Is the world’s greatest novelist a Lovecraftian – and does his new book prove it?
Haruki Murakami is a literary giant, described by Stephen Poole of the Guardian as “among the world’s greatest living novelists”. The Japanese writer is regularly tipped as the next Nobel laureate for Literature. His books, skating around the borders of surrealism, magic realism, fantasy and science fiction, sell millions and have been published in fifty languages. Murakami’s plots often revolve around threats from inhuman, paranormal beings of undefined power. He quotes Kafka, Doestoyevsky and Flaubert as his influences (1). But if you go deeper, is Murakami’s biggest and most formative influence HP Lovecraft?
As a writer of Lovecraftian fiction myself, I started spotting the signs a while ago. I was always struck by the way Murakami shares Lovecraft’s sense of hostile alien forces beneath the everyday, of weirdness hiding just out of reach, the dangerous mixing of dream and reality. His approach is more typically Western than Japanese. Although immensely popular in the West, Murakami is more controversial in his own country, where he describes himself as “a kind of outcast of the Japanese literary world.” (2) To us he may seem very much a product of Japan, but to his countrymen, Murakami is decidedly a Western writer. And his Western influences are not confined to the highbrow figures listed earlier.
Murakami’s later novels are more subtle creations, though the supernatural menace is still there. But the further back you go, the more you can detect Lovecraftian roots. His 1985 novel The Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an intriguing slice of 80’s Tokyo cyberpunk is a case in point.
The unnamed protagonist in Hardboiled is a Calcutec, a human data processor. During his adventures, he has to travel through the Tokyo sewers, which he discovered are infested by INKlings, man-eating creatures who have lived in the area since long before it was occupied by humans. (In the original, Murakami called these creatures yamikuro, a name made up of the Japanese words for black and darkness. Translator Alfred Birnbaum created the acronym INKling which supposedly stands for Infra Nocturnal Kappa, Kappa being a traditional Japanese spirit).
The INKlings take the occasional subway worker and an unfortunate lone travellers, immersing them in water for a few days before eating them. They also sacrifice victims by throwing them into leech pits. The authorities know about them, but the INKlings are numerous and maintain a presence under every government building (as well as the Imperial Palace), making them too dangerous to attack. They worship a fish-like being which has tendrils in place of eyes, and clawed appendages. The resemblance the Deep Ones and Cthulhu is fairly apparent; there’s also a hint of Lovecraft’s ghouls (remember the ‘Subway Accident ‘painting in Pickman’s Model where ravening man-eaters emerge from the subway?)
In fact, in his nonfiction book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Murakami compares the Aum cultists who carried out the attack to the INKlings. He goes on to describe the INKlings as being “monsters straight out of H P Lovecraft” which seems fairly definitive (3).
The Lovecraft connection becomes even more obvious when you read Hear The Wind Sing, Murakami’s very first novel written in 1979 which has been virtually forgotten. An English translation was published in Japan for people learning English (long out of print), which was not available in the West. A new English translation was finally released earlier this year (4), along with Murakami’s other ‘forgotten’ early novel, Pinball 1973, as Wind/Pinball. (5) The publication may open up a whole new field of enquiry among established Murakami fans and point them towards Providence.
In Hear the Wind Sing another nameless protagonist obsesses over a fictional American pulp writer called Derek Heartfield. From Murakami’s description, Heartfield is a blend of Lovecraft and Robert E Howard, having been born in Ohio in 1909:
“After graduating, he tried working in the town’s post office, but it didn’t suit him for very long, and from this point forward he believed that his path led only in the direction of being a novelist. He sold his fifth short story to Weird Tales in 1930. His books were mostly adventure novels and bizarre stories.” (Wind quotes are from the original Birnbaum translation)
Howard and Lovecraft both wrote ‘bizarre stories’ for Weird Tales.
“Hartfield despised a great deal of things. The post office, high school, publishing companies, carrots, women, dogs…the list goes on and on. However, there were only three things he liked. Guns, cats, and his mother’s cookies.”
Like Heartfield, Howard and Lovecraft were both close to their mothers. Lovecraft was the only one who liked cats and famously argued the case with dog-lover Howard. Murakami is also a cat-lover and cats feature prominently in his works. Heartfield kills himself by jumping off the Empire State Building after his mother dies; Howard shot himself when his mother died, while Lovecraft died of natural causes.
The book goes on to describe Heartfield’s equally fictitious masterpiece, The Wells of Mars. Rather than being a swashbuckling RE Howard adventure, it is an altogether more Lovecraftian work, with the protagonist finding himself projected into the far future on Mars. The sun has become ‘a giant orange blob’ and he is alone talking with the alien wind about the futility of existence. (There is perhaps an echo of Lovecraft’s story Memory in which a Genie and a Daemon recall the vanished human race in a ruined city).
Heartfield influences the narrator to become a writer, though he is not necessarily the only influence: “To say that if I hadn’t come across a writer called Derek Hartfield I wouldn’t have started writing, no, I wouldn’t go that far. Still, my path to getting here would have probably been completely different.”
It is hard not to interpret this as a suggesting that it was Lovecraft, or Lovecraft and Howard, who nudged Murakami to become a writer. This admission might be acceptable in some circles, but Murakami is translated Raymond Carver, JD Salinger, Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and other greats into Japanese. In that sort of company, HP Lovecraft, despised minor writer of purple prose for the pulps, is not quite respectable. Murakami sometimes mentions Raymond Chandler and Kurt Vonnegut, both genre authors, but they have both been elevated by posthumous success into ‘literary’ figures, whereas Lovecraft’s supporters are still very much a cult following.
Murakami has written at length about his instant decision to become a writer (6) and he drops the names of highbrow figures in interviews. But according to Kit Reed in the Miami Herald, he has admitted to being a lifelong science-fiction fan who read “all of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard” at an early age. (7)
Earlier this year, Murakami went online to answer reader’s questions about the Yakult Swallows baseball team, cats, and his books. I put a question about whether Lovecraft had influenced him but sadly it was not among the handful of the 37,465 questions which he answered. Murakami-san still has books to write, after all.
Even if he was a great admirer of Lovecraft when he was young – and weren’t we all? – the bigger question is whether lingering traces of the Sage of Providence can be detected in Murakami’s works. And for that, readers must decide for themselves.
I would strongly recommend Kafka on the Shore (2002) and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (1995). These have the advantage of being more accessible and less cryptic than other works like A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and 1Q84 (2009) which also feature what might be loosely termed paranormal menaces but are less obviously coherent.
His works may be somewhere out of the range of what we normally think of as Lovecraftian fiction, and are shelved in a completely different section. He could hardly be described as a Mythos writer. But Haruki Murakami has taken a particular type of horror to a high art, and gained the attention of a world which would otherwise ignore any sort of ‘weird fiction’. Murakami has produced an amazing body of work, a body of work that might never have existed but for Lovecraft’s influence on the young writer.
David Hambling’s Shadows from Norwood project (https://www.facebook.com/ShadowsFromNorwood ) comprises to two Mythos novellas, “The Elder Ice”( http://www.amazon.com/Elder-Ice-Harry-Stubbs-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00M7CHN18/) and “Broken Meats”( http://www.amazon.com/Broken-Meats-Harry-Stubbs-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00ZI5OQWU), and the new collection from PS Publishing “The Dulwich Horror and others.” (http://www.amazon.com/Dulwich-Horror-Others-David-Hambling/dp/1848639058)
The relevant passage is online at