A man who builds himself a chair inside which he hides, the better to seduce a woman without her ever knowing it; a man who commits the “perfect” crime and discovers all too late he’s been a little too perfect about it; a man who builds a mirrored prison for himself and in it discovers madness or ecstasy—you decide; a wife who discovers her own fetish for cruelty when her husband returns home from the war with his body a ruined lump of flesh. Among the most remarkable things about these stories is not that they are from a Japanese author, nor even how striking and powerful they are, but that they were written many decades ago by a man now recognized as that country’s grand master of mystery and horrific fantasy: Edogawa Rampo, he who chose for his pen name a Nipponification of Edgar Allan Poe and remains one of the most criminally underpublished writers in any major genre.
In his native Japan, Rampo’s a national institution: his books inspire endless movie adaptations, and a whole series of annual mystery-writer awards have been created in his name. Elsewhere, he’s a cipher—even, and most tragically, in most any country that speaks English, the language Rampo himself learned to read so that he might be better acquainted with the mystery and detective fiction that he became so enamored of. He could read English, but not speak it—and his translator for this volume, James B. Harris, could speak Japanese but barely read it. To that end they agonized together and collaborated, line-for-line, for five painstaking years to translate several of Rampo’s most representative stories for the Japanese-English company Tuttle Publishing.
The end result, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, has long been the only of Rampo’s work available in English at all before Kurodahan Press brought us Black Lizard / Beast in the Shadows earlier this year. Imagine trying to gauge the entire output of Walt Disney Studios by a single movie—a good one, maybe Pinnochio or Dumbo—but not being able to gauge the scope and impact of the company’s work in context. The good news is that the folks at Kurodahan are hard at work bringing more of this man’s writings to wider audiences, and judging from what I can read here as well, we’re badly overdue. This volume, and a number of others from Tuttle’s back catalogue, has recently been reprinted in a handsome new edition; the time couldn’t be more right for Rampo to get some readership.
Rampo is nominally described as a mystery writer, and many of the stories here do fit neatly into that category. “The Psychological Test”, for instance, gives us a too-clever-by-half killer—inspired by, as you might imagine, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment; except that he plans not to make the same mistakes as his fictional cohort. He kills an old woman with a substantial amount of money saved up and paves over his tracks with a sneer. Then in comes Kogoro Akechi, Rampo’s recurring detective-genius (he who matched wits so gleefully with the Black Lizard in that book), to undermine the killer’s confidence in himself. The story ends in a way typical of Rampo’s command of genre conventions: just when you think the story will turn on one piece of evidence, it really turns on another, even more fundamental bit.
Some of the stories, however, straddle the line between mystery and horror or even mystery and fantasy. “The Twins” (very loosely adapted as Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini) gives us a man about to die for one crime, but must now confess the mechanics of another; the story shifts seamlessly from the details of his crime to the psychology it unveils. The very first story in the volume, “The Human Chair” (also inspiration for a film), works in the same vein—it purports to be the confessions of a man who built himself into a special chair, from which he could commit all sorts of debaucheries. What makes the story special is the context it’s embedded in, and the surprise at the end that, on reflection, we should have seen all along. But there’s no question that a good deal of Rampo’s fascination with the story comes from spelling out in chilling detail the depths of the man’s obsessions.
When those obsessions bottom out completely, Rampo writes stories that are straight-out horror, or sometimes fantasies in the Ray Bradbury “magical realism” vein (although I hate using that term). “The Caterpillar”, one of four stories adapted for the film Rampo Noir, presents us with a war-crippled veteran, now the object of torment by his frustrated wife. Their plight has bred disgust and resentment inside her, and after she vents on him accidentally, she finds she quite likes venting it on him deliberately. Likewise “The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture”, where we’re given a tale of fantasy and are left to judge for ourselves if it is not merely (?) a story of guilt and madness gone to pathological extremes.
I have one friend who is quite fond of writers that have fallen out of favor: E.E. “Doc” Smith, for instance, or Rafael Sabatini. He cherishes them like antiques—relics that time has passed by. What I find in Rampo, though, are relics that time has yet to really discover, and this book goes that much further towards proving that.
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