"Are they gone yet?" asked Zombos, stretching his thin, long arm longer than he really should to reach the top of the Christmas tree. Precariously balancing the golden star of Bethlehem in one hand and the bright silver garland of hope in his other, he stood on tiptoes atop the ten-foot ladder, straining to reach the top of our vibrant green tree a scant few inches from his grasp. I suppose that's what faith is all about.
"No, not yet. They've started a bonfire on the north lawn," I said, looking out the window at the torch-wielding mob of angry holiday shoppers. They began chanting the same thing over and over again.
"What's that? What are they saying?"
"Give us more, give us more, give us more, and something about a dreidel," I told Zombos. "I think they want more gift ideas for the horror fans on their shopping list."
"Well, then, what are you waiting for? If they want more, give it to them."
"Alright, then. Manga will make them merry," I said, and got down to business.
Japanese horror manga, while similar to our comic book format, has been around for centuries. Heavily influenced in the past few decades by the atrocities of a world war, status competition, familial disaffection, and American culture, its illustrations and storylines can be grotesque and arabesque, or comically naughty, or a mix of all three with a dash of irony.
In no other manga series is the grotesque and arabesque displayed so poetically than in Junji Ito's Lovecraftian-styled confection of spiraling, out of control horror, Uzumaki, Volumes 1, 2 and 3. Combining absurdity, whimsy, terror and alienation in three volumes, it stands out as one of the most entertainingly creepy and original series of manga stories currently available.
The town of Kurozu-cho is beset by spirals spinning out of control into
the psyches and lives of the townspeople, bringing madness,
other-worldly change, and twirling, gruesome death. Whence the spirals came, and how the town is slowly being driven to destruction, is a reading experience not to be missed. Uzumaki was turned into an equally disquieting film in 2000.
High school student Kirie Goshima is witness to the ever widening madness and physical change that affects her classmates and the town's buildings. In these pages you will find a heady blend of black and white illustration and bizarre events best read with all the lights on. In Ito's manga universe, the natural laws of physics and biology warp into chaos, transforming the lives of his ordinary characters, inch by inch, until their existence becomes the horror.
Ito has a fetish for beautiful, long-haired high school girls, and in Museum of Terror : Tomie, Volumes 1 and 2, he unleashes from his morbid mind his most beguiling black-haired beauty to terrorize her unending succession of admirers. It wouldn't be so bad if they would just stop murdering her and cutting her up into bloody chunks. She doesn't really seem to mind, however, because she keeps coming back. Again and again, she grows from a bit here and there back into her beautiful, long-haired, beguiling self, driving the men in her "lives" to obsession and murder. Again and again. She has a nasty habit of leaving them worse for wear, too. Given such a clever, natural plot-thread for sequelization possibilities, it's no wonder Tomie was turned into a series of films.
In Museum of Terror: The Long Hair in the Attic, Ito turns his fancy to another long-haired beauty named Chiemi. When she returns home with a broken heart, rats in the attic take a liking to her. Actually, to her hair more than her, but what's a girl to do? Before she can cut it into a shorter doo, her hair has other plans. This title story is just one of many that places high-school girls and boys in various predicaments of terror.
Where Junji Ito's normal characters suffer from peer relationships gone sour, bullying, and the pressures of attaining social status or losing it, Hideshi Hino creates dysfunctional families that are like the Addams Family in the bizarro world. It's just his families have no redeeming values whatsoever.
Hino said it was after reading Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man that he felt the need to combine horror with a sense of fairy tale. This led him to mix monstrous birth defects, other-worldly transmogrifications, and hideously deformed characters with Japanese folktales, producing uniquely unsettling, culture-transcending stories. His characters are often trapped in a mad world of disease, insanity, and demons, and none of his characters ever start off normal.
In his Lullabies From Hell collection of stories, he draws himself as the young narrator in A Lullaby From Hell, introducing himself as a mangaka (manga author) who is obsessed with terrible, unmentioned things peeking just above the surface of normalcy. Soon, as things both living and dead bleed into his manga mind, he collects their rotting parts in big glass jars so he can stare in admiration at them for hours on end, while dreaming of monsters and demons from hell that would, at his bidding, devour and torture people–especially those that abuse him. Needless to say, reading Hideshi Hino requires a strong stomach and a sense of black humor. His stories are like crushing a mucous-filled bug on your arm: an icky, but oddly exhilarating feeling at the same time.
In Zoroku, the hapless title character yearns to draw colorful pictures, but evil villagers make fun of him… and his condition. It seems that a little rash has turned to a boil, and a boil to many, and many to something much, much worse. Poor Zoroku becomes covered with a "colorful purulence," and the villagers and their children drive him away to solitude, deep into the forest by a strange lake. Unfortunately for him, the purulence gives off an odor that would curl paint, and his boils ooze so badly, maggots infest them in the hundreds. The story does have a happy ending, though, sort of.
Any hardcore horror fan would love a copy of Lullabies and his Hino Horror 1: The Red Snake. Here, the younger member of a truly unsavory family is trapped by a dark forest that never lets him leave, and a house that contains an ancient mirror, behind which lies a maze of long corridors filled with demons from hell. And you thought the commute to work was bad. Grandma thinks she's a chicken and lives in a nest of twigs, Grandpa has puss-filled warts that he likes having squeezed, and dad collects bugs, lots of bugs. All hell breaks loose when a crack in the mirror lets the demons out. Just make sure you don't eat before reading this one.
No manga library would be complete without the engrossing The Drifting Classroom, Volumes 1-11, by Kazuo Umezu (also made into a 1987 film). Sho has a fight with his mom, and when both wish the other would never come back, the universe obliges them. Unfortunately for Sho's classmates and teachers, the universe includes the entire Yamato Elementary School along with him. What follows is something like Stephen King's The Mist, but with kids.
In Volume 1, the realization of what happened slowly sinks in and the hunt for food begins. Sho takes the leadership role as the struggle to survive against the desolate world they find themselves in butts up against the growing panic quickly setting in, pitting kid against kid and teacher against teacher. Be warned: kids and teachers drop like flies in this manga. While there is little gory illustration, Umezu keeps constant tension going from panel to panel, and the frying relationships between everyone moves the story at a fever pitch. There is a real sense of horror here as estrangement from their normal life and parents leaves the kids in shock and disbelief, the the teachers without a clue as to what to do.
In subsequent volumes, more about the world they find themselves is learned, but food and water is running out, teachers are in despair and committing suicide, or murder, and the lunch guy everyone loved turns into the nastiest SOB in the school with a gun. Then Umezu tosses in carnivorous monsters, insane adults, and a mother's love that overcomes time and space to save her son. He also makes sure the school's only 230 IQ geek explains exactly what happened. Once you start reading, you won't be able to put it down, so if you buy this as a gift, I beg you, don't open the covers–or just order doubles to play safe.
Remember that here in the US, manga is now usually presented in the Japanese format. While it's translated into English, you start reading from the back of the book, right page first, then left page. And on each page, read the panels from right to left, too. It takes a little getting used to, but you'll catch on quick. I invite readers to add their recommendations for other great manga gifts in the comments section.