After getting all new-fangled in my last post I thought I’d retreat back to my comfort zone again. We know we’re in a safe pair of hands with Peter Haining so let’s go with the young Mr. Haining’s second anthology The Hell of Mirrors (no, that’s not a misprint but more of that later).
Four Square books had some great cover designs and this one’s no exception. I particularly like that title bar, which was so good they printed it on the back cover too.
As Haining states in his brief introduction, this anthology contains stories covering two centuries and five countries.
C O N T E N T S
The Werewolf – Frederick Marryat
Ligeia – Edgar Allan Poe
The Black Cat – Edgar Allan Poe
Young Goodman Brown – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Schalken the Painter – J. S. Le Fanu
The Middle Toe of the Right Foot – Ambrose Bierce
The Damned Thing – Ambrose Bierce
The Squaw – Bram Stoker
Who Knows? – Guy de Maupassant
The Drowned Man – Guy de Maupassant
The Caterpillar – Edogawa Rampo
The Hell of Mirrors – Edogawa Rampo
The Knocking in the Castle – Henry Slesar
The Fanatic – Arthur Porges
Lets skim through the contents then. Among others, Haining gives us a duo of de Maupassants, a brace of Bierces and a pair of Poes, but what we really want to be talking about here are the two tales from Edogawa Rampo.
Edogawa Rampo is the nom-de-plume of the Japanese author and translator, Tarō Hirai (1894-1965). He’s still not that well known in the West but he’s considered a master of the genre in his own country. Being a huge fan of Western horror and mystery fiction, particularly the works of Edgar Allan Poe, he took the decision to write under the name of Edogawa Rampo as a Japanese rendering of Poe’s name (…go on, say Edogawa Rampo in a Japanese accent and see how it sounds, you know you want to!).
Aside from his horror tales he also wrote Detective fiction, creating the first popular Japanese detective, Kogoro Akechi. Rampo was also a fan and translator of Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective is based upon Sherlock Holmes.
But we’re concentrating on his horror tales. They were first translated into English in the mid-1950s under a collection called, keeping to the Poe theme, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The two stories we have here are from that collection and I believe this is the first time Rampo was anthologised in the West. Interestingly, he died in 1965, the same year as this publication so whether it was something to do with publication rights opening up or not, I don’t know.
Rampo’s tales are among the creepiest and memorable I have read. There’s something quite wonderfully distasteful about them. Thematically, these works fall into the category which gained popularity in 1920’s Japan, ‘Ero guro nansensu’. This is another Japanese rendering of English words, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. As you can imagine one of the main themes is sexual abnormality.
The first tale, The Caterpillar, concerns a military veteran invalided out of the army due to the severity of his injuries. He has lost both arms and both legs, his face is completely disfigured, he has no hearing and cannot speak. He is the caterpillar of the title. His wife looks after him in a lonely house in the grounds of her husband’s commanding officer’s mansion. No one visits and the unkempt gardens are overgrown and full of snakes and abandoned wells. The story deals with the wife’s loneliness, fantasies, guilt and mental decline. This story was banned in Japan in the run-up to WW2 as it was thought it to cast the Japanese military in a poor light.
The second tale, from which the anthology takes its title, is The Hell of Mirrors. Rampo seems to have somewhat of an obsession with lenses, mirrors and optics as they feature in many of his earlier stories. Let’s hope he was never quite as obsessed as the protagonist of this story whom we follow from childhood and witness as his insanity grows along with his obsession. His experiments become more and more outrageous; starting from the building of his first telescope which, of course, he uses to spy through his neighbour’s windows, we’re taken on a wild and psychedelic journey through his deviances which, of course, end in disaster.