PTSD Radio Volumes 1-6 (2018)
Written & Illustrated by Masaaki Nakayama
Urban landscapes are profoundly haunted. Cities are built on the ruins of villages and small towns, turning those who lived there previously into ghosts that linger in the corners. PTSD Radio begins as a series of disconnected horror stories, an anthology centered around tormented spirits, but then patterns start to emerge. The presence of hair and dark figures tugging at the scalps of sleeping victims are recurring motifs. Slowly but surely we uncover a story about a rural village where cultural changes led to the destruction of a primitive idol. This, in turn, unleashes a quiet evil that permeates the lives of the people who grew up in this village, following them into adulthood.
The opening of the series is a vignette that wouldn’t necessarily be labeled a horror story. A little girl sits crying outside her grandmother’s home in the Japanese countryside. The girl does not want to have her haircut; her grandmother tells her it must be done and it will grow back. The girl tearfully submits as the grandmother begins cutting, telling her grandchild she did the same thing when she was little. The sound effect of scissors snips (shik shik) and will become a recurring element of the series.
Much like the work of David Lynch, PTSD Radio is much less interested in building a linear or concrete plot. Creator Masaaki Nakayama is much more interested in exploring and examining visuals. Bald, toothless reflections haunt those willing to gaze into a mirror or window. People are visited while they sleep by specters both menacing and sometimes benevolent. There are many nods to the croaking woman from Ju-On: The Grudge and even the short story structure with subtle plot threads feels like that film. The downside of such a loosely constructed collection of one-offs is that the recurring characters get lost in the shuffle and the books take a tremendous amount of concentration to remember people when they show back up again.
There’s a story about three men who were bullies in their youth that is told over the course of multiple volumes, but with so much in between it is very easy to lose the thread and not remember all the relevant details. Because Nakayama keeps revisiting familiar visual motifs the later volumes can feel like they are treading water instead of tangibly progressing the mystery. What kept me engaged through these books is that the art and design of the horrors are so striking I couldn’t look away. There are some simple yet effective ghosts and monsters in these books, reminding a lot of what I loved about Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block. The evil isn’t defined or tangible, and it revels in its bizarre nature.
For the most part the manga trucks along with a pretty repetitive yet scary formula of quick one-off horrors with light continuity. Then Volume 5 hits and throws the reader for one of the craziest loops I have ever encountered. The last fifty pages of the book are devoted to creator Nakayama telling about serendipitous events in his life that seem to parallel things he’s been writing in the book. The first big moment comes when he gets incredibly sick with the main symptom being him coughing up pitch black oil-like bile. From there his life begins to fall apart, he loses co-workers who get freaked out by other events and has to move to a new office. The best part of this aside is when he refuses to go into detail about a specific incident that happened in his new workplace while he was alone at night, yet gives us enough to chew on that your imagination runs away with what could have happened.
The best horror the kind that doesn’t explain itself. The less I understand what is happening to a character the better and supernatural evil is most effective when there is no origin when it is born from the realms of the abstract. This is why I am so drawn to things like Beyond the Black Rainbow and Twin Peaks. I don’t know exactly what the dark presences are in these stories and that is what makes them so terrifying.