Probably the single most terrifying aspect of Ryu Murakami’s horror novel Piercing – originally published in 1994, but translated into English in 2008 – isn’t the violence. It isn’t even the taut, brutal tension, or the constant implication of impending cruelty that flows from the novel’s opening scenes until its final moments.
No, the scariest part of Piercing is its characters, and by that, I mean how horrifyingly real they are.
Murakami’s two psychotic “protagonists” aren’t the smooth-talking, suave, Hannibal Lector-esque figures that are popular in most serial killer literature. The people are just that: real people. People with lives, families and dirty, disturbing backgrounds. Frail, wounded – yet terrifyingly human – people who seek reassurance, comfort and love, people who seek an escape from their terrible backgrounds…and yet, despite it all, feel compulsively drawn toward violence.
Piercing is the story of Kawashima Masayuki, a young man who has escaped from his murky, violence-tainted past to become a professional businessman, a devoted husband and father. However, when Masayuki begins continually waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, overcome by the hot, ferocious desire to stab his beloved infant daughter, Rie – and further compelled by the terror that, in a moment of impulsiveness, he might just do it – Masayuki decides that the only logical course of action is to blow off some steam, to exorcise his violent tendencies by taking them out on another, safer victim. To do this, he rents out a motel room and hires a young prostitute…only to find that his intended victim might be just as psychotic as he is.
But when Piercing finally reveals its hand – when, in the novel’s final moments, the actual meaning of the title becomes fully clear – we find that Murakami isn’t simply telling us a story about violence. Piercing is a meditation on the nature of damage, a haunting examination of the way that we mask our deepest psychological wounds, cover them and try to pretend they aren’t there. And it asks another question, as well; even if these wounds can’t be eradicated, even if they’ll never disappear, is it possible to cover them with beauty? Is it possible to mark the injury instead of masking it? Can we remember it, move on and even create something beautiful from our pain, instead of hiding it behind a nice curtain?
Piercing is a short, tense thriller that can easily be read in a day. It cuts right to the point, with deliberate, almost mathematical precision, creating a terrifyingly real situation with realistically deranged characters. There’s no pointless blood fest here, no cheap thrills. It’s the kind of horror story that lives up to its name. You can’t really root for the characters in Piercing, you can’t laugh with them, and it’s difficult to even so much as like them…but once you’ve read the first page, it’s impossible to look away from them.