Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Web of Horror: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
By Yoko Ogawa
Guest review by Sam Thomas

In her delightfully disturbing collection of short stories, Revenge (appropriately subtitled Eleven Dark Tales), Yoko Ogawa explores the paper-thin border separating our unremarkable daily existence and the all-too-human demons that threaten us at every turn.  The chapter titles themselves blur this boundary, as the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” is only marginally less disturbing than “Welcome to the Museum of Torture.”  On virtually every page, Ogawa’s characters confront death.  Parents, children, husbands, wives and lovers, all meet grisly ends.

Rather than telling eleven discrete stories, Ogawa interweaves the lives of her characters, as individuals from one story appear in another, whether as narrator, antagonist, or corpse.  It soon becomes clear that Ogawa’s characters are connected not just to their own personal horror, but to a web of horrors enmeshing those around them.  The effect of this is profoundly unsettling, for in Ogawa’s world, terror is not consigned to a particularly nasty town, or even a single, psychotic individual.  Rather it permeates the world, simply waiting for the opportunity – which is never long in coming – to break into the open and wreak havoc on all in its path.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Ogawa’s characters is the cavalier manner in which they invite those around them, even complete strangers, to share in their horrors.  Whether it is a woman’s casual confession of murder, or a gardener who ushers her neighbors into a strange kind of cannibalism, Ogawa’s characters refuse to suffer in solitude.  Horror doesn’t love company – it demands it.  Even more disturbing is the fact that Ogawa’s characters accept these invitations as if they are no new thing.  After the narrator in “Afternoon at the Bakery” tells a stranger that she hoped to purchase a cake for her dead son, she notes, “There was no sign of sympathy or surprise or even embarrassment on [the stranger’s] face...‘Well,’ she said, ‘then it is lucky you chose this bakery.  There are no better pastries anywhere; your son will be pleased.’”  It is as if the characters fully expect the border between the quotidian and the horrible to be breached at any moment, and are thus unsurprised when it happens.

While most horror and suspense stories (Ogawa’s are both) hope to surprise the reader, it is clear that Ogawa also wants to disturb.  She does this by conventional means of murder and mayhem, but she also refuses to let the reader get comfortable with her narrators.  Despite the fact that all the stories are told in the first person, the narrators reveal their true nature with excruciating deliberation.  Ogawa is in no hurry to tell you whether the narrator is male or female, young or old, or – most disconcertingly – humane or homicidal.  When one of Ogawa’s characters offers you his hand, you’d better check the other for a knife.

To be clear, this is not a typical horror collection, for while much blood is promised, very little is spilled on the page.  However, the pervasive threat of violence and death, coupled with Ogawa’s occasional forays into the surreal and supernatural, leave me at a loss for a better word to describe these stories.  They are disturbing to be sure, but if you are in the mood for a brief trip into the dark, you could do far worse than Revenge.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale, a historical thriller recently published by Minotaur Books.  He has a PhD in history with a focus on Reformation England and currently teaches at a secondary school near Cleveland, Ohio.

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