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Deep Cold Fear

Koji Suzuki's Dark Water

A single mother, quite attractive but no longer interested in men, moves with her six-year-old daughter into a building with a nice view of Tokyo Bay. The location suits her, although the building is dark and empty at night, having mostly been converted to office suites. One other family lived on the second floor, but they left after a "misfortune," the superintendent says.

One evening she takes her daughter to the roof to set off fireworks and they come across a child's "Hello Kitty!" bag, full of new bath toys. Her daughter reaches for it: unaccountably alarmed by its lumpy appearance, the mother snatches it from her and later secretly throws it away. But when they return to the roof a week later, there it is again, in exactly the same place.

That night the mother hears her child in the bath talking to someone. Peering in, she sees her daughter has made a sort of bath toy out of a towel drenched in water. When the mother asks her daughter what she's doing, Ikuko says: "My friend loves taking a bath all by herself. She never, ever gets out."

Later that same night, fear wakes the mother. She looks around the apartment: her daughter is gone. In a frantic rush, she gets in the elevator and pushes the button to go to the roof, but it takes her to the second floor, where the previous couple lived. She thinks someone must have summoned it, but when the doors open, the hallway is empty. Yet the second before the doors close, she senses "a presence" sneak inside. The temperature drops.

Eventually her daughter finds her on the roof: she tells her mother she was in the bathroom all along, though her mother saw the light was off. When the upset mother later asks the super what misfortune befell the family which moved away, he says their child disappeared.

So begins "Floating Water," the first of seven stories in Koji Suzuki's Dark Water, a thematically-linked collection recently released in this country. If the chills you get from even a brief peek at one of his stories feel familiar, it's because Suzuki's work has inspired a legion of imitators and film adaptations. His novel The Ring was successfully made into a movie in Japan, Korea, and the U.S. Already two of the stories in Dark Water have been optioned in the U.S., and the first story, given the book's title of "Dark Water," will appear as a movie early next year with Jennifer Connolly and John C. Reilly. But although Suzuki's millions of books sold and pervasive creepiness have brought comparisons to Steven King, Suzuki dismisses the talk, telling interviewers that he has only once read King and doesn't like horror novels.

He goes further to say he doesn't believe in demons or devils -- or evil itself. In movies adapted from his stories he objects to the sight of blood, believing that it "kills the need for imagination." He doesn't truck with huge monsters or aliens, and when it comes to killers, he's as likely to tell the story from their point of view -- and bring out their regrets -- as he is to focus on victims.

Perhaps this explains why Dark Water feels so different than what we've come to expect from the genre, far more satisfying and honest. A great deal of horror and suspense has a perverse aspect: such stories often show us, say, a woman in the grip of terror, but permeating the scene is the queasy sense that the author secretly enjoys the victim's suffering.

Suzuki, a former therapist, uses terror not to assert his own power but instead to deepen our understanding of how humans connect to one other, or more often than not, how they fail to do so. Loneliness is the real monster in this book: as he plays out variations on this theme, Suzuki shows us that lonely people die the saddest of deaths -- but that lovers and parents must face even greater fears.

Suzuki's spare prose sounds out the psychic contours and depths of the waters around Tokyo. A yacht is found abandoned in Tokyo Bay in "Adrift" and a crewman put on board for the night: when he reads the ship's diary, he learns of an unearthly presence that stole into the dreams of the family on board, and of a strange shell found in a bottle. In "The Hold," a fisherman who detests his wife and lives to capture eels wakes to find his wife gone. Searching for her, he finds himself caught like an eel in a trap. And in "The Forest under the Sea," a spelunker finds himself trapped on the shores of an underground lake not far from the city, agonizingly close to a home he may never see again.

All is not hopeless, however, which gives Dark Water an added layer of complexity. In a few of the stories, the characters face their fears bravely, and so find a kind of redemption, whatever the fate of their bodies. This leads to a surprising and, for the genre, startlingly original epilogue. The book concludes with neither the relentless ghastliness of traditional horror, nor a sticky-sweet Hollywood happy ending, but on a quiet but uplifting note.

Water carries the fear in these stories, but not because scary monsters erupt from its depths. In the end Dark Water scares us because in it people get trapped, isolated, and sometimes drowned -- much as they do in loneliness.

Dark Water
by Koji Suzuki
Vertical; ISBN 1932234101
Hardcover: 288 pages (October 2004)