This isn’t to underplay his skills as a writer; his particular writings became so renowned through his skill at recording and conveying Japanese culture, treating it with respect without losing the sense of ‘Oriental’ otherness that so entertained Western culture. In my reading I have more than once encountered offhand references to Hearn in other books, making me think that he was something of a household name in the first half of the century, a sort of cultural emissary of all things Japanese. But not just Japanese—his most well-known efforts are his recordings of ghost stories. These ghost story recordings have become such a canonical part of the representation of Japanese folk culture that when Masaki Kobayashi directed his visually-stunning ghost story anthology in 1965, he named it Kwaidan after Hearn’s collection of ghost stories, rather than Kaidan, the more phonetic rendering of the word for ghost story. It’s fortunate that Japanese culture so wholesale adopted him; this avoids the embarrassment of an extranational Brothers Grimm for Japan.
Unfortunately, we aren’t looking at Hearn’s Kwaidan, an excellent book that I read last year around this time; we’re looking at the much shorter Some Chinese Ghosts. I don’t know if Hearn is less comfortable writing about Chinese culture (full disclosure: I’m certainly less comfortable, since I’ve been studying Japanese culture for years, but am nearly totally oblivious about Chinese culture) or he was just off his game when he put this together, but this collection is significantly less interesting and less inspired. It’s very short—only six tales—and yet manages to be quite repetitive. Gone are fascinating stories like the headless or shapeshifting ghosts of Kwaidan; the spiritual presence here is subtler in a more boring fashion. That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable book, particularly at its short length, but after Kwaidan it’s a definite disappointment. So let’s look at the first story of the collection and see what a Chinese ghost story (as Hearn presents it) looks like.
THE SOUL OF THE GREAT BELL
[note: as I'm totally unfamiliar with the language, I will be using the romanizations Hearn gives]
Hearn loves to jump into it with descriptive language that is almost a prose poem, and he does that here:
“The water-clock marks the hour in the Ta-chung sz‘, —in the Tower of the Great Bell: now the mallet is lifted to smite the lips of the metal monster, —the vast lips inscribed with Buddhist texts from the sacred Fa-hwa-King, from the chapters of the holy Ling-yen-King! Hear the great bell responding!—how mighty her voice, though tongueless!—KO-NGAI!“
The opening goes on like this for a while. Some people might find this kind of language tedious, but the vigor really captures me, and I think it’s easy...