Classic Review: Kwaidan

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There’s no doubt that weird fiction easily bears comparison to the folk tale. I imagine that many readers and writers of weird fiction developed their initial attraction to the more unsettling dimensions of literary creation by way of a particularly well-told folk tale. I vividly remember my own initial tinge of the uncanny gleaned from campfire ghost stories, and any child who pursued fairy tales from their whitewashed Disney iterations into the tomes of Grimm certainly experienced a similar rending of the veil (today there’s Creepypasta in lieu of the campfire yarn—one must admire the ghost tale’s tenacity).

What seems to lend the folk or fairy tale a certain openness to the “weird” is its dreamlike fluidity. Objects undergo outrageous transformations seamlessly in the haunted space of suspended causality. The inanimate realm of the fork and spoon can become the sudden locus of andromorphic relationship and no one suspects foul play. Boundaries aren’t so firm here, allowing characters to remain subject to the intercession of the archetype: the witch’s cabin in the woods, the living dead family cut off from civilization, beautiful ghosts that attach themselves to wandering heros only to become the agent of their unmaking.

All of these elements are present in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn’s magnificent collection of Japanese weird fiction. Hearn may not have obtained the status of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, or Clark Ashton Smith in what is typically conceived of as the pantheon of weird fiction. This isn’t for a lack of merit, even if much of Hearn’s work here was translated from Japanese texts. If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t talk more about Hearn because what transpires in these pages feels even weirder than the classic weird tale, an alien element not entirely due to the stories’ context external to the Eurocentrism common to weird fiction. The stories are short, hallucinogenic, and rooted firmly within the realm of the folk tale. Most importantly, they frequently obtain the chilling, uncanny depths that only the best weird fiction evokes in the reader.

Much like in medieval romances, cottages dot the landscape, small pockets of humanity abandoned by the forward thrust of civilization. Danger resides in these remote locales, even if they are temporarily shrouded in an appearance of beauty or hospitality. They are areas of magical transformation, thresholds between our world and the strange and often maleficent astral land beyond. In “Jikininki,” a Zen priest who has lost his way stumbles across a remote dwelling. The inhabitant, also a priest, refuses the traveler shelter, directing him to a nearby village instead. When he reaches the village, he obtains lodging in a house that happens to hold the corpse of a recently departed family member. The villagers warn the traveler against staying the night, citing an ancient local custom that requires abandoning the house and body at nightfall. The priest firmly adheres to his occupational role, offering to perform the pre-burial rites on the corpse in the family’s absence. Happily, they leave him to his duties. Under the shadow of darkness, an amorphous shadow fills the hut, consuming the body. The priest departs in the morning, finding his way back to the remote shack of the priest who directed him to the village the night before.There, he discovers that the inhabitant was the amorphous, flesh eating shadow, an undead jikininki cursed to repay a lifetime of greed.

Many of the stories in Kwaidan play develop in this simple, matter-of-fact progression, likewise delving into territory all the more unsettling for its lack of commentary or justification and all the more chilling for the ease of Hearn’s style. In the story above, the unexpected presence of the jikininki, described eerily as a noiseless “Shape, vague and mast,” is left sufficiently vague and otherworldly to maintain the aura of mystery a lesser writer would sacrifice for the sake of a concrete image. If this points to an aspect of Hearn’s work I admire, I’d call it taste. Hearn never appears to exploit his subject, letting it speak for itself in its understated remoteness, its glacial calm in the face of a metaphysics that accommodates, aside from a host of otherworldly beasts and goblins, current lives that fulfill the bloody karma of the past. Kwaidan is a haunted book, full of ghosts of history and ghosts of something more terrible still, something beyond karma and restlessly clawing through the holes in reality beyond which we hear the moan of a cold, cosmic wind.

In 1964, two of the stories from Kwaidan were combined with others from Hearn’s work to produce the titular classic of Japanese horror film (which I’ve written about on this site before). Although it remains a masterpiece in its own right, don’t expect the same slow, plodding pace from these stories. Readers should expect a similar reliance on color, however–the world of weird fiction isn’t always gray after all (see Jeff VanderMeer’s work, which I expect to write about in this segment one day). Hearn’s work is brilliant, unique, and absolutely essential for any reader looking to broaden their weird horizons.

Verdict: deserves way more hype!

by Justin A. Burnett

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