Lafcadio Hearn and His Ghost Stories

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Lafcadio Hearn may be the most interesting individual I write about this month, and that’s including fictional characters. Born on the Greek island Lefkada to an Irish Sergeant Major and a Greek noblewoman, he was raised in Dublin. At the age of 19 he moved to Cincinnati where he became a journalist. He moved to New Orleans in his late 20s, where he spent ten years reporting on local culture, particularly Creole culture and voodoo religion. In 1890 he moved to Japan, where he apparently found his life’s calling. Interest in Japanese culture from an appropriative perspective was growing in the Occident and Hearn’s writings on this culture filled a vacuum. He became something of an ‘insider’ to Japanese culture, teaching in Japan, taking on the name Koizumi Yakumo after marrying Koizumi Setsu and becoming nationalized, and this perspective allowed him to write about Japanese culture with a perspective uniquely multinational. Interestingly, to this day he is considered by many to be something of a figure of Japanese nationalism; for a culture normally regarded as very xenophobic, turn-of-the-century Japan seems to have adopted him wholesale.

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...
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