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Dark Water

Koji Suzuki


US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 1-932-23410-1

Publication Date: 10-25-2004

281 Pages; $21.95

Date Reviewed: 11-28-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Horror, General Fiction

07-12-03, 08-22-03, 10-25-04

When horror fiction includes an element of the supernatural, it's natural to assume that the two are inextricably linked. The ghost is there to scare us and the dead return to feed our fear of death. But there's a lot more to fear in life, about which we know plenty, than in death, about which we know nothing. Koji Suzuki may offer ghosts, revenants and haunts in 'Dark Water', but they're strictly on the surface. The true fear is evoked by those glimpses of the depths of human ugliness that he affords with such unpleasant clarity. And this feat is a double-edged sword. We may be afraid to encounter these people, to be sure, but the prospect of being them is far more unsettling.

'Dark Water' offers a number of subtle and unsubtle pleasures. After a veritable drought of themed short story collections, Suzuki's series of water-based tales is more refreshing than the reader will suspect. There are seven stories here, all in the novelette range of thirty to forty pages, framed by an eighth tale presented as a Prologue and Epilogue. The obvious thematic connection gives the overall collection more coherence and heft than a simple set of unrelated stories. It also gives the reader the unsubtle pleasure of identifying the watery element in each story. It's rarely difficult, but once the first connection is made between the stories, other, less obvious connections and themes present themselves. Thus as a collection of stories, the theme that ties them together allows Suzuki to establish a more novelistic feel that will prove more satisfying to readers who prefer novels to short stories.

Individually, the stories achieve varying levels of success. 'Floating Water' (adapted to film by Japanese 'Ring' director Hideo Nakata and now being adapted in English by Water Salles) starts with a location that readers of Taichi Yamada's 'Strangers' will find familiarly spooky; a huge block of urban apartments, gutted by the economic bust, sparsely populated by middle-class families who found themselves trapped by their inability to sell. Yoshimi Matsubara is a single mother who lives in such circumstances. She's unappealingly strict with her daughter, and forbids her to keep the Kitty toy bag they find on the roof of the building one evening. The super assures her that there's only been one other child, now gone. While readers will immediately guess what's happened, Suzuki expertly draws out the suspense, not with a shocking image of supernatural gore, but instead, with horrific accounts of a loveless and selfish marriage. The twist in 'Solitary Isle' is a bit more surprising, but the truly disturbing aspects of the story arise from the way the characters treat one another. Without a drop of blood, Suzuki manages to create deeply disturbing scenes of subservience and understated violence.

'The Hold' brings the violence out in the open, but it's still in the back seat compared to the unpleasant relationships we see played out in the Inagaki family. It's probably the most familiar seeming of the stories, with an ending that is telegraphed well before it comes to pass. But once again, the subtle seeds that Suzuki plants earlier in the story are what bear the most poisonous fruit. One comes away from meeting Suzuki's characters feeling polluted. That feeling is reinforced by 'Dream Cruise', a nightmare of what happens when you agree to listen to the sales pitch of a high school acquaintance that you have not seen for many years. Along among the tales, 'Adrift' features a very creepy bit of the surreal, a something in a bottle that Suzuki describes with restraint that makes all the more terrifying. 'Watercolors' takes a swipe at avant-garde performance art while presenting more deserted and re-purposed buildings and an image that is strikingly surreal. 'Forest Under the Sea' goes for the claustrophobic coincidence, while the 'Prologue' and 'Epilogue' that frame the collection segue nicely from the stories themselves.

Readers who expect the typical strongly-plotted-for-a-surprise-shock short story style will find this collection underwhelming. This is not a series of spring-loaded cats in print. The endings of the stories are usually pretty easy to foresee. But the undercurrents within of familial violence and carefully contained casual hatred are effectively layered and exposed to create unease and evoke the unhappiness at the core of urban life. Though many of the stories take place by and even on the sea, there's a fairly relentless feeling of urban decay that rots the characters and lives at the core. These portraits of Japanese society are decidedly unflattering.

Koji Suzuki displays a range in 'Dark Water' that may surprise readers of 'Ring' and 'Spiral'. There are no relentlessly logical of science-fictional elements in any of these stories. The collection as a whole bears more of a resemblance to 'Ghost Stories of Antiquary' by M. R. James than it does to Clive Barker's 'The Books of Blood'. There's no blood in this book. But there is a sense of fear and unease in its unsparing portrait of our willingness to brutalize and be brutalized emotionally. This is not to say that these are simply portraits of urban angst. By bringing in the supernatural feel -- if not the supernatural -- Suzuki allows the reader to absorb his unpleasant message in the context of a predictable ghost story. These are campfire tales that might be told by those gathered around a trashcan burning in the urban wasteland. When the drowned men speak, where the waters run dark in the heart of the city, we do not need the dead to remind us of death. We drown our sorrows because only life offers the opportunity for fear, for pain -- and only death offers a release from them.