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I vividly remember trying - and failing - to sleep one night in my teens after watching an American adaptation of this Japanese story at the cinema. I distinctly recall being grateful that I had no TV in my student accommodation (in the film, owning a TV becomes dangerous). All of which meant that, when I spotted the original novel on sale at my local library I was intrigued. Could the book be as scary as the film?
-- The Premise --
When Asakawa's niece dies unexpectedly he isn't particularly concerned. However, the journalist in him is fascinated when he discovers that his niece was one of four teenagers who died in bizarre circumstances that night, their faces contorted with fear. How did they die? And what could have scared them so much? In his search to discover the truth, Asakawa finds a mysterious videotape and is horrified to find that the cause of death appears to be a curse: he is fated to die exactly 7 days after seeing this tape. The tape suggests that there is a way to avoid the curse coming true, but that part of the message has mysteriously been recorded over...
The premise sounded similar to what I remembered, although in the film I viewed Asakawa became a woman, a single parent and a much more sympathetic figure generally. I don't generally read supernatural stories so the plotline struck me as rather daft, but I was prepared to give it a whirl.
-- My thoughts --
The opening pages follow two of the teenagers who die, so the first chapter should be quite engaging. However, the young girl, Tomoko, seems to panic over absolutely nothing and her sweat simply reminded me of the heat already evoked. The most dramatic event is an ice cube cracking. The death of a young motorcyclist is stranger, but as this death is observed by a rather grumpy taxi driver, who is initially rather more concerned about his insurance than about the rider, it feels slightly flat somehow.
In fact, this was my biggest concern about the novel as a whole. Perhaps this isn't a particularly good translation. No matter how dramatic the moment being described, the actual reading experience was rather flat. I wasn't expecting the level of chill to equal what a well shot film could, but I have read books which are genuinely creepy, and this never sent shivers down my spine. In fact, I read most of it in instalments before going to sleep at night, which gives you some idea of its success as a horror story!
The slow pace of the story doesn't help. It takes nearly 100 pages of vague interest before Asakawa views the video and, as this is a key element of the blurb, it could have usefully happened sooner. Perhaps this is less a criticism of the story and more a comment on my lack of patience. Whatever scenario is set up in the blurb I usually want to unfold as quickly as possible so that I can move on to the real 'meat' of the story and start being surprised rather than expectant.
Fortunately, after this the pace does speed up and the sense of drama increases since the central character is now at risk and therefore highly motivated to discover the solution. The situation escalates fairly rapidly as Asakawa willingly involves a rather odd friend of his. Ryuji is excited by the idea of death and soon the two are soon involved in exploring the history of the images on the tape. The images on the tape are described at length and the whole sequence is rather more complex than the original film which meant that the explanations, when they came, were rather more complicated. I felt that the level of complication created wasn't really necessary but it seemed that Suzuki wanted to emphasise the strange power invested in the force behind the video's existence. There is a wealth of biographical detail, in particular, which had the unfortunate effect of slowing the pace down again. I would have preferred a simpler explanation.
There is a predictable but quite clever twist at the end which makes much more sense in the book than it did in the film. I had remembered what it was about halfway through reading this, but it really is quite simple and I think that most readers would guess it even without knowing about the film. However, I think that guessing the twist actually increases the tension because you are willing the central characters to approach the situation differently. Something I hadn't realised was that 'Ring' is actually the first in a trilogy of books. I'd never previously heard of 'Spiral' but felt that this book would whet a reader's appetite for the next one. Even though I didn't particularly enjoy 'Ring' I am tempted to see if I can find 'Spiral' at some point, just to see how the conceit develops and if the writing improves.
The main irritations I experienced were the written style and the functional approach of the narrative. At one point Asakawa is "assailed by the scent of high school girls", which I found slightly bizarre. (What scent would that be? Gym sweat? Hormones?) At another point he spots his wife and her sister talking and notes, somewhat redundantly, that "his wife and her sister must still be talking about something". Um, yes. Yes the narrator just told the reader that. Towards the end of the book he is concerned because "he didn't want to die - not in some weird way". The first part I completely understand; the second made me smirk. Style is a very individual aspect of writing and other readers may not feel there is any problem with the quotations I have identified. Personally, I found the style a little flat and distracting.
I also felt that the characters were too clearly introduced to suit the story. Asakawa has a wife and child, but you wouldn't know it from reading the first third of the story. The first time they were mentioned I did a double take. They are only mentioned when they help to move the story on. Later in the book, Suzuki picks up the story from the wife's perspective. This happened once and there was no need for it; it felt like the writer simply wanted to play with a device. In fact, the wife and child felt like devices throughout. There was nothing to humanise them. All detail was factual and events based - there was barely any mention of feelings. This is an unfair criticism in that all characters are fundamentally devices, but there was no flesh on these mechanics at all.
-- Conclusions --
If you enjoy reading fiction about psychic powers and social misfits then you may find this story interesting. If you're looking for a scary story, I would look elsewhere. Possibly, the translation has let this down, (it was a bestseller in Japan,) but I remained unmoved throughout. If you have watched the film it is interesting to read this and ponder the changes made to make the story more palatable to an American audience. I think that was where my interest lay, but it's not really enough to sustain the opening novel in a trilogy. My advice? Watch the film instead.