I first encountered Lafcadio Hearn in an Anthology of American stories, in a weird little story: The Boy Who Drew Cats. It was a creepy Japanese fairy tale about a boy whose artistic productions (which were solely of a feline persuasion) came to life and did away with a goblin rat. As a short story, it did not possess much of a literary quality (IMO), so it was filed away somewhere in the back of my mind as a curious little oddity and forgotten.
But Mr. Hearn’s name being very unusual, I remembered the story immediately when I saw this book, almost thirty years after I read it. In the meantime, my interest in myths, legends and fairy tales had become something of a passion. Moreover, I still carried my adolescent love of horror stories and had relatively recently been introduced to Japanese horror, more subtle and frightening than the American variety. So this book was something of a godsend.
Lafcadio Hearn was something of an outsider in the West: his only talent, it seems, was writing gory newspaper reports. As with maverick Westerners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he found refuge in the mystic East; in this case Japan. It is the great fortune of all of us that Hearn decided to translate these creepy gems (which might have remained confined to Japan) for the rest of the world.
“Kwaidan” means “Ghost Stories”, which the first part of this collection contains (the second part contains “insect studies” from a “folkloric” standpoint which is not very interesting). These seventeen stories are the traditional “around-the-campfire” type, part and parcel of a people living in tune with their environment not yet spoilt by the encroaching monster of urbanisation. Being from a country full of wood-spirits and water-sprites myself, I could relate.
There is Hoichi, the blind bard who is enchanted into playing for a company of ghosts and who is protected by the Buddhist sutras written upon his body (“Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi”); people turning into trees and trees, into people (“Ubazakura”, “Aoyagi”, “Jio-Roku-Sakura”); and goblins and ghosts galore (“Jikininki”, “Yuki-Onna”, “Rokuro-Kubi” etc.). There are also a couple based on the Japanese belief (now made famous by The Grudge) that a person who dies in great anger leaves behind an angry ghost. I was struck by the similarity of many of these tales to the stories I heard as a child in Kerala – one (“Mujina”) is an exact copy of an urban legend (well, with a different type of ghost) prevalent during the late eighties.
In the second part, Hearn tries to compile legends, myths and beliefs about butterflies, ants and mosquitoes. These make mildly interesting reading, but lacks depth.
A fast read, and a worthwhile one for readers who are interested in the beings which inhabit the primordial depths of our psyche.