The Ghost of the Factory:
Why the UK Release of Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings is Great for British Horror
Leonie Rowland takes a close look at Sayaka Murata’s new novel Earthlings and why the release is great for British horror…
Hedgehogs are hardly a source of horror.
At a glance, then, Earthlings has no place in a Horror magazine. The cover, which shows a toy hedgehog nonchalantly floating through space, hints at an offbeat but benign read. However, if any writer is capable of overturning expectations, it’s Sayaka Murata.
Earthlings, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is Murata’s second novel to be published in English. It is daring and unafraid, going straight to the heart of what it means to fear (a person, a society, a way of life) and the things we do to survive. If British Horror often reinstates conservative narratives by restoring the status quo or condemning the breakdown of order, then Murata’s empathy for her characters, combined with her commitment to the horror she depicts, makes Earthlings a truly transgressive novel. The result is compelling and cathartic, a welcome alternative to accepting that ‘the words society makes [us] speak’ are the only way to communicate. Murata leads by example: her words, invariably, are her own.
Natsuki, a young girl, visits her grandparent’s house in Akishina every summer, where she meets her cousin, Yuu. Both children suffer various forms of abuse and neglect, leading them to believe that a spaceship is coming to take them back to their home planet, Popinpobopia. When their parents catch them having sex next to their grandfather’s grave, they are torn apart, and Natsuki is banned from visiting Akishina. She returns with her husband twenty-three years later, having been locked up for most of her adolescence, and is reunited with Yuu. However, time runs wild in Akishina, and the past is never far away. What’s more, Natsuki is still searching for her spaceship…
The house, where ‘fragments of night linger even at midday,’ is a site of creeping domestic horror, comparable to Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre or Manderley in Rebecca. Natsuki’s family are uncanny creatures, many of whom she fails to recognise. Likewise, her mother’s cruelty, which has echoes of Margaret White in Carrie, goes unchecked by its observers. All the while, there is a sense that darkness is eating at the house, although its presence is a comfort to Natsuki because it makes her feel closer to space. In this sense, Akishina is also a place of salvation where she can spend time with Yuu and embrace her identity as an alien. This duality is present throughout the novel and often means that things usually associated with horror (graves, for instance) are actually symbols of redemption. Equally, things associated with innocence (stuffed toys, Snoopy watches, packets of sherbet) are sinister. All this amounts to Murata ‘destroying the reader’s gaze’ so that, once blinded, they can ‘see something grotesque as quite beautiful’—a Gothic mission indeed.
The novel is bookended by what are often referred to as the last taboos: incest and cannibalism. Natsuki’s relationship with Yuu, conducted between gravestones, is a childhood romance of the Gothically inclined, characterised by desperation, separation and survival. This makes it understandable if not acceptable, an inversion of the violent crypt-conducted incest that appears in texts such as The Monk. However, Natsuki is punished harshly, and when her alleged crime is set against her teacher’s paedophilia, it is treated as the greater evil. In this, Earthlings questions why we condemn the things we do in the face of all we let slide—horror occurs in the absence of freedom, not in the expression of it, as the exchanges between Natsuki and her teacher painfully demonstrate.
Gothic and Horror narratives are often used to process the modern world’s capacity for alienation (continuous labour as zombification, thirst for capital as vampirism, etc.), but Murata offers them as an alternative. In her more refined moments, Natsuki refers to society as ‘a system for falling in love.’ In her less, it is ‘a factory for the production of human babies.’ Both hint at a collective drive towards sexual coercion, where ‘it is a wife’s duty to be intimate’ and anything else is ‘abnormal.’ This is inextricable from the acceleration of capitalism, which requires people to reproduce in order to feed the social body, and Murata chooses her language accordingly. When Natsuki observes that a new shopping mall has opened, she says:
The Factory seemed to be putting more and more effort into promoting how wonderful it was to fall in love and how fabulous it was to produce a human at the end of that.
Love, here, is nothing but a promotion, a lifestyle characterised by the illusion of choice. As such, the Factory is more metonymy then metaphor: there is little to distinguish wider society from the workplace, and the need to produce (or reproduce) collapses into our most intimate moments. When asked for her opinion on child-bearing, Murata said: ‘I see everyone as being under some scary spell.’ Anti-natalism is another taboo (albeit one that is more commonly practiced), but it is hard to argue that Natsuki is treated as anything other than a ‘reproductive organ,’ with those around her discussing her sex life as a matter of social importance. Perhaps they cannot stand the idea that she has found another way; perhaps they do not understand the life they are living when faced, finally, with choice.
The horror of encountering a collective consciousness (and existing outside of it) often gives way to the horror of not being believed; it is this dynamic that drives Howie to distraction (and death) in The Wicker Man, for example. When Natsuki is abused by her teacher, Mr. Igasaki, she is unable to process what’s happening because he looks ‘just like a member of a popular boys’ band’—an identity that is marketed as attractive and trustworthy. She confides in various people, but they accuse her of ‘basically consenting’ despite her obvious distress, maintaining that she’s ‘the dirty one, not him.’ The manner of her abuse is, again, comparable to Carrie, since Mr. Igasaki makes her remove her sanitary napkin in his classroom, forcing her to publicly menstruate. Despite this, Natsuki feels ‘self-conscious and ashamed’ for being afraid of a ‘cheerful teacher,’ suggesting that she has been taught not to trust herself. Murata’s empathy for her protagonist, which often unsettles conventional ideas of morality, is what makes Earthlings so compelling as a Horror narrative: when Natsuki’s trauma catches up with her and she takes revenge on Mr. Igasaki, her violence is shocking and sympathetic by turns.
So, at its heart, Earthlings is about the things we fall back on when reality becomes unbearable, however fleeting and insubstantial they may be. This is not to say that a life peppered with incest, murder and cannibalism is an advisable way to live (no matter how attractively Murata describes the taste of human flesh), but rather that a life of sexual coercion and societal control is not. In his poem When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be, Keats stands alone ‘on the shore of the wide world’ and ‘think[s]’ because to think is to be alive, making it the ultimate defiance of death. Likewise, in Earthlings, Murata demonstrates that the ability to imagine, whatever form imagination takes, is itself a kind of freedom. As a result, the final chapters are a satisfying explosion of taboo:
Yuu smoothly explained my husband’s sudden absence, replacing the provocative word “incest” with other words such as “work.”
Murata makes no such replacements. The conclusion to Earthlings is shocking, but it is well-earned and earnest—it takes no prisoners, but it also does not kill unnecessarily. That is to say, all parts are put to use:
We prepared three Man dishes: Miso Soup with Man, Daikon Leaf and Man Stir-Fry, and Man Simmered in Sweetened Soy Sauce.
When it comes to taboo, Murata skins, seasons, and serves.
All quotations attributed to Sayaka Murata herself are from her interview at the 2020 Cheltenham Literature Festival. Earthlings will be published in the UK by Granta on 08.10.20.
You can pre-order Earthlings by clicking the image below
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