie and daughter Tamao to play. But no sooner does the family move in than weird things start to happen. Their pet finch Pyoko dies mysteriously their first night in the apartment, and the building’s one elevator tends to get stuck at the worst possible times, when someone goes down to the basement, for example. Soon after Pyoko’s death, Tamao tells her mother that Pyoko is coming to visit her at night, and even though Misao and Teppei laugh this off as childish imagination, Misao finds bird feathers in odd places around the apartment.
When Tamao is mysteriously injured in the basement, Misao begins to wonder if they’ve made the wrong decision, moving into an apartment in such an unusual location. As the other tenants begin to move out one by one, each unsettled by a vague feeling of unease, the Kano family realizes that they are the last ones left. But their attempts to move out as well are thwarted again and again. Something otherworldly is in the basement, and that something does not want them to leave—ever.
When I started reading this book, I was immediately reminded of a Japanese horror film called Dark Water, another story about a haunted apartment building. That movie scared the pants off me, and I loved that this story had the same eerie feel to it. Koike tells her tale from multiple points of view, which works really well. Her cast of characters is fairly large, but getting into each of their heads helps to establish the relationships between them, as well as gauge their different reactions to the mysterious things that are happening in the Central Plaza Mansion.
One of the more interesting, well-thought out backstories was a tragedy that has colored Teppei’s and Misao’s relationship and continues to be a source of sadness between them. The two met and began an affair when Teppei was still married to another woman named Reiko, and when she found out about the relationship, she committed suicide. Misao feels all sorts of guilt over her part in Reiko’s death, and to compensate she sets up a shrine in Reiko’s honor in a corner of their apartment. When strange things start happening to them, Misao’s first thought is that Reiko must be haunting them. The aftermath of the suicide even spills over into other relationships. Teppei’s brother, a very unpleasant man named Tatsuji, continues to blame both of them for what happened to Reiko, and even Misao’s mother, a wretched human being who thankfully only appears offstage, continues, years later, to blame her daughter for the tragedy. The story didn’t have anything to do with the creepy apartment, but it added another layer to relationships that are already fraught with tension.
But as much fun as I had devouring this book—and really, it was a quick read—I had some issues with it. Probably my biggest complaint is the writing. I have a feeling that if you were to read this in the original Japanese (assuming you can read Japanese, of course!), the story would flow much better. But the translation was tough for me, and I got the feeling that the translator often took slang phases and translated them word for word, without first trying to understand the context. For example, there was one phrase that I actually Googled to see if it was real (my results were inconclusive). When Tamao gets hurt in the basement, she goes to the hospital for stitches, and the doctor tells the family that she must have been injured by a “weasel slash.” Apparently a weasel slash is the term for a wind that kicks up out of nowhere, a wind that contains odd bits of shrapnel. The doctor thinks this is the only explanation for the deep cut on Tamao’s knee, an injury that happened in the basement where there are no windows, and therefore no way for winds to blow in. I could have let that go, but the author kept bringing up the term over and over again. I think this might relate to a Japanese legend, but it was so odd that it pulled me out of the story.
The dialog was also very different from what I usually read, and I have to attribute this in part to the formality of the Japanese, especially when speaking to non-family members. However, even some of the scenes between Teppei and Misao felt stilted and uncomfortable. I often talk about how much I love well done dialog, and for the most part, the dialog in The Graveyard Apartment didn’t work for me at all.
And yet, I just couldn’t stop reading! Despite my issues, I found this to be an extremely unsettling story. The supernatural occurrences didn’t always make sense, but they did creep me out. I honestly had no idea where the story was headed, and when it got there, at the last page, I was grateful to the author for ending things the way she did. She could have taken it in the expected direction, but she didn’t. And one thing’s for sure: I’ll never feel completely safe in an elevator again…
If you’re looking for a spooky, addictive read, steeped in Japanese traditions, and you don’t focus too much on the translation, then you’ll probably have a great time with this book.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.