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Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn (Penguin Classics) review – fears reborn, nightmares reincarnated

Born in Greece, raised in Ireland, educated in England, and a writing career forged in America – perhaps it is Lafcadio Hearn’s lack of a permanent home that resulted in his openness towards and interest in other cultures. If we look back on Hearn’s career and works, it is a recording of folklore and local customs that stands out most clearly.

Japanese Ghost Stories (Penguin Classics) by Lafcadio Hearn and Paul Murray book cover
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Hearn’s interest in ghost stories was fostered at an early age whilst living with a wealthy relative in Dublin, whose house contained a library of many old books, but he didn’t fully embrace the ghost story as a writer until his final 15 years in Japan, where many of his childhood fears came back to haunt him. Hearn spent those years teaching at Tokyo University and then Waseda University, and writing books aimed largely at an American audience. He captured the stories of life and folklore in Japan that he was exposed to and actively sought out. Hearn is best remembered for his writings on Japan and not only in the West – his books and the stories he collected have been translated back into Japanese and are now read in Japanese schools.

But evident even in this collection, Japanese Ghost Stories, extracts from his books between 1894-1905, is Hearn’s familiarity with folklore and myths from across the world, referencing Norse mythology in one story and frequently alluding to those of classical Greece. Hearn was born in Greece to a Greek mother who abandoned him aged 10 and perhaps his interest in classical Greece was in part an attempt to become closer to her.

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Although there are footnotes throughout the book providing explanations where necessary – of romanised Japanese words, for example – there is a lack of context to the “stories” which means you don’t quite know how they should be read at first. These aren’t, at least at the start of the book, short stories based on Japanese folklore – they feature Hearn as the narrator, describing encounters he has had with the people and customs of Japan, within which he recounts stories he has been told. What this provides, however, which wouldn’t be available otherwise, is Hearn’s attempt to understand these stories. For this is a book as much about specific stories of Japanese folklore as it is about the nature and purpose of folklore, regardless of where it has come from. And, the common theme here, is death – coming to terms with it and accepting it. This extra-narrative commentary is found much more frequently at the beginning of this book – stories from Hearn’s earlier books. Later on, he lets the stories themselves do most of the talking and these, I find, make the most entertaining reads.

As alluded to in the title of this article, Buddhism was a clear influence on Hearn and reincarnation, for example, appears in a number of these stories. Take the final story in this collection, one of originally Chinese origin, “The Story of Ito Norisuké”, in which a young samurai marries the ghost of a woman who fell in love with him many years ago in one of his past lives. She, however, remained a ghost all that time, unable to pass into another state of existence out of her longing for him. Even Hearn’s ideas on the nature of fear, spoken about at the end of this article, seem to suggest a internalisation of the idea of reincarnation.

There are plenty of horrors to be found in this collection and fans of Japanese horror films will notice similarities between the vengeful spirits they portray. Take Ring for instance – Sadako Yamamura, the longhaired girl that slowly creeps towards you from the well, is an example of an Onryō – a ghost that has the ability to cause harm in the world of the living. Many Onryō are to be found in the stories Hearn collects. One example is in the story “Of a Promise Broken”. A samurai vows to his dying wife on her deathbed that he will never marry again. He also agrees to bury her under the plum-trees in the garden, and to bury her with a little bell, like the Buddhist pilgrims carry. But only a year later, on the encouragement of those around him, the samurai does indeed marry again, taking a young woman of seventeen as his bride. Shortly after the wedding, while the samurai is away, in the middle of the night the young wife hears a bell nearby in the garden. The spirit of the betrayed dead wife appears to her in the bedroom and says:

“Not in this house – not in this house shall you stay! Here I am mistress still. You shall go; and you shall tell to none the reason of your going. If you tell HIM, I will tear you into pieces!”

I don’t wish to spoil anything, but the newly-wedded wife does not meet a happy ending. I suspect we’d all take ghost stories a little more seriously if we were threatened to be torn limb from limb.

I shall leave you with a quote taken from the short essay in the appendix of Japanese Ghost Stories, “Nightmare-Touch”, a speculation on the origin and nature of our fears. Hearn suggests that our fears are learned through experience, and that experience is passed down through generations, fears that are older than humanity itself. Those experiences emerge in our dreams. He goes on to describe an ongoing haunting from his childhood that will too leave you in fear of total darkness.

“What is the fear of ghosts among those who believe in ghosts? All fear is the result of experience… And the fear of ghosts must be a product of past pain. Probably the fear of ghosts, as well as the belief in them, had its beginning in dreams… Now I venture to state boldly that the common fear of ghosts is the fear of being touched by ghosts – or, in other words, that the imagined Supernatural is dreaded mainly because of its imagined power to touch… And who can ever have had the sensation of being touched by ghosts? The answer is simple: Everybody who has been seized by phantoms in a dream. Elements of primeval fears – fears older than humanity – doubtless enter into the child-terror of darkness. But the more definite fear of ghosts may very possibly be composed with inherited results of dream-pain – ancestral experience of nightmare. And the intuitive terror of supernatural touch can thus be evolutionally explained.”

Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn, edited by Paul Murray, is published by Penguin Classics. Buy the book.

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