Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn: An old horror for a new age

In the throes of the Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza season, I picked up the completely seasonally and religiously appropriate . . . Japanese ghost stories.

Okay, it is not at all appropriate, but you’ll have to pardon my new obsession with Lafcadio Hearn, the 19th century Irish/Greek atheist expat who lived the last and most literately productive portion of his life in Japan. I was surprised that I had not heard of him before, but (according to the brief biography I read), he has largely been eclipsed by his famous contemporaries like Bram Stroker. Which is a shame, and needs to change.

Reading Hearn’s Japanese Ghost Stories is like sitting around a campfire telling horror stories. Early in the night, the audience comments on the characters or the pacing, or (my favorite) the differences between Christian-based ghost stories and these Buddhist ones. But as the stories continue to roll out, the horror curls around like campfire smoke and the narrator quiets. Then, there is nothing left to break the immersion.

Of ghost brides, and goblins in the woods, and tree spirits, and the walking headless. The stories are varied in their horror level, some even comedic, while others are only strange. They are the story of a traveling soldier, samurai, or priest, who encounters a beautiful solitary woman, a poor woodcutter, or grief-stricken village. I could almost hear the voices changing, imagining a group clustered in the dark, and as one story ended another voice enters the darkness with “something like that happened to my uncle . . . this is what he saw.”

No story is longer than ten pages, and some are clumsily handled. But I was entranced by them in a way I imagine Hearn was too, why he felt the drive to write them down in English for an Anglo reader. The trappings and outfits are different, but the fear of a vampire, of a changeling, of a vengeful dead, are the same. How well do you know the person you lay next to every night? Why do we trust a kind smile? How long do we keep promises to the dead?