All That We Can’t Leave Behind. Or, Horror is the Foreground of Wonder.

All That We Can’t Leave Behind, author image

Dreams. Visions of greatness. For most of us, not least of all us writers, that’s all our aspirations ever amount to. And of course taking into account the potential reach and marketability of one’s topic, field or genre is an undeniable necessity, an insurmountable reality. Exceptions, that is, indeed merely prove the rule of marketplace practicalities. Meanwhile, it’s always fascinating and remarkable and beyond mysterious how outsized, hyperbolic success actually does happen to people. That is to say, how it manages to happen to anyone at all.

Yet it does. In virtually every field of endeavor. Novelists hit it big, everybody knows it happens (not that most folks comprehend how rarely), and I even stumbled across an example of an author who writes fiction and pursues scholarship seemingly from a similarly mythos centric or at least folkloric perspective akin to my own and manages, somehow, to shatter all aspects of perceived conventional limitations. His name is Kyōgoku Natsuhiko, born in 1963, a man merely two years older than me, which only reinforces, despite the cultural disparities, my sense that shared generational perspectives, let’s call them, oftentimes appear to exist.

Kyōgoku is almost supernaturally prolific. Since his debut novel in 1994, he has written dozens of books and hundreds of short stories and essays. Many of his novels are so long they are easily spotted in the paperback section of a bookstore: bricklike books dwarfing their neighbors. His fiction has been adapted for television, film, manga, and anime. He also publishes research articles, edits academic volumes on yōkai, lectures widely throughout Japan, and appears annually in forums and panel discussions, where he always draws a huge crowd. He is a celebrity in both the literary and yōkai worlds, and his work brings these two worlds together.

Michael Dylan Foster, The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, (Oakland, University of California Press, 2015), 70.

Kyōgoku references, as one would assume he must, Mizuki Shigeru (1922-2015), the renowned manga and anime illustrator and author who, according to Foster, “most transformed the elusive yōkai of folklore into the concrete yōkai characters of contemporary popular culture and mass media” (Foster, 62). This is an art-crafter who has achieved the scale and intensity of mythologization even within his own lifetime that outstrips our typical concepts of fame. Within Mizuki’s hometown of Sakaiminato, bronze statues of his yōkai characters line the street named after him, there is a museum devoted to his work and tens of thousands visit each year (Foster, 64).

But to return to Kyōgoku, the description that inspires me, tentatively at least given my lack of familiarity (I only just encountered his story) appears within Foster’s previously cited The Book of Yokai (Foster, 71):

The Summer of the Ubume is the first work in Kyōgoku’s “Hyakkiyagyō series” of novels, each of which features many of the same characters found in the others and draws on a Sekien1 yōkai for title and motif. The theme of each story reflects the nature of the particular yōkai, resulting in a unique blend of the mystical atmospherics of yōkai fiction and the rational deductive methods of a modern detective novel. Kyōgoku’s writing is famous for its sophisticated use of difficult kanji2 and the books themselves are known for their high production values and stylish design.

1. Referencing Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788), an artist who, according to Foster, “had the most significant influence on how we envision and understand yōkai to this day.” Born in Edo, he was a follower of the Kanō school of painting. Citation: Michael Dylan Foster, The Book of Yōkai…, 48.
2. A system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters.

Within the context of Time Crime, many of the same characters of course appear within the series, particular mythological motifs (in my case cultural and geographical) are drawn upon for each novel and I like to think that a competent blend of mythological atmospherics and rational, deductive, detective story methods are the result. Furthermore, within the entry for the English translation of The Summer of the Ubume, I find this description of the tale: “Only Kyōgokudō’s knowledge of Japanese folklore – and specifically the legend of the ubume, often associated with death in childbirth – can make sense of the conflicting evidence…” which inevitably evokes Mr. Z.’s own “keenness for cosmic lore” as I describe it on TC1’s back cover blurb; a keenness which he of course uses to help solve time crimes. There is nothing new under the sun.

And my point is that if this guy can do it, publishing 800-page novels with academically robust mythological leanings that somehow readers flock to, then how unrealistic is it to pursue my own, infinitely more modest version of success?

Meanwhile, the molted exoskeleton of a periodical cicada – what entomologists refer to as the exuviae – (a photograph of which appears as the theme image for this post) is something I found on the sidewalk this morning. Here in Ann Arbor our 17-year brood emergence took place a couple of weeks ago but there remain plenty of these remains laying around or stuck to a tree trunk or even adhered to the slats of wooden fences. The little beasts begin as eggs within the bark of trees (inserted there by the adult females), hatch, go underground, attach themselves to suitably juicy tree roots and feed upon the sap for, in this example, seventeen long years until they struggle from the earth, transform and continue the cycle.

Strangely, however, this year I’m not hearing the distinctive drone – that unmistakably alien sounding, crescendo-decrescendo chorus of rasping mating calls that oftentimes provides a loud summertime soundtrack (for me, it evokes the unnatural, grating whine of high-voltage electrical equipment).

Within the context of Time Crime, the exuviae evokes one of the motifs within TC2 that I’m working into the manuscript. Sometime last month it struck me to have the Mothman Empress – preliminary artwork already exists courtesy of HW Guy – desperate as she is to win the war against the Molemen, commit to initiating histogenesis (from the Latin words histo, meaning tissue, and genesis, meaning origin or beginning) otherwise known as the cocooning process appropriate to moths (butterflies produce a chrysalis but moths produce a cocoon).

Within the pupal case, most of the caterpillar body breaks down through a process called histolysis. Special groups of transformative cells, which remained hidden and inert during the larval stage, now become the directors of the body’s reconstruction. These cell groups, called histoblasts, initiate biochemical processes which transform the deconstructed caterpillar into a viable butterfly or moth.

Why include this motif in the novel? Because the metamorphosis or transformation is intended to endow her with even greater, perhaps unmatched psi-abilities and she’s a little bit cracked off to begin with, after all, succumbing to the pressures of having murdered… wait, SPOILER ALERT! Anyway, histogenesis within the Mothman culture has long since been considered a backwards and primitive and very dangerous relic of their own species and they’ve worked hard as a culture to, as they interpret it, advance beyond their more unsightly and less civilized origins. But what does a culture do whenever it’s undergoing a mythological schism? Or a war? Or anything that strains its sense of identity and perpetuation? Why, of course, revisit their myths!

It’s pretty gross, this histogenesis idea, to say nothing of the visuals (check out the brief cicada brood emergence video above, narrated by David Attenborough, very cool!) and horrible in its psychological and visceral way but it fits in perfectly with the epigraph of TC2, namely, “Horror is the foreground of wonder.”

Moreover, the mythological tie-ins go without saying and I point to an article by Adolf Portmann, one of the early contributors to the Eranos conferences, entitled, “Metamorphosis in Animals: The Transformation of the Individual and the Type” that suggests the following:

It is scarcely possible to witness the transformations of a dragonfly without experiencing an assault of inner images pointing in the same direction as the meditations in which Jan Swammerdam for the first time reverently described the metamorphosis of the May flies as a “copy of human life.”

Adolf Portmann, “Metamorphosis in Animals: The Transformation of the Individual and the Type,” Man and Transformation: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Joseph Campbell, ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972 [1964]), 297.

Happy Friday, everybody. Sorry I’ve been gone so long from the blog posting. It happens. I wish you all a truly transformative weekend! Thanks for reading.