Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things - Lafcadio Hearn

In Japanese folklore, there is the belief that a disquieted spirit, one who has died still troubled by a deep resentment or anger toward those it considered immoral and malevolent ( such as enemies or murderers), will not let go of its attachment to the physical world, in a sense not having been extinguished or quelled by death; having taken such hostile feelings to the grave, will be unable to rest in peace, and therefore will re-emerge by supernatural means fueled with vengefulness.


Kwaidan or 'weird tales', is a collection of 20 gothic Japanese sketches written by Greek- born, Japanese emigrant Lafcadio Hearn. He created these stories from a mixture of Chinese and Japanese folklore retold over generations through both oral and literary traditions. Kwaidan, published in the same year of Hearn's death (1904), is set in Japan's Edo period (1603-1868) which Hearn renders expertly with vividness and authenticity.


Some of the tales are perhaps stranger and mysterious to the western reader than gruesome in content, as in the short sketch Jikininki - Man-eating Goblin: about a ravenous shape-shifting entity. A priest died having lived a selfish life with an appetite for material things, is reincarnated with an insatiable hunger for the morbid. His digressions in this infernal form is less than ecclesiastic, but one only hopes he says 'grace' before digging in.


Most of the stories tell of ghostly apparitions or reincarnations, of supernatural beings who have taken human form. The following are just two examples of longer pieces in Kwaidan, superbly adapted to film by Masaki Kobayashi in 1964.


The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hōïchi -


Hōïchi-the-Earless is a fantastic ghost tale built on historical events that took place 700 years prior at the Straits of Shimonoséki (Battle of Dan-no-ura), the last battle between the Heiké and Genji clans where the Heiké, along with their child emperor, were completely annihilated. The sea, the shore and all its creatures had become haunted, so a temple was built to appease the Heiké ghosts.
One evening Hōïchi, a blind lute player at the temple is commanded by a samurai ghost ( naive Hoïchi is unaware that the samurai is a spirit) to sing the ballad of the fallen Heiké. His singing so moves his supernatural audience that he is commanded daily to perform. When the temple priests hear of Hoïchi's daemonic encounters, they attempt to protect him with sutras written all over his body, but plans go grotesquely wrong.


Yuki-Onna -


'The Snow-Woman' is a haunting fantasy, beautifully told: Hearn's best known and most memorable story. Two woodcutters, Mosaku and Minokichi, caught in a snowstorm, take shelter in a vacant boatman’s hut. While Mosaku sleeps, Minokichi is awakened to the vision of a woman in white blowing the frosty breath of death on Mosaku, then moves her gaze to the frightened Minokichi. Yuki-Onna, in a moment of benevolence, spares his life but instructs him never to repeat what he has just witnessed or she will kill him. Many years later this threat comes back to haunt Minokichi in an eerie, chilling twist.


As a fan of Japanese goth, I heartily recommend Kwaidan - a quick, satisfying sampling both in written or movie version, to add spookiness to the season.