Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) is one of those authors whose personal biography is as fascinating as his fiction, born in Greece, moved to Ireland as a child, essentially abandoned in his youth, finding his way to America at 19, and earning gradual success as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hearn married an African-American woman, an ex-slave, and was fired by his paper for what was seen at the time as the immorality of that union. Prior to that he had developed a reputation as a sensational and audacious journalist, mostly from covering murder cases, so he was quickly snapped up by a rival paper. His first marriage was short lived, and he found his way to New Orleans, where he published a large number of articles and stories that contributed greatly to the lore of that town. He spent two years in the French West Indies as a news correspondent. And in 1890, he moved to Japan, where he achieved his greatest fame. Marrying a Japanese woman, he took a Japanese name and became a respected academic. His writings about Japan became a window on that culture for the West. There is still today a Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum and tours of Hearn’s old residence as tourist attractions in Matsue, on the northwest coast of Japan’s main island.
Some Chinese Ghosts has Hearn dabbling in Orientalism before he had ever experienced Asia first-hand. It is a slim volume of short stories, more fairy tales than ghost stories, drawn from various Asian sources that Hearn credits in his notes at the end of the book. The retelling of folk tales, myths, and fairy stories in a popular format for English readers was taking off about this time, such as Andrew Lang’s famous Fairy Books series starting in 1889. At their best, Hearn’s Chinese retellings are gentle, even beautiful, miniatures with just a hint of the exotic, managing to escape the stereotyped Orientalism that often comes from Western literature’s colonialist attitude. At their worst, particularly in the last two entries in this collection of six stories, the prose suffers from a Biblical pompousness of language as Hearn adopts a declamatory style and stuffs in so many Chinese names and words that he feels compelled to include a glossary as an appendix.
After moving to Japan, embracing Japan, becoming more Japanese than most any Westerner that preceded him, Hearn’s later Asian stories still bear a striking similarity to these stories that he wrote before he had had any personal experience of the Orient. Compare “Yuki-Onna” from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) to “The Story of Ming-Y” from Some Chinese Ghosts (1887). Both tales involve men who have intimate relationships with women who turn out to be ghosts, and both have a similar gently exotic aesthetic (without the colonialist Orientalism of other writers.) Granted, it is not impossible for an author to weave exotic stories of faraway places never visited. Edgar Rice Burroughs made a fortune (which he mostly squandered) off of Tarzan without ever having visited Africa. But Lafcadio Hearn was writing in 1887 like he was pre-destined to be Asian, and in 1904 he was writing as a man who had truly assimilated Asia into his identity.