Lafcadio Hearn Essay - Critical Essays


Lafcadio Hearn’s apprenticeship was in the translation of French works. In translating these works, he learned how to make the exotic and the bizarre evocative in a Latinate style redolent of fin-de-siècle decadence. To achieve this mannered effect, he would often make extensive use of thesauri and etymological dictionaries, but he would also go to the opposite extreme of relying on his own unconscious. By the time Some Chinese Ghosts was written, his style was artificial enough that he was criticized for it and thereafter learned to moderate it somewhat, but his model was never Hemingwayesque simplicity. Rather, he admired the way William Butler Yeats retold Irish folklore in a dreamlike manner, echoing French symbolism. The brevity of Hearn’s and Yeats’s tales keeps their mannerisms from being as distracting as they would be at novel length.

Hearn’s Irish and French models did not mean that he had nothing in common with American short narratives. His morbidity earned for him the nickname “The Raven,” because it was reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe; Hearn’s fascination with retelling old narratives was shared by other nineteenth century Americans, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Twice-Told Tales (1837, expanded 1842). More clearly than Hawthorne, however, Hearn adopted the traditional role of the storyteller, perpetuating what might otherwise be lost. A lifelong outsider, Hearn accepted his role as spokesman for the ghostly and exotic—what modernism excluded from the Occident. His success depended on his representing alien cultures in a form that the skeptical West could accept; thus, as mediator, he placed himself in a position in which he risked suspicion from both hemispheres.

Fantastics and Other Fancies

Although this collection was not published until after Hearn’s death, it contains his earliest, extant short fictions, most of which are in a genre he developed—brief, impressionistic sketches. Each presents a Liebestod (love/death) theme, softened as in a dream or in a story for children. A whimsically described, brave, female cat in “The Little Red Kitten” adopts a kitten; they die looking for each other and are thrown by chance on the same ashes. In “The Ghostly Kiss,” the narrator wishes to embrace the woman in front of him in a theater, even if he should die for it. When he succumbs to this temptation, she announces that the kiss has forged an eternal compact, and he finds himself alone in a graveyard. In “The Vision of the Dead Creole,” despite serpents, bats, and vampires, a lover opens the grave of his beloved and in his dying vision, the two of them become strangely mingled with the Virgin Mary. Designed for newspaper consumption, these stories are obviously popular literature, some owing much to Poe. However, Hearn’s stories are forged to create reverie, whereas Poe’s comparable ones elicit terror. Hearn himself deprecated these apprenticeship pieces, yet his fusing of journalistic conciseness with what he had learned from translating French literature produced a unique style.

Some Chinese Ghosts

In his preface, Hearn explains the...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)