“First published in 1776, the nine gothic tales in this collection are Japan’s finest and most celebrated examples of the literature of the occult. They subtly merge the world of reason with the realm of the uncanny and exemplify the period’s fascination with the strange and the grotesque.” Quote from the front flap of the book.
These nine tales of ghosts, demons and spirits range from the mild ghost stories involving civil conversations with entities that just happen to be ghosts to the truly horrific involving tenacious demons and cannibalism. In general my favorite stories in this collection were the more sensational ones but I also really enjoyed one that wasn’t scary at all.
The Carp of My Dreams was simply a lovely story with a hint of the supernatural. A monk likes to paint carp and spends many hours studying them in the lake and painting them. He becomes ill and in his delirium dreams that he is a carp swimming in the lake, or is it a dream? He recovers from that illness and lives a full life. When he knows the end is near he takes all the carp paintings to the lake and releases the carp which swim off the paper and into the lake. It reminded me of something Borges could have written. I didn’t find anything gothic about it but I certainly enjoyed it.
I also really enjoyed the Reed-Choked House about a peasant that goes off to the capital to attempt to become a merchant but cannot return home because of civil unrest. Six years later he finally returns home and finds his home unchanged and his wife dutifully waiting for him. He awakes the next morning. “Feeling something cold dripping on his face, he opened his eyes, thinking that rain was seeping in: the roof had been torn off by the wind, and he could see the waning moon lingering dimly in the sky. The house had lost its shutters. Reeds and plumed grasses grew tall through gaps in the decaying floorboards, and the morning dew dripped from them, saturating his sleeves. The walls were draped with ivy and arrowroot; the garden buried in creepers - even though fall had not come yet, the house was a wild autumn moor.” He finally realizes that his wife is long dead.
In two other stories the women are not such benign ghosts. In the Kibitsu Cauldron a husband runs off with a prostitute. Instead of waiting for him to return the wife becomes an angry spirit, kills the prostitute and gets revenge on her husband. In A Serpent’s Lust a handsome young man is seduced by a beautiful serpent demon. Although he eventually catches on that she is not a young lady all his attempts to escape her and live a normal life are to no avail. These are two of my favorite stories in the collection but make me wonder a little about the author’s relationship with women.
In the Blue Hood an abbot at a monastery becomes infatuated with a beautiful young servant boy. When the boy becomes ill and dies the abbot is driven mad, becomes a demon and terrorizes the nearby village by digging up graves and eating the corpses. A traveling priest is able to help the village and the abbot attain peace. These are just my favorite tales but I did enjoy all of the them.
The book itself has a lengthy introduction and each story has its own introduction and contains numerous footnotes and endnotes. I found that what worked best for me was to read each story straight through without all the additional material as a simple gothic tale. I don’t think it is necessary to read anything but the tales themselves to enjoy them as stories. Simply because I was interested, I then went back and read it again with all the supplemental information which certainly added another dimension to the work. The supplemental information was exhaustive and while much of it was way more information then a casual reader would need, much of it was really fascinating. For example, the homosexual overtones of the Chrysanthemum Vow totally escaped me until I read the supplemental material. As it has been a long time since I took Japanese history classes in college I had forgotten how important a role Chinese culture played in the development of Japanese culture. I found the comparisons to No theater interesting. I enjoyed the supplemental material but if you want to simply read it as a collection of gothic tales that works too.