Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Japanese Ghost Stories - Lafcadio Hearn

I saw something about this book last summer, bought it, and have been dipping in and out of it ever since. There's been a sort of synchronicity about Hearn for me since then - having never heard of him before his name has kept popping up, so much so that I'm wondering why I'd never heard of him before now.

He's a fascinating character in his own right; born on the Ionian island of Lefkada in 1850 his mother was Greek, his father Irish. The family moved back to Ireland but the marriage failed, in 1854 his mother returned home alone and Hearn was raised by his great aunt, his father was posted to India in 1857, remarried and Hearn never saw him again. Hearn is sent to school in England until his aunt is financially ruined (it's quite Dickensian at this point) and he lives in the East end of London in reduced circumstances for a couple of years. 

In 1869 he arrives in Cincinnati and embarks on a career in journalism. He illegally marries a former slave - which doesn't work out, but his career does and in 1890 he arrives in Japan with a vague understanding with his publisher that he would provide material for them. He breaks with them but remains in Japan until he dies from heart disease in 1904. He marries again there and has a family, a teaching career at a couple of universities as well as his writing, and takes Japanese citizenship. 

It's a full life by any standard. The stories he collected in Japan are seen as classics in their own right, infused with his own memories of Irish superstition from his early childhood. I don't know enough about either the Japanese tradition or Irish folklore to see where one ends and the other begins so I'm taking the word of Paul Murray who has edited and introduced this collection. 

The introduction, chronology, suggested further reading, and notes are all admirable though. I can be lazy about reading introductions but this one was more than worth the effort, not least because a lot of the stories have a vampiric element to them and there's an interesting discussion about how that sits with what's happening in European fiction at the same time. 

There's a mix of stories here, some belonging firmly to a horror genre, others not so much but still dealing with the supernatural. They're all concise and elegant, Hearn is also a master of the eerie. It's a rich and wonderful collection that I've been enjoying a lot recently. There's something about the long twilight of summer that really suits stories like this. When the half light makes it possible to half believe almost anything. Twilight also suits the underlying melancholy of some of these stories whilst thoroughly accentuating the horror of others.

It's an excellent collection, and a really well put together edition. I really recommend it.  

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