There’s a story in Junji Ito’s manga Uzumaki (Spiral) that’s all about snails.
An overweight, sweaty schoolboy keeps showing up later and later to class. His peers notice, curiously but distantly, that he’s beginning to change - growing oilier and oilier, developing a hunch in his back.
One day he barely makes it in at all - crawling through the door, having transformed into a colossal snail.
It’s ridiculous. And more than a little funny. And yet it’s horrific.
Why? Because Ito understands how this scenario can bring out grotesque specifics (like the boy’s eyes, bugging out until they’re extended on stalks).
He understands how it can be nightmare-like in its helpless inevitability (the classmates and teacher, so apathetically dedicated to the ritual of the lesson that they watch instead of taking action).
And he grounds the story in the universal (that one constant - the one kid in your class undergoing the physical symptoms of puberty so unluckily that nobody wants to go near him).
I don’t think there’s any other writer out there who’s confident or mischievous enough to commit to such high-concept, half-comedic, outlandish horror - except for Stephen King, who, God love him, is really bad at it. There’s a reason the Mangler and Maximum Overdrive have not been embraced by posterity.
And Ito is a true master of body horror, too; in a sense that goes far beyond the most generic ‘blood and guts and tentacles’ examples of the genre. Where Ovid had characters transfigured into trees, birds and sea monsters by the will of the gods, Ito gives us tenement dwellers so crammed into communal lodgings that they begin to merge into a single mass of hands and faces and feet.
Disgusting, yes, but it’s also so memorable because it works according to the laws of a classical, twisted poetic justice.
The third episode of Eskew, Excavation, and the most recent episode, Edibility, are very obvious homages to (rip-offs of?) Ito’s work. I mean that in the sense of people transforming into enormous white tadpoles, obviously, but also in the collective mania that sets the whole thing off.
The idea of a thought, or a symbol, infecting the minds of anyone who sees it, turning them into helpless obsessives (and eventually transfiguring them) is at the heart of much of Ito’s work.
In fact, despite his meme-friendly reputation for gross-out horror, my favourite story of his, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, would work just as well without the two or three panels of in-your-face repulsiveness: it’s the simple, brazenly-weird, horrific story of people-shaped holes in a canyon face that lure in everyone who sees them.
Why does this story freak me out so much? Well, again, there’s a surprising amount of psychological grounding in this kind of compulsive, collective madness in a particular environment (the mystery of Dyatlov Pass seems like a clear reference).
And again, it’s rooted in the experience of genuine nightmare - the helpless sense that you’re doing something that can only end in disaster, even as you find yourself quite unable to stop.