Indie Groundbreaking Book
Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone
Synthesizing Japanese Folklore with Modern Narratives
If you ever get the chance, spend a Sunday morning Googling the monsters of Japanese folklore. Recently, writing a trivia game with folklore as the broad, overarching topic, I did just this, learning a bit about the demons, spirits, and monsters that have their roots in Japanese folk tales. The journey was fascinating and unsettling, as I read about monsters more creative (and more creatively horrifying) than anything in American folklore. It's no wonder that Hollywood often looks to Japan for new and frightening horror stories to tell, remaking films like The Ring, The Grudge, Premonition, or One Last Call and repackaging their creepy narratives for American audiences.
Author Sequoia Nagamatsu writes in the tradition of great Japanese horror throughout the pages of his debut short story collection, titled Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. Freed from the necessity of getting gritty and gratuitously violent, though, Nagamatsu uses his tales of the supernatural and the paranormal to examine the human condition. The result is a one-of-a-kind synthesis of Japanese folklore and modern zeitgeist storytelling—and our Independent Groundbreaking Book for the month of August.
Some of the stories featured in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone will have a familiarity to them for most readers. Nagamatsu explores folklore here, but he's also ready and willing to fold bits of pop culture into the context. His stories are often just as grounded in pulpy comic books or early monster movies as they are in the dark fairytales of folklore. Case-in-point is the collection's first entry, and arguably its strongest. In "Return to Monsterland"—a story originally published in the literary journal Conjunctions, a previous Independent Publisher Groundbreaking Book entry—a man tells the story of Godzilla (and other larger-than-life monsters) from his perspective.
The story begins with the narrator's wife—a scientist in charge of creating and working with these so-called kaiju—dying at the hands of Godzilla. Rather than focusing on the city-smashing antics that typically dominate entries in the Godzilla film franchise, "Return to Monsterland" is about a man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. Nagamatsu tackles other complex subjects as well, like whether the kaiju are evil and barbaric or whether those adjectives are better used to describe humanity. Told through prose, letters from the late mother to her young daughter, and scientific "field notes" about different monsters, "Return to Monsterland" is a fascinating bit of writing that is as innovative as it is weighty.
Nagamatsu's tendency is to use the abnormal to shed new light on the normal, and this characteristic is his greatest strength as an author. Reading a description of Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone on paper, it's easy to imagine the collection as a bundle of story concepts ready to be made into violent B-movies. But while the monsters are definitely the "selling point" of Nagamatsu's collection, the humanity of his characters is the defining quality of each story. In "Girl Zero," a married couple loses their daughter in a drowning accident. Rather than accept the loss, though, the father goes to great lengths to bring his child back—putting his faith in an old legend about paranormal shapeshifters to do it. And in "Rokurokubi," a man weighs the options of telling his wife about his own paranormal ability, or keeping the secret from her forever—only to watch his marriage fracture and disintegrate.
These two stories are informed by their links to folklore and the supernatural, but at their cores, they are about relationships: love, marriage, and the things we do to live happy lives. Both will cause readers to reflect on their own lives and relationships, and question what they might do in similar situations. If you lost a child and there was a way to bring them back, would you pursue that path, regardless of the cost? If you had a secret that might make you a social outcast, would you tell the person you love most, or would you keep it to yourself? Nagamatsu asks these questions with his writing, but he always ends the stories without giving complete resolutions, opting not to provide easy answers. Above all else, the stories featured in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone are meant to make you think.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.