#977: (Spooky) Little Fictions – Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956) by Edogawa Rampo [trans. James B. Harris 1956]

This week, nine tales of criminous and/or eerie happenings written by Hirai Tarō who, under the name Edogawa Rampo, is widely acknowledged as the godfather of Japanese mystery writing.

Quite apart from Rampo’s impact on the genre in Japan, of particular interest here is the manner by which translator James B. Harris brought these stories into English. Since Harris spoke, but did not read or write, Japanese and Rampo spoke, but did not read or write, English, the translation emerged through a series of conversations over a five year period in which Rampo would read aloud what he has written, the two would discuss the possible interpretations of the original text, and then Harris would render it in English to best capture the original intent. Can you imagine that? What an amazing process. And the translation which has resulted is incredibly easy on the brain, too, clearly showing author and translator at their very best.

But, to the stories…

First up, the very first I ever heard of Rampo and ‘The Human Chair’ (1925). This serves as a good introduction to this volume, since it starts off with simple quotidian concerns, steadily escalating to something akin to domestic horror before its delightful payoff. Throughout, Rampo plays with contrasts cleverly: the author Yoshiko receiving an impersonal letter which creeps ever closer into her personal life, an ordinary occurrence that promises events so “grotesquely out of the ordinary [that] human words seem utterly inadequate to sketch all the details”. Even the writer of this missive is subject to these contrasts — an ugly man whose looks and attitude find him isolated from the world around him, drawn by his own actions into a “weird world of sensuous pleasure” that brings him physically close to people in a way that is both shocking and quite moving.

It’s a clever little conceit, and one that toys with dehumanisation without ever tipping into demonisation despite its many weirdnesses. And if the notion of a woman acting in this context “like a baby falling into a mother’s embrace, or a girl surrendering herself into the arms of her lover” doesn’t set you all a-shiver then there’s surely nothing more Rampo can do to unsettle even as he reassures in the final, clever revelation. And, as noted above, it reads like a dream. Great stuff.

The first actively criminal tale comes in the shape of ‘The Psychological Test’ (1925), in which young student Fukiya “set[s] out to commit the perfect crime” in stealing the savings of the old woman who is his friend Saito’s landlady. Where Edgar Allan Poe, Rampo’s influence in so many ways, would mine this for psychological trauma, Fukiya is focussed purely on the process of committing the crime and getting away with it…nothing more.

Other questions such as remorse and the attendant pangs of conscience, troubled him not in the least. All this talk of Raskolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, crucified by the unseen terrors of a haunted heart was, to Fukiya, sheer nonsense.

He may wobble slightly upon the commission of the act — “[s]omehow he was beginning to feel more and more like an ordinary thief and prowler than the suave and nonchalant prince of crime he had always pictured himself to be” — but the scheme comes off…and then his problems begin. I had my doubts about the focus given to the psychology here, but the means by which out criminal is hoisted, via a cameo from Rampo’s series detective Akechi Kogorō, is very enjoyable, almost Columbo-esque in how it sweeps the confident criminal’s intentions from beneath him.

‘The Caterpillar’ (1929) is certainly a work of imagination, focussing on Tokiko and her wounded and crippled ex-soldier husband Sunaga who has been rendered deaf, dumb, and limbless in an explosion. Tokiko has been Sunaga’s sole carer for the three years that have passed since his injury and while “in those early days the whole arrangement had been a novelty…it had even been fun, in a way, to care for one so completely helpless as her husband” they are now “like two animals caged in a zoo…pursu[ing] their lonely existence” while her feelings of disgust war with moments of tenderness and a growing bitterness and savagery towards Sunaga despite, or perhaps on account of, his physical state.

Who could imagine such a terrible world? With what could the feelings of a man living in that abyss be compared? Surely he must crave to shout for help at the top of his lungs…to see shapes, no matter how dim…to hear voices, even the faintest of whispers…to cling to something…to grasp….

This story was apparently not well received at the time of writing, and I wonder the extent to which that’s due to the content and how much it’s down to thematic ideas like a woman yearning for sexual satisfaction and Tokiko recognising that her most severe maltreatment of Sunaga occurs “during her monthly periods of physical indisposition”. There’s a fascination with body horror here that reoccurs in Rampo’s novella The Black Lizard (1934), and the overall effect is just as unsettling…but quite what to make of it is very hard to decide.

Written two decades later than anything else in this collection, ‘The Cliff’ (1950) would have come from a period in Rampo’s career when his own influence was being reflected in the work of authors like Keikichi Ōsaka. Perhaps on account of this, it’s framed in a more experimental way — as a dialogue, almost a play script, between a husband and wife who have been married for five months as they sit overlooking the sea and discuss the events in their life which have brought them to this point.

It might constitute a spoiler to reveal which favourite story by another author this reminds me of — if I remember correctly, that was written in the same year this collection first appeared in English, so I wonder if Rampo’s influence stretched out quickly and planted a seed or two — but it’s safe to say that this feels more like a Western story of crime and consequences than anything else in this collection. The sense of events combining to offer alternative, surprising explanations (“But you forget, my dear, that behind one curtain there’s always another…”) is adroitly handled and, even if the ultimate surprise here isn’t terribly surprising to the seasoned crime reader, the sense of Rampo’s own questing perspective on the genre comes through very strongly.

I’ll level with you: I don’t know what to make of ‘The Hell of Mirrors’ (1926), but part of me suspects that it might be my favourite story in this collection. Concerning the young man Kan Tanuma who becomes obsessed with mirrors and mirrored surfaces, there’s very little plot per se, but something about the conclusions Rampo reaches from so low-key a beginning is fascinating to observe. That something as commonplace today as a mirror can be used to manipulate images, and that the achievement of such effects would become the obsession of someone to such devastating ends feels…fitting and right and obvious once filtered through Rampo’s perspective.

The language here is divine, too, like the laboratory Kan Tanuma sets up to explore the possibilities of mirrors being “transformed into a purgatory of freaks” by the surfaces he creates, and the starkness of the closing sequence, where the everyday and harmless is turned, via a simple question, into an object of destruction and horror. It won’t work for everyone, and its relative paucity of events might well set many against it, but the brazen, deliberate, desolate sharp focus of this is so neatly self-contained that I can’t help but admire what Rampo has done. Great stuff.

‘The Twins’ (1924) is another tale of a perfect crime turned imperfect, with a man murdering his identical twin and taking over the dead man’s life (and, crucially, money). Interestingly, there’s again little time for self-recrimination despite the horror involved in the murder…

I was reassured and emboldened by the firm belief that the scheme which I had concocted in this clever head of mine could never be exposed. And the constant strain on my mind, making it necessary for me to be perpetually on the alert and never to relax even for a fleeting moment, gave me no time to be afraid.

…despite Rampo, slightly confusingly, wanting to have his cake and eat it too (“…but there was one hitch — my conscience. Night after night it tormented me, while his apparition haunted my dreams.”). Perhaps of greater interest for Western readers will be how this anticipates by about two decades a very clever scheme from a very good book in from the Golden Age (I’ve reviewed said book on this blog, but shall not link to it lest anything be spoiled). Rampo’s casual discarding of this idea herein, when it was the crux of an entire novel from another, very gifted, pen, shows how fully the man’s mind overflowed with fabulous prospects, and if the intended dualism of the narrative didn’t quite hit home for me, the ingenuity of the resolution certainly did.

Seven men gather “to exchange bloodcurdling horror stories” in ‘The Red Chamber’ (1925), and it falls to the newest initiate to titillate and intrigue. Telling of the magnificent boredom that has plagued his life, the narrator reveals how he tried various outlets and excitements but finds them “like a soft drink offered to a dipsomaniac who is thirsting for gin and absinthe, cognac and vodka, all in one glass” and so — almost inevitably — turns his mind to instead committing a murder “which would baffle even Sherlock himself! A perfect cure for drowsiness!”.

What he cooks up is very clever, and even if the examples Rampo uses don’t all work you get a sense of the grotesque Machiavellian mind behind some superbly subtle ideas…alas, time restraints preclude going through every example he could cite, but I’d happily read a rundown of this man’s, er, accomplishments (heaven alone knows what that says about me…!). You really do get a sense, as he claims, of real satisfaction from a job, er, well done and the pride taking in “look[ing] back on the death scenes I had created and, like a vampire smacking his lips after a feast, relish[ing] the memory of how the innocent victims of my ruthlessness had spilled their precious life-blood”. It’s horrible, of course, but something hypnotic pulls you in. And so the final stages are bound to add a wrinkle of a twist and, while not the one I had hoped for, a satisfying conclusion is reached…though if Rampo’s making a point in the final line I’m not entirely sure what it is.

‘Two Crippled Men’ (1924) is another superbly-constructed tale, and one that deserves to be far better known. A wonderfully picturesque opening paragraph sets the scene for a conversation between two men who have been scarred in their own way: one physically through wounds acquired while fighting in the army, the other mentally by events that will unfold over the coming pages.

I was a man without a soul — a mental cripple destined to live the remainder of my life in anguish and misery. Thus did my normal life end.

Part of the fun of these takes of mystery and imagination being lumped in together is that you’re not always completely sure which way each cat is going to jump, and I’d like to retain that for this story if possible. It deals well with the abnormal psychology that our “mental cripple” Ihara must wrestle with, and drip feeds little details which all come together perfectly in the closing stages. In contrast to ‘The Red Chamber’, I feel the final line both makes sense and stirs in an element of resolution simply because the purpose of that revelation, when looking backwards over what has just occurred, adds up beautifully…even if it is rather left to the reader to make the connection. No bad thing, though, being made to think.

Finally, we have ‘The Traveller with the Pasted Rag Picture’ (1929), which sets out its stall from the beginning as a flight of fancy (“If this story I am about to tell was not a dream or a series of hallucinations, then that traveler with the pasted rag picture must have been mad…”), and quickly adds a further element of doubt in an unreliable narrator who admits his unreliability:

I was on my way home from a sight-seeing trip to Uotsu, the town on the Japan Sea noted for its many mirages. Whenever I tell this story, those who know me well often contradict me, pointing out that I have never been to Uotsu. Then I find myself in a greater quandary than ever, for I do not have even a shred of evidence to prove that I have actually been there…

Excellently written (“[G]radually a terrible fear began to gnaw at my heart. When there is no distraction to alleviate it, fear is an emotion which steadily grows in intensity.”), this nevertheless turns into a decidedly more fanciful tale than anything hat has preceded it, and it’s difficult not to wonder if something more in keeping with the previous works could have been selected from Rampo’s oeuvre. More than anthing, it puts me in mind of ‘The Mezzotint’ (1904) by M.R. James — a fine story, and great as an example of the form its perpetrating, but out of step with everything else contained in this collection.

This anthology, then, is a delight. Knowing very little about the art of translation — you can listen to my discussion on the topic with Louise Heal Kawai here — I’m fascinated at how clear and readable Harris’ prose has come out, and apart from what seem to be some weird Westernisations (“District Attoney”? Really??!) I loved reading something that has clearly been brought over the hedge with such evident skill. Added to that, the stories are charming, weird, creepy, and ingenious in equal measure, and leave plenty to the imagination where necessary, ensuring they will live long in the memory. Additionally, each story is accompanied by a bespoke diagram which really adds to the atmosphere — I can’t find them online, and my attempts to photograph them have been terrible, so I won’t reproduce them here because I’ll fail to do them justice. It’s hardly worth buying the book for nine illustrations, but they’re a great touch and a very intelligent inclusion…great work, whoever decided on that.

So, yeah, wonderful stuff all round. Dive in at your earliest opportunity, and expect more Rampo on The Invisible Event before too long.


See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: As a whole I was very impressed with the collection and found it to be an enjoyable and absorbing read. There is a good variety of story types and styles here and I imagine that several of these tales will stay with me for a while. Quite a bit of the author’s work seems to have been translated into English in recent years so I will look forward to seeking more out in the future.

6 thoughts on “#977: (Spooky) Little Fictions – Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956) by Edogawa Rampo [trans. James B. Harris 1956]

  1. That one line you shared convinces me you’ve read the better translation of “The Psychology Test” and now I’m simply filled with envy… Glad to hear this collection is good, I’ll have to check it out!


    • Yes, I think you’ll fare far better with Harris’ rendering of Rampo — I see it as “Ranpo” a lot now, but the cover here is “Rampo” so I’ll use that — in English. It must have been a wonderful collaboration.


    • Dude, it’s so, so good. I’d only read the Rampo Beast in the Shadows twofer prior to this — over a decade ago! — and boy do I feel silly now for not getting to him again sooner.


    • I enjoyed those two when I read them pre-blog about a decade ago — The Black Lizard in particular, which is like a Bond novel seen from the villain’s perspective.

      This collection is a little different, but I liked it more. So hopefully you’ll have a good time when you get to it.

      Liked by 1 person

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