Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

The next book I’ve read for this year’s R.I.P. XVII event is a fascinating and unusual collection of Japanese short stories, first published in 1904. The writer and translator Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece and raised in Ireland, before later settling in Japan where he began to collect Japanese legends and folktales which he translated into English. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things contains seventeen of these tales, as well as three essays on insects – one on butterflies, one on mosquitoes and one on ants. These mainly focus on the role of the insects in Japanese and Chinese mythology, art, drama and poetry and are full of intriguing little snippets of information.

The other seventeen pieces are a mixture of ghost stories, fairy tales and strange anecdotes, some of which Hearn translated from old Japanese texts and others which he heard on his travels through Japan and attempted to put into words himself. For example, in his introduction, Hearn states that the story of Yuki-onna, in which a beautiful young woman in white appears to two woodcutters during a snowstorm, was told to him by a farmer in Musashi Province. Although the Yuki-onna character dates back centuries, Hearn’s account is based on this verbal version and not translated from any other source.

The creepier stories in the book are the ones that explore the different kinds of ghosts and monsters that appear in Japanese myth, such as the ‘faceless ghosts’ or noppera-bō, the human-like goblins called rokurokubi with detachable floating heads and the corpse-eating spirits known as the jikininki or ‘hungry ghosts’. These are interspersed with more traditional ghost stories, involving spirits returning after death to look for a loved one or to search for a lost possession. There’s also a great story recounting the legend of Hoichi the Earless, a blind musician who is tricked into playing his biwa (lute) for an audience of ghosts in a cemetery every night. If you want to know what happens to his ears, you’ll have to read the story!

Not all of the stories are particularly spooky, though – some are just, as the title suggests, ‘studies of strange things’. Of a Mirror and a Bell is an account of the legend of the Mugen-Kane bell which was made by melting down old bronze mirrors. Hearn then goes on to explore the Japanese concept of nazoraeru, where one item can be used as a substitute for another, to bring about magical results. There’s also a very short but beautiful story about a pair of oshidori, or Mandarin ducks, and another I enjoyed is The Dream of Akinosuke, about a man who falls asleep and dreams that he is the ruler of his own island province. This story incorporates both butterflies and ants, which makes the insect essays at the end of the book feel more relevant!

Some of the stories are too short or incomplete to be very satisfying, but the collection as a whole is fascinating and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture and folklore. There’s also a Japanese film version from 1965, also titled Kwaidan, which I haven’t seen, but it seems to be very highly acclaimed and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Have you read this or any other book of Japanese ghost stories?

Book #4 read for R.I.P. XVII

11 thoughts on “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I found I was learning a lot about Japanese mythology and folklore from this book, particularly as Hearn adds footnotes to most of the stories, giving some extra context.

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