Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was a very interesting fellow. Reading through his Wikipedia entry, he was definitely not one to run with the crowd. He was raised in Dublin, but moved to Cincinatti, Ohio at the age of 19. Though he started out in poverty, he quickly rose through the ranks of the news business through his writing. He married Alethea Foley, an African-American woman, in Cincinatti, an act which was actually illegal at the time. He moved to New Orleans at the age of 27, where he wrote about the local culture. Eventually he went to the West Indies as a correspondent, and ended up in Japan in 1890 and quickly fell in love with the country and its people. He became a Japanese citizen, married a local woman (presumably the marriage to Foley didn’t last), and adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo.
Hearn’s (I mean, Yakumo’s) writings introduced the western world to Japanese culture and history, and he is still highly regarded in that country.
Among those writings, Hearn compiled a number of books of ghost stories from the Orient, among them: In Ghostly Japan (1899), Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) and Some Chinese Ghosts (1887). Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural compiled a volume of these tales together as Oriental Ghost Stories; though it’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, I finally gave it a read this week:
Some thoughts about this lovely volume of spooky tales from the East below…
The stories described are not Hearn’s own; they are traditional stories from Japanese (and Chinese) folklore that Hearn transcribed and adapted for a Western audience. As such, most of the tales are extremely short, and many of them could be better described as ‘spooky anecdotes’ rather than full stories: very much the sort of stories one might hear around the campfire. Nevertheless, they are oddly compelling and quite creepy.
The funny thing: once I was reading them, I realized I had read many of them before! They had been included in the Enchanted World series published by Time-Life books, a collection which described world mythology. (Thanks to my Dad for getting me the series!) In hindsight, it is clear that the series drew significantly from Hearn’s works for its descriptions of Eastern ghosts and monsters.
The stories themselves are generally entertaining. As noted in the nice introduction to the Wordsworth volume by David Stuart Davies, part of their charm is never knowing quite what one will get — is the tale about a good spirit, or a bad spirit? Some stories end up being quite touching, and others end up being quite horrifying. The horrifying stories contain some moments that are still shocking to modern ears, including horrible deaths and mutilations. Creatures encountered include a corpse-eating amorphous spirit and a collection of malevolent creatures who appear human during the day but literally lose their heads at night!
In a recent post, one commenter suggested that early science fiction stories had a certain ‘something’ — “sense of alienness and time” — that modern writers fail to capture in quite the same way. The same can be said reading these examples of Eastern folklore: they have a tone to them that just isn’t present in modern stories, or even in the ‘classic’ horror of the early 1900s. My only explanation, and a rough one, is that these stories were conceived in an era when the world was a much more alien, mysterious, and randomly cruel place. Characters in the stories often have their horrifying encounters simply because they stopped at the wrong destination while traveling. These tales ‘give voice’ to an era when traveling outside one’s local village opened oneself up to countless forms of danger from unforeseeable sources.
Of course, the culture of the East gives the stories a quite different tone, as well: honor, tradition, and faith play a strong role, and these concepts have a different ‘flavor’ than in the West. Even karma plays a significant role in one story!
The collection is a very fast read, as it consists of very short tales, but it is a fascinating and rather unique venture into a different realm of horror.