Spooktober, Day 17: The Enigma of Amigara Fault, by Junji Ito

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Alright: Let’s talk about comics.

Junji Ito is recognised as the doyen of modern horror manga. Is artwork is by turns beautiful and freakish (often at the same time), and he has a fertile imagination for unknown and unknowable monstrosities. And while Uzumaki and Tomie are both excellent examples of his longer volumes, I can’t think of a better introduction to his work than his short piece, The Enigma of Amigara Fault.

It starts with an earthquake that opens a fault in Japan, where scientists make a remarkable discovery: innumerable holes in the mountainside, all shaped like the human body. No one knows where they came from, or why they are there, but it is soon revealed that the holes in the mountain are calling to people, that visitors to the site are drawn to find the hole that fits them and go inside. What happens to them in there? How far does the hole go? What’s on the other side? You’ll have to read it to find out…

There’s not much else to say about the story that doesn’t spoil it. Suffice to say that Ito preys on some fundamental human fears of claustrophobia and the irrational drive towards self-destruction. Ito gives the reader just enough explanation, so the mystery makes sense instinctively while leaving enough unsaid to leave them stumbling in the dark. Ito’s also the master of the horrific reveal, or visual jump-scares, using each turn of the page to rachet up the horror. The Enigma of Amigara Fault is a quick, easy read for anyone new to Ito, or to manga in general, and I thoroughly recommend checking it out.

Read The Enigma of Amigara Fault here.

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Spooktober, Day 13: Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn

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“He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw a woman in the room,— a woman all in white.”

Horror is universal, but ghost stories don’t always have the same cultural context. In Britain, ghost stories are usually reserved for the winter months: for Halloween, as summer dies and gives way to winter; or at Christmas, when the night is darkest, and the whole world seems filled with a neverending chill. But in Japan, ghost stories are associated with summer: they are told at twilight on warm nights, to cool the blood. According to Shinto belief, humanity shares the world with a myriad of gods, spirits and mysterious creatures: and if we wander too far, or speak to the wrong person at sunset, we may not come back the same.

Lafcadio Hearn was one of the first writers to bring Japanese folklore to a broader Western audience. Hearn’s life is fascinating in itself: a Graeco-Irish journalist who immigrated to New Orleans (he wrote an obituary for Marie Laveau) and later settled in Japan and wrote many books about his adopted homeland. His work has been adapted several times for TV, film and anime, and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is perhaps his most enduring work.

Ostensibly, Kwaidan is a collection of ghost stories and folk tales that Hearn collected, translated or heard from others, though it’s possible that he created or at least embellished some of the stories himself. The tales serve as bite-sized tastes of Japan’s folkloric fringe: they include yuki-onna, the snow woman, who preys on travellers lost in a blizzard. Then there’s Hoichi the Earless, the minstrel doomed to play for a band of ghostly samurai. And it includes the tale of Akinosuke, who dreams a whole new life for himself, only to see it disappear when he awakens. There’s also an entire appendix devoted to Hearn’s fascination with entomology if you want to read about why ants are better than people.

Kwaidan is a strange book, written by a strange man, about strange things. It’s written in the direct, matter-of-fact tones of fairy tales the world over, with little of the concern for characterisation or mood one might see in “real” horror, but the simplicity of Hearn’s prose allows the reader to put together the pieces for themselves as they imagine the strange creatures within. The stories work best when they are read allowed as they were intended: as the sun goes down and the light begins to change, and you long for a chill to run down your spine…

Read Kwaidan here

Spooktober, Day 10: The Ring, by Koji Suzuki

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‘Before you die, you see the ring…’

Today’s entry in our Spooktober marathon is going to be a little different because although The Ring was initially a novel by Koji Suzuki, I’m going to be talking mostly about the film adaptation(s). Why? Because The Ring is one of those rare anomalies where I honestly believe that the film adaptation is better than the original novel. Partly it’s because I’ve only read the book in translation; partly it’s because the films excise some of the more problematic aspects of the novel (including, the more sordid details of Sadako’s backstory, and Ryuji’s rather tasteless enthusiasm for sexual assault). Mostly I think it’s because this is a story that works better with a supernatural bent than a pseudo-scientific explanation: Sadako in the film is a ghost, in the Japanese tradition of vengeful onryo, rather than a combined electromagnetic/psychic manifestation of syphilis. But then, the first movie was directed by Suzuki himself, so it’s not like I’m downplaying his role by stating a preference for the film.

It’s also unusual in that the western remake is not only competent but arguably as good as the original. So whichever interpretation is your favourite is up to you.

In case you’re not familiar with it, The Ring is the story of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it, and the desperate quest to find a way to stop it. Although it felt fresh and new to a Western audience, The Ring is actually working within a rich tradition of Japanese horror: ghoulish spirits seeking vengeance with power they never had in life; haunted, animated technology; the invasion of the everyday by the uncanny. It all reads like a subversion of the typical ghost story tropes, leading to an end that puts a genius (and savage) twist on the hope that appeasing the spirit will deflect its vengeance. Yet it’s also subtle: the Japanese film only features one horrifying moment towards the end, but I still had to stop and switch on the lights a couple of times while watching as the tension built but was never really allowed to deflate. It’s a work that lingers long after it’s over by playing on our paranoia, by stoking the fear that our everyday environment and all our technological comforts could be used against us.