Junji Ito: Master of Horror Manga, Part II

Uzumaki & Venus in the Blind Spot

It’s unbelievable that it was a year and a half ago that I first read manga by Junji Ito. Seriously, it feels like it was six months ago – what can I say? 2020 has been a really weird year. I started my journey with Gyo and Shiver (click here for my reviews), and I am continuing down this twisted rabbit hole with Uzumaki and Venus in the Blind Spot.

Uzumaki is a 3-volume series that has been published in a nice 3-in-1 bind-up by Viz Media. It is probably considered the title most synonymous with Junji Ito, at least in the U.S. I was a little hesitant diving in because of all the hype surrounding this book. Everyone loves it. My expectations were extraordinarily high and you know what? I get it. I get why everyone loves this book!

Uzumaki was a 5/5 Star Read for me. It was rife with with body horror and a healthy dose of cosmic horror as well. Kurouzu-cho is a small town on the coast of Japan and it is cursed by the shape of the spiral. The story of the town is mostly viewed through the eyes of teenager, Kirie Goshima, and her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito. When we first meet our main characters, Shuichi is trying to convince Kirie to run away with him because he is beginning to understand that something is not quite right with their hometown. Kirie, of course, refuses and thus begins our descent into the spiral. Highly recommended reading!!

I also read Venus in the Blindspot which was another 5/5 Star Read. This book is a collection of short stories, including a republished version of The Enigma of Amigara Fault with some beautifully colored pages. While all of the stories included in this collection were excellent, the below stood out for me the most:

The Human Chair* – Yoshiko Togawa, wife of a politician and an accomplished writer receives a manuscript in the mail. It is a story about a furniture maker who builds a special chair in which he can hide himself inside to fulfill his perversions. In the story, the chair makes it into the home of a politician and the man inside finds himself falling in love with the politician’s wife. The author states this is fiction – but Yoshiko starts to become afraid of her favorite writing chair. Is it truly fiction? Or something more?

An Unearthly Love* – Kyoko has married into the Kadono family. She has heard rumors that her husband-to-be is moody and does not like women. Kyoko is surprised to find him a gentle, loving, and caring man. All is going well until Kyoko discovers that he sneaks away during the night and up into the attic in their storage building to meet his unusual lover.

Keepsake – Young Lord Toyoji is surprised to find that his dead wife has given birth to their child in her coffin. He has recently been remarried to his former mistress, who has just given birth to a child as well. Secrets are revealed as the Toyoji’s two sons grow up.

*The Human Chair and An Unearthly Love were both illustrated by Junji Ito, but were based on original stories by Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965). Ranpo was a pen name for Taro Hirai who took it from American author, Edgar Allen Poe. He is recognized as playing a major role in the development of the mystery story in Japan. I had not heard of this author prior to reading these adaptations and I am looking forward to searching for what I can find translated to English. If you have read Edogawa Ranpo and have a recommendation, please let me know!

Underworld Dreams

An anthology of weird fiction by Daniel Braum

4.5/5 Stars

Right, then. You received gift cards this holiday season and are looking for books to spend them on. Let me direct you toward Underworld Dreams. If you enjoy weird, ambiguous fiction then this is a must-read!

Released this past September, Dreams takes us on a journey from shapeshifting sharks in New York to to hunting for seahorses in 1980s Belize. While all of the stories in this collection were enjoyable, the following were absolute standouts for me:

The Monkey Coat – June finds an old coat made of real monkey fur in her grandmother’s old trunk. She is drawn to it and wears it out about town. The thing is – she can’t remember what all she does at night when she wears it.

How to Stay Afloat When Drowning – In Montauk, New York, sharks are coming ashore to take back the oceans.

Palankar – Jacob and Steven are brothers who have returned to Palankar Reef in Mexico to relive a dive trip they took with their father thirty years ago. Jacob is trying to convince his brother to return to his wife and kids, but plans go a bit off-kilter when he sees Steven’s doppelganger on the dive down.

Rum Punch is Going Down – A man acquires the nickname of Rum Punch in Belize where he has gone to escape his life and search for seahorses. On his quest, he may or may have not found supernatural goings on in a small, seaside community.

Something else about this book that I really enjoyed were the author’s story notes added at the end. It’s a rare thing, at least in the books that I have read, to find notes on the inspirations and explanations for stories in weird fiction collections. More often than not, endings tend to be ambiguous and left to the reader’s conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, these stories still are – but it is interesting to understand where the author was coming from when he wrote them.

Bottom line? If you enjoy modern weird fiction, you are seriously missing out if you miss this collection.

Betty

A staggering coming-of-age novel by Tiffany McDaniel

5/5 Star Review

I rate many of the books I read with four and five star reviews – With a finite amount of time, I generally only dive into books that I really think I am going to enjoy. I’m lucky that they are usually as good as I expect them to be. These books are rated based on their own merits and I do not necessarily compare one 5-star read to another. Every once in a great while though, a book will come along that blows me out of the water and delivers a solid punch to my gut – Betty is one of those books. Simply put, this is really a 10-star read and has bumped itself up into my top 5 reads of all time.

I finished reading this book yesterday morning and I have been struggling with what I want to say in this review ever since. Betty is both a coming-of-age tale and a family drama told through the eyes of Betty, the youngest daughter in a poor family living in rural Ohio.

“A girl comes of age against the knife. She must learn to bear its blade. To be cut. To bleed. To scar over and still, somehow, be beautiful and with good enough knees to take the sponge to the kitchen floor every Saturday.”

So begins the story of Betty Carpenter, a girl born of a white woman and a Cherokee man. She is the youngest girl and the only one of her six living siblings that strongly resembles her father. The majority of the novel takes place during the 1960’s in the fictional, southern Ohio town of Breathed and follows Betty from the time she is seven until she is eighteen. Betty has been raised on the stories of her father’s people and the strength she inherits from powerful Cherokee women; likewise, she has been raised on the stories of her mother’s people and the the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her family. The dichotomy of these truths allows Betty to see the horrors that are happening within her own family and surroundings.

While Betty encapsulates the sense of time and place with McDaniel’s understanding of certain rural truths: mental illness was not a topic to be discussed and women being inferior to men, chief among them; She presents these truths in a manner that allows us to recognize that time has not erased these problems. The curtains may have changed, but they still cover the same old dirty windows.

It should be said that Betty is not a horror novel, but rather a literary novel with horrific elements. It is beautiful, tragic, and gritty enough to surpass the works of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, or Stuart O’Nan. McDaniel handles topics of discrimination, racism, sexism, abuse, incest, and cruelty with a deft hand. She commands attention with her lyrical prose, vivid imagery, and powerful use of metaphors; she paints over all this with a watercolor layer of magical realism that both softens and hardens truths at their edges.

Betty is a tough read, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were moments where I had to walk away for a little while and come back to the book the next day. The reality that Betty endures would have broken me – she is a far stronger woman than I am. Having said that, the moments of beauty and strength are more powerful than the enduring tragedy of the Carpenter family. There are passages and images in my mind that will stay with me forever. If you read one book this year, please, read Betty.

Betty is released on August 18th through Random House. Click the image above to pre-order through Amazon or click here to order a 1st edition hardcover with a signed bookplate from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Betty is, in part, biographical – how much is fact and how much is fiction in unknown. Click here to visit Tiffany McDaniel’s website to view some photographs of the Carpenter family – Betty is the author’s mother.

I was given a digital copy of this book for review consideration from the author. I have since pre-ordered a signed copy of my own from Lemuria Books and plan on moving her first novel, The Summer that Melted Everything to the top of my TBR pile. Tiffany McDaniel has cemented herself as a must-buy author for me.

Top 5 Reads of 2019

2019 was an exciting year in reading for me: I started this blog as a way to communicate my thoughts and feelings on great reads, to promote horror, and to connect with more readers and authors. Overall, I would say the year was a successful one as far as those goals went – even though the last few months got away from me due to life issues. I didn’t set much of a posting timeline going in, but I was able to read and post regularly up to October. Moving into 2020, I’m going to try to post at least twice monthly – hopefully more! Look for a “What to Expect in 2020” post coming your way very soon!

Throughout 2019, I was able to read 74 books. Most were 4 and 5 star reads so narrowing it down to five was really difficult! Nevertheless, here they are – in no particular order. My top 5 reads of 2019:

Bunny by Mona Awad

13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod

Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Links to my reviews have been embedded in the titles if you would like to read them. 13 Views and Westlake Soul are currently out-of-print, but look for them in your local library on on the secondary market – they are absolutely worth tracking down.

What were your top reads of 2019?

Garden of Eldritch Delights

A Cosmic Horror and Fantasy Collection by Lucy A. Snyder

4/5 Star Review

September has passed, but I am still wrapping up reviews from the month-long anniversary celebration for The Ladies of Horror Fiction. This lovely team celebrated their first full year of spotlighting the amazing ladies of horror! There was a read-a-thon taking place for the entire month of September and it featured five different reading challenges – check out this link for the details!

I read Garden of Eldritch Delights for Challenge #2 – Read a Book by a LGBTQ+Author. This was my fourth “official” pick for the read-a-thon.

This was my first read of Lucy A. Snyder and she is most definitely an author who will be making rounds in my ever-growing TBR. With Garden, Snyder weaves a wonderful collection combining cosmic horror, science fiction, vampires, witches, and straight out fantasy. Somehow, it all works very well together. Snyder has a talent for telling tight, complete stories with a small amount of words – a talent not all writers have.

Garden of Eldritch Delights starts out strong with That Which Does Not Kill You – about the real-life pains of a broken heart and Sunset on Mott Island – an end-of-the-world tale about a doctor with revelations and a woman caring for her dying mother in a dying world. It continues with some of my other favorites: The Gentleman Caller – about an unexpected sex worker, her familial gift, and how the grass isn’t always greener; Executive Functions – a story that I will always look back fondly on every time I have to deal with an asshole in the workplace; and A Noble Endeavor; about a young slave girl who changes the world.

While some stories were a little weaker than others, there is not a bad, or even a just okay, story in the whole collection. Every single one is worth a read. I love that Snyder can write strong, empowered female characters without making them feel like a trope. These women all have unique personalities, strengths, weaknesses – they are real, they are every woman. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Fever Dream

A surreal novella by Samanta Schweblin and translated by Megan McDowell

4/5 Star Review

It’s nearly the end of September and I am wrapping up the month-long anniversary celebration for The Ladies of Horror Fiction. This lovely team celebrated their first full year of spotlighting the amazing ladies of horror! There was a read-a-thon taking place for the entire month and it featured five different reading challenges – check out this link for the details!

I read Fever Dream for Challenge #3 – Read a Book by a POC (Person of Color). This is my third “official” pick for the read-a-thon.

Fever Dream is a hallucinatory tale of a woman called Amanda who is dying in a rural clinic. At her side sits a young boy called David who pushes her to tell the story of how she arrived there.

I hesitate to say much more about the plot as this is only a novella and it is easy to give too much of the story away. Schweblin is originally from Argentina and paints that landscape clearly in a short amount of time. The tale is set in the country – an area that is still heavily reliant on traditional healers rather than modern medicine.

My only complaint, and it is minimal, is that I felt this story needed to be a little bit longer, needed a little bit more time to cook. There are ambiguous endings and there are endings that just don’t quite feel complete – this felt like the latter to me.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this cautionary tale of modern evils and the plight of those who are only beginning to understand them and their consequences. The novella is a gorgeous blend of surrealism, hallucinations, confusion, unreliable characters, and magic. This is a great little book which should be devoured in one sitting and I recommend this to those who enjoy a healthy mix of magical realism and horror.

Cry Your Way Home

A hauntingly beautiful collection by Damien Angelica Walters

5/5 Star Review

It’s September and I am still reveling in the month-long anniversary celebration for The Ladies of Horror Fiction. This lovely team is celebrating their first full year of spotlighting the amazing ladies of horror! If you would like to join in the festivities, there is a read-a-thon taking place for the entire month and it features five different reading challenges – check out this link for more details!

I read Cry Your Way Home for Challenge #1 – Read a Book by an Indie Author. This is my first “official” pick for the read-a-thon and what a way to kick it off! Damien Angelica Walters has some serious writing chops – this lovely lady can crawl under your skin, break your heart, cause you to look over your shoulder, and make you rethink your favorite childhood stories all in the breadth of less than a hundred pages. This book weighs in at 223, so you know you are in for a whirlwind of emotion and horror.

While I enjoy many different sub-genres of horror, my bread-and-butter, the horror that truly resonates with me, is the horror that is born out of emotion. It is the horror that comes from loving someone so deeply and watching them unravel, as in In the Spaces Where You Once Lived; the regret in knowing that you could have made a difference for someone, as in The Floating Girls: A Documentary; and handling the abiding grief of losing a child, as in Falling Under, Through the Dark and Umbilicus.

That being said, the stories collected in Cry Your Way Home are not all riddled with grief and heartache – far from it! This book is a well-blended mix of cosmic horror, fairy tale retellings, magical realism, and science fiction – all spun in a literary style with a dash of some seriously empowering female characters.

Cry Your Way Home is a gorgeous and mature collection of stories. I do not say this about many collections, but there is not one story in this book I didn’t enjoy. They would all be 4 and 5 star ratings if I had to go through each individually. Since finishing this, I have gone on to order the other books Ms. Walters currently has out – Paper Tigers and Sing Me Your Scars. The Dead Girls Club will be released on December 10th of this year. I highly recommend you all give this lady a read!