5.0 out of 5 stars Spirits, Gods, and a Mountain of Skulls
When it comes to strange tales of Japan and China, all roads eventually lead to Lafcadio Hearn. As a reporter living in Japan during the late 1890’s, he was the gateway between the two cultures. Asia at the time was a strange and mysterious place, where few Westerners had ever been. Hearn wrote about the culture and clothing, the songs and folktales, the religion and government. He also wrote about ghosts.
“Oriental Ghost Stories” is a compilation from three of Hearn’s book, In Ghostly Japan, Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things and Some Chinese Ghosts. The term “ghost” is used loosely here. Perhaps the best term would be the one favored by pulp fiction authors such as HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. These are Weird Tales, of gods and monsters, of karma and consequences.
Never having a really solid grasp of Japanese, Hearn was more of an interpreter and an enthusiast than an translator. These stories, while traditional, are seen through Hearn’s eye and writing style. Many of them appeared in his English writing before they ever appeared in Japanese. People knew of his fondness for strange stories and legends, and would tell Hearn local folklore which he would dutifully record.
Some of them are spine-tingling, but fear isn’t really the intent for most of the yarns. Buddhism plays a role in many of the stories, such as in the piece “Fragment”, which has a man climbing a mountain of skulls only to realize that all of the skulls are his from past lives. Many of the stories have a cultural base, such as Hearn’s mussing on silkworms, and what a silkworm’s version of heaven would be like. There are tales of monsters, like “Rokuro-kubi” which was later adapted by Mike Mignola as the Hellboy story Heads, and true tales of ghosts like “Mimi-nashi Hoichi” which was adapted for the film Kwaidan, or “A Passional Karrma”, which has been adapted for film more time than one could count.
This is a fantastic starting point for people interested in Oriental folktales. “Oriental Ghost Stories” collects just the stories from his three books, leaving out most of the academic and cultural essays. The edition is beautiful as well, with an embossed skull and blood on the front cover, and retaining Hearn’s original annotations while supplying some new annotations to help with the cultural and language difficulties. I have read all of Hearn’s stories many times, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading them again in this one volume.