I wanted to get a review out in time for Lunar New Year, which begins tonight. Notice I didn’t say Chinese New Year. In addition to China, Lunar New Year is celebrated in Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea.
As they say in Korea, “Sae hae bok manhi pah de saeyo!” (May you receive many blessings in the new year!)
In honor of Lunar New Year, I had planned to review Water Ghosts and dutifully read that novel. But in my reading I discovered that author Shawna Yang Ryan weaves in such intriguing mythology surrounding the Ghost Month that I decided to save this review for Ghost Month, which takes place in the seventh lunar month, roughly mid-August. Stay tuned for that one.
So, as a self-confessed Koreaphile, I went in search of a Korean ghost story. I was hoping to find a Korean author writing in English. What I found was Demon’s Door by Graham Masterton.
Our protagonist Jim Rook is a kindhearted, self-effacing, rather shy teacher of remedial college English who sees dead people. I sort of fell in love with this character and his wry wit, and I think I might enjoy reading a different novel in the Rook series.
However, I cannot recommend this book.
Part of this stems from personal taste. I really prefer my ghosts troubled and vulnerable rather than evil and vengeful. I rarely make an exception in my preference (and in this perhaps I am doing a disservice to the author who chooses otherwise). The one demonic ghost novel I heartily recommend is The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, simply because his mastery of character, prose and plot warrant it.
The other part of my disregard for Demon’s Door stems from sloppy writing.
On the first day of class, Jim Rook is confronted by a malevolent presence that mutilates and tortures pets and humans alike. Rook suspects student Kim Dong Wook of harboring the evil spirit that the narrator terms “kwisin” or Korean ghost.
Unfortunately, the character Kim is a caricature–an impassive, stoic, article-dropping stereotype unworthy of the role assigned him.
Concerning this kwisin or Korean ghost that possesses Kim, the portrayal of this demon character didn’t mesh with my understanding. (And this is critical since I write my own version of kwisin in my novel Moonlight Dancer.)
I sat down to lunch with my friend Eun Kyung to double-check my own research. (Generally speaking, we authors are a self-doubting lot.) Eun Kyung verified my suspicion that the author Masterton doesn’t know a ghost from a demon from a mythical fox-woman spirit, but had mixed these Korean archetypes together like so many pick-up stix. My credo–if you’re going to borrow culturally, then please do your research!
The biggest problem with the novel, however, concerned the final third. The first two thirds were funny and rather sweet. I was just getting to know this quirky, dry-witted narrator (other readers will have the advantage on me as he’s been around in other novels of this series), when boom! We skim toward the climax with all the speed of a luge race. And that would be okay except for the fact that we don’t really know Kim at all, and suddenly, as a kwisin conduit, he’s purging himself of decades-old family secrets—a kind of verbal diarrhea, if you will. Neither pleasant nor credible.
The beginning of the novel is charming as are the narrator’s endearing attempts to connect with students and potential love interests. I also very much enjoyed the literature lessons the narrator provides his students. What worked less well was the pell-mell hurtle toward the climax with its attendant Hollywood style special effects sans character development.
As an educator, I would have to give this novel a C-.