Monday, October 5, 2009



Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things / Lafcadio Hearn
Boston : Tuttle, 2005
Originally published: 1904
xv, 240 p.

In this collection of unforgettably haunting stories, Hearn brings together "the meeting of three ways" -- the austere dreams of India, the subtle beauty of Japan, and the relentless science of the Western world.

Ok I read this like a month ago, so bear with me through a sort of hazy recollection. These aren't the sort of stories that stick out in your memory because of excessive strangeness or creepiness. These also aren't the sort of strange or creepy stories you'd expect to find in a collection that advertises itself as such. The "ghosts" in these ghosts stories are not always spirits of the departed, but nature spirits, memories, or demons of Japanese folklore.

The stories vary in length and level of engagement. Some, like "Mujina", are a little "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" for my taste. In Mujina -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- a guy sees a scary demon woman on the road. He runs away and then he sees a scary demon man. The end. It doesn't really do much.

Other stories, however, bear themes of tradition, trust, revenge, and loss that make them much more powerful and give them that ineffable "Japanese" quality. "The Story of Mimi-nashi Hōichi" is about a blind biwa player summoned by spirits to sing the passage from Tale of the Heike regarding their emperor's downfall. Like ghosts from many cultures, these spirits were mourning the loss of the past, but not in a selfish or vengeful way. When a priest who follows the biwa player on the second night of his recitation realizes he is in the spirits' thrall, he aims to protect the man by painting him with symbols to ward off the spirits. He neglects to write on the man's ears, however, and so they are the only part the spirits can find, so they rip them off to bring them to the emperor. (Don't ask me why; when I'm a Japanese samurai ghost maybe I'll be able to explain it.) Anyway, the suffering of the biwa player in this story comes from the priest's distrust and negligence. Maybe it's because I've read The Tale of the Heike, but the sympathetic characters in this story other than the biwa player are the departed spirits.

My other favorite story in the collection is about a yuki-onna, a snow spirit woman, who spares the life of a beautiful young man after killing his companion on a snowy night. She swears him to secrecy on pain of death and disappears. Years later, the man marries a familiar-looking young woman, they have babies and live happily, but one day he can keep her resemblance out of his mind, so he begins to tell his wife the story of his encounter with the yuki-onna. Wonders behold, his wife IS the yuki-onna, and now she's pissed he broke his promise. She says she can't kill him because he is raising her children, but she melts into a puddle and disappears from his life forever.

The stories are folktales, which is a genre in which we expect to find fantastic creatures and events. That's why it feels awkward to call them "stories and studies of strange things". But the title is a holdover from the Victorian era when this was originally published, and back then, the entire culture of East Asia was strange and fantastical. These stories and the spirits and creatures they describe have a much less alien feel than I imagine they had a century ago.

Oh, I forgot, following the stories, the edition also contains some essays Hearn wrote on bugs: butterflies, mosquitos, and ants. He talks about their role in Japanese culture and literature. I read part of the butterfly one and got bored. So... whatever.


  1. The one on ants is worth reading, in the sense that it's completely insane. If that's something you're looking for.

  2. Welcome to the read-a-thon (I hope you're still participating)! Enjoy these first few hours-they'll fly by! I'm sure you'll do great. :D

  3. I'm popping by again to cheer you on some more! If you're participating, keep up the reading! :)

  4. Hope you're participating in the readathon. The cover of this book is totally freaking me out. But you've definitely got me interested!


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