Lafcadio Hearn’s Oriental Ghost Stories

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.

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5 Responses to Lafcadio Hearn’s Oriental Ghost Stories

  1. Dr. Skull wrote: “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. ”

    The features you are describing have more to do with the place (Japan) than with the time (the past). Watch almost any modern Japanese horror film (or the endless remakes), and you will see a malevolent being that is out to destroy everyone that comes in contact with it, even though those people did nothing wrong. Some of the remakes are particularly effective because they juxtapose Western lead characters with Eastern ghosts. Invariably the Westerners try to understand the spirit’s pain so they can right the wrong and let the spirit rest in peace… and invariably the spirit just destroys them in the end anyway.

    For me, these films aren’t scary because of what the ghosts do—they’re scary because the subtext is that if someone is killed in a horrible way, no matter how innocent or kind that person may have been, then that person’s soul is doomed to become a vengeance-crazed demon. That utterly unsettles my notion of how the universe should work, and that’s the kind of horror that is most effective on me.

    There, now you know my weakness.

  2. PD wrote: “The features you are describing have more to do with the place (Japan) than with the time (the past).”

    Can’t it be both, as I said? I’m certainly familiar with modern Japanese horror, but they still don’t have quite the same tone as these early folk tales. On the other hand, some early folk tales of the Western world have a similar tone (see, for instance, the rest of the ‘Enchanted World’ series). I think the stories are doubly unique, in their place and time.

  3. Markk says:

    I am familiar with Lafcadio Hearn’s translations. It does strike a tone from the past, but I felt it was more of a standard cultural gap – the distance made things easier to take as different.

    I think his era in Japan was very interesting as he lived in possibly the fastest industrializing period ever seen by any country in history. The culture was in upheaval – feudal structures were being dismantled, power bases were changing.

    A new oligarchy and military complex were being created. What was happening and what he found important to provide show that even then people saw the rapid changes and wanted to preserve things. In some sense late 19th and early 20th century Japan to me was very much like the present with rich and poor alike being jostled by changes that brought their cultures together. The lack of acknowledgement of this by Hearn and others of the time does say something, and affects how I see him.

  4. Markk wrote: “It does strike a tone from the past, but I felt it was more of a standard cultural gap – the distance made things easier to take as different.”

    Oh, so now you and PD are ganging up on me! :)

    Thanks for the short description of that era in Japan. I know relatively little about that time of Japanese history, so I don’t have a good feel for how the cultural changes might have been reflected (or not reflected) in the writing.

  5. Pingback: Some Chinese Ghosts – Lafcadio Hearn « The Bamboo Sea

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