Originally Published 1956
Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, the first volume of its kind translated into English, is written with the quick tempo of the West but rich with the fantasy of the East. These nine bloodcurdling, chilling tales present a genre of literature largely unknown to readers outside Japan, including the strange story of a quadruple amputee and his perverse wife; the record of a man who creates a mysterious chamber of mirrors and discovers hidden pleasures within; the morbid confession of a maniac who envisions a career of foolproof “psychological” murders; and the bizarre tale of a chair-maker who buries himself inside an armchair and enjoys the sordid “loves” of the women who sit on his handiwork.
Edogawa Rampo, a pseudonym for Tarō Hirai, was one of the giants of Japanese crime fiction in the early-to-mid twentieth century. His name is a phonetic rendering of the name Edgar Allan Poe paying tribute to an author he admired and while his work is certainly original, you only have to dip into these stories to see that they shared a flair for the macabre.
This collection, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, contains a selection of his short stories some of which can be considered mysteries, others feeling more like grotesque adventures. All of the stories show imagination and a flair for unsettling characterizations and imagery.
While The Human Chair is probably Rampo’s best known short story, it is not really much of a mystery. If you are approaching these looking for a good puzzle or story with a twist resolution I would direct you to The Cliff, The Psychological Test and The Twins. The Red Chamber is also a very entertaining read, describing some very imaginative murders, but I think the resolution goes a twist too far, blunts its impact a little.
A few stories didn’t work for me such as The Caterpillar which feels heavy-handed, even if it does hit some memorable notes in its conclusion. Also The Hell of Mirrors suffers from having an ending that cannot live up to the imagination shown in the creation of its premise. Even these stories though have moments that interest in spite of their flaws.
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.
The Human Chair
A writer sits down to read her correspondence and finds that she has been sent a lengthy document from a carpenter who wants to arrange to meet her. In the letter the man reveals that he had built a chair big enough to hide within and explains why he did this and how he has been affected by his experiences.
This is one of Rampo’s most famous works and it is certainly chilling reading. Unfortunately it also has the problem that anyone who comes to it already knows enough about it to be able to work out how the story evolves meaning that there is not much mystery here. It is, nonetheless, an effective work and definitely worth reading.
The Psychological Test
This story is told in an inverted style where we know that Fukiya, a poor student, has committed a murder apparently for money. In the course of the story we learn who he has murdered and how it is planned and executed before turning to the matter of how he will be caught by Rampo’s sleuth Dr. Akechi and District Attorney Kasamori.
I enjoyed the story a lot although the reader does not have all the information they will need to work out how the killer will be trapped. The scheme is quite smart though and I think it is resolved cleverly.
This story concerns a woman whose husband returns from war with such serious injuries that she must constantly care for him as he has lost all of his limbs and the ability to talk. There is a strong horror component to this story and not much in the way of mystery although it is certainly imaginative and contains some very strong imagery.
A man and woman discuss the death of her husband and secrets they both share. This story is presented as a script with occasional descriptions of action. It is an effective technique, focusing our attention on the content of what they are saying, and the story is dramatic and compelling. A short and excellent read!
The Hell of Mirrors
The narrator tells us of a childhood friend who became increasingly obsessed with optical equipment and mirrors and who, after inheriting a small fortune from his doting parents, put all of his resources into developing new types of mirror. The story details his friend’s tragic end and is certainly mysterious about the causes of his fate and it is certainly highly imaginative and grotesque in places.
This story begins with the narrator informing us that he has been condemned to death for murder but wishes to confess to an earlier crime which he details for us. The story of his earlier crime is compelling and I enjoyed the explanation of how he is eventually caught in the case of the second killing.
The Red Chamber
A man turns up to a meeting of a secret society to petition them to become a member. He tells them that he has committed 99 murders for no better reason than to amuse himself and proceeds to provide some examples of his handiwork. He then reveals how he intends to commit his hundredth.
This is an excellent story containing some striking yet simple ideas. Rampo manipulates the reader skillfully by some presentational choices that he makes and some of the murders described are very cleverly conceived.
Two Crippled Men
Two men, Saito and Ihara, sit and discuss their life stories. Ihara reveals that he has suffered from somnambulism since childhood and believes he committed a murder while sleepwalking. After hearing Ihara’s story, Saito tries to suggest that the evidence may not be as conclusive as he thinks.
It is, once again, quite a simple but effective concept for a story. It builds to a twist ending that I think will likely be anticipated but it is well-delivered.
The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture
The collection ends with what may be its strangest tale. A man travels on a train and discovers that the passenger seated with him has a package containing a remarkably lifelike rag picture of an elderly man and young woman in a traditional lovers’ pose. The man proceeds to tell him the incredible story behind that picture and why he travels with it pressed to the window of the carriage.
This story is certainly more imaginative than mysterious and avoids giving any kind of definitive statement of whether the elderly man is truthful and, if so, how the events he describes could have happened. I enjoyed it and appreciated its imagination even if I was left wondering about whether we are supposed to take the account to be truthful.