Formulations like X is the Y of Z are easy to come up with, but do a lousy job of conveying real information. When I saw ad copy along the lines of “Kōji Suzuki is the Stephen King of Japan,” I rolled my eyes. If all that’s meant is that Suzuki has roughly the same stature in Japan as a writer of horror, it’s valid — but outside of that the parallels break down, and it’s probably to Suzuki’s benefit that they do. He’s a more scrupulous and disciplined writer than King, and while King’s output has been enviably massive it’s also been horribly scattershot and long-winded. Suzuki is able to do in thirty pages what King would have filled five hundred with.
Most people know Suzuki through his novel Ring, which essentially booted up the J-horror phenomenon as we know it. Adapted into movies not only in its native Japan but in Korea and the U.S. as well, it embodied everything that has become synonymous with its larger category: paranoia about Western technology merged with primal Asian dreads, and the restless spirits of the undead with long hair hanging in front of their faces. Most of what’s come since has been about the words but not the music, like all the wretched knockoffs of Alien or Halloween or Jaws that littered theaters in the Seventies and Eighties.
Dark Water is both the words and the music, straight from the pen of the man who pretty much kicked this all off even if he hadn’t intended to start anything. It collects seven stories, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, all using water as a source of inspiration to generate unease. All are a good read; a few of them are outstanding, and at least one, “Floating Water”, is worthy of anthologizing regularly.
“Water”, the opener, deals with a single mother and her daughter living in an apartment building left nearly empty by the bursting of the bubble economy (another water metaphor, one could say). The only other family that used to live in the building moved out some time ago, and the superintendant is uncomfortably reluctant to talk about what happened. When a child’s bath set turns up again and again like the proverbial bad penny, the mother — who is not terribly balanced to begin with — grows deeply ill at ease about what might have happened. The story ends with just enough ambiguity to make us speculate: is Mom unhinged, or has she seen things no one should ever have to see?
If this synopsis sounds familiar, it ought to. “Water” was adapted into a chilling little Japanese film bearing the name Dark Water in English-speaking territories. Director Hideo Nakata had also adapted Suzuki’s Ring, and did yeoman work for Water as well. Not long after that came an English-language remake of the same name, starring Jennifer Connelly and directed by Walter Salles. That film worked, thanks to a) Connelly’s performance and b) good use of Roosevelt Island as an appropriately unappealing place for a single mother to live.
The rest of the stories vary, but lock together nicely around the central theme without being monolithic. “Solitary Isle” gives us a spoiled rich kid who abandons his clingy girlfriend on an island, but the details of both the island and the abandonment grow more unsettling the further we go in. “The Hold” takes a domestic-abuse scenario and hurls it into “Telltale Heart” territory, where a fisherman realizes only belatedly that he’s left the (strangled, decomposing) corpse of his wife below deck on his boat. “Dream Cruise” strands a group of people on a boat — not out at shore, but within a few hundred yards of it, although that’s no reassurance when their engine stalls. Soon the reason for that becomes horribly apparent: they have another passenger of sorts, and he’s not alive anymore.
“Adrift” (also in the works as a movie, evidently) is a spin on the “ghost ship” concept, the most explicitly supernatural of the stories (apart maybe from the opener) and for that reason one of the least successful. It works, but not to the degree that the other stories hold up precisely because they don’t need a supernatural element to have weight. The oddest story, and for my money the most weirdly enjoyable, is “Watercolors”, about an avant-garde theatrical troupe holding a stage play in what used to be a multi-level disco. It’s post-modern fiction in the best sense of the word: only by the end do we realize the real nature of the narrative we have been reading. It’s also the one story in the collection I’ve read multiple times simply because it gets that much better each time around, and works for reasons other than its gimmick alone.
What I like best about Suzuki’s work is how he grounds everything in such specific and casual detail — his work feels almost documentary, not like a performance, and therefore is that much more credible. That was, again, a big part of my complaint with Stephen King — his writing was too chatty and smarmy, too saturated with audience-winking and pop-culture references to actually be frightening or even thought-provoking. He’s become your friendly neighborhood scare-meister. Suzuki’s not kidding around.