Tsundoku: Japanese, from tsun (to pile up) and doku (reading). The act of acquiring books faster than one reads them.

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo, Miyuke Miyabe

I have a serious, and probably uncurable, case of tsundoku. The ever-growing “to-read” stack on my bedside table is continually on the verge of falling over and injuring me. Periodically, for my own survival, I demote part of of the stack to some nearby bookshelf, where the books can languish for years, waiting for me to rediscover them. Finally, in a moment of boredom with whatever I’m reading at the moment, I’ll pick up one of these poor waifs instead. And sometimes, I kick myself for having waited so long. This is one of those times.

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013) is a wonderful collection of short supernatural tales, based on the folklore and ghost story traditions of Japan. They are set in Old Edo (Tokyo), during what’s known as the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Each story is a fascinating look at the lives of ordinary people in urban old Edo: shopkeepers and their families, servants, workers, apprentices, landlords and employment agents.

Ghost stories set in this era tend to revolve around the lives of the upper class: the nobility and their retainers; samurai or scholars. So it’s refreshing to get a view of Japanese lives from another milieu. These people aren’t always in control of the ship of their lives; often, they must deal with whatever the winds and tides of fate sail them into. At times, the supernatural serves as a metaphor for the “mundane” issues that the characters struggle with; in other stories, it’s the instrument of karma, or of hope for the future.

Some of my favorites: “A Woman’s Head” is a story about a young, mute, orphaned boy whose mother had a curious devotion to squash. It feels a bit like a fairy tale, a happy one. In the “Futon Storeroom,” a young housemaid joins the household of a saké selling establishment that is rumored to be cursed. She learns their secret, with the help of her older sister’s protective ghost. “The ‘Oni’ of Adachi House” is a lovely tale about a housemaid who marries the young owner of an ink and brush shop. Not for love. As the protagonist thinks to herself: “this was never about being a bride–you’re just changing employers as a maid.” And yet, it is a story about love, and about devotion and loyalty, too.

In “The Oni in the Autumn Rain,” it’s debatable whether the “oni” of the title is actually a supernatural demon, or merely a villainous human being. But it is clear that something bad is happening to the protagonist, and in the end, does it matter if the monster in her life is only human?

The Plum Rains Fall” is a story about karma, a dark and inverted fairy tale, yet with an oddly happy ending. “A Drowsing Dream of Shinju” is a tale of dreams and ritual suicide. “Cage of Shadows” is a dark tale, with what feels to me a touch of Poe.

Ash Kagura” follows a thief-taker (a sort of private detective, common in the days before professional police forces) as he investigates the strange attack of a shopkeeper’s brother, by a seemingly rabid housemaid. And in the “The Mussel Mound,” the prodigal son of an employment agent learns the strange secret that all employment agents know, but dare not reveal.

I adored almost all the stories, except perhaps “A Drowsing Dream of Shinju” and “Ash Kagura,” which I thought were a bit weaker, though still likeable. It’s important to note that this is a collection of ghost stories, not horror tales. They may be unsettling, but not usually gory or scary. And not all of them have clear-cut, tie-all-the-loose-ends-up resolutions. I very much enjoy stories like this, but if you want horror, this collection may not be for you.

The collection’s author, Miyuki Miyabe, is an award-winning and I believe quite popular writer in Japan. She writes in a variety of genres; most of what’s been translated and published in English are crime or fantasy novels. Apparitions is her only short story collection in English; sadly, it’s now out of print. That’s what I get for waiting so long.

I don’t usually like to blog about out-of-print books; it seems like a cruel trick. But I enjoyed this one so much I had to let other people know. It is still available on Kindle (here’s the UK link, as well), and as of this writing, both Amazon US and UK have used physical copies as well. If it sounds interesting to you, please do try and check it out.

Hope you enjoy.

Featured image: View of Edo; 17th century pair of six-panel folding screens. Source: Wikimedia

One thought on “Reading Apparitions

  1. i do not read Nina, online or offline, i just do images and videos like instagram and YouTube. your blog made me read in many years and I loved my first read. Japan and asian countries are fascinating because even though, they are very sci-fi they do not leave there past to crumble like other countries. everything wants to just be, its just that, they need guidance. thank you Nina.

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