Kat Clay on short story collections by Junji Ito and Izumi Suzuki
There’s no denying that if you’ve read comics, you’ve likely heard of Japanese horror juggernaut, Junji Ito. His latest book, Tombs (Viz, 2023), offers nine stories of the supernatural – and they’re good.
Small towns and their secrets are a key theme of Tombs, with many of the stories about moving to or from home. In Ito’s first and titular story, ‘Tombs’, a young woman and her brother get into a fatal car accident with another girl. Yet the strangeness of the town where the accident takes place prevents them from taking ownership of their crime: everyone who dies transforms into their own tomb.
While the story doesn’t take an unexpected path, the haunting way that Ito tells the tale has remained with me in the days after. Unavoidable stone plinths inhabit the roads and public spaces, a stark reminder of the deaths that remain out of sight. The constant vision of death makes the town’s inhabitants more compassionate. Its protagonists, maybe not.
‘The Bloody Story of Shirosuna’ starts out as a modern take on Dracula, with its doctor arriving to serve a town of anaemic people. Despite some very bloody red flags, the story takes a sharp turn into the surreal, where the natural world is against its inhabitants. Similarly, in ‘Floaters’, the secret thoughts of the town are announced by triffid-like puffballs, where the power of a revealed secret can drive people to death. These aren’t the animated dust bunnies of Miyazaki films…
Throughout the stories there are aspects of Poe and his tell-tale heart, with the guilty haunted by their actions, either to the point of suicide, madness, or transformation. It’s these moments of body horror that Ito masterfully conveys with line-work. The closer the stories move to their monsters, the more the precise manga line work is transformed into mania. The best illustrations are in ‘Slug Girl’, where a young woman suffers a hideous transformation (and it’s probably easy to figure out what she becomes from the title) and the horrific ‘The Window Next Door’. It’s this story which gave me the single jump of the collection. In here, the woman’s persistence to enter the bedroom of the young man is a modernisation of the classic yokai stories of Japan, where a young man is haunted by a pleading, often beautiful ghost. Here, she’s hideous.
There’s a critique to be made in several of the stories that ugliness is akin to evil or malevolence, although this revulsion of the self could be interpreted as part of the overarching body horror of Ito’s work. The stories often focus on the lives of pretty high school students, leaving the overweight, middle-aged, and unattractive as side-characters or villains. The fear of becoming unattractive drives the near-caricature villain of ‘Bronze Statue’ to preserve herself in any way possible, while destroying her detractors. In this, she is illustrated with makeup caked over rolls of fat and wrinkles, in a desperate attempt to retain her youth. Of course, her beautiful recreations have the last laugh. But there’s a terror throughout the collection in self-perception (or delusion), especially when the beautiful young woman of ‘The Bloody Story of Shirosuna’ prefers her anaemic self. She says of her blood-drained body, ‘I like my pale self. I’m prettier that way.’ Perhaps this idealism of the perfect, youthful self walks the line between beauty and body horror. Our bodies will decay as we approach death; to attempt to retain youth is not just a matter of appearance, but a matter of mortality.
Each story offers the satisfying feeling of classic horror, whether that’s the curious protagonist haunted by their past in ‘The Strange Tale of the Tunnel’, moral transgressions coming full circle in ‘Tombs’, or a villain getting betrayed by her own creation in ‘Bronze Statue’. If there’s a criticism here, the stories sometimes end in expected tropes and outcomes. They feel like classic stories because they take the structure of a Poe or Lafcadio Hearn tale; those who cross moral or spiritual boundaries are punished in a deeply ironic way. If Ito mentions something early in the story, it’s sure to come back later.
On a technical level, this is methodical foreshadowing, but there’s less surprise to be found in the ending of these stories as a result. Take for example, ‘Washed Ashore’, where a young woman laments to a stranger that her fiance disappeared at sea many years ago, while overlooking an enormous translucent sea-creature washed up on the beach. Wonder where he is? But Ito layers the story with a sense of alienation that offsets this predictability.
There’s a reason Ito is so popular: these stories are haunting, precise, and sharp as the lines on the page. You’ll pour through this volume of manga in a few hours. These stories stand like tombs – silent, malevolent, and impossible to avoid.
In recent years, Verso has posthumously published two short story collections by notable Japanese science fiction writer, Izumi Suzuki. The follow up to Terminal Boredom (2021), the short stories in Hit Parade of Tears (2023), translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd, Helen O’Horan, and Daniel Joseph, are thematically linked through alien life – whether that’s actual aliens landing in Tokyo, space invaders, or the hallucinations of a schizophrenic mind.
There’s a melancholia in reading these stories and knowing something of the author’s history, Suzuki having committed suicide at 36 in 1986. Many of these previously published experimental science fiction stories are reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and explore where mental health and speculative fiction meet. Hit Parade of Tears makes for dark reading; it’s littered with references to mental health, institutionalisation, and suicide.
Women are at the heart of Suzuki’s writing, with their fears apparent on every page – they worry as they age about their waning looks and putting on weight, finding love, and how to look after a family. ‘Full of Malice’ addresses one conflict of womanhood, where a headstrong sister searches out her brother in a mental asylum, only to be committed herself. The staff ‘took the liberty of removing your vitriol’, as if it’s something that women can’t possess in order to be happy.
In ‘The Covenant’ characters receive ESP transmissions, with delusions of godhood that lead to self-harm and harm to others. You’re never sure whether these transmissions are related to a mental health condition or not – characters believe they are the ordained messiah, but the ending leaves enough ambiguity not to be sure either way. These transmissions, and the belief in being chosen, cause the young female students in the story to act out violently.
‘Hey, It’s a Love Psychadelic!’ promises an intriguing concept, with a woman experiencing a trippy love story across multiple timelines, but is beleaguered by an underdeveloped story and countless references to Japanese music; understandable given the author’s involvement with the punk rock scene and her marriage to saxophonist Kaoru Abe. These stories are intended for a Japanese audience, so if you’re unfamiliar with Tokyo, there’s little to anchor you here with a description of the city or its denizens.
In contrast, her flash fiction is sharp and exacting, with one of the most striking images from the book in ‘After Everything’. Snakes have overtaken the world in a post-apocalyptic Japan, again striking a terrifying balance between the day-to-day and the horrific, as women go about their day with little reaction to the snakes, nor the surrounding events.
There’s only one light-hearted story in the collection, that of ‘Trial Witch’, Suzuki’s first published science fiction story from 1975. A beleaguered housewife is given magical powers during a trial period as a witch, and uses them to pull her cheating husband into line. There’s a sense of whimsy and amusement here, Suzuki contrasting the banal details of day-to-day life with the supernatural.
Yet the emotional distance in her writing leaves readers constantly skirting the heart of these stories. Perhaps the most personal is ‘Memory of Water’, in which a depressed woman receives an invitation to a theatrical performance with a bleak blurb, offering ‘simulated experiences’. Reality and performance diverge, as does the character into herself and the alter-she. The real woman – introverted, agoraphobic and depressed – longs to become the alter-she, a free being. She wants to be loved, but is unwilling to give love. By the end of the story, she becomes the alter-she, although the implied cost is high. It reminded me of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s ‘Spinning Gears’, another deeply personal story of the mental health struggles of one of Japan’s most famous short story writers.
Despite some of the underdeveloped stories, the genuine tragedy is that these offer so much promise of a life cut short. Occasionally Suzuki’s writing would catch me off-guard with images of aliens like ‘salmon roe’ in the sky. Or her description of the evening, ‘Night doesn’t come on gradually, at a consistent speed. It holds itself back as long as it can, and then, as if to say, “Fuck it, I’m outta here,” it free-falls into darkness.’
It’s a fitting end to thinking about these stories: a haunting free-fall into darkness. ∎
Kat Clay’s short stories have been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Aurealis, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and several anthologies. Her non-fiction and criticism has been published in The Guardian, The Victorian Writer, and Weird Fiction Review, and she was a contributor to the Locus winning and Hugo nominated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. You can read ‘The Black Box Killer’, Kat’s experimental futuristic thriller inspired by 60s new wave science fiction, in Interzone #294.
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