Hideo, the 48-year-old protagonist of Taichi Yamada's horror novel Strangers, is experiencing an acute mid-life crisis. He struggles to pick up the pieces of his shattered life after a painful divorce and a financial settlement that depleted his bank account. He can’t even afford a car or apartment, and is forced to sleep in his office at night. Hideo's son has sided with his mother, and won’t have anything to do with his father. Adding to his disgrace, an influential business associate has told Hideo that they can no longer work together, because he plans on marrying the ex-wife.
Ah, these are minor complications compared to the problems Hideo faces with his parents. On the surface, his relationship with Mom and Dad is ideal. They praise him lavishly, fix him meals, and keep him well supplied with beer. There’s just one minor complication: they died 35 years ago, and now have now reappeared under mysterious circumstances. And they just might be planning to kill their son.
Hideo’s parents died in a car accident when he was just 12-years-old. After that he bounced around to a grandfather, later an uncle, before finally latching on to a career in the TV industry as a scriptwriter—by coincidence, the same vocation pursued by author Yamada. Now in middle age, Hideo runs across a man, roughly 30-year-old, whose appearance matches exactly his recollections of his dead father. When his new friend brings him home to meet his wife, Hideo is shocked to see that every aspect of her, from her voice to her looks, reminds him of his mother.
But how can this be? This couple is in their early thirties, so how can they be the parents of a 48-year-old man. Yet the resemblance is so uncanny, and their attitude toward him so warm and welcoming, that he finds himself calling them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’. Even more bizarre, they accept the notion automatically, and willingly take on the role of parents to the older man.
Yet there is no free lunch, as Robert Heinlein once proclaimed, and this bounteous gift from the realm of the dead comes at a steep price. Every time Hideo visits his parents, his body changes. His skin grows pale, he loses weight, he takes on a haggard appearance. He can’t see these changes himself—when he looks in the mirror, he sees a healthy robust man staring back at him. But all his friends and acquaintances are alarmed, and fear he is seriously ill, perhaps even near death.
In this taut, psychologically-charged story, Yamada manages to evoke horror from the least likely sources. Sometimes they are the familiar settings and symbols of suspense fiction: the abandoned building, the deserted corridor, the uncanny coincidence. But Yamada is even more skilled at discovering intimations of death and danger in the most innocent situations. At one juncture, Hideo’s father asks his son if he wants to play catch—something that never happened during the scriptwriter’s actual childhood, and which he had lamented at the time. This should be a cause for celebration, an opportunity to heal old wounds and reinforce dormant emotional ties. But the actual scene, as presented in Strangers, is creepy in some indefinable way. The dead father, in the guise of a young man, and the emotionally-starved middle-aged burnout, step out into a Tokyo street, and try to pretend that the last 35 years never happened. I’m not sure what rules of the horror genre this incident follows, but I have a hunch they are ones Yamada invented on his own.
In this charged situation, Hideo doesn’t know what to believe or whom to trust. He finds an unexpected ally in an eccentric young woman who lives in his building. But she is melancholy at one moment, upbeat at the next; she is confiding at times, intensely secretive at others. Their relationship becomes intimate, but Kei insists on keeping much of her body hidden from view—she confesses that she has a severe burn scar that she doesn’t want Hideo to see. This woman seems to have other secrets too—perhaps deadly ones—but she is the only person the screenwriter trusts with the odd story of his revivified parents.
I hesitate over ways of describing and categorizing this odd novel. Yamada somehow manages to craft a tale that is both eerie and endearing, creepy and charming. Who can complain when Mom and Dad act with such sincerity and devotion to a long- missing child, but the very closeness of the relationship and unreality of their reappearance imparts a chilling quality to scene after scene. Long before the conclusion, the reader knows that this family reunion won’t end happily, but who can predict the particular nastiness with which matter get resolved?
Perhaps every culture has its own preferred settings for terror. In many traditional societies, tales of this sort took place in the Underworld, the land of the dead; in Europe the dark and gloomy castle later emerged as the epicenter of horror; in the Northeast of the United States it the haunted house came to the forefront of the genre; in the Far West Ambrose Bierce captured the distinctive terror of the campfire and the wide open spaces. Tokyo can’t just follow these role models, but needs to create new ones of its own. Here Yamada comes to the rescue with a new breed of horror, suited to high-rise buildings and crowded city streets.
Why can’t big cities have their special horror? Genre fiction master Fritz Leiber speculated on this very possibility in his discussions of megapolisomancy, a discipline he invented for his novel Our Lady of Darkness, and set forth as a study of the special supernatural forces unleashed by urban life. Yamada takes that same notion, and adds his own special twist to it in Strangers. He joins a small select group of authors who grasped the particular horror of confined modern life, where he stands alongside Leiber, J.G. Ballard and Robert Silverberg, as well as countrymen Kōbō Abe and Haruki Murakami. Indeed, if the essence of strangeness resides in the multiplicity of strangers densely packed into the smallest possible space, Tokyo just might be the scariest city of them all. Certainly this novel will make you think so.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.
Publication Date: November 28, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. Ted Gioia