A collection of shorts from everyone’s favorite dentist, Junji Ito.
It’s an English release of The Best of Junji Ito, which was collected in 2019 by Shogakukan Big Comics Special. It’s the same basic idea as Metallica’s Garage Days Re-Revisited – odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere. Four stories are bonuses from Gyo, Remina, and Black Paradox. Three are adaptations of prose works Edogawa Rampo and Robert Hitchens. The rest is previously uncollected material. It’s not clear why these particular stories were chosen, or why others (such as “Mystery Pavilion”, “Phantom Mansion”, etc) were missed.
“Billions Alone” – 2004 Junji Ito stares into a crystal ball and perfectly predicts the world of 2022. People are forced into isolation by a sinister force that kills them when they gather together. You’ll think of COVID19, of course, but the corpses-stitched-together visual could be an equally good comment on social media, which erupted like a cancer years after the story’s release. Spot the panel that inspired The Human Centipede.
“Venus in the Blind Spot” – a sweet, weird story about a girl who vanishes from your visual field when she gets close. It’s a Tomie story with less gore, reprising Ito’s usual themes of madness, desire, female beauty, and perception. It would be a good introduction to his work.
“The Enigma of Amigara Fault” – chilling story that makes my skin try to crawl off my skeleton, even now. A landslide reveals human-shaped holes in a mountain, which some people try to enter. A really effective and sharp story body horror and claustrophobia. Overall, Uzumaki is Ito’s greatest manga, but if you want to sharpen his entire career down to a thirty page highlight, this is it.
“The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” – a man gets trapped underneath a pillar upholding his house. Nobody online seems to understand the story, but it isn’t that confusing. It just takes a common metaphor (a father supports his house!) and makes it literal. More a joke than a story.
“The Human Chair” – Rampo’s 1925 story (about a carpenter who installs himself in a hidden compartment in a chair so that he can feel women sitting on him) is a classic of Japanese horror. To experience this much voyeuristic sexual perversity you’d have to be a girl riding the Shinkansen. Although it shares a title with this classic tale, Ito’s story is more of a sequel, continuing and expanding the plot.
“Master Umezz and Me” – a very personal story where Ito discusses his fannish obsession with Kazuo Umezu, the godfather of Japanese horror manga. Umezu (who, by the way, is 85 years old and announced the launch of a new series this year) is so different from Ito that it’s always surprised me that he drew inspiraiton from him. Aside from some vague surface similarities (“supernatural immortal girl” = Orochi/Tomie, “kids surviving in a hostile wasteland” = The Drifting Classroom/Uzumaki vol 3, Bible-style apocalypse where mankind is punished = Fourteen/Remina) their work is nothing alike. The story’s a heartfelt and affectionate tribute. Sometimes we forget what it’s like to be a kid who enjoys something: it’s a pure, heliumlike joy seldom recaptured in adulthood.
Parenthetically, does Goodreads sell a licensed crack pipe that you’re supposed to light up before writing reviews?
“Viz Media’s blurb for Venus in the Blind Spot is really weird: it claims this is a “best of” collection of Junji Ito’s stories but, as far as I can tell, only one – maybe two – stories have previously appeared in print before: The Enigma of Amigara Fault and The Sad Tale of the Principal Post possibly both appeared in Dissolving Classroom. So this is a “best of” collection that features almost all-new stories!?”
Ito should make a manga about this person’s mind. It’d be his scariest work by far.
The author of Naked Lunch is heroin, with William S Burroughs best viewed as a kind of scribe. Stephen King is a similar case: an amanuensis taking dictation from whatever substance he’s on. His 80s coke-written novels and tend to be manic, fast, and insane. Dreamcatcher was written in 2001 under the influence of opioids (in the aftermath of a severe car accident) and it’s slow and laboured. Reading Dreamcatcher is like walking in the dark, looking for a bus station in a part of town that might not have a bus station.
It was one of my first King books. It fairly represents his work: most of his themes and hobbyhorses are here. Big secret in a small town. Childhood innocence contrasted with adult disillusionment. Monsters. Aliens. Government spooks. The setting is the town of Derry, and there’s a loud reference to It along with a quieter reference to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. It harkens back to his old work in many ways – like a reprise of a famous old song, played in half-time. I think King mostly wrote it to prove to himself that he still had it.
Four young boys rescue a retarded boy from a gang of bullies, an act so selflessly heroic they’re all but owed a supernatural reward. They grow up sharing a telepathic gift – they know things they shouldn’t know, can detect emotional states, and immediately know when someone in their group is in physical danger. Adulthood pulls them apart, but every year they gather in northern Maine for some hunting.
One year, a man shows up at their snowbound cabin. He’s lost, doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know what day he is, can’t cogently explain what happened to him (etc): the reader will think alien abduction immediately, but the four main characters are slower on the uptake. Soon, the stranger undergoes a gruesome transformation. The four men are still on a hunting trip, but not the one they signed up for.
There’s lots of flatulence, and toilet non-humor. This is the most Cronenbergian thing King wrote; he really explores how physically disgusting it might be to have an alien incubating inside you. The subtitle might as well be “two digestive tracts, one body”.
Beaver pointed. The door to the bathroom where they’d put Rick McCarthy — Jonesy’s room — stood open. The door to the bathroom, which they had left open so McCarthy could not possibly miss his way if nature called, was now closed.
Beaver turned his somber, beard—speckled face to Jonesy’s. ‘Do you smell it?’
Jonesy did, in spite of the cold fresh air coming in through the door. Ether or ethyl alcohol, yes, there was still that, but now it was mixed with other stuff. Feces for sure. Something that could have been blood. And something else, something like mine-gas trapped a million years and finally let free. Not the kind of fart-smells kids giggled over on camping trips, in other words. This was something richer and far more awful. You could only compare it to farts because there was nothing else even close. At bottom, Jonesy thought, it was the smell of something contaminated and dying badly. ‘And look there. ‘
Beaver pointed at the hardwood floor. There was blood on it, a trail of bright droplets running from the open door to the closed one. As if McCarthy had dashed with a nosebleed. Only Jonesy didn’t think it was his nose that had been bleeding.
Much of the book is a riff on the It formula, with adults adrift in a gruesome catastrophe while remembering stuff from their childood. Sweetening alienation (literally, in this case) with nostalgia is one of King’s favorite and most effective tricks, and he puts it to good use here.
Nostalgia is a word formed out of algos, pain. There’s a lot of pain in this book. All of the four (five?) main characters suffer debilitating wounds or worse over the book’s course, and King’s own agony seems psychically imprinted on the page. Some of the book’s most effective parts deal with the character Jonesy’s memories of a car accident. It’s one of the few parts where King surfaces through a paint-by-numbers drug fog and actually seems to be connecting to something that truly matters to him.
The most vivid monster in the book isn’t an alien but a man; a flamboyant and deranged US Army Colonel called Abraham Kurtz, who throws a quarantine zone around the northern Maine woods. He’s a great character – you enjoy the moments he’s on the page, because only then is something guaranteed to happen.
The book’s problems are pretty obvious. It’s simply too slow.
Dreamcatcher is a picture all out of focus, with no idea of what the important bits of story are or how to get to them. It meanders like thorazine hallucination. You want King to get to the point, and instead he starts distractedly twirling a loose thread of narrative tapestry with his fingers. We get backstory, dumped right into the middle of an exciting action moment. We get descriptions of Maine scenery just as we’re straining to see what’s in the foreground. The book’s comic-book gross out elements jibe awkwardly with some pop culture pretensions, like calling his lunatic “Kurtz” and then having a character draw attention to it, just in case we missed that it’s a reference to something.
I might recommend Dreamcatcher if you’re on a luxury liner for a very long time and can only take one book. I guess you can say that opioids are not really such an interesting drug to “read”. There’s a reason Scarface focused on uppers rather than downers.
Imagine if you could combine different writers, the way botanists combine grafts of different trees. For example, David Foster Wallace’s brevity and lucidity, matched with Terry Brooks’ originality, Dean Koontz’s gritty slice-of-life realism, Stephen King’s ability to really stick an ending, and Dan Brown’s prose. Writing involves several different skills, and no writer is a master of all of them. Reading a book often means enjoying one side of the author’s craft and cringing at another.
Frederick Forsyth is a dramatic example of this. His prose, characterization, and thematic work is bad – some of the worst I’ve ever seen. But his stories are good. And they’re anchored by astounding levels of technical detail.
He had superhuman research abilities. It’s not a figure of speech to say his life depended on them. He wasn’t a tinker or tailor, but at least he was a soldier and spy, and his later career involved flexing the fact-gathering muscles he’d built in the RAF and MI6 (as well as a lengthy career as a journalist in places like Biafra and Nigeria) and using them to write thriller novels. He’s a DND character with some stats set at 10 and others set at 2 or 3. The typical Forsyth story involves him pounding out reams of fascinating and believable technical detail on all sorts of things…while gingerly walking around his story’s human elements like a man on thin ice.
The first story in his “No Comebacks” collection draws a highlighter over his strengths and weaknesses. A wealthy, amoral man falls in love with a married woman, and hatches a plot to have her husband killed. The romance scenes are terrible and barely register as such: Forsyth writes like an entomologist describing a strange insect mating ritual. But as soon as the contract killer plotline starts, Forsyth sparks to life. Here’s how you gather intelligence on someone; here’s how you find a hitman; here’s how you conceal a pistol inside a book, here’s how to modify bullets so they make less sound, and on and on. The quotidian detail builds and then sunders apart in a vicious final snap.
“There Are No Snakes in Ireland” has more mismatched parts. A Punjabi medical student takes a job on a Belfast construction site, and is bullied by a racist foreman. He hatches a plan to kill his persecutor that’s substantially more complex than it has to be, and of course everything goes wrong, or right, or rightfully wrong. The story’s unreal fairytale quality jars against the mundane construction-worker aspects. Forsyth seems most comfortable when describing how to demolish a building.
“The Emperor” is a homage to Hemingway, featuring an exhausting, exhilerating struggle of man-vs-fish on the open waters. Everything around this is silly, particularly the cartoonishly awful wife. Forsyth doesn’t appear to like women much: they seldom feature except as murder victims, nagging shrews, criminal extortionists, and so on. The hero Murgatroyd, like us, happily forgets all of this as soon as he sets out to sea.
“There Are Some Days” is set in Ireland during the Troubles. A truck driver has his lorry hijacked by the Northern Irish mafia, who believe him to be carrying a shipment of brandy. There are multiple misunderstandings and confusions, finally leading to the most effective twist ending in the book. It’s almost the story with the least humanity, it’s almost as if the lorry is the main character. Forsyth’s descriptions of a truck breaking down and being fixed are infinitely more absorbing than any of his romance plots.
“Money With Menace” is about a nebbish, shy man who seems to have come out of a Monty Python sketch about investment bankers. A sexual misadventure (that Forsyth wisely doesn’t try to depict at all) soon leads to an extortion plot. The tension is exciting, and the ending is spoiled in advance. Too bad.
“Used in Evidence” is about a silent old man who has finally been evicted from his squalid terrace apartment. It’s quickly discovered why he didn’t want to leave – there’s a mummified human cadaver behind the fireplace. Has he murdered someone? It’s a blood-freezing tale, with scarcely a trace of humor. It’s very much like Roald Dahl’s stories for grownups, “The Landlady” or whatever.
“Privilege”, by contrast, is as light and insubstantial as a soap bubble. I guess Forsyth heard that you can’t be sued for anything you say in court, and thought he could write a story about this one detail and nothing else.
“Duty” is written in the first-person, with an cautious note from Forsyth that it’s not like the others. I didn’t find it to be that different. It relies on lots of quotidian detail for its effects, weaving together a plot involving mysteries, confusion, secrets, and ambiguous or mistaken identities. It doesn’t have the same knockout punch as “No Comebacks” and “There Are Some Days”, and it’s about an event so far away (both in time and place) from the narrative that it’s hard to care much. It’s like “experiencing” the movie Titanic in the form of two co-workers discussing it ten years after seeing it. Interestingly mainly for the day-to-day details about rural Ireland.
“A Careful Man” is about a dead millionaire who plays a prank on his hated inlaws from beyond the grave. Similar to The Wrong Box and many other squabble-at-the-graveside type stories. There’s more meat to it than “Privilege”, but it’s ultimately a similar tale, ending in poetic justice. The moral seems to be “the law is an ass, so why not go for a ride on it?”
“Sharp Practice” involves a judge who is cozened into a game of poker by a man who – by coincidence, just one day later – he has in the dock for running a card scam. An elaborate story, with Forsyth immersing the reader in poker and having it seem like a fascinating, self-contained universe. Terry Pratchett said that the secret to a magic trick is to know just one extra fact. Here, there’s one fact that the judge doesn’t know, and also one fact that the reader doesn’t know. A fun story, although I guessed the twist a few pages before it came.