“I have pledged myself to the worship of the Odd, the Queer, the Strange, the Exotic, the Monstrous.” – Lafcadio Hearn (letter to W. D. O’Connor, May 1884).
Boyd White & L. W. Currey
Since his death at age fifty-four, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has never received the critical attention or appreciation that his significant body of work deserves. Beloved by his Japanese students in the country he made his adopted home and arguably the single greatest Western interpreter of Japanese culture, Hearn has been dismissed by most critics and scholars as a second-tier author not worthy of serious consideration. His adherents have attributed such negligence to the itinerant life Hearn led, comprised of significant periods in Ireland, the United States, the West Indies, and Japan, all of which prevents him from being easily seen as writer belonging to any particular nation or culture. Primarily remembered for his kwaidan (“ghost stories” or “weird tales”), retellings of Japanese legends and folklore, Hearn’s style is sparse and lean, rooted in the oral tradition of the Japanese folktale as filtered through his work as a sensationalistic newspaper reporter, his own translations of Theophile Gautier and Guy de Maupassant, his love of Gothic literature, and the Irish fairy tales and ghost stories told to him by Catherine Ronane, his childhood nurse. As Jack Sullivan, a clear admirer of Hearn, has noted, “His cross-cultural influences may cause Hearn’s final resting place to be in literary limbo.”
Hearn’s most vocal champion, Paul A. Murray, contends, “Few writers have been so permeated by horror in their lives and work, and few horror writers have been blessed with Hearn’s literary ability … In his horror writing, Hearn was not concerned with achieving cheap thrills or titillation; it was rather a means of expanding the boundaries of experience.” Immersing himself in a culture that views elementals, ghosts, and goblins as a natural part of everyday reality, an accepted feature of the world in which we live and work, Hearn produced taught, terse highly polished stories that thrust his readers into a rich traditional of supernatural fiction that is still far too little known to most Western audiences, a mystic landscape populated by creatures both horrifically malignant and, at times, surprisingly benign.
In “The Legend of Yurei-Daki,” an angry Shinto god rips off the head of an innocent baby whose mother steals a collection box from a shrine, and in “Jikininki,” a priest is punished for his past sins by being reborn as a ghoul condemned to eat the flesh of the dead in a remote village. By contrast, the beautiful snow demon in “Yuki-Onna,” falls in love with a stranded youth in a blizzard, sparing him as long as he never reveals he has seen her, and the shark man in the “The Gratitude of the Samebito” weeps tears that turn into jewels that facilitate a mortal man marrying his true love. Hearn’s skill with such material is so great that in Japan he remains a cultural icon, an author often regarded as a Japanese writer even though he wrote entirely in English.
As Lloyd Currey’s Masters of Fantasy and Horror: Lafcadio Hearn reminds us, Hearn was much more, however, than just an accomplished writer of weird fiction. Selections such as An American Miscellany (1924) and Editorials (1926) emphasize how, as a 19th-centrury American journalist, Hearn should be as highly regarded as Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce. As a young reporter covering the police beat in Cincinnati, Hearn produced notable examples of early American true crime writing, such as “A Violent Cremation,” an account of the notorious Tanyard Murder, and “Gibbeted,” a somber depiction of an execution, both characterized by a keen eye for gruesome detail seemingly incongruous with Hearn’s sensitive nature. An outsider because of a disfiguring childhood eye injury that left him a painfully shy individual who viewed himself as a physical grotesque, Hearn quickly moved beyond mere newspaper sensationalism, identifying with individuals and cultures on the margins of society. His articles about the Bucktown and Levee neighborhoods of Cincinnati are among the few depictions of African-American life in a post-Civil War border city. Later, while living and working in New Orleans, Hearn continued in this vein, writing editorials against political corruption, child labor, lynching, and urban decay. New Orleans also provided Hearn with the opportunity for studying and writing about local Creole and Negro folklore, including voodoo, in a series of eerie sketches posthumously collected in several volumes, including Fantastics and Other Fancies (1914) and Creole Sketches (1924). Likewise, while Hearn did not publish any volumes of literary criticism during his lifetime, Mr. Currey’s inclusion of works such as Appreciations of Poetry (1916) and Some Strange English Literary Figures of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1927), which consist of verbatim transcripts from his students’ notebooks of his lectures while he served as chair of English Literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo, reveal that Hearn was, in fact, a fine critic. His lectures, as well as his correspondence, contain numerous insights into figures as diverse as the pre-Raphaelite and Romantic poets, Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, and Gustav Flaubert. Scholars and readers interested in Hearn’s ideas and opinions of fantastic literature need look no further than the author’s “‘Monk Lewis’ and the School of Horror and Mystery” or his seminal essay “Goblin Poetry.”
An eccentric genius of seeming contradictions, Hearn drank blood in the abattoirs of Cincinnati slaughterhouses when the craze for the “blood cure” swept the city, yet he deeply loved children, flowers, and animals, particularly birds, cats, and insects. The Masters of Fantasy and Horror: Lafcadio Hearn invites us to reconsider an author, who according to George F. Haas, “was a favorite of [Clark Ashton Smith’s] who had a complete set of his first editions.” From his seminal collection of ghost stories Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) to his sketches of modern Japanese life in “Out of the East”: Reveries and Studies in New Japan (1895) to posthumously published collections of his voluminous correspondence and journalism, Hearn’s work allows us to inhabit the unique perspective of a writer scholar Mary Gallagher lovingly characterizes as “an absolutely homeless storyteller, who dwelled long enough in the American South, the Caribbean, and Japan to be able to translate these worlds into words.”
View the selection of Lafcadio Hearn at my partner’s L. W. Currey’s website: