This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
Kōbō Abe's Dark Fable
The Woman in the Dunes

What is the meaning of this strange 1962 novel
about a man trapped in a sunken village of sand?

by Ted Gioia
If I could pass binding laws for fiction writers, I’d impose a ban on dream sequences.  I
cringe whenever a character falls asleep and the story moves into slumber time.  Why?
The narrative now lacks motivation, drive and (worst of all) consequences.  Even a
scary dream won’t scare us, nor will a bizarre dream bewilder us—because readers
realize it’s all just a dream.  Even so, there’s some savage irony here: the main result of
these fictional dream sequences is to put the reader to sleep.  Life imitates art, huh?

On the other hand, I am fascinated by a certain
school of modern fiction in which the whole story
possesses a dreamlike quality. Here the reader’s
coordinates are unstable; consequences and
possibilities are rich with implication.  Anything
might happen, but there will be no soothing return
to reality, no awakening to dispel the demons.  The
author takes us to some hitherto unknown border-
land, between the sober reality of the fully alert
mind and the hallucinatory regions of our
subconscious psyche.    

I’m not surprised that the first masters of this
style of writing were authors with an acute
sense for the macabre and disturbing.  Any
account of the history of dreamlike fiction needs
to acknowledge the importance of
Edgar Allan Poe,
H.P. Lovecraft and other literary masters of the
nascent horror genre. Even so,
Franz Kafka stands
out as the seminal figure in exploring the broader
possibilities of this approach, creating in works
such as
The Castle and The Trial a tone and
ambiance that was less easy to pin down. Yes,
an element of horror was palpable, but you could
also read these works as political commentaries,
existential fables, or some new surreal style of writing that we have learned to call
Kafkaesque. His brave exploration of these interstices between the real and unreal
made possible the later ascendancy of
Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel
Beckett, Eugène Ionesco,
Alain Robbe-Grillet and other colonizers of literary

Kōbō Abe belongs on this list, although his name is less familiar in the West than
those of these predecessors. When Kenzaburō Ōe won the Nobel Prize in literature in
1994, he remarked that Abe, who had passed away a few months earlier, had deserved
the honor. Haruki Murakami has also praised this author, stating that in his readings
of the major Japanese writers of the generation preceding his, he was most drawn to
Abe’s work. Abe ranks among a handful of authors to win both the Yomiuri and the
Akutagawa prizes—lucrative honors (currently one million yen goes to the winners of
each) and with great prestige in Japan. Yet even well-read fans of literary fiction in the
West will hardly recognize his name, let alone know his works.

The Woman in the Dunes, published in 1962, is Abe’s best known book, and captures
the unsettling mixture of claustrophobia, terror and surrealism that pervade this
author’s worldview.  A teacher Niki Jumpei decides to spend his vacation pursuing his
hobby of collecting insects.  He has aspirations of discovering a new type of beetle, and
thus achieving a small dose of distinction.   When such finds are made, Abe (a real-life
bug collector) reminds us “the discoverer’s name appears in the illustrated
encyclopedias of entomology appended to the Latin name of the newly found insect;
and there, perhaps, it is preserved for something less than eternity.”

The teacher believes that his best chance of finding a hitherto unknown beetle will
come from studying unusual habitats, where new forms may have evolved in
adaptation to the changed environment. He decided to focus on sandy terrains, and
thus heads off for a different kind of beach vacation, with the catching net, jars and
chemicals necessary for his quest.

As it turns out, Niki Jumpei will find himself captured and kept, a human specimen
trapped in the same environment in which he had hoped to be the collector.  Strangely
John Fowles was writing a similar novel, The Collector, at virtually the same
time as Abe—in both works an entomologist gets caught up in the illegal detention of
people.  But Fowles’ work, one of his least distinguished, rarely rises above the level of
an inquiry into aberrant criminal psychology. Abe, in contrast, crosses over into
dreamtime, bringing together the most incongruous and implausible elements into a
story as shifting and unstable as the dunes it describes, yet presented with a rigor and
attention to symbolic valence that never collapses into sheer fantasy or mindless

On his trip, the teacher travels first by train,
then bus, and finally walks the final
stretch to the beach.  On his way, he passes
a bizarre series of makeshift houses, each
sinking deeper and deeper into the sand the
closer he approaches the shore.  "The
impression became more striking as he went
along. At length, all the houses seemed to
be sunk into hollows scooped in the sand.  
The surface of the sand stood higher than
the rooftops.  The successive rows of houses
sank deeper and deeper into the depressions."

Caught up in his beetle hunting, Jumpei misses the last bus back to the train station.
The local villagers offer to put him up in one of houses in the sand holes for the night,
where an obliging widow will look after him. With no other options, he accepts their
offer, and climbs down a rope ladder to the bottom of a deep pit, where he meets the
widow, who proves to be a friendly if reticent hostess, and is invited to stay in her
fragile, poorly furnished home.   

The next day, the rope ladder is missing, and the teacher realizes that the villagers
have no intention of letting him leave. He is expected to help the widow in the endless
task of removing the sand that accumulates endlessly in holes where the locals live.  
The woman, for her part, welcomes his company and assistance, and shows no interest
in helping him escape or in leaving herself.  When he refuses to assist in the sand
removal and other household chores, the villagers respond by cutting off the supply of
water.  In time, Jumpei is forced to work and comply, at least superficially, with the
demands put on him—yet he continues to plot methods of breaking out of his buried
prison cell.

The whole setting is pervaded with a sick surrealism, yet Abe imposes on this
nightmare an unflagging rationalism, even a scientific attitude. Here the author’s own
uncharacteristic background comes to the fore. In a path atypical for a writer, Abe
showed an early interest in mathematics, and later pursued studies in medicine.  He
eventually received a degree in medicine from Tokyo Imperial University, but
reportedly did so poorly in his studies that he was allowed to graduate only if he
promised never to take a job as a doctor. Instead he focused on writing, but his interest
in science continued to find an outlet in his insect collecting.  In
The Women in the
, Abe repeatedly adopts a clinical perspective more commonly found in a
laboratory than a modern novel.  His protagonist analyzes the properties of the sand,
constructs hypothesizes, builds apparatuses, designs experiments.  Yet rather than
undermining the Kafkaesque qualities of the story, this attention to logic and detail
reinforces the claustrophobia and loneliness of the novel.  Here is the ugly flip side of
Cartesian rationality: the scientific method as a source of isolation. I think, therefore I
am cut asunder.

One can construct other approaches to this novel.  During the decade after
Woman in the Dunes
was published, Japan’s standard of living would double, and an
economy that had previously suffered from the sacrifices of postwar rebuilding would
finally achieve a degree of comfort and affluence.  Yet Japan’s economic miracle could
only be achieved with a degree of self-sacrifice and tireless labor that has seldom been
emulated elsewhere.  What could be a better way of evoking this shared sense of the
individual’s subservience to the broader community and society than Abe’s story of the
captive endlessly removing the sand that threatens to engulf him?  

Yet no single interpretation does justice to this rich work. Even so, the story
relentlessly forces the reader to apply judgments and principles.  Other dream-
oriented works settle for smaller effects, teaching us to laugh at the absurdity of the
circumstances, but undermining the intensity of the story by the surreal tone.  
Woman in the Dunes
is not that kind of book. Rather, Abe comes across as the anti-
Aesop, the storyteller who insists that we learn from his fable, but in place of ‘the
moral of the story’ leaves us with only a blank space.  Even after the final page, we are
left feeling that, much like the hero of this story, even if we cannot rise to the
challenge, we can hardly walk away.  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is
How to Listen to Jazz, published by Basic Books.

Publication date: May 9, 2016.
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My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier
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To purchase, click on image
Abe comes across as
the anti-Aesop, the
storyteller who insists
that we learn from his
fable, but in place of
'the moral of the story'
leaves us with only a
blank space.