“The Soul of the Great Bell” by Lafcadio Hearn

[spoiler alert]

LAFCADIO HEARN

Lafcadio Hearn may be the most interesting individual I write about this month, and that’s including fictional characters.  Born on the Greek island Lefkada to an Irish Sergeant Major and a Greek noblewoman, he was raised in Dublin.  At the age of 19 he moved to Cincinnati where he became a journalist.  He moved to New Orleans in his late 20s, where he spent ten years reporting on local culture, particularly Creole culture and voodoo religion.  In 1890 he moved to Japan, where he apparently found his life’s calling.  Interest in Japanese culture from an appropriative perspective was growing in the Occident and Hearn’s writings on this culture filled a vacuum.  He became something of an ‘insider’ to Japanese culture, teaching in Japan, taking on the name Koizumi Yakumo after marrying Koizumi Setsu and becoming nationalized, and this perspective allowed him to write about Japanese culture with a perspective uniquely multinational.  Interestingly, to this day he is considered by many to be something of a figure of Japanese nationalism; for a culture normally regarded as very xenophobic, turn-of-the-century Japan seems to have adopted him wholesale.

This isn’t to underplay his skills as a writer; his particular writings became so renowned through his skill at recording and conveying Japanese culture, treating it with respect without losing the sense of ‘Oriental’ otherness that so entertained Western culture.  In my reading I have more than once encountered offhand references to Hearn in other books, making me think that he was something of a household name in the first half of the century, a sort of cultural emissary of all things Japanese.  But not just Japanese—his most well-known efforts are his recordings of ghost stories.  These ghost story recordings have become such a canonical part of the representation of Japanese folk culture that when Masaki Kobayashi directed his visually-stunning ghost story anthology in 1965, he named it Kwaidan after Hearn’s collection of ghost stories, rather than Kaidan, the more phonetic rendering of the word for ghost story.  It’s fortunate that Japanese culture so wholesale adopted him; this avoids the embarrassment of an extranational Brothers Grimm for Japan.

Unfortunately, we aren’t looking at Hearn’s Kwaidan, an excellent book that I read last year around this time; we’re looking at the much shorter Some Chinese Ghosts.  I don’t know if Hearn is less comfortable writing about Chinese culture (full disclosure: I’m certainly less comfortable, since I’ve been studying Japanese culture for years, but am nearly totally oblivious about Chinese culture) or he was just off his game when he put this together, but this collection is significantly less interesting and less inspired.  It’s very short—only six tales—and yet manages to be quite repetitive.  Gone are fascinating stories like the headless or shapeshifting ghosts of Kwaidan; the spiritual presence here is subtler in a more boring fashion.  That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable book, particularly at its short length, but after Kwaidan it’s a definite disappointment.  So let’s look at the first story of the collection and see what a Chinese ghost story (as Hearn presents it) looks like.

THE SOUL OF THE GREAT BELL

[note: as I'm totally unfamiliar with the language, I will be using the romanizations Hearn gives]

Hearn loves to jump into it with descriptive language that is almost a prose poem, and he does that here:

“The water-clock marks the hour in the Ta-chung sz‘, —in the Tower of the Great Bell: now the mallet is lifted to smite the lips of the metal monster, —the vast lips inscribed with Buddhist texts from the sacred Fa-hwa-King, from the chapters of the holy Ling-yen-King!  Hear the great bell responding!—how mighty her voice, though tongueless!—KO-NGAI!

The opening goes on like this for a while.  Some people might find this kind of language tedious, but the vigor really captures me, and I think it’s easy to see how Hearn enraptured Western audiences with his retellings.  He goes on to describe how the bell rings out Ko-Ngai and Hiai for a page, and only then do we get the introduction; as is to be expected, “this is the story of the great bell in the Ta-chung sz’.”

Five hundred years ago, an emperor of the Ming dynasty “commanded the worthy official Kouan-Yu that he should have a bell made of such size that the sound thereof might be heard for one hundred li.  And he further ordained that the voice of the bell should be strengthened with brass, and deepened with gold, and sweetened with silver” as well as engravings and locations.  Kouan-Yu is a skilled and devoted worker, and he does everything as it should be done to produce such a desired result, but, alas, “when the metal had been cast, and the earthen mould separated from the glowing casting, it was discovered that, despite their great labor and ceaseless care, the result was void of worth; for the metals had rebelled one against the other.”  Kouan-Yu tries again, but again “the metals obstinately refused to blend one with the other” and this time the Emperor gets pissed and sends a messenger to Kouan-Yu to let him know he has one more shot—or it’s his head.

“Now, Kouan-Yu had a daughter of dazzling loveliness, whose name—Ko-Ngai—was ever in the mouths of poets, and whose heart was even more beautiful than her face.”  As you would expect, she finds out about the message from the Emperor and goes to an astrologer for advice.  The astrologer replies, “Gold and brass will never meet in wedlock, silver and iron never embrace, until the flesh of a maiden be melted in the crucible; until the blood of a virgin be mixed with the metals in their fusion.”

So on the day of the third casting is to be done, Ko-Ngai calls out “For thy sake, O my Father!” and jumps “into the white flood of metal” and disappears in the flames.  Her father is horrified but there is nothing he can do.  “And the serving-woman of Ko-Ngai, dizzy and speechless for pain, stood before the furnace, still holding in her hands a shoe, a tiny, dainty shoe, with embroidery of pearls and flowers,—the shoe of her beautiful mistress that was.  For she had sought to grasp Ko-Ngai by the foot as she leaped, but had only been able to clutch the shoe, and the pretty shoe came off in her hand; and she continued to stare at it like one gone mad.”

I love the details here; whether from the original tale or Hearn’s retelling I don’t know, but it casts the mythical act of self-sacrifice into a real-world context, where people react in genuine shock and horror at this person who has just flung herself into molten metal.  Yet despite the realistic psychology, there is no realistic melting body; it has disappeared in the metal, which now “seemed purer and whiter than before.”  The supernatural, with its mythical logic, encounters the realistic psychology of the characters and they must boy before it; when the casting is made, it is “found that the bell was beautiful to look upon, and perfect in form, and wonderful in color above all other bells.”  And the sound the bell rings out is “like some vast voice uttering a name, a woman’s name,—the name of Ko-Ngai!”

Yet, between the strokes, “there is a long low moaning heard” that sounds like “Hiai!” and “all the Chinese mothers in all the many-colored ways of Pe-king whisper to their little ones: ‘Listen! that is Ko-Ngai crying for her shoe!‘”

I’m not sure what to make of this strange detail, but to me it definitely tempers the overall celebratory message of filial piety.  Even in incorporeal form, or a differently-corporeal form, Ko-Ngai is finally caught up by a concern of the body, brought about by one that sought to prevent harm to her.  It’s a very strange addendum.

Overall, I did really like the story, particularly Hearn’s presentation of it.  The problem is that it’s a story that I’ve heard before, a lot, the self-sacrifice for filial piety.  Variations on this are prominent in two of the other stories in the collection and present in more.  I have to wonder why Hearn couldn’t have selected more intriguing, interesting stories—in the preface he says he “sought especially for weird beauty” and that is to some degree present in all the stories.  The other problem, not so much present in this story, is that Hearn’s manner of writing can make the presentation unnecessarily complex, especially when he feels the need for a grocery-list style presentation of elements of Buddhism, or types of porcelains.  I give this story an 8/10, and an overall recommendation for Hearn, but please start with Kwaidan or one of his other collections of Japanese ghost stories (I haven’t read In Ghostly Japan but I’ve heard it’s quite good) and then, if you want more, move on to Some Chinese Ghosts.  It’s all in the public domain, so if you’re curious check it out on Project Gutenberg or LibriVox, or if you want pick up the nice Tuttle editions (I’m not a fan of the Dover edition—reminds me too much of bad experiences with Dover Thrift Editions).

Oh, one last thing: you may have noticed that this was not, in fact, a horrifying story, or anything particularly close to horror, aside from having to do with the supernatural and that one creepy detail about the shoe.  The more I do these readings, the more it appears to me that horror is a very nebulous category, but in fiction it tends to have a broad range, being not just the absolutely horrifying, but the eerie, unexplainable, and even just generally supernatural.  If I could describe one thing that seems to define all these stories, from Hearn’s ‘weird beauty’ to the gruesome realism of Lansdale’s crime drama, it seems to be a sense that two worlds–the rational (though not necessarily secular) world we know and something else, whether it be a world of violence, of racism, of supernatural vengeance, of underground goddesses or corn gods.  Horror is the place where two seemingly independent and incommensurable paths suddenly and violently intersect.  For me, Hearn’s tale is a horror story.  The original tale might not have been, but that detail of the shoe, whether added by Hearn or part of the original tale, shows the moment when the rational world intersects with supernatural methods.

Tomorrow we look at Algernon Blackwood to see which is more terrifying: his ghosts, or his overwriting.

All quotations from Some Chinese Ghosts by Lafcadio Hearn.
Kwaidan copyright Toho Company Ltd 1964.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews

3 responses to ““The Soul of the Great Bell” by Lafcadio Hearn

  1. THAT ISTORY IS VERY NICE

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