Midnighters posts are still on hiatus since I don’t have much free time recently, so let’s talk instead about my favorite horror writer.
Junji Ito is a prolific mangaka specialized in short horror stories, though he has a few longer series under his belt as well, including his magnum opus Uzumaki. While most of his works aren’t connected and don’t form any coherent whole, there are certain themes and aspects that can be found in the majority of them. Specifically, Junji Ito relies heavily on the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible in his stories, defying common sense in doing so.
As you know, fiction follows rules not present in real life. It has structure: ideally, every element of a story serves a purpose in a greater narrative, be it contributing to the main conflict, reinforcing a theme, revealing a character or something else.
Real life, by contrast, is filled with random occurrences. One day you may witness a beautiful sunset, on another you may be stopped by a policeman for speeding and on a third you may take a shortcut you’ve never used before and discover it’s not any different from the rest of your town. What these events have in common? Nothing. They are… just random events you’d probably forget a month down the line. If ever your biography would be written, they wouldn’t appear in it even as footnotes.
Such events are normally absent from fictional works. Indeed, it’s considered a good writing practice to eliminate any scenes that don’t advance the plot or reveal a character, and for a reason. They are meaningless. Just as you would forget such events happening in real life, so would you forget ever reading them, unless you were really annoyed at wasting your time.
And yet Junji Ito found a use for them. Quite a few of his stories are such events. While more profound and unlikely to be forgotten by characters involved, they still can be described as random occurrences without proper beginning or end.
A perfect illustration of it would be a short story about a couple going through woods and finding a woman hanging from a tree. As they walk closer, they hear grass rustling and see something falling on it from the woman, spooking the couple. They leave then to call the police, and as they walk away, woman’s face never turns away from them.
Who was that woman? What happened. What’s happening now? What is going to happen to them?
These questions are never answered.
Not all Junji’s stories are like that. Many do have a proper beginning and exploration of supernatural elements, with protagonists learning more and more about the phenomenon even as it threats to consume them. Many, however, lack proper climax. They just stop before we can find out the truth, or something happens that causes the supernatural phenomenon to stop, or the protagonists move away, never to return to the source of their fears.
Normally, it would be a writing flaw, a sign that the author is unable to come up with a proper ending and cops out. Here, however, in this horror stories it enhances the experience. There is no explanation, there is no catharsis, there is no release: the stories stop, the imagination continues to run with them.
Breaking away from the established rules of fiction denies the readers a sense of control over it. In that, they become closer to the characters, immersed in a world the rules of which they don’t truly understand, confronted with an impossible situation beyond their understanding.
That approach goes farther than the structure of the story. While many Junji’s stories rely on good old body horror or insanity* as a source of horror, some of them are… just… weird. For example, one of the stories involves an attack of giant balloon heads that strangle people.
*Though, of course, insanity also fits in it as it leads to a world where only you and the protagonists find anything wrong with the horrifying situation, contributing to the sense of alienation and powerlessness.
Let me repeat: Giant. Balloon. Heads.
|No, seriously, I’m not joking here.|
When I type it here, it’s clear to see the absurdity of the concept. It’s something I would expect from a particularly uninspired Goosebumps books, not from a master of horror.
Yet, it works.
Why? Well, by writing about such things, Junji goes against another established rule, this one mostly concerning horror rather than fiction as a whole: monsters must be scary. And to be scary, they need to invoke human fears, for obviously the readers would be mostly humans or at least similar enough to pass, which involves understanding human fears.
In other words, monsters being scary reveals the human mind behind their creation: they are designed to be scary, which shows. Even Lovecraftian monsters, for all they are incomprehensible and alien, are often repulsive in a very convenient manner. Cthulhu is an octopus with bat wings and humanoid body. He combines things we find disgusting with humanoid shape to make it more creepy by invoking the sense of wrongness, revealing in the process that he was shaped by human mind that wanted us to be disturbed by his visage.
It is not the case with Junji’s works: he presents us with a world where even our fears have no power. Human mind, human reason has no sway over events transpiring there, making them all the more terrifying for their defy any attempts at comprehending even on conceptual level.
Granted, it also helps that his art style can make even cute kitties terrifying. I’m not joking, by the way:
These tricks are coupled with boundless imagination capable of giving birth to more and more unique horrors defying description.
And that is why Junji Ito is a master of horror.
So, go read his stories. I would recommend starting with Uzumaki, as it’s his magnum opus. It’s a story about a village struck by a spiral curse: mysterious events transpire there, the only evident connection between them being that every one of them involves spirals in some capacity. At first the story seems to be episodic, connected by the motif of spirals and the main character, bu telling different stories each time. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that these events are parts of a greater whole. Elements introduced in earlier chapters come back, taking on a new meaning, and the town spirals down into a mouth of madness.
It’s a great story that reveals just enough to understand there are underlying rules guiding the town’s doom, but not enough to comprehend it. It’s also probably the most ambitious story of Junji Ito.
I would suggest skipping Tomie, though, as it has issues I’m not sure I can tackle. Really need Farla on that one, as I trust her opinion more than my feelings in this case.
There are also stories focused on Souichi, a boy with a habit of chewing iron nails and spitting them at people. They are typically more comedy than horror.
Other than that, you may pick any story, they are all pretty good.
Well, that’s it for now. In conclusion,
ALL HAIL HYPNOHAIR!