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Lafcadio Hearn’s Translated Japanese Ghost stories

Lafcadio Hearn’s Translated Japanese Ghost stories

I love a good classical ghost story. Some of my favorites are English ghost stories from the 1800 and 1900’s. But a good ghost story is not limited to just old British tales. Ghost stories are a phenomenon across all cultures and eras. Some cultures even had elaborate systems for telling ghost stories.

Lafcadio Hearn (aka Yakumo Koizumi) was born of Irish parents and had a difficult upbringing by most standards. He became a writer and journalist, but was captivated by Japanese culture that he experienced at the World Exposition in New Orleans. Shortly after, he traveled to Japan in 1890 at the age of 40. He soon made Japan his home, married, raised a family, and found continued success as a writer.

One of his favorite subjects was Japanese ghost stories. Japanese ghost stories are interesting because they are heavily influenced by Buddhist thought, and often carry a hint of moral elements. He collected and translated several works on the subject. Kwaidan is probably his most famous collection of ghost stories – stories which were even turned into a movie.

It turns out there are at least 3 different Lafcadio Haern museums/homes in Japan. Hopefully I’ll see them someday, but until then I’ll be happy just reading the stories.

Christmas Ghost Stories

Christmas Ghost Stories

The British have an intriguing history of telling ghost stories at Christmas. The most famous one is probably Dicken’s Christmas Carol with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas eve. The immensely long running play Woman in Black starts with the protagonist Arthur Kipps being asked by his children to tell a ghost story on Christmas eve.

Here’s a collection of wonderfully 70’s era BBC productions of traditional ghost stories from the likes of MR James, Dickens, etc. They hardly classify as what we would considered horror today, but are a wonderful look back into what scared and intrigued people 100 years ago. I recommend listening to audiobook versions to give them a fair shake. They were originally designed to be told out loud compared to produced into plays (which often mess up pacing/lack description of the experienced horror of the characters).

You can find other productions like Mr. Humphrey’s and His Inheritance. Full of epic 70’s experimental theatrics and music:

Update: Here’s an even bigger collection of videos that includes everything above and more.

Best Favorite Scary Stories for Fall

Best Favorite Scary Stories for Fall

One of my favorite pastimes is reading and listening to classic spooky stories. There’s no better time for curling up with a spooky story than a cold, fall evening in front of the fire.

Here’s a collection of my all-time favorite scary stories by the best readers I could find:

Scary-comedy

This is a unique group – and old stories of this genre are very heavy on dry British/deadpan humor and often require a little bit of understanding of the times in 1800’s England. I highly recommend.

Plays/Dramatizations

Good general scary classics channels on YouTube:

Books

Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories – Michael Cox, R.A. Gilbert

Playlists:

Links:

Scary frights and Lockdowns

Scary frights and Lockdowns

I love a good spooky story. With covid locking us all down, folks making scary experiences have gotten creative.

Psycho Clan – a group that creates immersive theatrical events – is making some interesting horror audio experiences in which you blindfold some friends, set up some simple props, and then guide them through the auditory experience. Looks like it could be some good fun!

Inspired by the classic ghost story “The Toll House” by W. W. Jacobs, you play Sam, a member of an intrepid group of friends who stubbornly insists on testing whether a house, notoriously known to be haunted, truly is… by spending the night in it!

More Spooky Tales for Fall and Cold Winter Nights

More Spooky Tales for Fall and Cold Winter Nights

While looking around for more great old-time ghost stories, I came across another great website collection of stories here. To avoid the risk of them disappearing, I copy them here (again) for your enjoyment.


Collections these stories come from for further reading:

  • Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1947)
  • M.R James: Collected Ghost Stories (1992)
  • The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (1992)
  • Gothic Short Stories (ed. David Blair) (2002)
  • The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (2006)
  • Ambrose Bierce: The Spook House (2008)
  • The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories (2008)
  • The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (2009)
  • Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories (2012)
  • Tales from the Dead of Night: Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories (2013)
The Gathering of 100 Tales

The Gathering of 100 Tales

Ghost stories exist in just about every culture of the world. You can learn a lot about a culture by the ghost stories they tell. Ghost stories, and particularly Japanese ghost stories have been very popular of late (The Ring, Ju-On, etc) but their origins go back as far as the oral traditions of each culture. Just as with Greek odysseys and ancient poems like Gilgamesh, ancient ghost stories provide amazing windows to the past and the strange of every culture.

During a recent adventure through Victorian era ghost stories, I also learned of an old ghost story telling tradition in Japanese culture. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会, lit., A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales) was a popular Buddhist-inspired ghost telling parlor game during the Edo period in Japan.  The exact origins are unknown, but it was believed to be first played amongst the samurai class as a test of courage. In Ogita Ansei‘s 1660 nursery tale “Otogi Monogatari” a version of the game was described in which the narrative tells of several young samurai telling tales in the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai fashion. In the tale, as one samurai finished the one-hundredth tale, he began to extinguish the candle when suddenly he sees a giant gnarled hand descend upon him from above. While some of the samurai cowered in fear, a swipe of his sword revealed the hand to be merely the shadow of a spider.

Setup

According to early texts, the tradition method went like this:

  • The game was to be carried out on the night of a new moon when the night is darkest without even moonlight. All light sources should be covered or extinguished.
  • The location should be the home of someone in the group in a selection of 3 neighboring rooms. The best configuration is if the rooms are arranged in an ‘L’ shape where one cannot see the room at the top of the L from the room at the bottom right of the L.
  • The participants gather in one of the end rooms with a few lanterns. The room next to that is to be pitch black.
  • The most secluded room has 100 lit candles or andon (traditional Japanese paper lanterns) and a writing desk with a mirror on top.
  • All dangerous items should be removed from the rooms (decorative swords/etc).
  • Each person is to wear a blue robe.

Play

  • The participants take turns telling 1 ghostly or supernatural story at a time. They should be of ghostly encounters, folkloric tales passed on by villagers who encountered various spirits, and the like. These tales became known as kaidan.
  • After each story is told, the teller gets up with a lantern wrapped with blue paper.
  • They walk alone through the dark room to the room lit with 100 candles/andon.
  • They extinguish one candle, look into the mirror on the table, then return to the story telling room.
  • Play proceeds like this with the most secluded room becoming darker and darker until the final story.
  • In some versions, only 99 stories are told and play stops until the sun rises to tell the final story.
  • In other versions you tell the final story. When you enter the lit room and extinguish the final candle while looking into the mirror – some spirit or image may be evoked.

While this might have started as a test of bravery for aristocratic warrior classes, it quickly spread to the working classes. As it gained widespread popularity in the 1600’s, people began scouring the countryside for mysterious tales and collected them into books. The stories also started merging ghostly vengeance with elements of Buddist karma. The collections and popularity of the game grew and is still deeply in the culture today.

Today

For those that have caught Japanese horror movies and popular Japanese anime/manga/literature, the influence of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai and the themes those stories created during that era is very clear. Some shows even have mock recreations or clear spinoffs of the very game.

In Japan, like many other cultures, there is the idea of Kimodameshi (きもだめし or 肝試しlit. “test one’s liver”).  These “tests of courage” involve a person/people exploring frightening, and potentially dangerous, places. Kimodameshi is usually played in the summer, in group activities such as school club trips or camping. At night, they visit scary places such as a cemetery, haunted house, or a forest path to carry out specific missions there.

Further Resources

While many of the stories might seem strange to us today, they are also very interesting and often some very similar characteristics as western ghost stories. I recommend picking up one of the many collections of kaidan/ghost stories from Japan and give them a read.

Here are 10 famous Japanese ghost stories to start your journey. See how many themes you recognize. Another great book is Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was an Irishman that had a colorful past, moved to Japan and researched ghost stories in the late 1800’s