Books

'Japanese Ghost Stories': The ghostly ascent of Lafcadio Hearn's tales of the supernatural

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

I first encountered Paul Murray — the biographer of “Dracula” author Bram Stoker and the editor of a new collection of spine-chilling Japanese ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn — in a suitably awe-inspiring and spooky location: the Great Hall of Durham Castle in north-east England in 2015. With its impressively paneled walls adorned with battle weapons and Victorian portraits, the castle was an inspiration for Hogwarts in the “Harry Potter” films.

Japanese Ghost Stories, by Lafcadio Hearn, Edited with an introduction by Paul Murray.
272 pages
PENGUIN CLASSICS, Horror.

We were both speaking at a conference at Durham’s Lafcadio Hearn Cultural Centre — a pleasant place created to commemorate the mostly miserable boarding school years Hearn spent at nearby Gothically inspired Ushaw College in the 1860s. Holed up in a castle room as the autumnal moon hung mistily over Durham Cathedral outside, flicking between Murray’s 1993 biography of Hearn and some of Hearn’s Japanese ghost stories, I found my fascination for Hearn soar to new heights.

The following year, while having lunch in London with some editors from Penguin, I was asked to suggest a name or two missing from their Classics imprint and found the name “Lafcadio Hearn” passing my lips, not entirely sure they would take me up on it.

But, to my considerable delight, the editors soon found their way to Murray’s door, requesting that the amiable former Irish diplomat — Murray was deputy head of mission in the Irish Embassy in Japan between 1978 and 1980 and later Irish ambassador to South Korea — pick a selection of the ghostly tales known as kaidan for which Hearn is most renowned in Japan.

It all represents a remarkable turnaround in the worldwide fortunes of wandering Irishman Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Japan for 14 years (1890-1904), wrote voluminously about the country and has always been regarded by the Japanese as the preeminent Western interpreter of Japanese culture.

Only four years ago in Durham, I recall Murray remarking that the majority of his recent media requests were in connection with Hearn’s Gothic horror contemporary Stoker — not Hearn, who remained persistently obscure outside of Japan. But now, several books by or connected to Hearn — including a collection of stories from Princeton University Press and Monique Truong’s novel, “The Sweetest Fruits” — have all appeared at once.

Hearn wrote prolifically about other places in the world — Cincinnati, New Orleans, Martinique — where he lived before arriving in Japan at the age of 39. But while his appeal elsewhere has fluctuated, the admiration of Japanese readers has been profound and constant, and his Japanese ghost stories — related to him under the light of a low-lit lamp by his Japanese wife Setsu and then reworked in his own imagination and style — are particularly famous.

Most readers are only likely to encounter the ghost stories in Hearn’s final and most famous collection “Kwaidan” (1904), but the particular value of Murray’s collection is that it leads us in chronological order through a much greater breadth of Hearn’s writings on the supernatural in Japan, with ghostly tales selected from 11 of his books.

Murray’s lucid introduction grounds Hearn’s fascination with horror in the Dublin childhood of his youth, entwining personal traumas — Hearn was abandoned by both parents, was blinded in one eye in a schoolyard accident and lost all financial support from his guardian — with Irish literary traditions and age-old Irish beliefs in fairies and ghosts. Wherever Hearn went in the world, he took his fascination with the supernatural and folklore with him, captivated by “the ballads of east London, the Creole and Cajun cultures of New Orleans, and the tales of zombies in the West Indies.” He also published a collection of Chinese ghost stories.

Murray’s personal favorites among the pieces in this collection are “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi” (1904), the tale of a blind monk performing for an assembly of the dead, and “The Dream of a Summer Day” (1894), which he prizes as “Hearn’s most beautiful piece of writing.” “Another gem,” Murray remarks, “is ‘Of a Promise Broken’ (1901), a tale of deadly female vengeance that chills, told with Hearn’s trademark economy of style and vivid punchline.”

In Murray’s analysis, Buddhism is the common denominator running through the stories. “In his first few years in Japan, Hearn focused on Shinto thought, which was critical to his interpretation of Japanese society,” says Murray. “After his move to Tokyo in 1896, his work was more preoccupied with horror and he reverted to an interest in Buddhism. … The Buddhism of the Japanese countryside in Hearn’s time was, like the Roman Catholicism of Ireland in that era, an amalgam of a highly developed religion with older folk-beliefs in a ghostly world where the mortal and the supernatural interact.”

I ask Murray what similarities and differences he spies in the work of Stoker and Hearn.

“Superficially they are very different writers. Stoker’s fiction was a product of his imagination while Hearn’s ghost stories derived primarily from folk tales,” says Murray. “Below the surface, however, there are important similarities: The roots of the horror which dominated the imagination of both men lay in their contemporaneous childhoods in mid-19th-century Dublin. Hearn was regaled with horrific stories by servants who would have grown up speaking Irish and were transliterating from that language and tradition into English for Hearn’s benefit.”

This book insightfully shows how Hearn filtered Japanese ghostly originals through the prism of his own expansive imagination and traumatized experience to create works that were distinctly, and chillingly, his own.

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