It is always refreshing to discover a British author from the late Victorian and Edwardian eras unencumbered by Christianity and its mono-centric repressions. If unquestioning atheism is too much to ask, then those highly sceptical agnostics have at least gone in their own, intriguingly divergent directions.
Algernon Blackwood, from youth, favoured a form of Eastern nature mysticism; John Barlas, Baudelairean revolutionary socialism, with Buddhism alone favoured by the writer of this three-volume collection. Except Lafcadio Hearn was only ever British in the colonial sense, his life cosmopolitan to an almost wayward degree.
Born of an Irish father and Grecian mother, David Stuart Davies’s usual informative introduction reveals a subsequent existence as a newspaperman in New Orleans, before moving on to Japan, aged forty, to study the culture, eventually settling to marry a local girl and change his name to ‘Yakumo Koizumi.’ (As if ‘Lafcadio’ wasn’t an original enough a choice for him, being pronounced Lefcadia after the Greek-Ionian island upon which he was born).
The stories making up these three very short - and very plotless - collections, are fables, related to the reader almost as anecdotes, as if around a public bar. This is just as well considering the Eastern names for places, times, ranks and reliquaries prompting footnotes at the bottom of the first two collections and so the inevitable pause every few pages. Stick with these, though, as they are not unduly long, certainly informative, while evoking mystical mind pictures that, with focused detail, open up a world of Eastern mythology a textbook three times the size could not inspire.
Like most fables, the construct in each is the same. A beautiful and mysterious young woman captures the heart of a brave young soldier (invariably a Samurai in this case) and gives him a life choice by which to prove his heart. By either reneging on a promise given or justifying it, is his fate sealed. In the former case, one of the lovers (invariably the woman) dies. In the latter, the male lover may yet die through proving his worth. There are rarely happy-endings.
Glimpses of what might today be considered ‘body horror’ (in truth, self-flagellation) accompanies the climaxes, but a large enough minority ensure you will not be left feeling too depressed. Of course, these are also morality tales. A few go against this grain.
‘Silkworms’ is inspired by the saying of a Chinese proverb told the author, who then quotes the proverb’s source. It is as groundbreaking and beautiful a short story as I have ever read.
‘Incense’ continues in this vein of being more article than tale, with its history and varied early uses.
‘A Passional Karma’ is another suggesting Hearn is quoting an experience from life, while, for a change, it is the woman in the tale it has to tell who has the last laugh.
Unlike other white Colonial writers of his day, Hearn himself is never judgemental, letting the material do the talking. Since he integrated, going ‘native,’ this lends modernity to what is a passively appreciative voice.