It seems like everyone in Hideo Harada's life is a stranger. His ex-wife, who agreed to a divorce because of the growing distance between them. His estranged son, who sides with his mother and barely speaks to Harada anymore. His colleague, with whom he works well but doesn't really know.
And then there are his new acquaintances. The fragile, mysterious Kei, who lives in the same building he does and shows up at his door late one evening. And the man he meets in a darkened theatre near where he grew up, the man who bears a striking resemblance to Harada's father, dead since Harada was twelve.
When I first bought "Strangers," I saw that it was touted as a ghost story on the cover, and I was concerned that it would ruin the surprise in the story. Fortunately, I was mostly wrong. It's not an obvious ghost story at the beginning, but from the first few pages, when screenwriter Harada becomes aware that he is alone in his apartment building at night, it has the feel of a good ghost story. This is a feeling which is built upon as the story progresses, gradually and subtly. There are no "gotcha" moments, nothing which jumps out and declares itself as That Spooky Thing. This isn't a book about shambling zombies or ghosts coming to attack you out of the television. This is a story about creeping dread and the growing feeling that something, somewhere you can't quite see it, is just a little bit off.
In terms of execution, overall it comes off very well. Some of the dialogue may seem a little clunky (I suspect that this may be to do with the translation), but most of it works just fine. The prose is spare and efficient, enough to convey the essentials and leave much up to the reader's imagination, which I prefer for a story like this one -- nothing is so frightening or poignant as that we we can imagine for ourselves. The story develops steadily and smoothly, with no real lags or rushed points.
And as it develops, as Harada learns more about the things he is experiencing, we also come to see that it is a story about the distances we create between us. This is a very modern Japanese ghost story, with modern themes and ideas that aren't just scary...they're more than a little bit sad, too. The central tragedy of the book is that all of Harada's experiences are brought about by his own choices, and the consequences they have on the people around him.
So, when you see the words "ghost story" used to describe this novel, don't think of shock-value scares or easy, predictable conclusions. This is very much a book of building tension and ever-increasing unease, and very well done. It may just make you look twice at the strangers you see around you, every day.