The Graveyard Apartment, by Mariko Koike

graveyardapartmentTitle: The Graveyard Apartment

Author: Koike, Mariko (No website in English)

Genre: Horror

Bibliographic: Thomas Dunne Books, 336 pages, Hardcover List Price $25.99, ISBNs 9781250060549, 9781466865822

Publication Date: October 11, 2016

Rating: ★★☆☆☆/♥♥♡♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Ghost story, flawed characters, unlikable characters, intense pace, atmospheric, menacing, compelling

Why I picked it up: I saw a review that described this as “horror for wimps.” As a wimp who loves horror, that sounded right up my alley.

S.I.A.S.: Not everyone would be comfortable living next to a cemetery — and the Kano family shouldn’t be, either.

Summary: On the day that the Kano family moves into their new apartment, their pet bird Pyoko mysteriously dies. Teppei and his wife Misao expect their daughter Tamao to be upset about it, but she’s fairly stoic. The new apartment is almost everything that they could have dreamed — it’s big, it has lots of natural light, and the building is brand new, and every apartment has a free storage unit in the basement. The only problem is that it’s surrounded on three sides by a cemetery, with an active crematorium visible in the distance. Tamao doesn’t really mind, and Teppei is determined to make the best of things, but Misao grows increasingly unsettled the longer they stay. It doesn’t really help that odd things keep happening. Tamao insists that Pyoko keeps visiting from “the other place.” Their dog, Cookie, sometimes randomly starts barking and growling, even when there’s nobody there. The neighbors are moving out, one by one. The elevator — which is the only way to get into the basement — malfunctions every time there’s an emergency. One day, while Tamao is playing in the basement, her leg starts gushing blood from a deep cut, even though there’s nothing sharp around. And that’s just the beginning.

As things get increasingly worse, the residents of the building grow more and more uneasy with their living situations. Eventually, everyone but the Kanos have moved out, and they are all alone in an empty building — with whatever it is that’s causing the problem. When they finally get the chance to move out, it’s going to do everything in its power to keep them there.

Evaluation:  I really did not enjoy this book, but I didn’t realize that until I was about two-thirds of the way through. I just kept waiting for it to get spooky, and it never did (and believe me, I scare easily). It might have been scarier if I had read it thirty years ago, but I’m already familiar with some of the tropes, which meant they weren’t as shocking to me as they might have been for the original readers. For example, there is a lot of tension in Teppei and Misao’s relationship because they started dating while Teppei was still married to his first wife, Reiko, who killed herself when she found out about the adultery. It’s mentioned several times, but never directly influences the plot. I’m not sure if some of the odder elements of the book would be scarier in Japan, and I suspect there are some things that didn’t come across well in translation, such as the doctor’s conclusion that Tamao’s injury was caused by a weasel wind.

The writing was kind of awkward and stilted in places, especially dialogue, but I’m not sure if that’s due to the quality of the writing or the translation. The characters were terrible. There wasn’t a single one that I could sympathize with — Teppei and his brother Tatsuji are both horribly selfish, Tatsuji’s wife Naomi is mean and self-centered, and the Inoues (the family from a few floors down) have basically no personality at all.  Misao doesn’t really have any agency and never tries to get any, and so I can’t really muster up any sympathy for her. Finally, the ending is gruesome. One of the things I enjoy about horror novels is the struggle between the heroes and whatever entity they’re fighting against — this book had no struggle. The monsters or ghosts or whatever they were had absolute power, and so once the final showdown began there was no motivation to finish the book aside from the amount of time I had already invested. It might work for some horror fans, especially those who enjoy Japanese horror movies or are trying to ease into horror. It could also work for people who are trying to read more fiction in translation, especially since this book is fairly well known in its original language.

Significance: This book was published in Japan about thirty years ago, and was a major hit often credited with influencing the genre. This is its first translation into English.

Readalikes: The House of Small Shadows, by Adam L.G. Nevill77 Shadow Street, by Dean KoontzMedusa’s Web, by Tim Powers.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How long would you live in an apartment like this before trying to move out? Would you stay as long as the Kanos did?
  2. As a parent, how would you react if your child reported visits from a dead pet?
  3. How does Reiko’s suicide continue to impact Teppei and Misao’s marriage? What about their relationships with their families?
  4. How might this book have been different if it were set in the United States? Were there any elements you thought didn’t translate well?
  5. Did this book scare you? Why or why not?

Lists and Awards:  None.

Professional Reviews:  Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. Unnerving Magazine. Tor. New York Journal of Books.

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