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Suzuki Koji – Spiral

HarperCollins 2005 460pp £6.99 ISBN 0-00-717907-3

Reviewed by Colin Odell and Mitch Le Blanc

Right, paying attention? Suzuki Koji’s novel Ring was a global phenomena that, in the space of less than a decade has been made into three separate film versions (in Japan, Korea and US), a manga, two film sequels (Japan and US – both confusingly directed by the same man but totally different), a prequel (Ring 0: Birthday, not to be confused with the book Ring 4: Birthday) and all manner of spin off merchandise including a rather groovy sticker set and a novelty mug. Now comes Spiral, another Japanese horror (not to be confused with the Japanese horror film/book/manga Spiral…), the sequel to Ring, but which is nothing like the two film sequels.

There is a sense that Suzuki would enjoy the way that his work has been mutated, reproduced and evolved in different media, for that is the central theme of Spiral – the survival of a psychologically manifested virus through adaptation.

Ando, racked with guilt at the death of his son, finds cold solace in the bodies he dissects every day for a living. The mysterious death of Takayama Ryuji, a fellow pathologist with a passion for codes, leads Ando on a journey to discover the cause of a series of linked fatalities, partly by cracking a substitution code poking from the newly stitched up cavity in Takayama. The trail leads to the earlier ring case where watchers of a video died precisely a week after viewing unless they duplicated the tape and made someone else watch it. But how is this all related to the apparent re-emergence of a mutated strain of smallpox and the repetition of DNA strands that seem to provide a biologically produced code from beyond the grave? And what of the beautiful Mai, Takayama’s student and lover, missing after apparently watching a doctored version of the ring tape? As Ando begins unravelling the disparate pieces of the puzzle through petri dishes, cadavers, old disks, videos, research papers and chance encounters with apparently supernatural entities it soon becomes clear that the virus has found a new way to propagate. Just how?

The matter-of-fact descriptions, the constant foetid air and the necessary absence of humour make for a tense read. Linking modern science with the supernatural is a common theme in Japanese horror and any sense of the possible preposterous nature of the plot is nipped well in the bud by the earnest tone and belief in spirits of the dead that shapes part of the Shinto religion. Much of Ando’s deliberations on the codes lies in the shadows of dying trees on the edge of Tokyo’s Meiji shrine. The slow unravelling of the virus and its mutations, along with the possibility of the dead somehow contacting the living through biological codes reads like a horror version of Enigma. This may sound sordid or depressing but the economic sentences and non-exploitative, even clinical, imagery make for a chilling time – in lesser hands this could have descended into visceral gross-out, but Suzuki’s writing matches the detachment his protagonist has for his daily job making the whole experience linger rather than shock.

For those after a ghost story with a modern twist Spiral delivers. For followers of the many incarnations of the Ring this is another parallel universe from the original, mutated as the author intended for maximum reproduction and survival.