Unsettling Japanese Novels for Horror Fans

Whenever horror novels are brought up, one tends to think of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson. All are excellent writers, but we tend to forget that there are also amazing horror writers across the world, and many get their works translated into English. Last year I spent a lot of time researching Japanese horror, mystery, and crime novels, and was actually able to read a few. To my pleasant surprise, these books were some of the best that I’ve read in a long time, and I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with each one. Here I present to you five Japanese novels (more or less) that I would recommend to any horror lover.

Ring​ by Koji Suzuki

Ring​ is a household name for horror fans, and continues to be a popular movie despite being released over twenty years ago, in 1998. Strangely, many people are unaware that the movie is actually based on a novel, ​Ringu,​ which came out in 1991. After the tremendous popularity of the movie adaptation, the book was translated into English in 2003. A lot of people have, at the very least, a vague idea of what ​Ring​ is because of cultural osmosis, but there are still surprises to be seen in reading the source material, even if you’ve already seen the film. The novel and the movie have some major differences, and because of that, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The strong point of the movie is the major change they made to the lead character and her relationship to the “sidekick,” as well as removing some problematic content that was in the original story. However, the book does a much better job at explaining the source of the cursed video tape and how exactly it works. It’s definitely a must-read for fans of the horror genre. Please note that there is some possibly triggering content in the book, so take precautions before reading.

turned off gray CRT TV on table PJ Gal-Szabo

The Summer of the Ubume​ by Natsuhiko Kyogoku

The Summer of the Ubume i​s a work of philosophy, mystery, and pure insanity all rolled into one. I came across this title when researching Japanese horror novels to inform my honors thesis, and the reviews for this one sent me on a months-long search for the book, as it is out of print. My expectations were really high based on the things I’d read, and somehow the novel managed to blast my expectations out of the water, effectively shooting them through the earth’s ozone layer. Once you get through the first fifty pages of philosophical conversation between the narrator and his friend, which is a bit dense, but becomes important later in the book, you get thrown into the actual story. A woman named Kyoko Kuonji is rumored to have been pregnant for the last twenty months, and her husband disappeared from a locked room shortly before her pregnancy. What unfolds is possibly the most unsettling, eccentric, and shocking mystery I have ever experienced.

Out​ by Natsuo Kirino

Kirino’s crime novel, ​Out, ​is gritty, grotesque, and relentless. Often, books excel at either having a well written story or well-written characters, but rarely both. In it’s 400-page length, Kirino manages to write both a gripping story, and a main character — ​plus ​several side characters — who you become deeply invested in. The popular image of Japan tends to be its beautiful cherry blossoms and metropolitan cityscape, but this story casts that aside and isn’t afraid to get grimy. It tells of three women who work in a factory that processes boxed lunches — hardly a glamorous occupation — who get caught up in their co-worker’s affairs after she murders her husband. This only begins the long and suspenseful story of how this horrible occasion affects each of these women’s lives. I found myself constantly rooting for the main character, even when what she was doing wasn’t right. Do be aware that there is gruesome and also triggering content in the novel.

bats flying against a sunset Clément Falize

Smashed​ and ​Shiver​ Junji Ito

Junji Ito is a prolific Japanese horror manga artist. The works listed here are not written novels, but rather graphic novels. His work is done in a style that makes it almost timeless, which is unlike a lot of the very stylized manga we see from Japan. The concepts Ito explores and portrays in his work are all incredibly unusual and inventive, and he often uses body horror to shock and unsettle the reader. Whether this is through humans being turned into marionettes, people with holes all over their body, or a woman who cannot be killed because the pieces of her body keep regenerating into new versions of her, it’s deeply disturbing. What makes his work all the more terrifying is that his characters often do not understand and do not deserve the horrific situations they’ve found themselves in. The reader is left wondering why, and it’s rarely ever explained. Still, his graphic novels are stunning in both their art and storytelling, and are definitely worth a read.