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Book: “Bound Feet” by Kelsea Yu
Publishing Info: Cemetery Gates Media, September 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: On the night of the Hungry Ghost Moon, when spirits can briefly return to the living world, Jodi Wu and her best friend sneak into Portland’s Chinese Garden and Ghost Museum. Kneeling before the pond where Jodi’s toddler drowned one year before, they leave food offerings and burn joss paper—and Jodi prays that Ella’s ghost will return for the night.
To distract Jodi from her grief, the two friends tell each other ghost stories as they explore the museum. They stop at the main display, a centuries-old pair of lotus slippers belonging to a woman whose toes were broken and bound during childhood. While reading the woman’s story, Jodi hears her daughter’s voice.
As Jodi desperately searches the garden, it becomes apparent that Ella isn’t the only ghost they’ve awakened. Something ancient with a slow, shuffling step lurks in the shadows…
Review: It has become more and more clear that ever since I became a mom that I have a harder time with stories and movies and what have you that involve endangered or dying children. Or hell, even moments where parents have to grieve or mourn or see the deaths of their older progeny. I cannot watch the opening scene of “Scream” anymore once Casey’s parents arrive home, in the middle of her being murdered. I had to step away from watching “Cujo” when Terror Tuesday had it as the feature, telling my friends I’d return to the keyboard eventually. So maybe me deliberately picking up “Bound Feet” by Kelsea Yu seems like an odd choice, given that right in the description it talks about a mother trying to connect with the ghost of her dead toddler. Well, I never said I was a reasonable person when it comes to exposing myself to this kind of stuff. But “Bound Feet” was a very worthwhile read, even as I was sobbing on and off as well as being VERY freaked out by ghostly imagery.
The story centers around Jodi and her friend Sarah, who have decided to break into the Portland Chinese Garden and Ghost Museum. It is during the Hungry Ghost Festival, when it is said that spirits are more likely to reach out from the spirit world, and Jodi is hoping to connect with her daughter Ella, who drowned in that very garden a year prior. The setting is already fraught and tense, as they are there after dark, illegally, with a deep personal trauma at its center. As Jodi hopes to get closure with Ella, the restlessness of the garden awakens other threats, and Yu really nails the slow tension of the suffocating grief as well as the ghostly imagery of a vengeful spirit. There is lots of built up dread that has a great pay off as the weird turn to the outright horrifying, and the descriptions of the ghosts and the things that they do really got under my skin. I also really liked some of the cultural aspects that Yu brought to the tale, be it the Hungry Ghost Festival itself, the Chinese folklore that the story takes a lot of inspiration from, and the dark realities of what it meant to be a woman in the past and the awful shit they would sometimes have to do to survive.
But the grief aspects were the strongest part of the narrative for me. I went into “Bound Feet” able to emotionally prepare myself for the themes of losing a child, which was good, because even with the preparedness I had it was still a bit of a gut punch. Jodi’s grief and her desire to see her dead child again is a theme that has been tapped into a number of times in horror literature’s past (“Pet Sematary” is the one that comes to mind for me), and Yu does it in the length of a novella while still being able to explore it well and thoroughly in the limited pages. There were moments that just killed me, but they also felt necessary and not overwrought so that we could get into the true motivation of this mother who is making a lot of CRAZY choices that are getting her and her companion into deeper and deeper danger. It’s a more realistic layer of horror that drives our protagonist but also makes her, at least to me, all the more relatable and understandable. Even when there was a very uncomfortable finale that set my teeth on edge, I still, in a basal part of my soul, understood. There is also a very personal Afterword section by the author that I found to be really, really powerful and enlightening. Do not skip that section.
“Bound Feet” is a quick, emotional, and scary read. I definitely recommend it, but steel yourself. It’s not the supernatural that left this story lingering in my head after finishing, but the very real horrors within its pages.
Rating 9: A genuinely terrifying and emotionally gut-wrenching horror novella about grief.
“Bound Feet” isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Horror Novellas”.