Reviewing: KAI, a Japanese Horror Novel
While Oldstyle Tales typically focuses on the classics of Western horror, we were thrilled to be able to review KAI, a thrilling novel which, like Frankenstein’s monster, represents a hybrid of influences: the Gothic West, the mystical East, the alluring power of life, and the crippling despair of death. Written with all the pungent terror of a traditional Japanese horror story, KAI delves into the gory tendons and fiber that connect aspirational mankind to his animal past. Duplicity and bipolarity are the reigning themes in this masterful novel, and the influence of Poe – whether intentionally or unconsciously – thunders powerfully alongside the more impressionistic elements of J-Horror. Like Roderick Usher, the main character finds herself inextricably wed to a distant double by supernatural forces bent on death and destruction. I will let the author, the visionary Derek Vasconi, describe its baroque plot in his own words:
The bastard child of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Stephen King’s Carrie, KAI explores how one innocent girl becomes the target of enormous rage living inside another girl-who is seemingly from another world.
Satsuki Takamoto is an invisible otaku teenager in Hiroshima. The only thing she has going for her is the upcoming birth of her sister. No longer will she be alone. But when her mother has a gory miscarriage right in front of her, Satsuki loses her one chance at happiness. She spirals into a deep depression, shutting out everyone and everything by locking herself inside her bedroom-for good. Her sadness, however, pales in comparison to her uncontrollable anger. It spreads like a nuclear fire, ambivalent to what or who it destroys, and won’t stop until Satsuki accepts her sister’s death.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Evanston, Illinois, Seul Bi Rissiello can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes, she relives her adoptive parents’ gruesome deaths. Why is she thinking so much about them now, ten years afterward? As she struggles with working at a clinic for the mentally disturbed, Seul Bi starts to unravel under the weight of living a lonely life and being twice an orphan. Her life devolves into a series of ominous and dangerous hallucinations that threaten not only her sanity, but her very existence as well.
As both girls struggle to understand what is happening to them, their enigmatic connection comes into focus, raising the question: What if all the suffering in your life was carefully choreographed by somebody you’ve never met?
It is rare that such intricacies of plot, richness of symbolism, and powerful characters converge in the Gothic novel. Too often the form is diluted by clichéd tropes, trite plots, and predictable development – all leading up to a drawn out and disappointing climax. In KAI there is no leading up. The story is pregnant with horror, rushing with gore, and thick with spiritual and bodily terror. All throughout its dusky plotline we feel the presence of tragedy brooding in the background, and the psychological intensity of this effect is not to be understated.
I would most heartily recommend KAI to fans of J-Horror – a tradition born from Japanese folklore and legends, which are far more gruesome and terrifying than the supernatural tradition in the United States and Britain. In this sense, J-Horror shares a kinship with German horror (think Hoffmann or the Grimm Brothers). The hallmark of excellent J-Horror is a strident emphasis on psychological terror and a steady but quick-building crescendo of tension and suspense. These grisly tales of supernatural cruelty are populated by the yurei – a shadowy spirit – the terrifying onryo – a vengeful wraith – and the kai – an alluring but sinister apparition. Collectively, these tales of spirits and poltergeists are referred to as Kaidan: spook stories. KAI is an excellent example of the modern Kaidan, and fans of J-Horror cinema (Ringu, The Audition, Suicide Club, Ju-On, Infection, and Carved are among my own personal favorites) and literature (Nursery Tales, Tales of Moonlight and Rain, The Story of Okiku, Ghost Story of Tokaido Yotsuya, Hoichi the Earless, etc.), will rapidly take to this spiritually and physically disturbing narrative of chaos and terror. Vasconi is powerful in his craft, understands the use of the tropes, and executes them with startling potency.
Those who are unfamiliar with the genre may need to take it a little slower, and the author has generously compiled a glossary in the back to explain Japanese terms and concepts which may confuse un-intitiated readers of J-Horror. In either case, the psychological impression of this grueling novel needs no translation: it is powerful, potent, and impactful. Read if you dare, but read it all the same.
Please check out this stylish and compelling trailer here:
Or order your own copy here:
And -- whether you are a J-Horror otaku or a newbie -- stop by here to look at Vasconi's list of Top 10 Japanese Horror Movies that are Crazy; he's right -- they are