My first encounter with Edogawa Rampo was in a story anthology called My Favorite Horror Story. Edited by Mike Baker and ubiquitous anthology organizer Martin H. Greenberg, the book is just what you'd think it would be: a collection of stories, each hand-picked by a different horror author. Looking at the book now, at least half of the choices are surprisingly obvious ("The Tell-Tale Heart"? "The Rats in the Walls"?). But along with a couple of other less common choices (Richard Matheson's slightly dated, but still excellent, "The Distributor"; and Robert Aickman's -- there's not other word for it -- masterpiece, "The Inner Room") there's a story at the end called "The Human Chair", by Edogawa Rampo. At the time I bought the book, I'd never heard of Rampo before. "The Human Chair" was chosen by Harlan Ellison as his favorite. I'm pretty sure that if Baker and Greenberg had caught Ellison a dozen different days, he'd have had a dozen different choices, but on that particular Wednesday, or whatever, it was Rampo's "The Human Chair".
Over the years, Ellison has, through his writing, turned me on to dozens of great, forgotten authors, so I was excited about this one. In his introduction to the story, Ellison asks us to do the following:
Let us play a little game, just the two of us, you and I. I will say something, and you repeat it. Here we go:
Not bad. Let's try that again. Like this: Ed-O-Gah-Wah Ram-Po. Edogawa Rampo. Say it again. Edogawa Rampo. Now say it faster. Edogawa Rampo. Faster, go faster, say it faster, and slur it a little.
Edogawa Rampo, Edagarapo, Edgarawanpo, Edgarawanpoe.
Edgar Allan Poe.
Rampo's real name was Hirai Taro, and in his day he was considered Japan's foremost writer of mysteries (he might still be, for all I know), and he chose his pseudonym based on his deep appreciation of Poe. While "mystery" and "horror" are usually two distinctly different genres, Japanese genre fiction tends to have, to Western eyes, a distinctly bizarre tint, so when it's imported to the US, or England, the genre distinctions can become blurred. Besides, while Poe wrote mysteries as well, he's known now primarily as a father of American horror fiction. And Rampo's best known book, in the West, is a collection of stories called Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, which first came out in the US in 1956. I'm pretty sure in that title, "imagination" is code for "horror".
So. "The Human Chair" really pissed me off.
Yes, it was bizarre. And yes, it was unique. But as it turns out, all that intriguing strangeness was just Rampo's way of jerking me around. I finished that story, and closed the book, and wondered what the hell Ellison thought he was doing, recommending that story to me. But Ellison also tipped me off to John Collier, so I figured we'd call it a wash.
This was more or less my frame of mind when I returned to Rampo for this project. As has been my habit this month, I chose two stories, in this case "The Caterpillar" and "The Red Chamber". I was concerned that I might find myself reading a straight-forward mystery, and not a horror story. This, of course, would have been catastrophic. It would likely have ended my horror project as we know it, and it could have even burned down the entire internet. Fortunately, I chose wisely. Or, wisely-ish.
"The Caterpillar" gave me hope that Rampo and I might find some common ground after all. It's the story of a woman named Tokiko, whose beloved husband, Sunaga, has returned from the war bearing devestating, horrific injuries. His face has essentially been obliterated, only his eyes remaining unmarked. He is deaf and mute. Both his arms and his legs have been amputated at their bases. Sunaga is the title character.
Initially, Tokiko is both grief-stricken by her husband's deformities, and loving in her care for him. But as time goes by, aspects of her personality begin to resurface after, we gather, years of lying dormant:
As for Tokiko, although hers was a timid heart, she had always entertained a strange liking for bullying the weak. Moreover, watching the agony of this poor cripple aroused many of her hidden impulses.
These impulses manifest themselves sexually. Sunaga can still technically perform, and Tokiko knows that helping him in this way would both please him and serve to make him feel more like a human being. But Rampo hints that Tokiko's chosen form of torture involves arousing him, teasing him, and leaving him to writhe in frustration.
Meanwhile, Tokiko also managed to find a secondary source of pleasure in tormenting this helpless creature whenever she felt like it. Cruel? Yes! But it was fun -- great fun!...
Not cool, Tokiko. We know just enough about Tokiko to be a bit stunned that she would behave so inhumanly, but not enough to find it unbelievable. So we're left horrified that Sunaga should face a lifetime of this kind of torture, with no means of resistance. And Tokiko's cruelty, matched by her own frustration at having to live with a "caterpillar", is about to reach a fever pitch.
This is pretty rough stuff. It's one of those "humans-are-the-real-monsters" stories, and is quite effectively unblinking. And more importantly for me, it showed that, regardless of what I thought of "The Human Chair", Rampo was capable of more than just empty gamesmanship.
The other story I read, "The Red Chamber", really pissed me off. Well, up to a point, it did. Here's how it begins:
The seven grave men, including myself, had gathered as usual to exchange blood-curdling horror stories. We sank into the deep armchairs, covered with scarlet velvet, in the room which had been dubbed the "Red Chamber" and waited eagerly for the narrator of the evening to begin his tale.
As far as my tastes go, this is a very promising beginning. This evening's narrator, Tanaka, is new to this group of grave men, and his story is a corker. Tanaka is a man who has become very bored with his life. Extraordinarily bored. Dangerously bored, really, because the solution he devises for his problem is to become a murderer. He will murder for the sake of amusement, and will do so in such a way that will ensure that he's never caught. For instance, one day (he tells his audience), he notices an old country woman, unused to the chaos of urban traffic, crossing a busy street. He notices that she is about to pass across the tracks of a speeding streetcar. If left alone, this woman has time to cross without injury. But by shouting "Look out, old woman!", he insures that she will freeze in panic, allowing the streetcar to plow into her. So Tanaka has successfully murdered the woman, while in the view of any witnesses appearing to have tried to save her. And this is more or less how he goes about taking lives. Ninety-nine of them, we learn. He'd like to make it an even hundred.
Not bad, right? Pretty chilling, if you let yourself get wrapped up in it. But then -- and I'll have to tread carefully here, to avoid spoilers -- Rampo yanks the rug out from under us with his big twist at the end. I won't reveal it here, but suffice it to say, I was about ready to throw the book across the room. To make it worse, I actually read "The Red Chamber" before I read "The Caterpillar", so at the time my two experiences with Rampo had ended with him metaphorically spitting in my face. Seriously, I was cheesed off.
But there is something to the final paragraph of "The Red Chamber". Again, I can't get into it, but there is a mildly haunting quality about what follows the big twist. There's no second twist involved, no "Or did he???" or "The End...???"-style shenanigans. It's just a hint that Rampo's motive in telling this story was not to simply yank my chain. The problem is, had he ended the story in a way that was more in line with his set-up, that haunting final paragraph would have been much, much stronger. And, quite honestly, it would have made more sense.
So, oh well, I guess. I'm three short stories into the bibliography of very prolific writer, who is still in print over forty years after his death, and is considered one of the giants in his particular genre in all of Japan. So I'll keep reading him. But Edogawa Rampo, you're on warning.