People Are People, And The Universe Doesn’t Care: Uzumaki as a success in longform cosmic horror
Cosmic horror is a genre essentially defined as “the horror of existing in a vast, uncaring universe beyond what we can understand or know of; also monsters (typically betentacled) expressing that vastness and lack of care.”
It is, historically, basically made into a thing by H.P. Lovecraft, celebrated writer of weird fiction, trope-definer of the cosmic horror genre, and above all else, noted racist. The horror in his work is sometimes of the great unknown, and sometimes of mixed-race people existing.
He did attempt to write longer-form cosmic horror, ranging from the surreal lore-dive Through The Gates Of The Silver Key to the penguin-infested At The Mountains Of Madness, but it never quite sings.
In contrast, Junji Ito’s horror manga, in which a town is infested by spirals and eventually overwhelmed, is an astonishing masterclass in longform cosmic horror, and I want to explore why.
In what medium, I hear you cry?
Why, an essay of course!
1. Lens Characters Who Feel
The most obvious difference between Uzumaki and Lovecraft’s longform work is that Ito’s work takes place ‘here’, in a coastal Japanese town; Lovecraft’s work takes place ‘there’, at the edges of the known world, or beyond it. That partly reflects Lovecraft’s life at the end of a period in which the world was almost entirely mapped; it partly reflects a fear of the unknown out there.
Unusually, in some ways, since many of his tales take place in American small towns.
Uzumaki focuses its attention on a single place and its environs - Kuzuro-chu. Because of that, it has easy emotional stakes (our home is being destroyed and changed), and a setting that feels familiar, even as it is slowly perverted.
In longform Lovecraft, we are frequently told that our heroes (bold white male scholars and adventurers) cannot comprehend a thing, typically using words like ‘non-Euclidian’ and ‘tessellating’. We even get told they are frightened as they run away from it. But there are only so many times this can be interesting, and we rarely see that fear have any stakes beyond ‘I saw a weird thing and I ran’.
In Uzumaki, the story is told by Kirie. She is frightened - first by her boyfriend Shuichi’s increasing fear that the spirals are an infestation, and then the effects of that belief being right. But unlike Lovecraft, she needs to stay - it is her home, and her family are there. We see fear, not merely of the unknown, but of the consequences of the unknown.
But we also see love, and compassion, and a desire of people to try and help each other - even if that’s not everyone, and it’s certainly not easy, or even successful. But they do get to be people, even amid the increasing monstrosity. In part, that’s because they fear what’s coming.
2. Focus Characters Who See Stakes
Uzumaki begins with a single chapter in which Shuichi’s father becomes fixated on spirals, eventually warping himself into one and dying. We immediately see the evil threats of the spiral, but also the effect on those around him - his wife and son.
This is where many of Lovecraft’s tales end, with the horrific reveal - or, in the case of his longform work, with the beginning of endless exposition. Ito, in contrast, shows Shuichi’s mother being hospitalised for her own madness, and Shuichi filled with dread at what is to come. This then draws in Kirie, who worries for her boyfriend before eventually realising that he is right.
Initially, we have the stakes of maintaining sanity. Then we shift to the stakes of maintaining the reality she calls home.
But because we have begun with seeing the stakes - sanity, life as we know it, and a range of horrific ends - we can continue through the whole story with a sense of horror, rather than a Lovecraftian slow period of research and anticipation, followed by a quick reveal of the actual threat.
3. Cut to the action, keep it moving on, never explain
This is where Ito excels. Uzumaki cuts to the action (the horrific fate of Shuichi’s dad), shows its aftermath (the effect on Shuichi’s family), and uses that to create suspense about what’s coming next. All we know is that more will come.
Unlike Lovecraft, where anticipation is built through the mundane - strange alphabets, possible signs of the creatures, strange rumours - Ito’s work speeds through the initial anticipation to reach the reveal. The first chapter could work as a single-volume horror in itself. Instead, it sets up the rest of Uzumaki.
The real trick here is that, each chapter, Ito dials up the horror a little more. Like frogs boiling in a pot, he dreams of new terrors based in the spiral, from people warping into snails to a lighthouse’s winding internal staircase becoming an alluring death trap to far, far worse.
Each is placed so that it is a little worse than the last one - while we do not know what is coming, we know that it will be bad. Unlike mundane sources of anticipation, however, it ensures a continual sense of horror-being-present, rather than horror-being-anticipated.
This then situates our more empathetic lead characters in a place where they are aware something is wrong, and are powerless to do something about it. While we initially might think we understand the latest horror, it can come back to haunt us and know that, in fact, the resolution was merely one more step towards the latest monstrosity.
In fact, although at the very end Ito gives an almost-explanation of what has been happening (and we then turn the pages back to realise that yes, that was anticipated), he never explains it in any more detail than the observable facts. There is no sense of why these horrors might act as they do (unlike a Lovecraftian lore-dump).
Rather than Lovecraft’s horrific reveal of a hidden truth, Ito commits to the truth being unknowable, impossible to understand, and inevitably triumphant over our lead characters.
In that, it is a brilliant piece of cosmic horror, breaking the key rule that ‘horror is what is not revealed’ by showing that horror can be done in the reveal if:
a) Those witnessing the reveal cannot escape it for human reasons.
b) Those witnessing the reveal have a sense of what is at stake
c) The manifestations of the horror are increasingly visible, even as the inner secrets of the horror remain unknowable.
I think it’s rather neat.
And really rather creepy.