In praise of Lafcadio Hearn

There are a few things Japan and Scotland have in common, and one of them is a wealth of folklore related to the supernatural and monstrous. Classic versions of many of Japan’s ghostly tales were first written in English by a man whose nationality defies description, a restless spirit who finally found repose in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Hokusai’s comic take on the rokurokubi

This was Lafcadio Hearn, or, in his adopted land (which bestowed on him the ultimate honour of a Japanese name) Koizumi Yakumo. Hearn/Koizumi’s life reads like the plot of a melodrama: born on the Greek island of Lefkada in 1850, his father was an Irish surgeon in the British Army, his mother a young Greek woman, said to be a great beauty. A couple of years later the father left the boy and his mother and moved to Dublin. When Lafcadio was six Major Hearn brought his young family back to join him, then left them in Ireland while he went to serve in the Crimea. It’s hardly surprising that Lafacadio’s mother, a Greek Catholic with limited English, had problems adapting to life with a protestant Irish family. Homesick, she fled back to Greece, leaving the young boy in the care of his aunt.

To recount the full biography would take an essay in itself: suffice to say that via London, Ohio, New Orleans and Martinique; having experienced varying degrees of poverty, homelessness, journalistic success, failure, and illness, in 1890 Hearn eventually found his way to Japan, a country about which he had long dreamed. He took a job as a school teacher in Matsue, a coastal town in the southern part of Honshu, where he met and married a Japanese woman, Koizumi Setsu. She would become an invaluable aid, helping him learn the language, collect and translate Japanese folklore into the English prose style he had by now mastered.

Hearn’s output was prolific during the final fourteen years of his life, all of which he spent in Japan. However his most famous tales are in Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan containing around twenty separate stories. Some of them Hearn took from old Japanese sources; others he heard first-hand in conversation with local people. Almost all the tales are worthy of attention, and about six or seven possess real power that, should you ever read them, will make them stick in your memory for a very long time. Of these, my personal favourite is the one entitled Rokuro-Kubi.

To give a sketchy summary: five hundred years ago there lived a samurai whose master’s house came to ruin. He takes on the robes of a monk, changes his name to Kwairyo, and sets of on a long journey. In a few brief lines, Hearn paints the picture of an action hero who thinks nothing of sleeping by the roadside on a remote forested hillside. No sooner has Kwairyo lain down than a voice disturbs his rest: 

“What kind of a man can you be, good Sir, that you dare to lie down in such a place as this? … there are Haunters here – many of them. Are you not afraid of Hairy Things?”

The choice of words can hardly fail to bring a smile to your face; Hearn is a master of dialogue and much of the success of his tales is in their pleasing commingling of the comic and the grotesque. We are hardly surprised when this apparently kind stranger, having invited our hero back to his house, turns out to be the leader of a band of particularly vicious goblins known as Rokuro-Kubi. 

The unique characteristic of these creatures is that their heads can detach from their bodies at will. So it happens that the hero, waking up in the night, happens to look in on the room where his hosts are sleeping. 

“Very gently he pushed apart the sliding screens that separated his room from the main apartment; and he saw, by the light of the lantern, five recumbent bodies – without heads!”

The masterful structure of the sentence, with meticulous description building up to the final shocking revelation, shows Hearn’s genius at work. Spellbound, we follow Kwairyo into the bamboo grove behind the house, where he overhears voices…

Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads – all five of them – flitting about, and chatting as they flitted.

We can’t fail to be amused at the thought of these grotesque things conversing as they snack on worms and insects in the grove. Again the word choice and sentence structure is masterful. Space the lines and you have the rhythms of poetry:

Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads – all five of them – flitting about, and chatting as they flitted

All these skills would be for nought if the story didn’t hold together, but Hearn handles the plot elements with equal skill. Without giving too much away, the Rokuro-Kubi get their comeuppance, at the cost of the leader clamping its vice-like jaws onto the hero’s cloak. Unable to detach it, he rides into the nearby town with this hideous attachment dangling from his sleeve, and is promptly accused of murder. Fortunately, the Rokuro-Kubi have ‘certain red characters’ on the nape of their necks, and by pointing to these he is able to prove his innocence and make a fresh departure. The story finally fades out after Kwairyo passes the head on to a highway bandit who believes he can use it to profit from the fear it strikes in others: a suitably ironic metaphor for a master of handing on ghostly tales to future audiences, who might otherwise never have heard of them.

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