(I got an ARC of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)
Not so much "terribly scary" for me in the end, in that I don't scare easily, yet fascinating nonetheless for its depiction of ghosts, the appearance they have after death, and the imagery it conjured. I could fairly easily picture Okiku, the murderers she targeted and got revenge on in place of the dead children, said children literally latched onto those men's necks and linked to their limbs by spirituals cords... And the woman in black... well, all right, that one I'd definitely attempt to draw someday, although I'm not sure I could do her justice. I think the way the story was told, too, contributed to this: somewhat cold and detached, and special, because it's a strange mix of omniscient and first person point of view (the story's told by Okiku herself, who's able to observe other characters and their reactions, and sense their thoughts and feelings). In any other story, it probably wouldn't have worked for me; here, it did, because it seemed to fit with the ghost's paradigm. I don't know if other readers in general would like it, but as far as I'm concerned, it partook the fascination I had for this novel, through descriptions that were just the right length and just suggestive enough (all the more for the intended YA audience), without falling into the realm of "too much".
The Girl From The Well is loosely based on a well-known Japanese legend, that of a servant girl who worked for a lord, and was tasked with keeping ten precious plates; she was tricked into believing she had lost one of them, and was put to death for her "carelessness". As a result, she became a vengeful spirit who drove her former lord to death—and the number 9 sends her spirit into a frenzy. This was nicely reflected in the book, in that Okiku tends to count whatever she sees (people, items...), and the accursed number indeed makes her react violently. Forever detached from both human world and and elusive afterlife, she can only watch, in between enacting revenge throughout the world on people who've killed children, but were never punished for their bad deeds. The Smiling Man, especially, was of quite a scary persuasion—I find smiles way more frightening than other expressions whenever such characters are concerned.
However, this isn't exactly Okiku's story. Hers was already written, already told, and this is more a "what would happen some three hundred years later, how would such a vengeful spirit evolve with time." Partly to her own surprise, she finds herself drawn to Tarquin, a boy with strange tattoos, and whose fate is doomed to be a dark one if what plagues him isn't destroyed in time. (Note: there's no romance involved—a very welcome element in my opinion. It would just've been weird and misplaced in such a story.) Odd things happen around Tark, his own mother has been locked in an institution and has tried to kill him several times, and he just doesn't understand much to what's happening. But other people slowly start to notice the presence that haunts him, those people being mostly Okiku and his cousin Callie, and it's up to them to try and understand what his problem his, and how to solve it, which involves going back to his roots.
On the downside, I wasn't too convinced by the characters in general, in that they seemed more driven by the plot than people with their own lives. Okiku's involvement was also somewhat problematic, since she was mostly a watcher and didn't act as much as I expected her to. I think I would've liked her nature as a vengeful spirit to show through more than it did; for instance, one of the vengeance scenes made me feel like it had been put there as some kind of reminder, and not really as part of the plot. There was also one huge blunder that could've been easily avoided if only one of the characters had spoken out loud about a specific event, yet didn't for... no reason? I don't mind characters making honest mistakes, but not when the latter are the product of unexplained reasoning.
Overall, I had a hard time putting this book down, and remained fascinated, though with hindsight, those aspects I mentioned prevented me from rating it higher.