April 23, 2007

The Human Chair

"The Human Chair"
Edogawa Rampo (Hirai Taro), 1925

So I think this is the best horror story I've ever read. I should mention that I really dislike horror fiction in general, so I've hardly read any. But this is just a fabulous piece of work regardless of genre.

It's written by the Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (if you pronounce that pseudonym with a Japanese accent, it sounds like "Edgar Allan Poe" - cute), who doesn't have a whole lot of work available in English translation, sadly. This one's surely my favorite. There's a clever frame story, but the meat of it is the psychological changes in a man who, yep you guessed it, turns into a chair. Completely ludicrous and chillingly scary at the same time - I'm not sure how much the translation is a factor, but the balancing act of tone is just masterful.

The big idea is Kafka-esque without a doubt, but there are these great added layers: the fetishization of luxury objects (in particular Western-associated ones), the porous boundary between craftsman and object, the creeping hidden eroticism of the everyday. It's just a really nicely-formed story too, the pacing pulling you along and ending just at the right moment.

I'll probably write about some of his other stories here in the future, but I guarantee if you read this one story, you'll want to devour the rest of the collection post haste.


Aristides_the_Just said...

It will come as no surprise, friend, that I am a bigger fan of "horror fiction" than you, but your post has me wondering again about something that has puzzled me for a long time, namely determining the boundaries of the genre (or, more expansively, of various genre fictions). Clearly Poe is a touchstone here and Lovecraft a contemporary, and most everyone would agree that at least some of the writings of those authors are definitively horror fiction. But the absurdity of the story you describe calls to mind Gogol ("The Nose" being the obvious comparison, though in that instance the transformation goes the other direction), Bruno Schulz, Borges, and perhaps Can Xue, and none of those writers would be shelved in the horror section next to Stephen King. So what makes it "horror"?

In any case, I have heard of Edogawa Rampo but not read any of this stuff, so I'll have to take a look (it would be nice to read some fiction for a change). I take it from your review that you put this story solidly on the "better than Lawnmower Man" side of the great aesthetic divide.

themistocles said...

Arisides you ignorant slut! It's horror because it makes you feel scared when you read it dude.

I do applaud your use of "Lozano's Razor" the critical discourse, however. It's a sadly underutilized tool.