Two new editions of Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese short stories


Trans-culturalism is personified in the life and career of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).

He was born on the Ionian island of Lefkada, where legend has it that the poet Sappho jumped from a cliff after rejection by her lover Phaon; his Irish father and Greek mother named him after the island. After a short time together in Lefkada his parents both exited his life for ever (his father deployed to India and his mother choosing to remain in Greece), and Lafcadio was sent to live with a wealthy great-aunt, first in Ireland and then in England. At nineteen he’d had enough of, among his great-aunt’s other petty cruelties, being locked by himself in dark rooms, terrified by hellfire and damnation threats as a child, so he took off for what he hoped would be greener pastures in the United States. There he worked first as a journalist in Cincinnati (where he first encountered Buddhism), then on to New Orleans, after which (1887) he shipped to the French West Indies, continuing his career as a journalist and writer.

In 1890, he was sent by Harper’s to Japan, the move which really changed his life and which would give him his (mostly posthumous) fame as a writer. Hearn would go on to marry a Japanese woman, have a family, become a Japanese subject and change his name to Koizumi Yakumo. Andrei Codrescu’s book reproduces a photograph of “Koizumi” in full Japanese dress, the posture rather self-consciously stiff and a somewhat sheepish look on his face.

Japanese ghosts are different and somewhat more complicated than their Western counterparts.

These two books of Hearn’s stories can be seen as complementing each other, even though there is some repetition in their contents. Japanese Tales is drawn from a number of Hearn’s collections of stories, whilst Japanese Ghost Stories presents only tales of the supernatural. Both are heavily reliant on Hearn’s extensive knowledge of Japanese folklore, and the ghost stories have, it turns out, a connection not just with Japanese culture but with Hearn’s memories and dreams from the house of his great-aunt, which provided him with the tools for creating terror and apprehension as he wrote.

If readers want to see the range of Hearn’s interest in Japanese storytelling, then Codrescu’s edition amply demonstrates the range of Hearn’s interest in Japanese storytelling. There are, in addition to ghost stories, tales of lost loves, feudal loyalty and the contrast between appearance and reality. Murray, on the other hand, presents readers with a volume exclusively dedicated to stories of the supernatural and its terrors, although it must be noted that, as in Western ghost stories, not all the spirits are evil or demonic. It would be difficult to advise readers which book to choose, especially if Lafcadio Hearn’s name was unfamiliar, so at the outset I would thoroughly recommend both of them. Codrescu and Murray provide ample and informative introductions, with Murray being particularly useful for the understanding of Japanese ghosts, who are not like the ones we might read about in, say, the works of MR James or Edith Wharton.

Codrescu and Murray (who gives a useful chronology) both provide biographical information, but interested readers should read one of a number of full biographies; one of the earliest (1910) was by Yonejiro Noguchi, subject of a recent review, entitled Lafcadio Hearn in Japan; With Mrs Hearn’s Reminiscences, but there are several good modern ones. Lafcadio Hearn’s output of stories is considerable, which gives editors a great deal of material from which to choose. In Ghostly Japan (1899) and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) were obviously excellent sources for Murray’s compendium of ghost stories, but some of these also appear in other collections. Codrescu draws extensively on Kwaidan, as well as from Shadowings (1900) and A Japanese Miscellany: Strange Stories, Folklore Gleanings, Studies Here and There (1901) plus one from Out of the East: Reveries and Studies in New Japan (1897).


Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn, Andrei Codrescu (ed) (Princeton University Press, July 2019)
Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn, Andrei Codrescu (ed) (Princeton University Press, July 2019)

Japanese ghosts, as we have noted, are different and somewhat more complicated than their Western counterparts, which means that when Hearn retells the stories, he has to make them accessible. As Codrescu tells us,


The ghostly world, the activities of the dead, the influence of the dead on the living, the complex Buddhist teachings about death. . .are most present in his rendering of Japanese fairy tales, where he found the stories in the abstract Buddhist concepts.


And, as Murray explains it, there was more than that:


Hearn believed that Buddhism’s status as the official state religion was due to its ‘absorption and expansion of the earlier Shintō worship of many gods, ghosts and goblins’ … The yūrei of Japanese kwaidan folklore, corresponding to the western idea of ghosts, are the spirits of those whose manner of death precludes them from a peaceful union with their ancestors, and they can return to the human world.


Hearn’s readers, who would have been mostly Americans (his publishers were American), likely knew little about Buddhism and even less about Shintō, which presented Hearn with a difficulty in transmitting the stories to them. Like Codrescu, Murray sees Buddhism as the “common denominator” in the spirituality behind the stories, but their Japanese “flavor”, such as might be found in a concept such as reincarnation, was skilfully woven by Hearn in with more familiar western tropes such as vampires, shape-shifters and love relationships (not always bad) between ghosts and humans, all of which are also present in Japanese stories.

The effectiveness of Hearn’s retelling of the stories, then, meant that readers did not need a profound knowledge of esoteric Buddhist doctrines or of Shintō, but could be enthralled by stories such as that of the luckless ex-husband in “The Corpse-Rider”, who can only exorcise the violent spirit of his divorced wife by jumping onto her back and riding her, or “Rokuro-kubi” in which goblins with bristling hair and gnashing teeth come out at night and cause terror, reminiscent, as Murray notes, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

As both Murray and Codrescu note, moreover, Hearn’s stories are often infused, consciously or subconsciously, by what he had experienced as a child and young boy in Ireland. Hearn’s subsequent peripatetic life also made its impact felt on the stories; as Codrescu puts it, “he had been tossed like a coin from one reality to another, and he made the ghost-world one of his lives.” One might say that after he changed his name from Hearn to Koizumi his outlook on life became a combination of the two identities, which may have helped him present the Japanese stories in an accessible way to western readers.

Hearn’s stories seem to have become one of his weapons in a war against Western materialism.

Japanese Ghost Storie , Lafcadio Hearn, Paul Murray (ed, intro) (Penguin, September 2019)
Japanese Ghost Stories, Lafcadio Hearn, Paul Murray (ed, intro) (Penguin, September 2019)

Thus we find Hearn formulating a particular view of Japanese spirituality based largely on the ghost stories to which his wife Setsu introduced him, combined with Buddhism and childhood experiences. Murray quotes extensively from Setsu’s memorial of her husband; at one point, for example, she related how she would “on dreary nights … tell him ghost stories, having lowered the wick of the lamp on purpose,” and Hearn “listened to my tales with bated breath and a terrified air.”

Hearn obviously took the stories seriously, and in the end they seem to have become one of his weapons in a war against Western materialism, which, like several other writers both Japanese and Western, he saw as encroaching upon Japanese culture and as a result destroying its spiritual dimension. Murray includes a story called “The Eternal Haunter”, in which the unnamed narrator purchases a print depicting a tree-spirit, “a dream as might haunt the slumbers of Far-Eastern youth,” and which to him represents “the Impossible”. Tellingly he adds later, “Perhaps—for it happens to some of us—you may have seen this haunter, in dreams of the night, even in childhood.” Hearn strongly recommends the “Impossible” as a kind of spiritual archetype in Japanese culture. “I hold,” he says emphatically,


that the Impossible bears a much closer relation to fact than does most of what we call the real and the commonplace.


Its “truth,” he asserts,


masked and veiled perhaps, but eternal. Now to me this Japanese dream is true—true, at least, as human love is.


A tree-spirit also features in “The Story of Aoyagi” (in both books), but this time a young man unwittingly marries her! That is, of course, counter to Western notions of empirical science. One is reminded here, though, of Tertullian’s dictum “credo, quia impossibile” (I believe [it] because [it’s] impossible), so such notions did once exist in the Western world!


It’s difficult, as I’ve said, to recommend one of these collections over the other. They both contain a wide selection of stories, and both have excellent, lively and comprehensive introductions. Codrescu’s book is more general, covering fairy-tales as well as ghost stories, but even here, as he points out, the fairy-tales are “stark, and do not resemble the fairy-tales produced by nineteenth-century writers in Europe,” so Hearn judiciously keeps the Japanese flavor, even when, as he very occasionally did, he added more familiar elements from European fairy-tales.

Both books contain black-and-white illustrations, which add to the “Japanese-ness” of the tales, although the quality of reproduction in both books could have been  better.

It’s good to see Hearn getting the attention he deserves, and both these books are a fitting tribute to his talents, as well as those demonstrated by two skillful and sensitive editors in their excellent introductions.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.