Friday, July 17, 2015

Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn

Dover, 2006; originally published 1904
159 pp


I'm late to the Lafcadio Hearn party, having only read two stories in this collection before picking up this book -- "The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi" and "Yuki-Onna," which have long been personal favorites. There are seventeen actual "Kwaidan" ( kaidan)  in this book, and then a section by Hearn called "Insect Studies," three compositions that in their own right are definitely worth reading.  From what I've been able to discover, Hearn's wife Setsu related a number of these tales to him, but as Oscar Lewis notes in his introduction, Hearn spent a lot of energy and time trying to
 "unearth some quaint legend or trace down some curious bit of superstition...and he worked with the same slow patience to render his discoveries accurately and without distortion into English."
He was so keen to get it right that
"he made her [Setsu] enact again and again a part of some ancient legend, studying her every gesture, insisting on the exact intonation of every word."
Now, I don't know about anyone else, but to me, that's a prime example of unshakable passion at its peak.  Luckily, his admiration and persistence have paid off in spades -- these are some of the finest weird folk tales, legends, and  ghostly tales to be collected in a single volume. Ranging from out-and-out creepy ghost stories to monks roaming the countryside where various monsters and other creatures seem to abide, there is never a bad note struck throughout the entire collection.

At seventeen stories, I'm not about to go into each one, but I'll highlight my favorites.  As mentioned earlier, I am quite partial to "the Story of Mimi-nashi Hoichi," a tale in which a blind biwa player is summoned to recite the Tale of the Heike (平家物語Heike Monogatari -- another personal favorite) in front of a distinguished audience. He is asked to relate the part about the battle at Dannoura, "for the pity of it is most deep."  Unfortunately for our blind biwa player, his recital is magnificent -- and he is called back for another performance.  Then there's "Yuki-Onna," in which a young woodcutter is about to meet his death, but is miraculously saved by a strange woman he encounters in a cabin in the woods. What happens afterward is just downright freaky creepy.  While all of the tales in this collection are excellent, I also loved "Rukoru-Kubi," the story of a high-ranking samurai turned wandering priest after his master's house was defeated in the ongoing warfare of the time and the house fell. Kwairyō (the priest)  makes a habit of sleeping outdoors, but accepts a humble woodcutter's offer for shelter. Insomnia gets the best of him, and he literally stumbles into a closely-held secret that will literally stick with him for some time. Another fine entry is "The Dream of Akinosuke," in which the dreamer is whisked off to a sort of fairyland in order to marry the king's daughter -- but on waking from the dream, discovers exactly where he's been.  Just super.

Miminashi Hoichi playing his biwa

The stories are short but their length doesn't affect their potency; by virtue of being stories that have been handed down over several centuries, the reader also gets a look at ancient Japan from different angles, from the world of the samurai on down to that of the lowliest peasant. It is a world of constant upheaval in terms of the physical world and also vis a vis the traditional social order.  One major exception is "Hi-Mawari," a story that takes place in Wales, obviously penned by Hearn himself.  After the kaidan section is finished, the reader moves into Hearn's "Insect Studies," where he dwells on butterflies, mosquitoes and ants.  While you might be tempted to skip them, don't. They're absolutely fascinating, drawing on traditional folklore, etc.  from Japan and China.

I realize that not everyone is going to admire these stories like I do, but I love all things Japanese and this collection was simply superb. It might just be a good opening into all sorts of kaidan for a novice reader, and there are several works available in English that would make for great follow-up reading.  Another thing worth noting here is that there is a movie called Kwaidan, based on Hearn's stories, two from this book and two more from other works he compiled.  The two from this collection are "Yuki-Onna" and "The Story of Miminashi Hoichi;" these are joined by dramatizations of "The Reconciliation" (from Shadowings) and "In a Cup of Tea," (which is delightfully creepy) from his Kotto: Being Japanese Curios and Sundry Cobwebs.  [as an FYI, these links go to Amazon, and I get nothing if you click there.]

I loved this book and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

creepiest, creepier, creepy: The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (ed.) Robert Aickman

Fontana/Collins, 1974
(first published 1964)
256 pp

mass market paperback

You just never know what you're going to find when you start cleaning off your horror shelves.  I'd totally forgotten I even owned this book so imagine my great delight when I looked through the table of contents and saw these titles and these authors:

  • "The Travelling Grave", by LP Hartley
  • "The Ghost Ship",  by Richard Middleton
  • "Squire Toby's Will," by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
  • "The Voice in the Night," by William Hope Hodgson
  • "Three Miles Up," by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  • "The Rocking-horse Winner," by D.H. Lawrence
  • "The Wendigo," by Algernon Blackwood
  • "The Crown Derby Plate," by Marjorie Bowen
  • "The Trains," by Robert Aickman
  • "The Old Nurse's Story," by Mrs. Gaskell
  • "Seaton's Aunt," by Walter de la Mare
Modern readers of horror may find these stories somewhat dated, or perhaps not even scary, but these stories are true classics in every sense of the word. 

 I'm hard pressed to pick a favorite, but Aickman's "The Trains" and "Three Miles Up," by Elizabeth Jane Howard totally rattled me.  I've read "The Trains" a number of times (it's a favorite, and I'm  still scratching my head over that one). Howard's work (new to me) wins my choice for creepiest story in this collection, about some friends who decide to take a boat ride through England's canals.  Crikey -- here's another story where the ending  left some pretty mind-shattering and beyond-disturbing implications in my head.  It was one of the creepiest tales in the entire collection.   Memo to self -- I MUST find more of Howard's ghost stories. 

Also new to me are "The Voice in the Night,"  "The Old Nurse's Story" and "The Crown Derby Plate."  I don't know that I'd classify Hodgson's piece as a ghost story per se, but it's an incredibly disturbing little tale. 

[sidebar: some time back I read a collection of pulp stories written by a relatively unknown author named Philip Fisher, who had one tale called "Fungus Isle" (1923).  While trying to find out more about the author, I came upon a website devoted to Hodgson which noted that "Fungus Isle" was partially (and shamelessly)  lifted from "The Voice in the Night." After having read it,  I can totally see why little factoid might be true.]

"Seaton's Aunt," "The Rocking-horse Winner," "Squire Toby's Will" and "The Wendigo" are old, true-blue  favorites; although they are rereads, they still have an incredible amount of creep factor that produces the familiar and greatly-desired raising o' the hackles and hair on my neck.

 Less personally appealing but still good (although neither totally wowed me)  were "The Travelling Grave" and  "The Ghost Ship."  I have to confess that I'd never heard of Richard Middleton before picking up this book, and even though I wasn't overcome with delight while reading his piece, it did make me want to find out more about him and his other work.  So I bought a copy of his The Ghost Ship and Others; apparently he's also quite well known for a story called "On the Brighton Road," so I'm sure I'll be posting about that collection in the near future.  

Aickman notes in the introduction that "There are only thirty or forty first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature," without saying which ones, but if the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories is any judge of what he considers "first-class," I'm eager to move on through all eight of this series of books he edited before Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes took over.  As someone who loves a great ghost story, especially the classics, I'd say that this book is definitely a must-have for anyone who is even remotely interested.  Enjoy the shivers up your spine...