We’ve all got a bunch of stuff on our shelves that just sit there. Books, DVD’s, video games, CD’s pile up and go untouched and unappreciated for years. I’ve decided that I’ve spent too long neglecting the things I own so I’ll be experiencing them for either the very first time or the first time in a long time. My library, both physical and digital, is so vast that I’ll never be able to enjoy it all in this lifetime, but I can at least try.
Today’s neglected item pulled from the shelf: Ring by Koji Suzuki
Media type: Physical book
Originally released: 2003 (English re-print). Originally published in 1991.
How long has it been on the shelf: Sometime in the year after the release of the film (American version).
Very first time or first time in a long time: First time
*Please note that I will be discussing spoilers for both the book and American version of the film*
I’ve always been a sucker for Japanese stuff. Anime, J-pop, Manga, The Toxic Avenger Part II; so when I heard that a new horror film was coming out and it was based on a Japanese movie I was all in. I can’t really explain the terror I felt in that theatre, but it came to me, as it probably did for many, when Samara (Sadako in the Japanese version) comes crawling out of the TV and murders Noah. It was such a visceral terror, something I had never felt in the countless slasher films that littered the shelves of the video stores of my youth. I knew that I was going to be obsessed with this world and I remember finding out that not only was it based on a Japanese movie, but based on a book. Well I HAD to have that book, so I scoured the few book stores I knew of looking for it to no avail, but I had remembered that there was this new-fangled website called Amazon and you could almost always find books for a penny (plus $5.99 S&H). I promptly picked up a copy and got it in the mail. It was missing the dust cover, but it was so cool looking. A small circle was just below center with a skull & crossbones nestled inside of it. From the small circle where dozens of pink lines shooting out of it, really crazy stuff to a 21 year old. I was so excited to read it, but I put it on the shelf and waited, and waited, and waited, and then just kind of forgot about it. I’d see the book every now and then, thinking to myself that I should probably pick it up and read it. When I moved out of my dad’s apartment I culled a bunch of stuff, but kept Ring, vowing I’d read it one day. Then I moved in with my girlfriend, got rid of some more stuff, but Ring hung in there, holding its place on the shelf after seeing so many other things get sold, shipped away or donated. Our most recent move was 3 years ago, and once again Ring made it. When my daughter was born and then started to learn how to crawl, she was drawn to Ring, I think because of the vibrant pink on the cover, with it’s hypnotic action lines. She even decided that she’d give it a bit of color by using a purple crayon to “decorate” the back of the book. Kids, amirite? Still, even after her obsession with it, and my incessant pleading for her to leave it alone because “it’s very special to me” I couldn’t help but wonder why I had STILL not read this damn book! It’s fitting that this is my first (official) entry for What’s on the Shelf?, as this book is probably single-handedly responsible for this column’s creation. After 15 years I finally took the book off the shelf, was it worth the wait?
I think what strikes me the most about this book is that the fear it conjures up is almost exclusively in your imagination. While it does go into detail about how people die and what they look like, the fear that characters experience is all about their feelings BEFORE they die. From the opening sequence we have 17 year old Tomoko Oishi, internally fretting over her fear of not doing well in school, fear that she didn’t spend enough time having fun during summer vacation, and finally that fear you get when you’re home alone and not sure what the darkness holds. Unfortunately for Tomoko, her fears of the unknown evil in the darkness are real and she ends up dying under mysterious circumstances. It is from this point that we learn her Uncle, Kazuyuki Asakawa is a reporter, who after hearing about another teenager’s death under mysterious circumstances, suddenly gains interest in this phenomenon. After some digging around for information, Asakawa finds himself at a remote cabin where his niece and her three friends (all dead) stayed exactly one week from the time of their death. While there he discovers a strange VHS tape (this takes place in 1990), and decides to watch it. On the tape are strange images that seemingly make no sense, a volcano, an old woman, a crying baby, a man with intense anger on his face, and occasionally black curtains that obscure the images on screen. After it is over there is a message saying that anyone who views the tape will die in exactly 7 days from the time the video stops, and in order to live they must do something, but unfortunately that part was recorded over, so now Asakawa has no idea how to save himself. It is from here where Asakawa starts to descend into a kind of madness. He’s got a time bomb inside of him, and if he can’t figure out how to save himself then he’s going to die. Unable to figure this out on his own, he enlists the help of someone who he considers a friend, but also expendable. A former high school buddy, named Ryuji, who claims he raped a woman when they were teenagers, and continues to rape to this day. Ryuji has no qualms about watching this “cursed” video and tells Asakawa to make a copy for him so that he can take a look at it. Asakawa complies, knowing that if this really is all true, then at at least it’s a rapist that is dying.
The book then descends into your typical mystery novel, Asakawa and Ryuji continue to unravel clues about the images on the tape, finally coming to the conclusion that it isn’t black curtains covering the screen, it’s hair, and this wasn’t shot using a camera but was instead mentally projected onto the TV by an unknown woman. With this information in hand they go to the home of a now deceased paranormal scientist who kept records on people with psychic powers. They discover that a young woman named Sadako was one of the most gifted and powerful psychics that ever lived, and after turning 18 she mysteriously disappeared. Thinking that Sadako was dead and somehow projected her final thoughts onto the VHS tape, Asakawa and Ryuji probe deeper into her life and find out the she had been murdered and pushed down a well. When the men discover her body they take her to her home, thinking that they have stopped the curse and performed the charm that would keep them from dying. However, while Asakawa lives past his deadline, Ryuji still succumbs to his fate, and in his dying moments realizes that the charm was much more simple than they thought, you just copy the tape and show it to someone else.
As I mentioned, all of the horror in this book really just comes from our imaginations, but on a deeper level, it comes from our own fear of death. We all know we’re going to die one day, but almost none of us know when. What would you do if you knew exactly when you would die, right down to the minute? For Asakawa, he feels that he must survive so that he can be there for his wife and daughter (who, surprise, also both watch the tape), and as the book continues you start to feel his panic and frustration as each clue seems to lead to a dead end until Ryuji somehow manages to come up with a solution, almost as if he’s being guided. Early in the book it discusses people who get cancer, and whether a doctor should or shouldn’t tell a patient if they were going to die and when. Is it better to be blissfully ignorant or cursed with the truth? There are also various mentions of how a virus works, including the (then very topical) AIDS epidemic and Small Pox (Sadako was one of the last people in Japan to have the disease). The VHS tape is supposed to work in the exact same way as a virus, you watch it and get infected, and the only way to survive is to infect someone else who hasn’t already seen the tape. It’s a horrifying conclusion, as Asakawa begins to realize what he must do in order to save his wife and daughter. What does this kind of thing lead to? Will this virus spread far and wide, or will they be able to end it? The book doesn’t give any kind of resolution, it just leaves the horror to your imagination.