Although we don’t really take much notice of Hallowe’en in our household, I know that many of my readers are a lot more enthusiastic, with some even taking the opportunity to try some books suited to the event. That’s where today’s selection might come in handy as my latest read is a perfect work for the end of October. It’s true that there’s a shortage of vampires and werewolves, but if you’re looking for something just that little bit creepy, then this might well be something you’ll enjoy 🙂
Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny (translated by Nancy H. Ross, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press) is a collection of stories from an early-twentieth-century writer of many talents. In his brief introduction, Edward Lipsett tells us of Okamoto’s successful career as a journalist, dramatist and crime fiction author, but this particular book focuses on a rather different aspect of his writing. Over a ten-year period in the 1920s and 1930s, Okamoto produced more than fifty horror stories, and Master of the Uncanny brings together a dozen of these eerie tales in an excellent edition.
The scene is set nicely by the first piece, ‘The Kiso Traveler’, which actually dates back to the late nineteenth century. Here a boy ‘enjoying’ a dismal holiday at an old inn during some rather inclement weather is treated to a strange story by a traveller passing through. The newcomer talks of an evening long ago when a man visited his hut in the mountains, asking for a little warmth and some company. The narrator himself has no issues with this, but for some reason his son is far less enamoured with the visitor, and he’s not the only one to voice his objections:
Yashichi tossed a rice ball to the dog. It didn’t roll outside but fell on the earthen floor of the entrance. The dog looked at the rice ball and stuck his head inside the door, but when he saw the traveler’s face, he began to bark crazily, bared his fangs, and went for the man.
‘The Kiso Traveler’, p.9 (Kurodahan Press, 2020)
There’s obviously something amiss here, but it’s not immediately clear quite what. Is it the visitor himself, or is there something else lurking in the shadows?
‘The Kiso Traveler’ contains several themes that are to reappear throughout the collection. One of these is the mysterious stranger trope, with several stories hinging on chance encounters with strange folk. In ‘The Monkey’s Eyes’, a man buys an intriguing-looking mask from a samurai down on his luck, only for the seller to have disappeared when he goes back to ask about its unusual properties. In ‘Crabs’, it’s a young boy who provides the food needed when an extra guest comes to dinner. Alas, they really should have just done without…
Another common approach is frame narratives, with several of the tales consisting of stories within stories. One example of this is the closing piece, ‘The Man Cursed by an Eel’, in which a man at a hot-spring inn hears an older woman talk about her husband, and his mysterious disappearance many years before. There’s also ‘The White-Haired Ghost’, a story in which a young law student spends time with a fellow resident at his Tokyo boarding room, eventually hearing of the rather disturbing reason for his repeated failure in final exams.
However, one way in which most of the stories differ from the opening piece is in the historical setting Okamoto chooses. ‘The Green Frog God’, for example, takes us back to Ming China, where a soldier suspicious of his wife comes to rue his hasty actions. Meanwhile, ‘The Clear-Water Well’, where the main action takes place in 1831, eventually traces the origin of the story to the twelfth-century Genpei war, blending historical drama, romance and gender-bending secrets into an intriguing tale.
Of course, the clearest connection between the stories is the way the writer creates a feeling of everything being slightly off-kilter without ever really resorting to real horror. ‘The Shadow-Stepping Game’, in which a young woman’s health suffers after her shadow is stepped on by children, and ‘The Snake Spirit’, a story featuring a man with a gift for tackling pesky serpents, are both excellent efforts that entertain and disturb without ever really revealing their secrets, while the seductive beggar in ‘The One-Legged Woman’ is a powerful creation, even if we’re not quite sure who, or what, she really is.
A couple of my favourite pieces manage to control this balance between the real and uncanny superbly. ‘Here Lies a Flute’ is an excellent story of a musical samurai determined to get his hands on an ancient instrument, no matter what the cost, whereas ‘Tone Crossing’ is a slightly more low-key affair in which a ferryman meets a blind man on a mission:
Travelers coming from Ōshu and Nikkō boarded a ferry there. Those coming from Ēdo arrived aboard a ferry from Kurihashi. The blind man questioned each of the travelers coming from both directions: “Is there a man named Nomura Hikoemon among you?”
‘Tone Crossing’, p.24
Who is Nomura? What does the blind man want of him? And, most importantly, what will he do if he finds him? You’re not really expecting me to tell you now, are you?
I read the whole collection (about 160 pages) in a day, and despite the similarities mentioned above, I never got bored of Okamoto’s tales. Ross’ work here is excellent, with her understated tone allowing the writer’s measured pacing to shine through – the stories never outstay their welcome, or take too long to get to the point. Interestingly, the opening piece, ‘The Kiso Traveler’, has been translated before (by Ginny Tapley Takemori) and is available in its different form as ‘The Kiso Wayfarer’ over at Words Without Borders. Tapley Takemori’s approach is slightly different, but it’ll give you a good idea of what to expect from the collection.
There’s nothing too gruesome about Master of the Uncanny, but it’s a great collection of intriguing stories all the same, and one I’d highly recommend. Kurodahan do a great job of bringing these lesser-known Japanese books to light and can be commended here for introducing Okamoto’s work to a modern Anglophone audience. It’s a book that’s perfect for the (northern) autumn, stories to be read as the days get shorter and the weather takes a turn for the worse. Should you read it on a dark, stormy night? Well, that’s up to you and how sensitive you are to the eerie and uncanny – pleasant dreams…