“My past is forgotten like the shriveled leaves of the seasons. I am robbed of my doubt, my fear. With this first step, I set forth into this blood stained world.”
[Note: Possibly Triggering Content such as blood and murder is contained below.]
The Book Club (2006) is a short horror/psychological Korean manhwa series written by Cho Ju-hee (Kitchen, The Dress) and illustrated by Seo Yoon-young (Lingerie, The Dress, Together During Summer Too). This is one of two collaborative works between Cho and Seo, with the other being the oneshot horror/psychological manhwa, The Dress.
The story of The Book Club is told through several perspectives, all of which are connected by events involving a cursed book. The first chapter, following an introductory flashback about two girls, begins with the perspective of a high school student named Eun-sae. She, as part of the manhwa’s namesake book club, works at the the school library in order to spend time with her crush, Kyung-do, a bibliophile. While sorting through the library’s large but neglected collection, she finds Kyung-do reading the soon-to-be infamous tome of mysterious dark powers. While Kyung-do is gone, Eun-sae secretly opens the book, and a dark power begins to reach its hand from the page towards Eun-sae’s hand. She shuts the book before anything happens to her, and she swears to keep Kyung-do safe from its evil.
At a later time, the de-facto librarian happens upon the same book and decides to gloss through it. Out comes a phantom girl and the teacher is tranced into jumping out of the third story library window to her death. This suicide is witnessed of a large population of very perplexed and horrified students, including Eun-sae and Kyung-do. Two detectives come to the school to investigate, one of which is a alum of the school. The female detective (the alum) knows of a book club member who died in the library many years prior. This girl who died appears to be one of the girls alluded to at the beginning of series. Along with the story of Kyung-do’s family and the members book club that Kyung-do’s deceased father was part of, these characters make up the core plot lines of the Book Club. As the story proceeds, more and more about the nature of the book and its phantom are revealed through the detectives, Kyung-do, and Eun-sae. At the same time, more people come in contact with the book and are attacked by it.
Being the generally impulsive person I am, finding out that this manhwa was loosely inspired by Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood was enough to make me decide to read it. Unfortunately, the most that The Book Club draws from In Cold Blood is the notion of books immortalizing souls, which is more of a by-product of the novel than a thematic component. If you try to read into the manhwa more, it’s possible to pull out some themes about intentions for murder, death, and the human psyche that parallel Capote’s novel. I personally find all of that a huge stretch, though I definitely enjoy the series for what it is–a fun, slightly grotesque, story.
That said, the horror is not that intense in the Book Club–some blood, guns, crazy hair, knives and sunken eyes is mostly the extent of it–but I did get the fulfillment that comes with reading horror series. The thing I really enjoyed about Cho and Seo’s storytelling is how visually heavy it is. The artwork is beautiful, and the little dialogue that does exist develops the ambiance of the story really well. Horror is all about the visual impact, and dynamic panels like the one on the right do an excellent job of producing the iconic shock factor.
Plot-wise, the series is rather unevenly paced. Little happens in the beginning, and what appears to be significant initially turns out to have little bearing on the ultimate story told. On the other hand, the final volume moves at lightning speed and includes a long series of reveals that can be confusing to understand. Being such a short story, the high volume of characters and supposed web of plot lines doesn’t help support the story’s cohesion, and I’m left knowing little about any of the characters and being rather uninvested in their fates. Moreover, much of the investigative plot in the middle of the series does almost nothing to help the reader try to piece together the truth, and in the mystery writing world, that is pretty bad writing.
However, if we go back to the idea that The Book Club is meant to be fun and entertaining and not a mystery novel, I have to give props to Cho for coming up with some crazy (and very Japanese) plot twists that I could never see coming (then again, I’m not great at predicting endings). The final scene is both shocking and thoroughly satisfying/consistent; a rare combination in modern storytelling that I’m always thrilled to come across.
For those interested in the trying out the horror genre in comics or are already a fan, I think that this manhwa is something you can read on a rainy day–provided you don’t get scared by very tame horror/thrillers–as it is low-key, but able to satisfy a hunger. If instead you want a deeply psychological and introspective story a la Death Note or Psycho Pass, the Book Club might be something to pass over.