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Review of Kwaidan
Originally compiled by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904, Kwaidan represents an effort to publish traditional Japanese tales and folklore to a Western audience largely unfamiliar with any Asian literature. More than a dozen supernatural stories comprise the bulk of the book along with some “insect studies,” which are essentially essays explaining the literary and cultural significance of the insects in question. Nearly all of the stories contain ghosts or goblins or similarly frightening creatures, with several having roots in Chinese stories from the Asian mainland. In his introduction, Hearn explains that many of these tales come from Japanese books, though “Yuki-Onna,” was told to him by a farmer, relating a legend from his hometown.
Though the setting and customs will be foreign to many Western readers, the fear and surprise of the stories is universal. Given the exotic location and remoteness in time, Kwaidan can be seen as a cousin effort to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, rendering real places as the setting of magical and often frightening stories. The tales of Kwaidan may have a different location from traditional Western fairy tales, but they have the same heart.
As with many ghost stories, several of the accounts in Kwaidan contain a shocking turn or discovery. “Diplomacy,” and “Yuki-Onna,” being central examples, with the disaster of the latter brought on by the protagonist’s own action in not keeping a secret. “Jikininki,” “Mujina,” and “Rokuro-Kubi,” have similar surprise turns and feature monstrous creatures all busy frightening people or eating them; being devoured seems to be a persistent fear across many of the stories. All of these tales come across as classic “campfire” stories that endure and are retold because of their ability to shock with twists and grotesque imagery.
Other stories trade more on a building sense of dread. “The Story of Mimi-nashi-Hōïchi,” and “A Dead Secret,” both play to this kind of horror by letting tension and mystery mount across the whole story, making the reader fear for the safety of the protagonist, especially with the former because the protagonist is blind and unaware of the danger in which he finds himself. “Jiu-Roku-Zakura” is slightly different in that the emotion it evokes is not so much dread but melancholy.
To go with the stories, the Fall River edition of Kwaidan is full of traditional Japanese paintings and woodcuts from The Bridgeman Art Library, Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas, and the Library of Congress along others. Even when the art isn’t directly related to the stories, it always evokes the same mood, which is important for keeping the reader in the right frame of mind. Also, even a casual examination of the artwork will show readers the continuity in Japanese horror from previous times to contemporary ones, in that the imagery of some paintings will be familiar in spirit to anyone who has seen Japanese horror movies like Ju-on or Ringu.
Studies of Strange Things
Kwaidan represents a good entry point for anyone interested in Japanese folklore. The stories are generally well presented, though the convention of many is to have an opening paragraph that locates the setting to particular towns and provinces, which will be of no value to anyone lacking familiarity with the geography of Japan. None of the stories present enough narrative complexity to fluster readers generally unfamiliar with writing conventions from Asia. The essence of every story, however, becomes apparent, for as H. P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” and the stories in Kwaidan endure because they reach for that fear.
Hearn, Lafcadio, ed. Kwaidan: Japanese Ghost Stories. New York: Fall River, 2010.
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© 2015 Seth Tomko