Ring, by Koji Suzuki

ring-by-koji-suzuki coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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Okay, I confess, I saw the American theatrical version of The Ring before I read the novel and my reaction to the original source material has no doubt been tainted as a result, but I am happy to report that Koji Suzuki’s Ring is the first novel I’ve read for a very long time that I didn’t stop reading until I finished the damned thing (“damned” being a word I use advisedly), and I’m equally happy to report that the novel possesses a gratifyingly high chill rate.

With deceptively simplistic prose — perhaps a result of the translation from Japanese to English — Suzuki weaves a combination of mystery and supernatural horror that at times echoes bits of H.P. Lovecraft’s constant returns to the sea and the vast and hidden powers lurking beneath (in fact, it may be said that the sea is where this whole thing started), at other times sounds Dean Koontz-like with scientifications of horror, and at other times seems a bit like Michael Chrichton’s medical science fiction. The combination creates a compelling story whose ultimate explanation involves the workings of a virus, the malevolence of a wronged psychic, and the influence of Japanese mysticism.

The protagonist is Kazuyuki Asakawa, a newspaper reporter with a wife and infant daughter, and one night he hears a strange story from a cab driver about a mysterious death he witnessed while stopped at a traffic light. Seems a young fella on a motorcycle next to him suddenly dropped dead, madly trying to remove his helmet, yet unable to. When the helmet was later removed, the kid’s dead face was frozen with a look of sheer terror. He died of sudden heart failure. Intrigued, Asakawa investigates and soon discovers that there were three other deaths that same night and time, and one of them was his own niece, seventeen-year-old Tomoko Oishi. Searching for a common link between the four leads him to a cabin where they watched a peculiar videotape offering bizarre and disjointed images. The videotape also includes the warning, “Those who view these images are fated to die at this exact moment one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you mrust follow these instructions exactly…” Of course the salvific instructions are missing and the video makes such an impression upon Asakawa that he believes he is doomed just like those kids.

Unfortunately, this belief doesn’t quite carry its own weight. Though we get constant reminders that everything about that video and its images creeps out Asakawa, we can’t help but think, “Hey, dude, it’s just a video, you’re overreacting.” In other words, Suzuki treads perilously close to the willing suspension of disbelief and doesn’t quite make it into “suspension” territory no matter how many times he reminds us that Asakawa fears for his life. Nonetheless, in his attempt to find out who made that videotape, what those images mean, and how to stop the curse, Asakawa enlists the aid of Ryuji Takayama, an old school acquaintance who is the only real puzzle amid Suzuki’s characters. A nihilist, a loudmouth, a blowhard, Ryuji may or may not also be a rapist. This begs the literary question: Why do we need such ambiguity? In the moral universe of the novel, the only possible explanation for Ryuji’s selection, quite apart from his special knowledge (yes, he’s something of an expert on paranormal psychology), is that at the time Ryuji is tapped for assistance, Asakawa feels doomed by his investigation. Thus it may be that Ryuji, who also views the video, is expendable because of his questionable character.

Curiously, Suzuki does not explore this possible motivation, choosing instead to forge ahead in a manner not only stylistically spare, but, in moments such as these, developmentally light as well, creating a novel that reads much more like a short story, and moves just a quickly (which may explain why I don’t quite buy Asakawa’s hysterical belief in his doom-by-video). What Asakawa and Ryuji find spans two generations, touches the work of a psychiatrist/paranormal researcher named Heihachiro Ikuma, and his star exhibit, Shizu Yamamura (both based upon real figures, by the way), and the sole child of their ultimately tragic union, Sadako. It also involves nensha, or the ability to project images onto paper, film, and other media, by force of will alone, a talent possessed by Shizu and, to a far greater extent, Sadako.

With Ryuji’s help, Asakawa begins to unravel the mysteries of the video, growing more desperate while his time runs out, and eventually frantic once he discovers that the doom also threatens his own wife and child. Ryuji believes the charm that will save Asakawa is bound up with resolving the fate of the missing child Sadako. Their search leads them from the Japanese mainland to a remote island and back, even returning to the place of the story origin, completing the metaphoric “ring” of the title. But just when it seems that the charm is found, the curse is lifted, Asakawa and all will be saved, we’re reminded that this isn’t Hollywood and that box-office demands for happy endings need not apply.

There’s more life to this story than tidy endings, and by extending the tale beyond “everyone lived happily ever after”, Suzuki moves his story beyond the merely “that was kinda cool” and firmly entrenches it as an enduring modern archetype that deservedly sold three million copies and spawned seven movies. The message here is that ideas have power. They can endure time. They can even change people. Not only do we see it happen in the novel, but we recognize it in the real world. In this manner spanning the fictional and real, Suzuki manages both to tell an entertaining tale and to remind us of the very reason we read in the first place. We want to be entertained, certainly, but one of the best ways to entertain is to touch us in a way that reaches past the fiction, past the words, and that infiltrates our daily and mundane lives. Ring does, and does it quiet well.

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