Hearn concerned himself with the macabre and supernatural throughout his life. At the age of thirteen, he wrote poetry about spirits and the rising up of the dead. During his apprenticeship as a journalist in New Orleans, Louisiana, he published a sketch (“A Dead Love,” 1879) about a girl who finds herself in front of her dead lover’s tomb without realizing he is interred within. When a flower emerges and blossoms instantaneously, she fails to recognize it as the incarnation of her former lover.
Hearn acknowledged the early literary influence of the East on his work by referring to the translation by Herbert Giles of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (1880). He admired Edgar Allan Poe for his combining of dreams and terror-provoking effects, particularly in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). He paid tribute to Hans Christian Andersen for his “magical simplicity” and “force of compression,” qualities evident in Hearn’s own story “Oshidori,” in which a hunter kills a male mandarin duck and its mate comes to berate him in a dream. When the hunter returns to the pond the next day, the female swims to him and tears open her own body with her beak. This and other stories in Kwaidan are notable for re-creating the atmosphere of ancient Japan along with sensations of mystery and horror.
The last three selections in the book, titled “Insect Studies,” treat the language of ants and the connections between butterflies and ghosts. Three of the stories from Kwaidan were incorporated by Masaki Kobayashi in his 1963 film of the same name.