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.

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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!!

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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:

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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.

Worst Laid Plans

An anthology of vacation horror edited by Samantha Kolesnik

5/5 Star Review

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. It’s almost the middle of summer and instead of traveling and lounging at the beach, we are staying close to home and masking up whenever venturing out is necessary. Does it stink? Absolutely! Want to feel a little better about it? Read this book.

Worst Laid Plans is a collection of 14 tales of vacations gone horribly awry. While not every story is specifically a summer trip – all of them have a distinct summery vibe. This anthology runs the gamut from aliens to monsters; from body horror to the supernatural; from grief to human nature at its worst. There is something in this collection for nearly everyone. It’s also worth a mention that Sadie Hartmann, Mother Horror herself, wrote a fantastic forward for this anthology!

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If you have read my reviews before, multi-author anthologies are rarely a complete win for me. This was absolutely not the case with Worst Laid Plans. While there were a few tales missed the mark for me, there wasn’t one in here that I would rate less than 3 stars. My top picks were just so fantastic that I still feel good about giving this collection a full 5 star rating. Without further ado – let me share my top 5 from this collection:

Unkindly Girls by Hailey Piper – This was my absolute favorite story from this collection. Morgan is a teenage girl on vacation with her over-protective father. Every summer they go on vacation to a different beach, never the same one twice. This year is different because Morgan has found out a truth about her father. Without giving anything away, there is a scene in which Morgan is swimming in the ocean with two girls she’s just met and the imagery of it absolutely blew me away.

Taylor Family Vacation ’93 by Jeremy Herbert – Daniel Taylor, CPA, has taken his wife and young son on an Orlando vacation to visit the theme parks. Every morning he wakes up to see that his camcorder has recorded seconds of extra footage – a little more each time and it appears that someone is watching them with their own camera. As a side note, I’m a central Florida girl and Herbert completely nailed the Kissimmee and Orlando area, right down to the tourist traps and old motels.

In the Water by Mark Wheaton – Two American girls, Candice and Jenn are currently vacationing at a resort in Thailand. A major storm moves in and the resort goes into lock-down. Not wanting to disappoint their guests, the hotel opens the bar and turns the downstairs area into a hurricane party. It is here that Jenn and Candice meet up with a brother and sister they met in Goa and the night takes a turn for the worse. I really enjoyed the format of this story – some was told in real time from the girls’perspectives and some was told from the detectives investigating the aftermath.

Peelings by Kenzie Jennings – Beth, her twin daughters, and her abusive husband, Marc, take a family vacation to the Disney parks in Orlando. Beth is unhappy, she gets a terrible sunburn on the first day and Marc berates her for not being careful. Her daughters take the cues from their father and are horrible to Beth as well. As her burn begins to peel, she finds parts of herself transforming and discovers that Disney truly is the happiest place on earth.

The Penanggalan by Scott Cole – An unnamed protagonist and his partner, Maddie, change their vacation plans last minute when Maddie finds unbelievably cheap airline tickets to Panang. During the plane ride, our main character finds a little booklet in the seat pocket in front of him called, “A Field Guide to Supernatural Entities in Southeast Asia.” He becomes inexplicably drawn to a vampiric creature called a Penanggalan. This tale had some serious Junji Ito vibes and I was there for it!

It was so hard to narrow these stories down to select the top 5. I have two honorable mentions that I would also like to mention here: The Cucuy of Cancun by V. Castro and Deep in the Heart by Waylon Jordan. Castro brings a new twist on El Cucuy while Jordan tells a coming-of-age tale replete with cave monsters.

It’s been some time since I have stumbled onto a multi-author anthology collection that left me so thrilled. I honestly can’t recommend this one enough and it is so perfect for summer! Definitely one to check out.

I received a copy of this title for review consideration.

Behemoth

A novel of giant biblical monsters by HP Newquist

4/5 Star Review

Are you in the market for small-town secrets? How about an old testament cult? A whirlwind novel of mystery, murder, and disappearances? Well, friends, look no further – Behemoth is here to scratch that itch!

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Robert Garrahan, a journalist by trade, has been making weekend trips between New York City and his small cabin in upstate New York to work on his book of New York architecture. One weekend, he detours into the small town of Morris for gas and is struck by the odd little town. It seems as though folks are coming out of their homes to watch him. The gas station owner and his daughter are friendly enough, they chat about the big city and how exotic it sounds. The next weekend, Robert stops again at the little gas station only to find the family gone and a new owner in place. He starts to dig into the town and finds that there have been a recent slew of disappearances in and around Morris and the book takes off from there.

I was a bit concerned about the Christian undertone to this book going in. I am not a religious person, and aside from the odd possession story here and there, I really prefer my horror not to be riddled with passages from the bible. Newquist handles the old testament themes and religious fanaticism with deft hands. I felt it was worth a mention here just in case anyone feels the same way as I do about these things. Rest assured – this is not what you think it is going to be.

While Newquist has several works of non-fiction under his belt, Behemoth is his first novel and hopefully will not be his last. I recommend checking this one out for sure!

As an aside, I received a digital copy of this title from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Walk the Darkness Down

A horrific western novella of cosmic proportions by John Boden

4/5 Star Review

I have to start this review with a confession: I received a copy of this book for review from the author last fall and it slipped through the cracks. I’m embarrassed by the amount of time that it took me to get to this wonderful little book. Do yourself a favor when you pick this one up – Don’t let it sit on your TBR pile. Read it immediately and read it slowly. Savor it.

This was my first read from John Boden and I was impressed. Boden commands the English language and manipulates it into gorgeous metaphors that paint the landscape of this novella. As you read, you want to meditate on the images that are being drawn in your mind. The world of this tale is just so rich and so brutal that it demands your complete attention.

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Levi is a man who is no longer a man. He has been warped by the ancient evil that has invaded his mind. Jones is a man on a quest to find himself, as well at the man who killed his mother. Keaton is a man on the run from crimes he did not commit. Jubal is a boy whose parents are dead and has been left to care for his twin sisters. Walk the Darkness Down is the story of how these four come together and their ultimate showdown.

One tidbit about this novella that I will share with you is to pay attention to the names of the people and the towns, hell – even the horse. If you are familiar with folks in the horror community, you will see a lot of cameos and mentions throughout. They are fun little Easter eggs to find. It takes nothing away from the story if you don’t notice them, so don’t let this deter you from picking up this book.

If a violent and gory western imbued with cosmic horror sounds like your cup of tea – I highly recommend this read!

If you follow the horror community on Bookstagram or Twitter, you may have noticed a surge in the horror western sub-genre. If you don’t and are looking for more new books in this vein, check out Death’s Head Press. They have just started releasing titles for their Splatter Western line: The Magpie Coffin by Wile E. Young and Hunger on the Chisholm Trail by by M. Ennenbach.

Halloween Fiend

A spooky little Halloween novella by C.V. Hunt

3.5/5 Star Review

I’m wrapping up reviews for books read in the last week of April and you know what that means – we are less than halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read Halloween Fiend for challenges #1 – Read a book with black or orange on the cover and #4 – Read a book with a spooky word in the title. I was running out of time so I had to combine challenges for this book!

Halloween Fiend is a quick and spooky little read. The novella follows the story of Barry as All Hallow’s Eve looms closer and closer in the town of Strang. It’s a town with a long-held secret – it plays victim to a dark creature that the townsfolk have come to simply call Halloween. Every night, small sacrifices, treats, must be left out for Halloween so that it can be kept at bay. Barry is tired of it all and wants out, but it is not quite so simple as that…

Hunt has created an eerie mythos surrounding Halloween and the town of Strang. It’s a little similar to Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ but a with a more cult-like attitude toward it all. Halloween Fiend is a very atmospheric read; You can smell fall in the crisp air as you pass through the town square and likewise taste the stale smoke on the back of your tongue that comes from decades of smoking inside a closed house.

I had two minor complaints about Halloween Fiend – neither major enough to keep me from recommending this title, but worth a mention. The first is that the main character, Barry, is too generic. I often forgot that I was supposed to be reading from the perspective of a middle-aged man. It’s not necessarily pivotal to the plot, so it is easy to overlook. My second is that I found some of the plot points to be a little too vague. I am all about ambiguity in horror – I quite love it, actually. There were just one or two explanations that I would have liked to have been more forthcoming in the story.

Overall, this was a fun read! If you are looking for a quick little tale to get you in the spirit of Halloween then this is definitely one to pick up.

In A Dark Place

The “true” story behind The Haunting in Connecticut by Ray Garton

4/5 Star Review

I’m wrapping up reviews for books read in the last week of April and you know what that means – we are halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read In A Dark Place for challenge #3 – Read a book that involves something supernatural.

I am endlessly fascinated with the supernatural and the paranormal. It’s something that I would like to believe in, but thus far have not experienced anything that could not be rationally explained. I love reading “true” tales of hauntings, but they are all read with a grain of salt. In A Dark Place was no exception to this. More on this in a bit.

In the 1980s, The Snedekers oldest son was undergoing daily cancer treatments and the family needed to move closer to the city in order to better care for him. With limited income, there was only one home that they found and could afford that satisfied both the needed location and space for their family of six – a former funeral home. The parents opted not to share that fact with the kids and spent their next year or so in utter denial of all of the weird goings-on around the home. Their eldest son was the most affected and often blamed for the spooky occurrences. The situation reached its boiling point once their son was no longer in the home and the Snedekers could no longer lie to themselves about the presence of evil. Enter the Warrens and eventual exorcism of the home.

This book has it all – strange sounds, disembodied voices, shadow figures, weird lights, footsteps, phantom touches, disappearing items, vibrating beds, the evil spirits of necrophiliacs, and demonic anal rape. Oh, yes – what kind of possessed house would this be if you weren’t being anally raped by a demonic presence?!

This book is an absolute blast – when you read it as fiction. It stands on its own as a pretty great haunted house novel. Ray Garton is a fantastic writer and his story shines. If you read it as a true story, well, there are many plot holes and inconsistencies to be found. Garton himself found them and questioned the Snedekers who never seemed to be able to keep their stories straight. He approached the Warrens about the questionable events and was told by Ed to, “…make it up and make it scary. That’s why we hired you.” I highly recommend reading the interview that Ray Garton did with Damned Connecticut about his experience writing this book. You can find it here.

Whether or not you believe the validity of this story or in the Warrens ability to assist in these cases – it is a fun ride. Garton wrote a wicked fun haunted house story that can be enjoyed whether it is true or not. Recommended read!

Ghoul

A coming-of-age horror novel by Brian Keene

5/5 Star Review

It’s the last week of April and you know what that means – we are halfway to Halloween! Over on the Spine Breakers YouTube channel, Sue and Megan have been hosting Halfaweenathon 2020. You can find the the original video and the reading challenges here.

I read Ghoul for challenge #2 – Read a spooky book and then watch the movie (or TV) adaptation.

Ghoul is a perfect example of quintessential coming-of-age horror. The novel takes place over the summer of 1984. Three boys, twelve years old and best friends, are going through their own separate hells at home, fighting a supernatural monster, and becoming more grown-up than they should ever have to be over the course of just one season.

Timmy, Doug, and Barry live in small-town PA and their primary playground is the cemetery that sprawls next to Timmy and Barry’s homes. They notice that something seems to be going on when Barry’s dad, the cemetery caretaker, warns them away from playing there anymore and tells them to never come near it again at night. Days later, they notice some of the gravestones seem to be sinking into the earth. As more holes seem to be opening up and people start to go missing, the boys make plans to try and explore what they believe to be an underground cave system underneath the cemetery. Amidst their outdoor adventures, each of the boys is dealing with their own issues at home. Barry lives with a verbally and physically abusive father; Doug lives with a mother who is far too physical with her affections; and Timmy is dealing with the death of a family member and a father who demands he grows up too quickly.

Ghoul reminds us that there are things in this world that we perceive to be monsters, but that they are only doing what it is in their nature to do. It reminds us that humans can be monsters, and they they can be the most monstrous of all. Highly, highly recommended read!

I read my old Leisure copy of Ghoul that is no longer in print. You can find the current version linked here that is in print through Deadite Press. If you want to go all out – I highly suggest ordering the June 2020 Night Worms package, “Boys of Summer.” One of the books included will be an exclusive version of Ghoul published by Poltergeist Press with new cover art and a new introduction written by Brian Keene – read more about it here.

I’m only going to say a few words about the movie. It was released in 2012 and made for Chiller TV. I rented it through Amazon Prime and watched it a few nights ago. It was incredibly disappointing. It was missing all of the heart from the book and the filmmakers made some serious changes to the plot, particularly in regards to the ghoul itself. The changes could have worked, or at least not have been as glaringly out of place, if they hadn’t tried to use so many direct lines from the novel. Delivering the lines without context, or completely different context, just made for a muddy mess. I highly recommend skipping over the movie and just reading the book.

A Cosmology of Monsters

A generational novel of cosmic horror by Shaun Hamill

5/5 Star Review

I am not normally lured in by cover blurbs, but this one – this is the one that got me to pick up the book:

“If John Irving ever wrote a horror novel, it would be something like this. I loved it.” —Stephen King

If there is one element of story I think of when I think of both Stephen King and John Irving, it would have to be character narrative. Both authors have an incredible talent for creating characters that are people you know, or have known. They are friends, lovers, acquaintances, family members. As it would turn out, A Cosmology of Monsters completely lives up to the comparison.

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In my opinion, Monsters is, at its heart, a generational family drama with elements of cosmic horror and weird fiction woven throughout the narrative. I came for the characters and stayed for the horror. You should know that going in. If you are taking the plunge and are expecting a straight horror story, you may be disappointed. This is a slow-burn. If you enjoyed King’s Revival or Duma Key – this would be a book you would absolutely love. It’s a novel that takes its time, but as it unfurls it is so very, very good!

Noah Turner is our narrator and the book is broken up into four parts – The story of Noah’s parents and the story of Noah’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. We follow the family’s highs and lows as they revolve around the designs of a great haunted house that grows from a front yard set-up to a full-size attraction called, The Wandering Dark. The family experiences loss and heartbreak and as the reader, we are there for every moment. Throughout, there are glimpses of the weird, the abnormal, and every taste leaves you wanting to know more. I hesitate to say anything else as this is a book I think you should walk into blind.

A Cosmology of Monsters is the number one contender for the best novel that I have read so far in 2020. It’s going to take to take a real doozy to unseat this one, but even then, I don’t think anything could drop if from my Top 5. If you like weird fiction or quiet, literary horror – you are doing yourself a disservice if you let this one go by without a read.

John McNee’s Doom Cabaret

A transgressive horror anthology by John McNee

5/5 Star Review

Do you remember the first time that your read Clive Barker or Poppy Z. Brite? Or the first time you discovered books published under the old Dell Abyss imprint or the splatterpunks of the 1990s? That feeling – that excitement – of knowing that horror can be both brutal and beautiful? That’s where I am with John McNee’s Doom Cabaret.

Like Brite and Barker, McNee has perfected the art of presenting taboo acts of extreme horror, violence, and gore as art. He makes the grotesque palatable by painting it with smooth curves and soft edges – acceptable in its brutality.

Doom Cabaret is comprised of eight short stories – all of which are worth mentioning: Bebbel – A story of dark magic and a carnival sideshow; Dead Deanna – About a girl who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer; Man Holding Razor Blade – Sometimes art takes on a life of its own; Slaughterhouse Sweetheart – Some men can never stop playing with their food; Skunk Jr. – A story about a couple who finally get a baby of their own; Repulsive Glamour – A cautionary reminder not to anger the gods; The Lullaby Man – A girl confronts her childhood nightmares; and the title story, Midnight at the Doom Cabaret – A sinister nightly show whose main act is always different and always chosen by the patrons.

If I have struck a chord reminiscing about 90s horror, or if you are looking for a darkly beautiful slice of the macabre, John McNee’s Doom Cabaret is available on April 24th 2020 and I highly recommend that you pre-order it now! I have placed a link to the ebook on the title image above.

This was my first time reading McNee and I can guarantee that it won’t be the last. It’s been awhile since I have been so very excited about a new author! My next dive into his works will be his novel, Prince of Nightmares, published by Blood Bound Books in 2016.

Please note that I did receive this title as a review copy in exchange for an honest review.