The girl you can’t scare

Because she’ll scare you first. At nine years old, she frightened her third grade class with her first-ever ghost story. And when she held a job in Makati, she was often mistaken as the ghost in the building elevator. Needless to say, evoking fear comes naturally to Rin Chupeco, author of YA horror novel The Girl from the Well, which tells the story of the ghost Okiku and a boy named Tark. Its sequel, The Suffering, has been released last month.

Despite being a true-blue Filipino writer (born, raised, and currently living in the Philippines), Rin and her works are better recognized in the US. “Sadly, most of the bookstores here don’t have more than a dozen or so copies of my books as of yet, though I was told they’ve since sold out. I know of some local fans who’ve either ordered my book online or bought the e-book,” she shares.

We think it’s time to pay attention. Get to know the girl who’s slowly carving out her spot in the world of horror fiction.


GIST: What was your first-ever story 
about — the one you scared your third grade class with? Do you still have a copy of it?

RIN CHUPECO: My memories of that story are a bit sketchy, but I do remember the ending. It was mainly about a boy finding a bound girl in the woods, wearing a large ribbon around her neck like a doll. He tries to help her, but the girl refuses to leave because she was “bound” to the place. He starts to untie her anyway, but in doing so also unties the ribbon around her neck. And her head falls off.

This was a story I made up on the spot, so looking back, it doesn’t make much sense to me; but based on my classmates’ reactions, it seems that I nailed the ending, mostly because it was so unexpected.

We heard that Stephen King and neil Gaiman are big influences, but who would you consider as your mentors and what have you learned from them?

I love murder mysteries, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is my favorite detective of all time. I learned the importance of a good plot twist with her books — you’ll almost never guess who the murderer is, but you’ll berate yourself for not having known earlier once she does her big reveals. I look at And Then there were None and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as two of the best whodunits of all time. David Eddings was the first sci-fi/fantasy author I read, but surprisingly, his works also taught me how to write humor and snark well, which he excelled at. Terry Pratchett, I feel, is THE master storyteller of my generation. He blends satire, humor, and profundity so well, and his heroes are some of the best that I’ve ever had the fortune to read. Who else could make Death (robes, scythe, skeletal form and all) such a lovable character?

We like the idea of Okiku being a frightening figure yet at the same time a character you can empathize with. How challenging was it to create and pull off that balance?

I always try to keep in mind that everyone has two faces — the person they think themselves of being, and how other people perceive them as being. Everyone is a protagonist in their own life, so they focus on what they believe are their good qualities when talking about themselves. But sometimes they’re antagonists in someone else’s story, and so your perspective changes depending on whose side you take. I think that’s the most challenging thing about being a writer, to be able to write about both without your own bias coming into play (difficult for me especially, as I am very opinionated). My default setting when writing Okiku was to depict her as a villain, at least at the start. But the next question I ask myself is, “How do I get people to empathize with her? She does horrible, terrible things, but how do I frame it so that people condone her actions regardless?”
With my sequel, The Suffering, it becomes a lot more complex. Okiku and the boy she protects, Tark, have differing views on whether a murderer should be killed before he commits a murder. So as a writer, my job is to show the instances where they can both be right and wrong at the same time, and have readers root for both despite their opposing stances.

What can fans of The Girl from the Well expect from The Suffering?

The Girl from the Well is a book about Tark as narrated by Okiku. The Suffering is a companion piece as much as it is a sequel. It’s a book about Okiku as narrated by Tark, which I feel is a fitting complement. There will also be three times more ghosts appearing, and it will involve a suicide forest in Japan (which is a real place), a hidden cursed village therein (which is a real place only in my
 imagination), more creepy dolls, 
a Silent Hill-style mystery, and
 some very deadly games of tag.

Do you scare yourself when reading and writing your own drafts? is it a requirement?

I think I’m hard to scare with regard to ghost stories. As a general rule my books don’t scare me, mostly because I tend to identify with the ghosts in my books more than I identify with many of the other characters. (When I worked in an old building in Makati, I was frequently mistaken by other people as a ghost during elevator rides after working overtime at night. I’ve scared a few Japanese salarymen in my time, so I suppose I can claim to look like an authentic Japanese ghost, albeit an inadvertent one.) I do use concepts in movies and other books that scare me, and try to incorporate my own twist of them in my novels.

Any chance you’ll release a collection of short stories?

I’d like to, but I don’t have any plans for releasing a collection just yet. I think I am the oddity in the local writing community here in that I am the longstanding novelist of the bunch when most prefer shorter works. I’ve written more than a few shorts (my free stories are Kapre: A Love Story at Philippine Genre Stories and The House at The Hanging Garden Stories on Tumblr).

That said, though: (1) I don’t have enough short stories for a collection just yet, (2) my agent has a say on all my writing endeavors, and (3) I write mostly for an international audience, where short stories don’t sell as much and where I am given bi-annual deadlines for my novels. Those take longer to write, so I can’t always find the time to commit to smaller projects, though I wish I could! What you will see from me though, are more novels!

Could you give us a horror starter kit for Halloween? Which books should we read and movies should we see?

You can’t go wrong with Stephen King. Pet Sematary is always a favorite, as is The Stand, It, and The Shining (and Doctor Sleep, the sequel!). I’d also recommend Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake.
If you’d like something a little more unconventional though, google “creepypasta.” (You’re welcome. I recommend Doors or No End House to start.)

Why are people drawn to horror stories (we even tell scary stories to pass time)? What is it about fear that’s so — important and alluring?

Ghost stories are rollercoasters for people who hate heights. There’s a rush that comes when listening to scary things. It fires up the brain and gives you the thrill that people look for in contact/ extreme sports minus the need to put your life in danger. It’s the lazy man’s adrenaline rush.

Personally, what do you fear?

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate cockroaches. I have punched people out of the way in order to get away from a roach, so you can imagine all the potential violence waiting to happen when I’m in proximity of one.

What bedtime stories do you read to your child?

My son is a little over a year old, so he’s more interested at this point in throwing books (to see if they bounce) than reading them. But he’s a hugger and a connoisseur of colors, and really enjoys his baby color books!

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