Scott Bradfield

The extraordinary – and haunting – life of Lafcadio Hearn

The author’s Japanese ghost stories brought him fame and fortune – but his own life was even stranger than fiction

The garden of the Lafcadio Hearn house in the city of Matsue in Japan. [Alamy]

It’s a convoluted title for a book, but then Lafcadio Hearn – a widely travelled author and journalist who earned his greatest fame as an interpreter of Japanese horror stories – led a convoluted life. Born in 1850 from a difficult marriage between an Irish officer-surgeon and a wildly unpredictable noble-blooded Greek woman (his middle name, Lafcadio, was adopted from Lefkada, the name of the island where he was born), he was quickly abandoned by both. His mother ended her life in an asylum; his father remarried and died young of malaria. Hearn went on to be yet again abandoned by the great-aunt who raised him, and spurned by the impatient Catholic priests to whom he was entrusted for an education. (He developed a life-long hatred for Catholicism, while cultivating a loose, long-lasting affection for Buddhism.) 

Whenever he established a home in one place, he set out for another

He lost his left eye to a youthful accident, and spent the rest of his life shyly turning his disfigured profile away from attention. The greatest pleasures of his youth were the diverting stuff he found in books, legends and tall tales told him by servants and care-givers; the more fantastic those stories, the better. In addition to the tales of Poe and Hoffmann, Hearn was fascinated by an illustrated childhood book of Greek gods and goddesses, of which he later wrote: ‘After I had learned to know and love the elder gods, the world again began to glow about me. Glooms that had brooded over it slowly thinned away.’ Like those other English-speaking fabulists Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany, Hearn never trusted orthodox churches and governments; he was, at heart, a pantheist.

His love for books about timeless, unearthly creatures sustained Hearn through many years of calm, intrepid journeying. Sent to London to live with his great-aunt’s former servants, he wandered the streets as fascinated and appalled by the noise, crime and dirt as Dickens had been before him.

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