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Paul Murray on Lafcadio Hearn

The Japanese horror writings, Kwaidan, of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) were the culmination of his life-long engagement with the spiritual and the supernatural. The emotional wrench of being abandoned by both parents, the horrific folk tales told by servants, together with precocious Gothic reading, induced nightmares during his Dublin childhood (1852-63) that remained vivid for the rest of his life.

Hearn’s childhood was marked with the imprint of three religions: the Greek Orthodoxy of his Ionian/Greek mother into which he was baptised, the vigorous Church of Ireland Protestantism of his Irish father and the Roman Catholicism of a great-aunt who became his guardian. Immersion in strict Roman Catholicism at an English boarding school (1863-67) precipitated a rupture with Christianity that would never heal. Hearn would, however, remain a deeply spiritual man who believed in the supernatural and regarded with contempt those who did not. Even in his turbulent youth as a journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio (1869-77), Hearn’s rejection of materialism in the United States and his engagement with those marginalised both by economic status and race was emphatic, even as he Gothicised his reportage of the murder and mayhem encountered on the police beat.

His transition to an editorialist and littérateur in New Orleans (1877-87) allowed him to express his free-floating imagination in more subjective terms. His translations from both French literature and an eclectic mix of exotic cultures set him on a path leading to his later voluminous Japanese output. Most of all, he began an engagement with Buddhism in New Orleans that would provide the religious context for his horror output in Japan.

In Two Years in the French West Indies (1890), reflecting the time he spent on Martinique (1887-89), Hearn created a literary form, mixing a pot-pourri of elements, including travelogue, analysis and horror, that would be the template of his Japanese books. Here he experienced a flashback to the horror of his childhood and quarried a zombie story from native folklore.

Hearn travelled on a journalistic assignment to Japan in 1890 and remained there for the final fourteen years of his life. He immersed himself in its thrilling culture, taught at both secondary and university levels, married and fathered four children. His wife, Setsuko, made an important contribution to his writings on Japan. His openness to religion was crucial to both the analysis that occupied his early years in Japan and the supernatural that dominated the output of his later years. The interest in Buddhism, developed in New Orleans, that he brought with him to Japan was supplemented early on by a fascination with the indigenous, animistic religion of Shintō, which was central to his penetrating study of the fundamentals of Japanese society.

Buddhism dominated his last years and provided the necessary raw material for his masterly Kwaidan, ghostly Japanese stories featuring interaction between the human and the supernatural, a mingling of peasant lore with the theology of a great religion. In his later books, he also recalled the horrific imaginings that had blighted his youth, some based on pagan folklore that coexisted incongruously with Irish Catholicism. There are parallels between Japanese and Irish folklore: the tale, for example, of Urashima Tarō, the fisher-boy transported to an undersea kingdom in The Dream of a Summer Day, is broadly similar to the Irish legend of Oisín, who also returns from an ageless, supernatural existence with equally disastrous results. In his Kwaidan, Hearn evokes magical, ghostly manifestations with great skill and economy, using a rich cast of characters ranging from women returning from the dead to wreak vengeance on errant husbands to a young monk being lured to his doom by ghostly, long-dead warriors.

Hearn’s mastery of the supernatural reached its zenith in Kwaidan (1904). Initially published in the United States for Anglophone audiences, his literary output was translated into Japanese in the decades after his death and exercised a profound influence on his adopted country. His work was included on the Japanese school curriculum and inspired movies, especially Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) and Kiki Sugino’s Yuki-onna (Snow Woman, 2016). The publication of his Japanese Ghost Stories in Penguin Classics (2019) conferred canonical status on Hearn. Hearn’s Kwaidan continues to thrill and terrify readers through a variety of media and a wide range of cultural contexts well over a century after his death.

Paul Murray’s biography, A Fantastic Journey: The Life and Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1993), published in the UK, the United States and Japan, won the Koizumi Yakumo Literary Prize in Japan (1995). He was the recipient of the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s Certificate of Commendation (1995) and the Gold Medal of the Ireland Japan Association (1999). He has edited three volumes of Hearn’s horror writings, Nightmare-Touch (2010), Kwaidan: Ghost Stories of Lafcadio Hearn (2015) and Penguin Classics’ Japanese Ghost Stories (2019) and introduced Hiroshi Watanabe’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (2019).