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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

Chilling Japanese tales just the thing for broiling August


KAIKI: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Volume 2: Country Delights. Kurodahan Press, 2010, 286 pp., $16 (paper)

Kaiki, according to my Japanese-English dictionary, means "grotesque; bizarre; mysterious; strange." And since August is the traditional time in Japan for telling hair-raising tales, this anthology — the second in a three-volume set from Fukuoka-based Kurodahan Press — may provide readers with some welcome relief from the summer heat by causing chills to run down their spines.

The book features nine stories of various lengths including "The Kudan's Mother," by renowned science fiction author Sakyo Komatsu, who passed away July 26 at age 80, and also contains one illustrated graphic story, "Only Child," by Ayuko Akiyama.

Nearly one-third of the book is taken up by Brian Watson's translation of Tei'ichi Hirai's novelette "Midnight Encounters," originally published in 1960. The protagonist, a high school teacher, travels to a remote part of Niigata Prefecture to research the archives of an influential local family. After several days, he observes "there was something odd about the Aso family." He hears noises in the house, his eyes begin playing tricks on him and his sleep is invaded by strange nightmares. Hirai gradually builds up the suspense, as his naive character is enchanted by the beautiful young widow who appears to be the large house's sole occupant.

"Let's leave it by saying that my neighbors are far more gossipy than I ever would have imagined," the widow tells her visitor — and for good reason, as we are to learn!

The rural Japanese setting notwithstanding, the structure and flow of "Midnight Encounters" struck me as reminiscent of American thriller writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), who in "Weird Tales" and other pulp magazines entertained readers with gothic tales of horror, usually set in the backdrop of New England. Like the typical Lovecraft narrator, Hirai's protagonist is an intellectual who informs the reader, "I've never been given to belief in odd phenomena," thereby setting the stage for a succession of inexplicably creepy events.

Sakyo Komatsu's story "The Kudan's Mother," published in 1968, spins a weird story with a backdrop of Kobe during World War II. The narrator, an adolescent forced to leave school to labor in an armaments factory, drags himself home one day to find his family dwelling flattened by a B-29 bombing raid. His family's former maid kindly arranges for the boy to be sheltered by a wealthy family whose large house remains undamaged. "Listen carefully, young master," he is warned. "Whatever happens, under no circumstances are you even to think about going up to the second floor to snoop around." So of course he does. And as we all know, defying warnings not to pry always has dire consequences.

In a similar vein Katsuhiko Takahashi's 1993 short story "Reunion" involves the strange relationship between an adolescent and the attractive young wife of his elder brother. The boy's overactive imagination somehow convinced him that his sister in law was dabbling in the occult, and he struck her with a poker, causing her to lose an eye. Now two decades later, his juvenile fears are confirmed in a frightening climax.

While the settings, characters and techniques in most of the stories are Japanese, two — Jokichi Hikage's "The Clock Tower of Yon" and Atsushi Nakajima's "The Mummy" — are set in Europe and ancient Egypt respectively and in their English translations could readily pass for stories by Western authors writing in the same genres.

Summing up, Kurodahan Press has produced another fine book, and readers who enjoy this one will no doubt want to acquire Kaiki Volume 1 ("Tales of Old Edo"). Volume 3 ("Tales of the Metropolis") is scheduled for release this autumn. All three works feature a forward by Robert Weinberg and an introduction by Masao Higashi.



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