Updated: Jan 25
I was not emotionally prepared for what I encountered within the pages of In Ghostly Japan.
I was only vaguely familiar with author Lafcadio Hearn before purchasing the book; all I really knew was that his writing had inspired Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, one of the most beautiful horror films ever committed to celluloid. Consequently, I expected something akin to that adaptation of his work: a rather formulaic anthology of spooky ghost stories and creepy folktales.
What I discovered instead was a collection of essays. But despite the dry, clinical, scholarly connotations carried by that label, Hearn’s observations about Japanese history and customs are anything but detached; even his more straightforward translations/summaries of popular myths and legends (“Furisode”, “Silkworms”, “A Passional Karma”) are inextricably intertwined with his own personal experiences. He frequently frames his narratives with brief anecdotes about visits to bustling marketplaces and secluded Buddhist shrines, where such evocative sensations as the lingering fragrance of incense and the gentle fluttering of a moth’s wings trigger reveries that veer off into delightfully unpredictable directions.
“Ululation”, for example, begins unassumingly enough: Hearn describes, in vivid detail, a mangy stray dog (informally “adopted” by his entire neighborhood) that has chosen his property as its territory—paying particular attention to its peculiar howl. Gradually, his mildly ironic speculation about what supernatural forces could possibly be causing the poor animal to vocalize its distress in such a haunting, mournful, tormented manner transitions into a genuinely poignant meditation on the inherent cruelty and savagery of nature, with an emphasis on the conflicting ways in which Western and Eastern philosophies address the persistent problem of human suffering.
Thus, “Ululation” offers a far more potent flavor of horror than Kwaidan’s chilling atmosphere: existential dread. Hearn, however, concludes the piece with a surprisingly uplifting coda, musing that the community will remember the dog long after it has died—commemorating it with a gravestone at the local temple and praying that it will eventually be reincarnated into a more favorable life. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, the beast can be interpreted as an inadvertent symbol for the writer himself: a perpetual outsider (abandoned by his family, adrift between countries) embraced by a foreign culture, celebrated to this day for the small role he played in helping to preserve the nation’s traditions during the rapid “modernization” of the Meiji Restoration.
Japan, in turn, has ensured that Hearn’s legacy continues to endure—and what a treasure that legacy is! To read In Ghostly Japan is to converse with its writer’s spirit, his distinctive voice and unique perspective resounding clearly through the mists of time.