PROMENADE OF THE GODS by Koji Suzuki, translated by Takami Nieda. New York: Vertical Inc., 2008, 320 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Late one night, cram school operator Shirow Murakami is awakened by a cryptic phone call from an old school chum, Kunio Matsuoka, requesting that he move Matsuoka’s car. Murakami is given a nonexistent license plate number. Not that Matsuoka even owned a car to begin with.

Matsuoka had recently abandoned his wife Miyuki and their infant daughter. His flight appears somehow tied to the disappearance of a female TV personality, who, during a live broadcast, saw something so moving she made a special religious sign while on camera.

This work by popular science-fiction and horror author Koji Suzuki revives memories of the creepy things happening in Japan back in 1994-95, when young Aum Supreme Truth cultists, in their distinctive garments, could be seen passing out tracts on Tokyo street corners.

Certainly, similarities are to be found between the book and the reality: decrepit cult hideouts in rural areas; devious followers; and a mysterious, charismatic leader. But anyone looking for direct parallels with Aum will be disappointed. Suzuki, moreover, doesn’t stereotype true believers as mindless automatons, the way they’ve been frequently portrayed in the mass media. He nevertheless provides interesting insights into how people in a spiritual vacuum are drawn to cults.

The climax is presented in a deviously clever manner, during a live TV program where Murakami’s purported skills as an amateur detective are abruptly demolished.

Miyuki emerges as the most sympathetic character, even after she is revealed to be not quite the innocent, abandoned young mother portrayed at the beginning.

While the prose comes across as a bit stiff in places (“The figure of Miyuki balled up on the floor was the very figure of a woman who’d been cut adrift and abandoned.”), the most challenging part to get through is a 17-page passage titled “The New Gods of Modernity,” an introduction to the new religion written by its deceased founder. Overall, however, the style supports the narrative, raising tension through artful understatement while working in unexpected shocks.

“Promenade” is a fine effort, with a ring of plausibility that subtly revives the mood back in March 1995, when the public’s fears of Shoko Asahara’s doomsday cult were palpable.

Vertical’s press release notes that this work had initially been set for release in 1995, but that Suzuki felt obliged to rewrite it in the wake of the Tokyo subway gassings, delaying its publication until 2003. He really ought to consider publishing the original as well.

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