Author Rin Chupeco’s fiction has always had something of a darker tint to it. From more obvious horror stories like the Japanese ghost story The Girl From the Well and vampire tales like Silver Under Nightfall to their darkly magical The Bone Witch trilogy, these are not exactly stories for the faint of heart. And neither is Chupeco’s latest release, a disturbing story of survival and consequences called The Sacrifice that lands just in time for spooky season.
When a film crew arrives on the deserted tropical island called Kisapmata, they’re eager to ignore the many rumors about its cursed history in the name of making a blockbuster documentary about its supposed dark secrets. Home to a cave known as the Godseye, Kisapmata is reportedly the location of many murders and mysterious deaths and disappearances, including that of Spanish conquistadors, a cult seeking transcendence, and the victims of a plane crash whose bodies were never found.
Given all this, it’s obvious why such a location would be fertile ground for supposed “ghost hunter” and popular survivalist Reuben Hemslock, who’s seeking his comeback project after some damaging “Me Too”-type accusations have left him scrambling to repair his career.
Hemslock and his crew enlist the services of local non-binary teen Alon as their guide on the island, who also serves as our narrator for much of this story. The only local willing to take the team to Kisapmata—he needs the money to help care for his sick father and hopes to dilute some of the island’s worst effects—he’s constantly urging this squad of generally vapid white Hollywood types to leave as quickly as possible. No one listens to him, because there wouldn’t be much of a story here if they did, but his dire insistence about the island’s sentience and his firm belief in the dark god he says dwells beneath its surface are disturbing to say the least..
As filming commences, strange things start happening. Eerie sightings of ghostly figures, mysteriously appearing sinkholes, and horrifying balete trees that seem to grow around human bodies are just a few of the freakish things that happen on the island shores. And although Hemslock and his crew try to explain away the various bizarre events occurring all around them, crew members begin to become increasingly unhinged in the wake of their experiences. Through it all, Alon does his best to convince the group to leave the island and to protect his new crush Chase, the social media influencer son of one of Hemlock’s producers, whose father is busy searching for the truth about his mother’s death.
One of the best things about The Sacrifice is the way that Chupeco crafts a setting thick with tension and foreboding of both the physical and the emotional variety. From the jump scares caused by the trees that seem to move on their own and the soundless ghost figures that suddenly burst from nearby foliage, there are plenty of reasons to believe this island is haunted at best and downright dangerous at worst. Chupeco also deftly weaves various elements of Phillippine folklore and legend throughout the story, adding an uncomfortable element of realism to their spooky tale.
It’s said that if the dreamer god who sleeps beneath the island receives eight sacrifices that meet a series of specific parameters, he will bestow power and wealth on the giver. And this is, of course, part of the reason that so many people keep coming to Kisapmata, despite its dark history and uncomfortably high body count. Greed is a universal motivator throughout the ages, it appears. Horror that pokes at the uncomfortable dark underbelly of colonialism always works for me, and the use of these familiar tropes to examine the long-tale impact of the oppression of marginalized groups really works for me here.
Unfortunately, Alon’s narrative style—which is often purposefully vague at best and downright annoying at worst—tends to keep us at a distance, obscuring what he’s really thinking and feeling in service of the larger story the book is telling. Some of the crew’s secondary characters are so unmemorable in his view they don’t even merit names of their own, and are referred to throughout the story by various monikers like “Goatee” and “Straw Hat”. Therefore, it’s not particularly surprising that it’s difficult to really care about the various horrible things that happen to them—we’re not allowed to get to know them in any real way, and most are painted with the broadest of strokes. (Why do some of them see the visions that mark them as candidates for sacrifice while others don’t? The lines of demarcation aren’t exactly clear.)
Your mileage will also vary about whether the fact that The Sacrifice isn’t particularly forthcoming with details works for you. If you’re hoping for a concrete explanation of the origins of the sleeping power that lurks on Kisapmata or how, precisely, Alon fits into its world, you’re going to be disappointed, because none of those answers are coming.
There’s an argument to be made that these nebulous facts—the unreliable narrators, the shifting versions of the Diawata’s history, the gaps in the stories of previous visitors to the island—is simply a necessary part of mythmaking, the natural result of a story that’s been repeatedly co-opted by other people and cultures for their own ends. And, while I actually really like this framing in theory, there’s a part of me that really just wanted more answers about the story I just read. That said, the blisteringly fast pace and Chupeco’s deft use of horror tropes to examine broader social themes means The Sacrifice is a horror tale that goes down easy. (Especially at this time of year.)
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.