Remina, by Junji Ito

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 15, 2020

Summary: An unknown planet emerges from inside a wormhole, and its discoverer, Dr. Oguro, christens the body “Remina” after his own daughter. His finding is met with great fanfare, and Remina herself rises to fame. However, the object picks up speed as it moves along in its curious course, eliminating planets and stars one after another, until finally Earth itself faces extinction… Is the girl Remina the true cause of the catastrophe? A masterwork of horror from Junji Ito, unfolding on a universal scale.

Thoughts: Ito has earned his reputation as a master of horror manga. His artwork alone can disturb and disgust, but the stories he tells linger with readers, the two combining to create a sense of unease and dread in the dark of night, memories of what was just read creeping back in to fill the hours with shuddering discomfort. There’s something about his work that never ceases to thoroughly unnerve me, whether the horror of the story is related to a dread supernatural presence or the darker side of human nature.  Remina ticks all the boxes that I’ve come to expect in one of Ito’s works.

When a new planet is found, the scientist who discovered it decides to name it after his daughter, Remina. Remina is a shy woman, but finds herself thrust into the spotlight after this, becoming the darling of the media and gaining thousands of ardent fans. But the planet keeps moving ever closer to Earth, posing a threat not just with its proximity but also with its very very strange and creepy surface, and Remina the person is the one blamed for the threat, with people adamant that she, or her family, somehow summoned the planet and caused it to approach Earth. Mass panic grows as the danger looms ever nearer, and neither Remina nor her father may come out of the ordeal alive…

While the planet Remina definitely is a sinister force to be reckoned with in Remina, as it does things that planets are definitely not supposed to do, I found the greater horror to be the way people latched onto Remina the woman as a scapegoat, blaming her for all the ills befalling humanity. Now, it seemed that the planet itself was feeding into humanity’s dark side through all of that, almost feeding on the desperate fear and anger that people felt, even tricking them into approaching it with false promises of safety from the chaos happening on Earth, but frankly, no supernatural force needed to be exerted in order to get people to blame something convenient for their ills. Especially something they once loved; Remina went from a much-beloved idol to a hated pariah in short time, fans turning on her as they felt betrayed by what they assumed she did. You don’t need to bring the paranormal into it, to tell that story. We see it around us all the time, especially when crisis looms.

Remina delivers horror on two levels, and that’s not even taking into account Ito’s unique art style, which can be just as disturbing at times as the story itself. He’s particularly good at illustrating body horror and the grotesque, both of which feature here; if body horror is a trigger for you, then be cautious when approaching Ito’s work. Remina had less of that than other works, at least in terms of “the human body doing things human bodies are not meant to do,” but similar to how one of the frightening aspects of the story was the realistic aspect rather than the supernatural, there are depictions of broken and bleeding bodies in here, some of which involve characters being tortured.

If body horror and violence are not trauma triggers for you, however, and you’re in the mood for something visual and disturbing to bring additional shivers to the approaching winter season, then get your hands on a copy of Remina as soon as you can. It’s delightfully disturbing and tremendously troubling, balancing the weirdly supernatural with the weirdly mundane. It’s a story I won’t soon forget.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Venus in the Blind Spot, by Junji Ito

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Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: A “best of” collection of creepy tales from Eisner award winner and legendary horror master Junji Ito.

This striking collection presents the most remarkable short works of Junji Ito’s career, featuring an adaptation of Rampo Edogawa’s classic horror story “Human Chair” and fan favorite “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” With a deluxe presentation—including special color pages, and showcasing illustrations from his acclaimed long-form manga No Longer Human—each chilling tale invites readers to revel in a world of terror.

Thoughts: If you’re into the weirder side of Japanese media, you’ve probably heard of Ito’s work before. His is the mind and art behind Tomie, Uzumaki, and dozens of other titles that are distinct in style, notable for the merging of beauty and grotesque. It’s not a stretch to put his work firmly in the Weird genre; I mean, Uzumaki is a horror story about a town slowly being overrun by a deadly obsession with spirals. It sounds almost silly, but it’s actually rather horrific, and Ito’s art doesn’t dip toes into the uncomfortable so much as it jumps in and splashes around for a while.

Venus in the Blind Spot is a collection of shorts, most of which are rather horrific, and even the one that’s a little more amusing and autobiographical (Master Umezz and Me) still comes off as a bit creepy due to the level of obsession displayed. Some, such as The Human Chair are based on short stories written by others, and adapted to manga form by Ito. You have ones like The Licking Woman, which sound exactly like a horrible urban legend come to life, complete with a twist that sort of makes sense for a monster story but also lacks context… kind of like a lot of monster stories, especially ones told around the campfire.

But then you get stories like An Unearthly Love, in which a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair… with a sex doll that he keeps locked in a trunk in the attic. In a fit of jealous rage she destroys the sex doll. Later, she finds her husband has killed himself so that he and his ceramic lover can be together in the afterlife. It’s a whole load of WTFery that was nevertheless entertaining to read.

I did stumble a bit over How Love Came to Professor Kirida, though. The best way I can sum up that story is: a woman is in love with a misanthrope who rejects her. The woman tries to drown herself in grief, but lives. The professor is then convinced that the woman’s spirit is haunting him. Also, a parrot might be the conduit between here and the afterlife. Maybe. It’s really not clear. I feel like perhaps the story it was based on might shed more light into the confusing aspects, perhaps something just got missed in the jump to a different medium, but this one didn’t really hold together that well, and honestly, it was mostly because of the parrot. Was it an actual astral haunting? Was the parrot just really good at imitating people? Both? Something else entirely? I couldn’t say. I was kind of just left confused by this one.

But overall, this collection of shorts definitely has some of the best that Ito has to offer, and is a good way to experience his work without committing to the more famous multi-volume works. If you’re a fan of Ito, or if you just want to give some Weird J-horror a try, then Venus in the Blind Spot is a good place to start.

Just… be warned if body horror is a problem for you. He does that stuff a lot.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

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Author website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1959

Summary: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Review: After watching and really enjoying the new Netflix adaptation of this story, I decided it was high time I actually sat down and read the novel that inspired it. I mean, I also watched the 1999 movie adaptation and enjoyed that, so surely the book must be good too. (Don’t judge me; I was in high school, and I saw that movie on a date and was thrilled to death with an openly-bisexual character. I was easily impressed then and had no refinement to my movie-watching tastes.)

Anyway, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (often reprinted as simply The Haunting) is a short read, quick and to the point, but with plenty of room for interesting interpretation and discussion. The story is told from the perspective of Eleanor, nicknamed Nell, who accepts an invitation to Hill House after the death of her mother. Life is… difficult for Eleanor, to say the least. She lives with family who doesn’t think much of her, doesn’t have a strong personality, and spent her whole adult life caring for her ailing mother and carries residual guilt for the woman’s death. She welcomes the chance to get away from things, even if just for a little while.

The other temporary inhabitants of Hill House are Dr Montague, a researcher hoping to find evidence that Hill House is haunted, and that certain “sensitive” people might bring out conclusive evidence; Luke Sanderson, a man in line to inherit the house some day, and Theodora, who refuses to admit her surname and who Eleanor takes quite a fancy to, becoming fast friends with her despite her rather mercurial personality. There are also the Dudleys, who take care of the house but are rarely seen (Mrs Dudley is seen more than her husband, but her dialogue is often the same day in and day out, and she seems mostly put out by any change to routine, which made me wonder if she was a touch neuroatypical), and eventually Mrs Montague and her companion Arthur show up to thoroughly annoy the hell out of everyone, including the reader. But for the most part, we’re dealing with Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr Montague.

Hill House itself may well be counted as a character, since it certainly seems to contain some sort of will or intelligence of its own. During the brief time people stay there, odd things happen, such as messages to Eleanor showing up in strange places, or door closing of their own accord (though that could possibly be explained by the whole house being built with very slightly odd angles, which is addressed in the book), or phantom noises and shapes darting through hallways. The problems don’t seem to come from particular spirits or personalities that remain within the house so much as they come from the house itself, which is an interesting take on haunted house since most such stories typically involve a malevolent personality lingering on after death to cause problems. No, here the problem is the house itself, and whatever will it possesses.

As for Eleanor herself, I have to say right here that I feel so very bad for her. Her life hasn’t been easy, as I previously mentioned, and over the course of the story you can see her mental state start to slip. Her thoughts become disordered and occasionally repetitious, she acts in ways that are completely at odds with what’s going on inside her head. She doesn’t start off this way, not really, but her time in Hill House affects her very strongly.

And a lot of what she experienced was incredibly relatable to me, as I’ve dealt with mental illness in some form for pretty much as long as I can remember. Certain scenes in The Haunting of Hill House felt like they were half lifted from my own life, with myself as Eleanor, and that was more than a little bit distressing. I recall one scene where she was behaving perfectly politely, very civil and kind in her conversation with others, while thinking to herself that she wanted nothing so much as to hurt Theodora. That disconnect between internal and external, thought and action, was uncomfortably familiar to me, and I think Jackson did a very good job of conveying just how much we put on a mask, so to speak, to appear normal and do what’s expected when inside we’re anything but. The way Theodora used Luke against Eleanor, too, to make Eleanor jealous that Theo was giving her attention to someone else, eerily echoed the way one of my old friends treated me for some time.

Bonus cringe in that I absolutely had a crush on this friend at the time, so the echoes are even more poignant. (Theodora is absolutely coded as not being straight. I wondered if that was something that was in the original story as well as the film and TV adaptations, and yes. Yes it is.)

When it comes to The Haunting of Hill House, you often find people getting into discussions about whether Nell’s behaviour were due to mental illness or the house’s malign influence. Rarely do I ever see people talk about how it could be both — for some reason people often insist it has to be either one or the other. For my part, it seemed to me that Eleanor really did suffer from some degree of mental illness, exacerbated by whatever odd energies were made manifest in Hill House. To ignore the idea that something supernatural was occurring would be tantamount to saying that Eleanor was entirely alone in the house the whole time and hallucinated the whole thing. Other people experienced different events, or even the same events that Eleanor did, after all. Now yes, there are times where, if you read between the lines a little, the book seems to suggest that sometimes Eleanor does hear people speak when in fact they said nothing at all, but that’s a far cry from imagining whole conversations with multiple people. Of all the people in the house, Eleanor had the most damage, was the most desperate for a place she could call home, and Hill House preyed upon that need. It could have been any of them, really, but what self-respecting predator wouldn’t prey upon the weakest in a group, after all?

So yes, Eleanor absolutely suffered from mental illness, and that explains a number of things within the story, but mostly the things that are contained to Eleanor herself, her reactions and thoughts. External events, especially ones witnessed by others, are another matter.

In the end, while the tone of the writing in The Haunting of Hill House definitely feels a bit dated, the story itself is solid, the characters varied and interesting, and for such a short book, there’s a lot to unpack. This review really only brushed the surface, and I left out a lot of what I wanted to say about smaller scenes and random bits of dialogue that had personal meaning, and when you get right down to it, that’s exactly how a good horror story should be. It should make a mark, leave an impression, and give you plenty to come back to even once the last page has been read and the book closed. This is a classic for a reason, and I recommend reading it if you have the opportunity.

The Three, by Sarah Lotz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 20, 2014

Summary: Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he’s right?

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioural problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

Review: I had been looking forward to reading this book for so very long by the time I finally found a copy at the library, and let me say, I’m glad I did. The Three is a very engaging book, a heck of a page-turner, with a mystery that really keeps you going, wanting to unveil the next piece of the puzzle so that the picture becomes complete, little by little.

After 4 disastrous airplane crashes on the same day, with only 3 child survivors, the world starts to pay attention. Doubly so after odd things begin to happen around those children. Strange behaviours, conspiracy theories, whispers about the end of days, the whole shebang. Part of the mystery of this novel is sorting out truth from fiction, to figure out what’s really going on, and rather than present this story in a rather standard format, Lotz instead opts to tell it in a series of interviews and articles, chat logs and book excerpts, so that every view we get is tainted by bias and unreliability and subjectivity. The reader has to sort through what they’re given and see which interpretations make the most sense, much as we have to do whenever anything big hits the news. We’re presented with dozens of different viewpoints, some contradictory, some inflammatory, some with a kernel of truth inside, and we have to figure out what fits from the pieces we’re given.

The format also contributes to the way the book engages with the reader, pushes them just a little further onward. Most of the chapters aren’t very long, so it’s very easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” trap. The location shifts often, with the story spanning the globe as not all of the planes crashed in just one country, nor do all the surviving children live remotely near each other. If you’re not too keen on one particular story arc, not to worry, because Lotz switches you back to another one regularly, keeping things moving and going round. On one hand, this manner of storytelling did compel me to read more, with short snippets and frequent plot advancement. On the other hand, when taken as a whole, the plot does move somewhat slowly regardless, with progress happening in one place and then switching to another so that progress can happen there, and so on. There’s something new every time, from every viewpoint, but I will admit there are times that this sort of circular progression made things feel a bit slow, even if I still enjoyed watching the story unfold.

Lotz also does a fantastic job of commenting on the media circus through The Three, if I may be so blunt. The sensationalism behind the miraculous survival of the three children, the theories that spring up around them, the way people see bad within good and good within bad and spin those things out of proportion… I can’t say it was tastefully done, since in some ways, rampant consumption of any and all info can be rather tasteless, but it was well done, never the less. We get a feeling almost of rubbernecking over Paul’s downward mental spiral and paranoia around Jess, intruding on a private tragedy. We experience Ryu’s anxiety through his chat messages with Chiyoko, whose general disgust with life we also get a strong sense of. The book itself even makes mention of this, as it’s pitched as being a book written by the fictional Elspeth, documenting and compiling what information she can about The Three. There are passages that talk about her own bias regarding the events, sensationalizing the stories and prying into aspects of people’s lives that she has no business with.

I will say that the book dips into some cultural awkwardness now and again, however, which is a mark against it. It’s hard not to wince a little bit at the character of Ryu, a Japanese shut-in, or the doomsday cult that spring up around an American pastor. That isn’t to say that people like those characters don’t exist in the real world, but enough media attention has been made that sometimes it feels like those stereotypes are meant to be representative of an entire culture’s failings.

On the other hand, that may have been part of the point. That doomsday cult, for instance, is of the opinion that the Three are signs of the end times, that they’re three of the four horsemen, and maybe the very fact that respective societies have failed and produced certain types of people is a sign not of the flaws of cultures or people in themselves, but of the flaw of everything. Everything has gone to pot and needs to be wiped out and started over, the cycle beginning anew.

That interpretation doesn’t make things much better, since to be honest, there are so many ways of avoiding the use of those stereotypes to begin with, but it does improve it a little, at least in my mind.

The Three is the kind of novel to get you thinking, and specifically to get you thinking in circles, spiraling back and coming at things again and again as you try to fit together the whole narrative in a cohesive way. It’s a wonderful creative endeavour, and it had me pausing often to consider what was happening, and wondering how I might react in similar circumstances. Even if you never get particularly invested in or attached to many of the characters, they’re still rather interesting characters to follow, and they play their parts in the story well, showing the human element in an international tragedy/mystery. Even though it leaves itself open for a sequel (and indeed there is a sequel, though I have yet to read it), it’s still a complete story in itself, and could serve as a standalone novel; even if there are still unanswered questions at the end, they still come with a sense of story’s closure. If you’re a fan of slow-burn horror or supernatural thrillers, then you’d do well to give Lotz’s The Three a read.

 

Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 7, 2017

Summary: Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a shine to them.

Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant—and the Castevets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castevets’ circle is not what it seems…

Review: After watching the movie for the first time, I was thrilled to realise that my local library had a copy of the novel. I hadn’t even known it was a novel until randomly seeing it on the shelves. And since I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I decided to see if I would enjoy the novel in the same way.

What I can say honestly is that without going into any other detail, if you enjoyed the movie, you’ll enjoy the book. It reads the very same way. It has the same content, barring the book’s few additional scenes when compared to the movie. Whether this was because Levin also wrote for the stage and thus knew what would adapt well between the novel and an acted adaptation, I couldn’t say. But if you’ve seen the movie, it’s nearly impossible to not hear the actors’ voices when you read character dialogue, and the dialogue itself was practically word-for-word between the movie and the novel.

On the plus side, that worked to make the movie one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen, and in a world filled with lousy movie adaptations, that’s saying something.

But enough about the movie. Let’s talk more about the book.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into the Bramford, intending to live quite happily with the hopes of Guy getting more acting work and Rosemary being a stay-at-home mother. As you do when it’s the 60s. After meeting their rather eccentric neighbours, the Castevets, Guy’s acting career seems to take off while Rosemary, newly-pregnant and increasingly ill from it, develops strong suspicions that something is wrong with just about every part of her life, and somehow, it all traces back to the Castevets and their interest in her baby.

It’s hardly a spoiler at this point to say that their interest stems from the fact that Rosemary is pregnant not with Guy’s child, but with Satan’s. The Castevets and their friends are Satanists, and their involvement is part of a literally diabolical plot to bring about the Antichrist. Guy made a deal to give his wife to the Satanic coven for a night to accomplish this, not because he’s a long-time Satanist, but because he’s promised success in his career if he agrees. The typical devil’s pact, really.

Did Rosemary have a say in this? Not at all. In fact, she was partly drugged when her rape occurred, and it was only partly because she didn’t like the taste of the dessert she was given that was intended to drug her, and so she threw some away, not getting the full dose of what was meant to know her out and make her forget literally being raped by Satan.

In fact, much of what happens in this book is a testament to why women having agency is extremely important. With the story taking place in the 1960s (and being written then too, so you will often encounter what is considered today to be embarrassingly outdated terminology, especially for minority groups), Rosemary, despite being quite a determined character, is often overridden in her desires and need by the men around her. She is given to the coven by her husband, with no say in the matter — passed around like an object in order to further Guy’s career. She is pushed to changing obstetricians, with the new doctor telling her not to listen to her friends or to read books about pregnancy, only to listen to him, because “every pregnancy is different,” and getting advice elsewhere will just make her panic her pretty little head off. When Rosemary finally breaks and seeks out her original obstetrician in the hope of gaining safety from the coven, that doctor’s response is to lie, tell her he’ll help, and then calling both Rosemary’s husband and her new doctor to come and pick her up. Because a pregnant woman’s fears, even if they are about something most people would find unbelievable, are nothing in the face of getting her back with the men she fears are trying to harm her and her unborn child.

And quite frankly, it’s safe to say that the Antichrist wouldn’t have been born had someone treated Rosemary like a person with thoughts, worth, and agency of her own. I doubt this was Levin’s intention to convey, but really, it’s a message that’s easy to take from the story. Treat women like crap, and the Adversary wins.

Rosemary’s Baby is a book that feels both timeless and dated in different measures. The story may take place in the 60s, and there’s plenty of detail to demonstrate the place and time to really centre the reader in the scene, but it’s also a story that has been told many times before and after, the “what if?” appeal calling to people and making them question what could feasibly happen if the Antichrist really did come into the world. But rather than pull the focus back and have the story be about the huge earth-shaking ramifications of this, Levin zooms in and instead concentrates on the woman who would be a mother to said devil-baby. Who is she? What’s her story? How did it happen to her? What did she think and feel and do?

As for Levin’s writing, it flows quite well, and his strength really seems to be dialogue. The characters really come through in what they say, and Levin doesn’t rely on tonal adjectives to get things across, letting the reader figure it out from the words themselves. It works surprisingly well, though in fairness, I’m saying that after having watched the movie first, so I already had somebody’s interpretation of the lines in my mind as I read. Perhaps it might not be so clear if someone’s is reading this before watching the movie, I really can’t say.

But having the characters show through the dialogue still works quite well for streamlining a story. For instance, in a scene where Rosemary talks with her obstetrician about the pain she’s experiencing, and how she worries about an ectopic pregnancy, she explains to her doctor that she saw the term on a pregnancy book at the drugstore. One simple line of dialogue about where she got the idea encapsulates what could have been an entire scene, but wasn’t, and didn’t need to be. Levin takes away a lot of extraneous elements, boils things down until they can be conveyed concisely, and yet still manages to fit a surprising amount of detail into those short paragraphs.

Which brings to me to something that made me chuckle a bit. I read the 50th anniversary edition, which has an introduction by another author who, admittedly, I have never heard of. I’d like to share a short quote from that introduction, regarding said author’s praise of Levin’s attention to detail.

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This level of detail floors you? Have you tried reading, oh, I don’t know, just about any book ever? Levin’s writing has some wonderful detail in it, yes, little things that make so much of what he writes feel real and alive and so very believable, but the colour of someone’s clothes and the date on the calendar really are not the best examples of this. It’s so much glowing praise given to laughably simplistic detail, and it felt more like the author of the introduction was praising the concept of Levin’s skill rather than any actual skill.

I’m not sure I would class Rosemary’s Baby as horror, per se, since nothing in it was particularly scary, with the exception of the mundane scary stuff like women being treated like objects, or nobody believing you when you tell them there’s a problem. I think it’s better to say that Rosemary’s Baby was more of a supernatural thriller, though the supernatural parts, interestingly, stick close to the background. They’re essential to the story, yes, but most of the story’s tension comes from Rosemary’s thoughts and reactions, trying to figure out what’s going on in her life and coping with the fact that something she longed for is going so badly. The compelling elements come not from curses or dark magic malevolence, but from Rosemary moving through her life, short bursts of the mundane punctuated by suspicion, fading back to mundane.

Is it a good read? Yes, absolutely, and especially if you enjoyed the movie adaptation. Is it a must-read? I don’t think I’d go that far. It’s a bit of a classic at this point, famous in that just about everybody’s heard of it even if they haven’t read or seen the story, but as good as it is, as interesting and enjoyable as I found it, I have to conclude that it’s probably not for everyone. Some of the outdated terminology is bound to make people feel a bit uncomfortable, a lot of the general treatment of Rosemary will do the same (though Rosemary herself is quite a strong woman and I loved watching her fight back when she was pushed too far). This is one of the very few instances where I can say that the movie is as good as the book, and you don’t really miss or gain anything by picking one over the other, so really, if what you’re interested in is the story, pick whichever format appeals to you the most and have at.

Movie Review: The Silenced

I’m very much a fan of east-Asian horror movies, and so by luck and Netflix, I stumbled across an interesting-looking Korean movie not too long ago, called by its English name, The Silenced.

file_745983_park-bo-young_1430975083_af_orgSet in Seoul, then known as Gyeongseong, in the late 1930s, the story focuses on a sick young woman named Shizuko, sent to a sanitarium school. And if you noticed that I used a Japanese name for the character and not a Korean one, there’s a reason for that. At the time this movie takes place, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and one of the many societal changes that occurred then was to force the adoption of Japanese-style names instead of Korean ones, to bring the populace one step closer to accepting occupational rule by a foreign power. (For a brief overview of the occupation, there’s at least a Wikipedia page, which I recommend reading.) As someone making at least half-hearted efforts to learn Japanese, I can pick out the language when I hear it, and suddenly when a character just starts speaking a language I recognize when I expect a language I can’t recognise… I threw me off, and caught my attention, and made me want to learn more about the setting.

It also made me keenly aware of how much cultural time-period markers are not universal. In North America, we may associate the 1930s with a certain style of fashion, mode of speech, level of technology, and when we see movies set then, we don’t have to have a full history lesson to centre us in the moment. 1930s South Korea? I was forced to confront that I knew absolutely nothing about it. You don’t need a history lesson to appreciate The Silenced, though; reading a book on the Japanese occupation isn’t central to understanding the movie as a whole. But if you have an ear for languages and culture, you may be able to pick up on a few things that may confuse you if you’re entirely unaware that there was an occupation to begin with.

Anyway, Shizuko, who we later come to learn is also called Ju-Ran, is sick and sent to a girl’s boarding school to recover. Immediately she faces opposition, as she shares the same name as a previous girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The official story is that the previous Shizuko went home, but the girls there doubt that, as it was sudden and unannounced. The new Shizuko has TB, and is shown to barely be able to handle any exertion lest it send her into a coughing fit. She’s put on a new medication to try and combat the illness, and that’s where things start to get weird.

Shizuko starts seeing things. Creepy things. Things like one of the girls being twisted and jerky while crawl-shuffling under her bed.

netflix-horror-movies-the-silenced

Then that student disappears, and everyone’s told she just went home. Meanwhile, Shizuko finds a strange sticky clear fluid under that girl’s bed, and she’s sure she wasn’t imagining it.

This isn’t the only time Shizuko sees something and a girl disappears, leaving behind more of that clear goo. Shizuko also begins to show signs of recovery, her physical strength and stamina increasing to the point where she can run again and breathe easily. But it doesn’t stop there. Her strength continues to grow, as does her temper, and her resistance to pain.

It’s at this point where watchers start to wonder if the current Shizuko is possessed by the previous one in some way, if the previous Shizuko died and her ghost is lashing out not only at those who wronger her in life, but also those who wrong the girl who shares her name. It’s the sort of explanation that makes perfect sense in horror movies, especially East Asian horror movies where it all looks like a ghost story. But the truth behind this movie is even stranger than you might imagine.

And be warned, there are some spoilers a-comin’!

The problem turns out not to be a ghost but instead a program funded by the Japanese occupational government to create a race of super-soldiers. The medication that Shizuko has to take — indeed, all the students have to take medication provided by the school, and nobody questions it because everyone is there due to illness (though the vast majority are unspecified and unpresented…) — is part of that program, changing her into someone stronger, impervious to pain, someone capable of fighting for the Japanese government in times of need. None of them consented. Not all of them survive.

thesilenced4And what’s really impressive about The Silenced is that aside from the clear goo, everything actually ties together and makes sense. It shifts from seeming like a horror movie to a historical sci-fi thriller, and it does it fairly seamlessly. The transition makes sense, the story aspects fit together and get explanations, and given that all this happens within a massive tonal shift, that really impressed me. It’s not many movies that can do that and still stay cohesive. It’s a mind-screw for a while, trying to wrap your brain around how something switched genres right in the middle, and admittedly some of the special effects of Shizuko’s later superpowers were kind of cheesy, but on the whole, I’d say it was pretty well done.

The only loose end is the issue of the clear goop left behind after Shizuko sees someone losing control after they have a bad reaction to the chemical mixture that’s slowly changing them. There are a couple of things this could be, but nothing is really made of it; it seems like it’s there just to convince Shizuko that she didn’t image things, that there’s a physical source of the creepy things she sees. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that a movie which ties so many things together leaves that one hanging, with just potential reading between the lines to try and give it reason.

The Silenced deals with some very twisted and disturbing subject matter. There’s the obvious issue of the Japanese occupation and forced cultural integration, which I mentioned at the beginning of the review. There’s the issue of testing unknown treatments without informed consent, a process which is still relatively new in the field of medicine, and that’s depressing enough, but the movie stresses that part of the reason that the sanitarium/boarding school was chosen as part of the project is that it works best on adolescent women, and also because nobody’s going to question, “These girls are taking medication we give them because they’re sick, they have no parental supervision, and if any one of them dies, it’s easy to get rid of evidence and just tell everyone they went home.” It all works because people are kept ignorant. The movie’s primary antagonist hates her country and wants Japan to have greater control, hence her being complicit in the supersoldier program. There’s a lot that’s shown, not said, and The Silenced largely seems to respect the viewer’s intelligence enough to not spell absolutely everything else, to have a fanatical woman without a character commenting, “Wow, she’s fanatical.”

quilt

I have to say, if you’re into East Asian horror, this is one you should probably check out. Even though it’s not strictly a horror movie. The story’s certainly interesting, the acting fantastic (with a bonus helping of subtext along the way…), and I still can’t get over how well it was all put together. It’s disturbing and creepy in all the right places, atmospheric and tense without relying on jump scares, and has a lot to say about a very controversial time in Korea’s history. It’s on Canadian Netflix as of the time this review, so if that’s open to you, I recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy it.

The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2016

Summary: Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow into, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who harbor a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building start to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.

Review: Don’t read this book alone at night.

Let me repeat that. Don’t read this book alone at night!

That’s what I did. I kind of regret it, especially with the ending being what it is.

This dark and atmospheric novel isn’t my first dive into Japanese horror, though it’s definitely one of the better J-horror novels I’ve read over the years. The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm, tells the story of a small family moving to a new apartment they’ve just purchased in Tokyo, an apartment that sold for a low price because of its location next to a graveyard. It’s not an ideal place to raise their young daughter, but the price was right, and it’s convenient enough for work and school, so Teppei and Misao are fine enough with living there. That is, until strange events start occurring, and their daughter Tamao gets mysteriously injured in the basement, and everyone in the building begins moving away…

Koike’s writing brings Japan to life, and Boehm’s translation adds those little explanatory touches to some concepts that those in the West might not be so familiar with. Happily, those bits are few, and only when necessary, letting the reader absorb the culture and atmosphere contextually, which I vastly prefer compared to when translators feel the need to either hold my hand and explain absolutely everything, or else don’t bother to add appropriate notes at all. This combo allowed me to take a mental visit to the spookier side of Japan, and the little idiosyncracies of Japanese life, without leaving my house.

Even if you can’t necessarily identify with Teppei or Misao, you certainly do feel for them. They’re trying to live a normal life, to give their kid the chance to get a good education, live in a good neighbourhood, not spend more than they can afford, and for all intents and purposes they are an utterly average family. They’re not supernatural thrillseekers, nobody’s secretly a psychic or a medium, but neither are they stuck on denying the paranormal nature of events in the building once they encounter them. Teppei probably has the hardest time with this, denying Misao and Tamao’s feelings over the matter, until he’s forced to confront it, which seems to me like a fairly classic presentation in horror fiction: women encounter the supernatural first and follow their uneasy feelings about it, while men take longer to convince and their eventual acceptance is the tipping point where things start to get serious.

While it may bother some readers that the cause of the haunting was somewhat vague and largely theoretical (probably caused by initial construction disturbing the bones of those buried nearby, but that doesn’t explain everything behind the paranormal events that plagued the apartment building and its residents) or that the ending was so downbeat, personally, I rather liked that some of it was open to interpretation. The characters themselves only had hints about what happened before they arrived, and had to put pieces of the puzzle together on their own; the reader knows as much as the Kano family, and even they, right at the end, aren’t entirely sure of everything. As for the ending, well, at a certain point you start to realise that there are really only two choices for how the story will end: either some too-convenient thing will rescue the lone family trapped in the apartment building, or they don’t get out at all.

I don’t consider that too big a spoiler because the horror genre isn’t typically about feel-good endings. A feel-good ending would have been so contrived and counter to the tone in the rest of the novel, and as you flip through those final few pages, the odds of it happening get slimmer and slimmer until all that’s left is to figure out how it happens, rather than if.

And then there’s the very last page, and if it doesn’t send even a little tingle down your spine, you’re made of sterner (or more cynical) stuff than I.

Horror fans are really in for a treat when they read The Graveyard Apartment, especially if they’re horror fans with a taste for non-Western settings or like expanding their horizons to include other cultures. It has good tension in all the right places, has a fantastically creepy atmosphere, and is overall just a damn good ghost story. Seek it out and prepare to avoid basements for a long time.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.

The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

This is a little girl’s account of her life after death, and our unique version of The Lovely Bones. It defies the conventional definition of genres. A ghost story, yes, and YA, too. Dark fantasy with humor. Literary fiction with prepubescent innocence and manga sensibilities. It is many things but a simple story, too. You’ll be fascinated with the unique world of Otsuichi, a very young and prolific author, in his first published work.

Review: I’ve been making extra effort recently to read fiction involving non-Western cultures that’s actually written by people who have spent time living in that culture. It doesn’t guarantee a work free from cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it does allow me a better opportunity to experience works that came from other cultures, written in them rather than about them, if that distinction makes sense. Research came take you a long way, but only do far; there’s a level of experience that one can only get with immersion, and the depth of immersion also depends on whether you approach the culture as an outsider or as someone who was raised within it.

Japan has been a long-time love of mine, so reading things about it and from within it always appeals to me. And over time I’ve learned that fiction from the “about” perspective usually have their problems; ones which I can spot easily, and I haven’t even been there yet. Problems with the language, problems with names, problems with weird assumptions that people often get from having watching a few anime and spent a semester of university there and then never doing more research than that. It’s probably safest for me to dive deeper into books written primarily  by Japanese people when I yearn for fiction, especially SFF, about Japan.

Otsuichi’s Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is a republication of 2 short stories. The first one, told from the perspective of young dead Satsuki, seems simple enough at first, but gradually grows in complexity and creepiness. Satsuki tells the story of how her best friend accidentally-on-purpose killed her, and the subsequent attempts to cover up the death so that nobody discovers what happened. The narrative seems a bit distanced at times, though that does make sense since Satsuki is the passive observer to all the events, incapable of acting upon anything or influencing the story due to her death. She watches as her friend and her friend’s brother go to increasing lengths to hide the body, as the tension heightens and they worry they’ll be caught, and the eventual surprising assistance by an unassuming young woman who is no stranger to hiding dead bodies.

And that final reveal was baffling for a moment, and then utterly chilling. It actually made me stop reading for a moment to consider the ramifications, and to think that Satsuki’s story was actually only a small part of a larger and grander tale. Very disturbing, and that Otsuichi wrote this kind of compelling fiction while still in high school is impressive.

The second story in the book, Yuko, is told mostly from the perspective of Kiyone, a young woman who cooks and cleans for an aged man and his never-seen wife. Kiyone thinks little of this for a while, accepting that the unseen Yuko is very ill, until one day she starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, trespasses in the elderly couple’s rooms, and sees Yuko surrounded by a lot of dolls.

Yuko, who appears to be a doll herself.

Kiyone hears from people in town that the man she works for once had a wife, but the wife passed away years ago.

And yet, we see snippets of him sometimes talking to Yuko. But is he talking to a real woman, a woman so ill she often can’t move and appears lifeless, or a life-size doll that he believes is his dead wife?

The ending is actually a bit ambiguous, and it’s easy to interpret things in one way or the other. I have my own theories on what happened, but things in the story aren’t as clear as they seem to be, and there’s always another layer to the mystery, along with speculation. For all that it was short, it said a lot, both about the lengths to which we will go to delude ourselves, the assumptions we will make about people will illnesses and disabilities, and the danger of knowing too much or too little. It’s a story for reading and then for reading between the lines.

I’d say this was a good introduction to Otsuichi’s work, a nice teaser for what’s to come. It’s low-investment; you can finish both of these stories pretty quickly, and there’s an appeal to a wide age range, since they’re rather YA-oriented but still creepy and nuanced enough to appeal to adults who want to feel a quick tingle down their spine. It’s worth a real if you’re curious about the kind of ghost stories that can come out of Japan, and, if like me, you want to read more books written by people whose native language isn’t English.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

MOVIE REVIEW: Baby Blues

I don’t know how I manage it, but I seem to keep finding the most effed-up Asian horror movies on Netflix.  This time it was a Hong Kong horror flick known as Baby Blues, a title that is meant to not just the color of newborn eyes, but also postpartum depression.

Or in the case of the movie, postpartum psychotic break caused by a haunted doll.

babybluescover The movie starts with Hao and his wife, Tian Qing, moving to a new and gorgeous house, shown to them by a very enthusiastic real estate agent. During the showing, Tian Qing finds a creepy doll left behind by the previous owners, and she decides that she really wants to keep it for some reason. Because all a new house needs is he addition of a bleeding-eyes doll to make it complete. Tian Qing is a blogger, and Hao is a songwriter who, upon moving to this new and impossibly gorgeous house, starts getting a little obsessed with writing songs about death. Which might not be so bad, if the song he’s working on didn’t make his wife throw up, and end up influencing a singer to crash her car and die.

The movie flat-out mentions the song Gloomy Sunday, so it’s not like they’re trying to hide the similarities between that and the urban legend, so there’s that.

Anyway, as Hao continues his campaign to depress the music-loving world, Tian Qing finds that she’s pregnant. Not just pregnant, but pregnant with twin boys! Hao names them Adam and Jimmy by writing said names on Tian Qing’s belly, in a scene that’s legitimately a bit cute. Problems arise, though, when Jimmy is stillborn, and Tian Qing, in her grief and denial, decides to replace him with the creepy doll. Hao is understandably worried, but his songwriting demands much of his time, and doctors say that it’s likely just postpartum depression, and she’ll recover.

In the defense of the doctors, Hao never actually told them, “So, my wife thinks a random doll is our second son, and she’s starting to care about the doll more than the living child.” That might have raised so red flags.

The story continues to reveal that the doll is related to an accidental death between twins in that house. The doll seems to be possessed less by an actual spirit, and more by the grief and malice from previous residents that experienced grief and betrayal. Tian Qing is deep in its influence, now muttering darkly about how Jimmy-the-doll doesn’t like Adam, how Hao doesn’t like Jimmy, how Jimmy is the centre of her world, and in all honesty, the actress’s portrayal of a woman over the edge was actually pretty good. She was unhinged, half-possessed, and she showed it well, so I’m a fan of her performance. After the story comes out, Hao sets out to remove the doll from the house and to destroy it, to free his family from its influence.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

I can’t help but feel that this movie was having a bit of an identity crisis. On one hand, it used some beautiful imagery at times, bordering on an art-film feel at times, trying to convey complex emotions by, say, the appearance of water dripping from a man’s hand. At other times, it goes over the top into ridiculous jump scares with average-at-best CGI. At one point we’re treated to a scene of the doll moving on its own, trying to get a knife from a coffee table by nudging the table a lot to make the knife fall. Unfortunately, it just comes across like the doll is humping the table leg, completely ruining any of the scene’s tension by the way it made me burst out laughing. The plot of the movie was fairly average as far as supernatural thrillers go, but it was the special effects that just ruined it, because they came across so ridiculously.

That, plus the whole subplot with the song seems somewhat without purpose. There are hints that it’s all influenced by the curse on the house and the doll, especially given what happens to one of the initial singers who hears it, but the second singer seems to be unaffected. It seems to serve largely as a distraction. There’s a slight connection to the story of what happened with a previous owner of the house being cheated on and going round the twist, but even that reveal was only there to serve as flavour.

And if you’re curious as to what the lyrics are that keep making people ill and/or depressed and suicidal, you’re out of luck if you watch the same version I did. No subtitles for the long lyrics. Which effectively killed any interest I had in that subplot, since my understanding hit a brick wall and it felt incredibly unresolved.

The original curse seems to have come from one twin accidentally killing the other in some weird game, only the twin dies from being pointed at and killed in-game, which I guess made him die because the doll was involved. Except the doll wasn’t cursed then. Or was it? And if so, how? That never really gets explained that well, and each answer just leads to more questions until you’re ready to just throw up your hands and say, “Fine, the doll’s haunted, and that’s all I need to know.”

Maybe it was a limitation of what the subtitles conveyed, I don’t know. Maybe if I didn’t need to rely on them, the whole thing would be much clearer and make more sense. As it was, this was a movie that lacked coherent origin or direction, had laughable special effects, ended ambiguously and predictably, and ultimately was more of a laugh than a scare. Not one I’d watch again, and honestly, not one I really enjoyed watching in the first place.