Friday, November 4, 2016

Kwaidan, Part 1: Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

During the summer of 2015 I delved into a book called Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn. First printed in 1904, it is a collection of Japanese ghost stories which the Irish author Hearn gathered during his years there. For all the time in my youth spent delving into folk tales and ghost stories from around the world, I'd never read a collection of Japanese ghost stories before - although I have some familiarity with concepts from those tales due to years of reading Usagi Yojimbo.

The kinds of ghosts in Hearn's collection are familiar enough to western audiences - they're basically dead people with unfinished business on Earth, usually of a vengeful sort. The real difference is the style of presentation which Hearn favoured - he told the stories the way people sitting around campfires might tell them. He would interrupt his stories to parenthetically explain some important backstory before continuing; he would build up to a seemingly-shocking climax, yet stop the story short to leave the ending to the audience's imagination. The style reminds me of my own favourite ghost story teller, M. R. James, who kept a very light tone even while describing the unholy horrors which would arise from musty cellars.

My personal favourite tale in Kwaidan is "Yuki-Onna," the story of a woodcutter who encounters a spirit of the snow which feasts on human blood. The woodcutter promises to never reveal what he saw, but many years later tells the story to his wife - with tragic results. It's a tale not unlike most fairy tales where a hero is admonished to keep a secret or keep out of a locked room. The difference, I suppose, is that the woodcutter is really made to seem worse than the creature itself - the creature may feast on human blood, but it also operates by a code of honour and is truly disappointed in the woodcutter for not doing likewise.

Anyone can read Kwaidan for free via Project Gutenberg. More thoughts about Kwaidan tomorrow!

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