Readings: Ring and Song for the Unraveling of the World

Prompted by being reminded of the wonderfully terrifying film, I read its original source, Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ring, for the first time, in the translation by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. The book is quite different from the film in many ways, but I watched Ringu in perhaps 1999, at a friend’s house—I still remember how jumpy I was going home later that night—and while memory has faded most of the details of the latter, I remember the film as a more straightforward ghost story, with the climax focusing heavily on Sadako as a figure of fear, coming out of the screen to chase Hiroyuki Sanada around the room.

The book is unsettling in its own way, but more complicatedly so; that now-iconic climactic scene is absent, for instance, and there is a great deal more focus on virality and infection than haunting per se, which only increases with the next novel, Spiral. The fusion of a vengeful psychic with a mutant smallpox virus reflects the genrefeel of the novels, which is in parts as much sfnal/medical thriller as horror, not to mention murder mystery, especially in the early chapter where Asakawa writes down the details of the first four teen victims on cards as a plot recap/part of the investigative process of revisiting information.

(In sff this is decried as rank asyouknowbobbery but it’s been a useful device in crime: I associate it most strongly with Jeffery Deaver because it was used so prominently in the Lincoln Rhyme novels, but I feel like it’s been around for ages. I most recently saw it, I think, in Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth, and that’s from 1965 (same year as Dune!) where one investigator sums up the case for the other in writing partway through the book, helpfully rehashing all the details for the reader along the way.)

Another notable difference between Ring the novel and Ringu the film is in the contents of the cursed videotape itself. As a film-within-a-film, it’s much shorter and more eerie. In the book, it’s quite a long video, going on for almost precisely 20 minutes (we know this because the book version of the Hiroyuki Sanada character breaks it down scene by scene in a neat little table) which would have been a substantial chunk of the film if they’d reproduced it in full—about a fifth of it.

Brian Evenson’s 2019 short story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World is in this post because (a) I read it recently and (b) it’s bookended by two stories that evoked Ring for me (more the film than the book, since I read this one before reading Suzuki—and actually, the Evenson collection features several stories about films and filmmaking, and the monstrousnesses thereof.) The last story in the collection, “Lather of Flies,” is about a cursed film, if of a slightly different type: here, the cult filmmaker is the spider in the web gathering unwary film students to feed on them. I didn’t particularly like this story. Evenson is very hit or miss for me, especially in his more elaborately plotted stories. As with “Lather of Flies,” I often just find them overdone. But when an Evenson story does land for me, it lands very powerfully, and it’s usually the shorter stories with a vivid core image—for example, one of my favourite Evenson stories is the titular story from A Collapse of Horses, for this very specific image:

Imagine this: Walking through the countryside one day, you come across a paddock. Lying there on their sides, in the dust, unnaturally still, are four horses. All four are prone, with no horses standing. They do not breathe and do not, as far as you can see, move. They are, to all appearances, dead. And yet, on the edge of the paddock, not twenty yards distant, a man fills their trough with water.

In Song for the Unraveling of the World, for me the very first story, “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” was by far the strongest and most unsettling, for all that it is also probably the shortest—less than five hundred words, I estimate, which means this quote is about a fifth of it.

No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back—only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible. […] She just kept turning in circles, walking backward and knocking into things, trying to grab things with the backs of her hands. She was a whole girl made of two half girls, but wrongly made, of two of the same halves.

The reason this story works, despite its extreme abbreviation, is because it achieves the sense of movement that any short story must have in order to feel complete, and it does this by simply positing—not even depicting, but only imagining—the opposite girl, equally wrongly made, but the other way around.

One layer of appeal in this category of horror, I feel, is less in the other-ing of the horrific figure, but in identifying with them. We each know too well how we are wrongly made, just how much of our lives has been spent stumbling and knocking into things: the claustrophobia of failure and alienation in which we are enwrapped. (An image that’s difficult to not be reminded of here: the teenage Sibilla from Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, spinning and stopping, being wrapped in a choking sarcophagus of her own hair, uncanny, eroticized, and monstrous.)

Sadako is a thorough deconstruction of a familiar power fantasy—as seen in, e.g., Charlie from King’s Firestarter, which similarly features a girl born with extraordinary abilities and persecuted for it, but which ends on an upbeat note of righteous vengeance and holds out the hope of redemption for the world as well for Charlie. Sadako’s vengeance is unrighteous and misdirected: the man who attacked and killed her remains unharmed at the end of the book, apart from a minor embarrassment, and her targets, in increasing numbers via infection, are randomly chosen, with no end in sight to her unraveling hauntpox pandemic.