The Graveyard Apartment

the-graveyard-apartment

Title: The Graveyard Apartment
Japanese Title: 墓地を見おろす家 (Bochi o miorosu ie)
Author: Koike Mariko (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 325

Kano Misao and her husband Teppei have found the perfect apartment. It’s quiet and spacious with southern exposure, and it’s in a new, modern building. Sure, this building happens to be right next door to a graveyard, but it’s the 1980s, and the pleasant proximity to an open green space outweighs any sort of silly superstitious stigma. The only problem is that strange things always seem to be happening in the basement. It might be that the building is haunted, but why? And what would the ghosts want from Misao and Teppei?

Like many other haunted house stories, The Graveyard Apartment is, at its heart, a family drama. Misao and Teppei are happy together with their five-year-old daughter Tamao and their dog Cookie, but the bright little family is trailed by the dark shadow of Teppei’s first wife Reiko, who was driven to suicide by her husband’s affair with Misao. When the stress of the paranormal activity in their new apartment places stress on Misao and Teppei’s relationship, the fault lines of their marriage begin to crack. The novel opens inauspiciously with the death of Tamao’s pet bird Pyoko, who the girl claims now visits her in dreams. Misao and Teppei’s disagreement over how to handle their daughter’s insistence on the reality of the supernatural is the first of many arguments, which gradually escalate over the course of the story.

The Graveyard Apartment is not The Shining, however, and the ghosts troubling the family are not manifestations of buried psychosexual traumas – they are, most assuredly, actual vengeful spirits. The horror of the novel derives from the fact that, despite the lingering guilt over Reiko’s suicide, the malice of the building’s ghosts could not be directed at a more normal and easygoing family. If a sweet young mother and fledgling illustrator like Misao can find herself trapped in a claustrophobic basement while unknown things approach unseen in the darkness, it could happen to anyone.

It turns out that the apartment building is a remnant of a failed development project from the 1960s that would have resulted in an underground shopping plaza connecting the basements of several office and residence buildings to the local train station. The neighborhood temple resisted this development and refused to sell or subdivide its land, however, and so the tunnel under the graveyard was left unfinished, with the Kanos’ building the only part of the project that came to fruition. The link between the temple graveyard and the ghosts in the basement is extremely tenuous (especially since the point of Buddhist funerary rites is to pacify angry spirits), but the haunting can be more easily understood as the consequences of the era high economic growth, which has finally started to claim victims as the bubble economy begins to collapse in on itself.
The Kanos were led to believe that they could have it all – Teppei could divorce his old-fashioned wife and marry for love, Misao could have both a child and a freelance career in a creative field, and they could find a reasonably priced apartment in a convenient location to house their happy family. It had to be too good to be true, right?

Originally published in 1988, The Graveyard Apartment is a reflection of the anxieties concerning the optimistic consumerism of the 1980s, in which an ideal middle-class lifestyle was widely considered to be glossy and attainable as the magazines Misao illustrates. Although the real threat to families ended up being overinflated property values, Koike’s ghosts are creepy enough on their own even without any sort of economic allegory, and the end of the novel is genuinely disturbing. The Graveyard Apartment is a satisfying slow burn of a haunted house story perfectly suited to its setting in Tokyo, and I highly recommend it to my fellow fans of horror fiction.

( Review copy provided by Thomas Dunne Books. )

Last Winter, We Parted

Last Winter We Parted

Title: Last Winter, We Parted
Japanese Title: 去年の冬、きみと別れ (Kyonen no fuyu, kimi to wakare)
Author: Nakamura Fuminori (中村 文則)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2013 (Japan)
Publisher: Soho Press
Pages: 216

A 35-year-old photographer named Kiharazaka Yūdai is charged with the murder of two young women who acted as his models. Although his work was highly regarded, he had lived mainly off the inheritance from his maternal grandfather, who had distanced himself from his daughter to such an extent that Yūdai and his sister Akari ended up growing up in an orphanage after being abandoned by their parents. He is currently being held in prison in solitary confinement, where he’s waiting to appeal his death sentence.

The narrator, an unnamed writer who is working with his editor to put out a book about Kiharazaka, visits him in prison and then begins exchanging letters. He also meets with Akari and a salaryman named Katani, who had been Kiharazaka’s only friend. Both of them believe he’s innocent, and both want to know why the narrator cares so much about him.

It turns out that both Kiharazaka and the narrator were involved with a group that had formed around a man named Suzuki, a creator of full-size silicon sex dolls. When the narrator approaches Suzuki about Kiharazaka, the craftsman talks at length about his clients and the uncanniness of his art. He also discusses the similarities between his work and Kiharazaka’s photography, bringing up Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story Hell Screen as a means of explaining the relationship between beauty and suffering. Suzuki doesn’t doubt that Kiharazaka murdered his photographic subjects by setting them and his studios on fire, but he suspects that there was something that drove the man’s madness other than the desire to lift himself out of an artistic slump.

There is in fact more going on, but it’s the reader who has to play detective. Interspersed between the short passages charting the narrator’s descent into an unhealthy relationship with the Kiharazaka siblings are various documents presented as numbered “archives.” Some are letters from Kiharazaka to his sister and to the narrator, while others are diary entries and Twitter feeds, and some are more difficult to classify. The relationships between the characters are not what they initially seem, with names being nothing more than empty signifiers of fractured identities, and the reader is forced to fit all of the clues together herself if she wants to understand what really happened between this small group of irreparably damaged people.

Last Winter, We Parted is misogynistic in that female characters seem to only be there to be photographed and/or fucked before being burned alive, but that comes with the territory. Let’s be real here, this is a crime novel written by a man who won the Ōe Prize, what were you expecting.

Standard literary sexism aside, Last Winter, We Parted is a small book of eerie beauty. Despite its gory subject matter, the prose is as light as falling ash. Allison Markin Powell’s translation is, as always, wonderful. This is the first book by Nakamura Fuminori I’ve read, but I’m definitely hooked on his writing.

Ring

Ring

Title: Ring
Japanese Title: リング (Ringu)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2004 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 282

In Nakata Hideo’s 1998 film adaptation of Ring, the point-of-view character for most of the story is female. This is an effective casting choice, as cinematic audiences are primed to experience danger and vulnerability through female protagonists in horror films. Suzuki Kōji’s original novel is less about thrills and chills than it is about hardcore investigative journalism, however, and its hero, Asakawa Kazuyuki, is male. The female lead in the Ring film’s husband, Takayama Ryūji, is Asakawa’s friend in the novel, which sees the two men travel across Japan in an attempt to save Asakawa’s wife and child from a deadly curse apparently connected to a mysterious bootleg videotape.

In the opening pages of the book, two creepy things happen: a teenage girl dies suddenly in her family’s apartment in Yokohama, and a boy on a motorcycle falls down dead on the road in front of a taxi. A month later, the taxi driver reports the latter incident to a random passenger, who happens to be the journalist Asakawa, whose niece happens to be the teenage girl involved in the former incident. Asakawa, upon realizing that these deaths, as well as two others, all happened at the exact same time on the exact same day, tracks down the connection between the teenagers to a cabin in the woods near the seaside resort of Atami, which is a two-hour train ride southwest of Tokyo. It is there that he encounters an unmarked videotape upon which a surreal series of images has been recorded. White letters at the end of the sequence warn that the viewer will die in a week unless a certain “charm” is performed, but the four dead teenagers recorded over the actions needed to perform this charm as a prank.

In order to figure out the charm before his time is up, Asakawa enlists his college professor friend Ryūji to help him figure out as much information concerning the origins of the tape as possible. What follows is a surprisingly unsuspenseful series of adventures in which the two men eat things, drink things, and leisurely chat with all manner of people as they gradually puzzle out the life story of Yamamura Sadako, the beautiful young woman whom they believe to be responsible for the cursed videotape. Although Ring is structured around a quest for Sadako, the novel, unlike the film adaptation, is a man’s world. The primary female characters are offstage and only glimpsed through the recollections of various male characters, who are far more interested in localized histories of science and medicine than they are in the supernatural.

The reviews excerpted on the back of the novel promise that it is “very frightening” and “an engine of disquiet” and “shocking” and “so creepy your hair will literally stand on end;” but, to be honest, I don’t think the book is that scary, and the fright factor is only a marginal portion of what it has to offer a reader. Instead, Ring unfolds as a mystery in which clues must be painstakingly tracked down one at a time as the principal players struggle to draw connections between them. It’s the search for these bits of information, as well as the thrill of hard-won eureka moments, that will keep the reader entertained, and the paranormal elements are for the most part examined in a rational and pseudo-scientific manner. The true horror of Ring does not lie in its ghosts or shocking imagery, but rather in the absolute inability of human beings to comprehend the vast and menacing world that lies outside the realm of our control.

Ring is set in the same decade in which it was written, and the condominium high-rises, mass media publications, and corporate culture of the late 1980s saturate the background of the novel. The primitive fear of disease still haunts the advanced society that provides the backdrop of Ring, however; and, although the science and technology of the age strive to contain natural forces, some things cannot be controlled. The author is able to accentuate this anxiety by continually linking the actions of Sadako’s curse with images of the natural world at its most hostile and overwhelming. For example, one of the greatest of natural forces, the sea, is a constant presence in Ring, and it only appears under the cover of darkness and in contrast to human constructions, a juxtaposition which creates an impression of a dark, brooding malice lurking beyond the boundaries of civilization. The novel opens with an image of the highly developed industrial area which lines the bay fronting the city of Yokohama:

Off to the south the oily surface of the ocean reflected the glittering lights of a factory. A maze of pipes and conduits crawled along the factory walls like blood vessels on muscle tissue. Countless lights played over the front wall of the factory like insects that glow in the dark… The factory cast a wordless shadow on the black sea beyond.

Suzuki equates the factory with humanity as he compares its bulk to a human body, endowing it with “blood vessels” and “muscle tissue.” The multitudinous lights of Yokohama at night also metaphorically dot the surface of the factory, but none of this light has any effect on the “black sea beyond.” Instead, the factory as a symbol of humanity and its ingenuity merely “cast[s] a wordless shadow” over the silent ocean, which almost seems to mock its presence.

Even with our incredible advances in technology, contemporary societies still have trouble coping with the facets of existence that lie beyond the explanations offered by science and ordinary experience. We are all insignificant and ephemeral points of light flickering on and off somewhere in a dark, callous, and unfathomably large universe. While the film and graphic novel adaptations of Ring delight in the uncanny horror of the female demonic, the horror of the original novel is more Lovecraftian. The protagonists of Ring are ultimately punished by the narrative not because they don’t strive tirelessly for information, but rather because they believe the achievement of knowledge has the capacity to help them in any way.

A reader should not come to Ring expecting the same sort of jump-horror at which its cinematic adaptations excel; there are no creepy little girls stuffed in closets or climbing out of television sets. Suzuki’s novel instead rewards intellectual engagement and curiosity, which it subtly mocks and discredits in the most terrifying of ways.

Another, Volume 1

Another

Title: Another, Volume 1
Japanese Title: Another (Anazā) 上
Author: Ayatsuji Yukito (綾辻 行人)
Translator: Karen McGillicuddy
Year Published: 2013 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 254

If you’ve watched the Another anime and are looking for a quick answer regarding whether or not you should read the novel the anime is based on: Yes, you should read it. It’s a fun book and a quick read. It’s just as creepy as the anime, but it’s creepy in different ways. The basic plot is the same, but enough of the details are different to maintain a feeling of suspense.

Before I begin, I should say that this review only covers the first volume of a two-volume novel. According to Amazon, the second volume won’t be released until July 23, 2013. Since Another is a highly compelling mystery novel, and since the first volume doesn’t offer closure but instead only deepens the mystery, I might caution anyone who hasn’t already seen the Another anime series (which is available on Hulu) against reading the first half before the second half is available.

Another begins in April of 1998 in a small mountain town called Yomiyama. The narrator is Sakakibara Kōichi, who suffers from a lung disease called “primary spontaneous pneumothorax.” Since his father is spending a year abroad in India, Kōichi has moved from Tokyo to Yomiyama to live with the parents of his deceased mother. Before he can start ninth grade with his new class (the Japanese school year begins in April) at the North Yomi Middle School, however, Kōichi suffers a relapse of his disease and is hospitalized. While in the hospital, he is visited by two students from his class who badger him with a series of unpleasantly persistent questions about his background in relation to Yomiyama. Even more curious is his encounter with a strangely taciturn girl wearing a North Yomi uniform in the hospital’s elevator. This girl, Misaki Mei, is wearing a conspicuous eye patch and headed down to a part of the hospital basement that should be empty.

As soon as Kōichi is released from the hospital, his mother’s younger sister Reiko, who lives with Kōichi’s grandparents, sits him down and tells him the “North Yomi fundamentals,” the third of which is “you must at all costs obey whatever the class decides.” Kōichi, who had been bullied at his old school because of his family name, is uncomfortable with this rule; and, when he finally begins school, he is unpleasantly surprised when he realizes that everyone in his class is bullying Mei. No one acknowledges her presence in the classroom, and no one will discuss her with Kōichi. Kōichi gets hints that what is going on is more than mere bullying, however; the class’s treatment of Mei is somehow tied to a curse laid on the third class of the third year students at North Yomi.

Another is half horror and half mystery. The horror comes from the existence of ineffable supernatural phenomena, the grisly deaths of Kōichi’s classmates, and the looming inevitability of the class’s fate. The “you must at all costs obey whatever the class decides” dictum is majorly creepy as well. These horror elements lend a major sense of urgency to the mysteries Kōichi must puzzle out: Why is everyone ignoring Misaki Mei? What is the curse afflicting Class 3-3? How did the curse come about, and how does it work?

The answers to these questions are eventually revealed at the end of the volume. To be honest, the specifics of the curse don’t actually make a great deal of practical sense, but that’s okay – the setup and nature of the curse are clever and interesting. Since this is only the first half of the story, it goes without saying that not everything is revealed. In fact, the end of the first volume sets up an even more interesting mystery. The curse is apparently linked to one specific person in each class in which the curse is active, the so-called “casualty” (死者), but who could this be? The first volume doesn’t give the reader the necessary clues to figure this out, but it does hint at a particularly nasty moral dilemma that the reader can look forward to exploring in the second half of the story.

Another isn’t the most beautifully written book in the world. When compared to the anime, with its moody musical score, atmospheric lighting, and lush background images, the novel doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the potential creepiness of its setting in an isolated mountain town before the advent of widespread cell phone and internet use. What the novel does do is to deliver an additively readable young adult horror story that can also be read as a power fantasy of working through some of the more unpleasant aspects of ninth grade. A new kid transfers into a new class at a new school, and things are weird and awkward not because fifteen-year-olds are weird and awkward but because there’s a curse. The class seems to be bullying a shy girl who doesn’t fit in not because fifteen-year-olds can be terrible people but because there’s a curse. The homeroom teacher is sketchy and the librarian is spooky not because some adults have trouble dealing with fifteen-year-olds but because there’s a curse.

Class 3-3 is in its own little universe created by both unknowable supernatural forces and unstated institutional regulations, and everything the students in the class do is truly a matter of life and death. Under the veneer of normalcy created by daily routine, nothing is normal at all, and the sickly transfer student and uncanny quiet girl might just end up being the heroes who save everyone. It’s a fairly heady fantasy for anyone who’s ever that things at their middle/high school weren’t quite right. Even without the analogy to the implicit strangeness of ninth grade, the momentum of the race to get to the bottom of what’s going on at North Yomi Middle School is enough to keep anyone reading until the end.

Even though I know what happens, I’m still eagerly awaiting the second volume.