At last canonical status is being conferred on author Lafcadio Hearn

These shocking and enthralling Japanese ghost stories have too long been underappreciated in the West

Lafcadio Hearn, shown with his wife, Koizumi Setsu. A writer of mixed Greek and Anglo-Irish blood, Hearn became the chief interpreter of the Japanese way of life to the West

Lafcadio Hearn, shown with his wife, Koizumi Setsu. A writer of mixed Greek and Anglo-Irish blood, Hearn became the chief interpreter of the Japanese way of life to the West

 

One hundred and fifteen years after his death, Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese ghost stories have not lost their power to shock and enthral.

The reader of these stories enters a world at once alien and familiar. The colourful, often ingenious, means by which the supernatural impacts on the mortal world can be highly original and extremely violent. Many of the themes will be familiar to western readers – vampirism, for example, or the return of the dead to settle scores with the living, often on the part of women – but their vividness and originality will often startle western readers.

So too will the sadism and subtlety with which gods or mortals will wreak their vengeance on those who have crossed them: the Shinto god whose collection box has been looted by the brazen O-Katsu in The Legend of Yurei-Daki exacts vengeance, not on O-Katsu herself but on the baby strapped to her back, whose head is ripped off.

Some of the supernatural manifestations found in Hearn’s ghost stories are grotesque in the extreme

Women as well as men can be the perpetrators of violence and vengeance: the unfortunate second wife of a faithless samurai in Of a Promise Broken also has her head torn from her body and a trail of blood leads to the garden where it is found in the hands of the now ghoulish form of the dead wife: “But the fleshless right hand, though parted from the wrist, still writhed; – and its fingers still gripped at the bleeding head, – and tore, and mangled, – as the claws of the yellow crab cling fast to a fallen fruit... ”

Western horror tradition

In The Story of O-Kamé a vampiric dead wife drains the life blood out of her husband. Her body when exhumed shows no sign of death, like the vampires in Bram Stoker’s contemporaneous Dracula. In Jikininki vampirism meets cannibalism in the form of a priest who consumes human flesh. Other elements of the western horror tradition that features in these stories include shape-shifting and the interchangeability of human and animal forms.

Some of the supernatural manifestations found in Hearn’s ghost stories are grotesque in the extreme. In The Corpse-Rider a man has to ride on the back of a female corpse come back to life for an entire night to effect an exorcism. The man-eating ghouls in Rokuro-Kubi can elongate their necks or even detach their heads completely to go about their murderous business. Some supernatural beings are benign: the shark-man of the sea weeps tears that transmogrify into precious jewels to enable a mortal man to marry the women he loves in The Gratitude of the Samébito.

Real-life grisly crime

In retrospect, Hearn’s life seems like a preparation for propagating the Japanese horror tradition or kwaidan. The years he had spent as a journalist in the United States and the West Indies (1869-1890) witnessed a steady development from reporting real-life grisly crime on the police beat in Cincinnati (1869-1877) to the translation of sex and violence in French 19th-century literature during his decade in New Orleans (1877-1887). In the US he honed his trade as a writer and developed an audience that he would continue to address during his final years in Japan (1890-1904). Two years in the French West Indies (1887-1889) resulted in a book that formed the template for his Japanese literary output and included a zombie story.

Hearn is now best remembered for these kwaidan stories, which have inspired film and television adaptations

Even earlier, the first 19 years of his life spent in Europe (1850-1869) enabled a kaleidoscopic range of influences to help mould the future writer. From his birth on the Ionian island of Lefkada, then under British control, through to his childhood years in Gardiner Street, Rathmines and Upper Leeson Street in Dublin, and then a Catholic boarding school in England, he was exposed to various forms of Christianity: Greek Orthodox, Church of Ireland (Anglican) and Roman Catholicism. In his teens, he was electrified by his discovery of the gods of ancient Greece. This early religious formation was vital to the Hearn’s life-long engagement with literary horror, culminating in his Japanese ghost stories, influenced partly by the indigenous animistic Japanese religion of Shinto and much more so by Buddhism.

Supernatural

Fresh as his interpretation of Japanese society remains, Hearn is now best remembered for these kwaidan stories, which have inspired film and television adaptations. They rely heavily on the complexity of Buddhist belief in the interaction of the spiritual and mortal spheres, similar to the interweaving of Christian and folk elements in European folklore. His rejection of Christianity notwithstanding, he remained a resolute believer in the supernatural and his early exposure to the religions of western Europe conditioned him to respect the religions of Japan, fundamental to his exploration of its culture and at the heart of his timeless retelling of the kwaidan.

The inclusion of his Japanese ghost stories in Penguin Classics confers canonical status on an author too long underappreciated in the West, which is now coming to appreciate this most gifted of writers who wove an enduring magic around these stories from old Japan.

Paul Murray is the author of biographies of Lafcadio Hearn and Bram Stoker, and editor of collections of Hearn’s work. He is a former Irish diplomat whose posting to Japan in the late 1970s ignited his interest in Hearn. Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn (edited by Paul Murray) is available July 25th from Penguin Classics.

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