Preface: Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 2

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Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan

Volume 2 – Country Delights 【諸国の物語】


Preface: The Subtle Ambiance of Japanese Horror
by Robert WEINBERG


Writing about the first book in this series, Kaiki, Uncanny Tales from Japan, Tales of Old Edo, I called the collection "must reading for anyone interested in the history or development of horror and fantastic literature." With this second volume, Country Delights, my recommendation remains as enthusiastic as before. If anything, as a historian of modern supernatural fantasy and horror writing, my appreciation for the dark side of Japanese fiction continues to grow. Considering the rising popularity of Japanese horror films in the United States, one has to ask if an invasion of Japanese horror novels and short stories can be far behind? If so, no doubt this three-volume series will serve as a perfect guide for the uninitiated. And readers of these anthologies will be able to pick and choose among the various offerings from other publishers, recognizing the quality authors from these collections.

Country Delights is quite different from Tales of Old Edo. The stories in this volume are all from the modern and contemporary periods of Japanese literature, stretching from 1868 to the present day, while the fiction in Tales of Old Edo was from the Edo period (1603-1868). The world changed nearly overnight for Japan with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships in 1853. The opening of Japan to trade with the nations of the West swept through the country like a tidal wave. In a short time, religion, social structure, culture, architecture, and technology changed, and the symbols of the samurai—topknots and swords—were banned from everyday life. The ways of the West were everywhere.

Extremely important to the modern period was the formation of the Meiji government, whose main purpose was to modernize Japan and catch up with the powers of the West. This abrupt and forced modernization of the island civilization was accompanied by radical growth and the rejection of traditional culture. It was also a period in which some of the finest Japanese horror stories were written. The very best of these make up the contents of Country Delights.

During the Meiji period Japanese scholars investigated old beliefs and folklore, looking to explain and demystify religion. Of course, they never succeeded in wiping out religious beliefs and merely added another layer of believability to the legends and nightmares of ordinary people. Ghost stories were extremely popular, and a number of fine writers participated in writing them. Among the best were Yanagita Kunio, Natsume Sōseki, Izumi Kyōka, and Hirai Teiichi.

Strangely enough, Japanese ghost story writers followed much the same path as their American brethren in creating horror. As demonstrated by this volume, the ghost story specialists in Japan started out writing "subtle" stories of horror, then switched to writing "quiet horror," and then finally experimented with extremely violent, graphic horror. This progression was much the same in America.

In the 1950s, a group of young American horror writers experimented with a new style of fantasy fiction that could be labeled "subtle horror." The stories featured little blood and gore, were extremely well written, and concluded with a surprise ending that hit the reader right between the eyes. Chief among these writers were Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Not surprisingly, a few years later Rod Serling recruited both men to write for his new television show, "The Twilight Zone." Serling's show specialized in subtle horror and fantasy, and stories written in that style became known as "twilight zone fiction." Following the lead of these two horror masters, other weird fiction writers developed a second new style of horror writing which became known as "quiet horror." In these stories, the dense plot was hard to follow, motivations were often murky, and the horror was rarely seen and often difficult to comprehend. The leading writer of quiet horror was Charles Grant.

Much of Japanese horror fiction can be said to fall within the categories of subtle horror or quiet horror. While there is no shirking from blood and gore when blood and gore are necessary, writers do not use gallons of blood to paint the landscape grisly red. Monstrous doings usually take place off screen and are hinted at more than described in gruesome detail. The horrors in the stories are often understated or left for the reader to imagine. Ghost stories are no longer mere catalogues of terrible happenings, described in detail for the entertainment of the audience. Instead, the stories require some level of emotional involvement to make their point.

Subtle horror and quiet horror depended on the participation of the reader on many levels. Such stories conclude with horrifying shocks which are slowly but carefully developed throughout the tale. A good subtle horror story will often stay with the reader for weeks, a vivid memory undiminished by the passage of time.

The contents of this book equal those of the best horror and supernatural collections being published today in the United States, and with good reason, since the editor had nearly 150 years of Japanese fiction to choose from. Since Japanese horror fiction is virtually unknown in English-speaking countries, putting together an outstanding collection of ghost stories is not difficult. However, reading the introduction to this volume by series editor, Higashi Masao, makes it clear that he didn't settle for merely good stories but instead selected some of the very best fiction published during the modern and contemporary eras of Japanese writing. Without question, this book contains an all-star lineup of ghost and supernatural stories by some of the finest practitioners of such writing in the Far East.

The introduction to this volume by Higashi Masao is a wonderful description of the growing popularity of weird fiction in Japan. It is also an excellent survey of some of the best books by top writers in the genre. I highly recommend the introduction with one warning: It is best read after reading the rest of this book. As is often the case, the editor has a bad habit of revealing some of the major plot twists and turns in his selected stories. Too often, a wrong word or two regarding a piece of horror fiction is enough to negate the wonderful surprise constructed through pages and pages of a masterfully written story. That's definitely the case for the introduction with regard to several tales in this book. The editor is his own worst enemy. Read the introduction, but read it last.

While all of the stories in Country Delights are worth reading, I was particularly impressed by the novella "Midnight Encounters" by Hirai Teiichi and the short story "Reunion" by Takahashi Katsuhiko. Both deserve a much wider audience. One is a near-perfect example of the subtle horror story, while the other is an equally fine example of quiet horror. I'll leave it to the reader to determine which is which.

Robert Weinberg
Oak Forest, Illinois
September, 2010

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