Most horror fans are at least somewhat familiar with Suzuki Koji’s work. Maybe from actually reading it, maybe from watching one of many Japanese adaptations or maybe from watching the Hollywood film that was pretty shit. We’re just going to be looking at the first book in The Ring series. Simply titled The Ring.
We open with some scenes of mysterious deaths. One of which is witnessed by a cab driver. We cut to that driver picking up a journalist, Asakawa Kazuyuki. He mentions the strange event which reminds Asakawa of the mysterious death of his own niece. He does some investigating and discovers two other teenagers who died under strange circumstances. Further investigation yields a time and place that all four were together one week before their deaths. He goes to the location and discovers that a strange VHS was found in their room.
For those of you who don’t know what a VHS is, it’s how people watched videos at home before the Internet was good enough for streaming and DVDs existed.
Watching the VHS leaves him with a terrifying message. He will die in seven days unless he fulfills some kind of charm. Unfortunately for him, the charm was erased. This leads him and his friend, Takayama Ryuji, to try and unravel the mystery of the images on the tape so that he can figure out what the charm is, before time runs out.
One strength of the writing is that it conveys tension with the ticking clock and the actual violent scenes are very brief but have power behind them. It’s the kind of restraint and subtlety that work wonders in horror but rarely get utilised properly. Because it’s so much easier to throw out some cheap jump scares and have some monster/ slasher jump out at people.
The solution to the whole curse is also very cleverly designed. Not only is it very lightly foreshadowed in the video’s imagery itself, but it comes into play in a very brilliant way towards the end. I also do appreciate the end of the book. It has one of those classic horror endings that mixes dread with a brief glint of hope. It also is compelling to see Asakawa & Takayama’s journey across Japan to investigate various aspects of the tape.
Here’s where the book falters a bit. While Suzuki does do a good job of presenting complex characters who have some depth, he may go too far in making Ryuji really unlikable. Part of the tension in a story like this comes from concern for the characters and one of the first things we learn about this guy is that he’s a chronic rapist and pretty heavily nihilistic. The book does backpedal a bit on that later, but it’s too little too late.
Still, you have to credit the man with thinking up and fleshing out characters who seem like actual human beings. Even our “antagonist” Yamamura Sadako has a lot of nuance to her character. All of which has to be acquired as third hand knowledge from the investigation.
The Ring is a great horror story. It may be very definitively set in the 90s with the cursed VHS angle but that’s perfectly fine. It has a strong sense of tension. The characters are complex. And the use of the horror elements themselves is subtle, nuanced and pretty much immaculate. I’m giving the book an 8/10.
Happy Halloween, Everyone.