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Infusing Dark Fantasy into a Historical Fiction Novel: Part II

GHOST TRAIN is a Historical Fiction at its core, but asks "what if ghosts and demons were real?"

By: Natalie Jacobsen

famous scottish tapestry of a uniqurn in a pen on a polaroid photo

In the Part I blog post, I covered how the very real history of Meiji-Era Japan was presented and honored in my debut novel Ghost Train. Context, accuracy, and dedication were discussed to be the three most important factors that went into crafting my historical fiction novel. I walked through the process of bringing 19th century Japan to life for a modern audience, and how, through collaborations with subject matter experts, I was able to give voice to fictional characters who were "experiencing" the historical events portrayed in the novel.

But now I want to turn to the other side of the coin and explore Ghost Train's second identity: that of a dark fantasy, and how exactly I infused dark fantasy into a primarily historical fiction novel.

The Historical Background:

As was teased in my previous blog, the paranormal beings and folklore that appear in Ghost Train are inspired by real events and tales from Japan. "Real," of course, being relative. They are tales that exist in Japanese literature and culture, and the characters are written as if they too have walked the earth as historical people. So, I knew I had a steep task before me, not only in how to accurately depict true historical moments and the people who would've been living through them, but in bringing to life the folklore that has long existed in Japan.

Weaving fantasy into historical fiction is not a new concept by any means. In fact, there is a category of books that already exist in publishing that brings reality and fantasy together, in a genre called magical realism. So, why isn't Ghost Train labelled as a magical realism novel, then?

Magical Realism is primarily reserved for Latin American stories. It's really as simple as that. Since Ghost Train is set in Japan, it doesn't exactly qualify, geographically speaking. Japan's Shintoism, while it may seem fantastical to Western or outside audiences, does not rely on a magic system that other cultures may perceive. That's why "magical realism" works for Latin American culturally-rooted stories, as their magic system operates in a substantially different way. But, let's turn back to Japan.

Introduction to Shintoism:

In Shintoism, the indigenous religion to Japan, there are over eight million "kami" (loosely translated as "gods"); each has their own unique identity, powers, origin story, and shrine in which they reside. There are between 100,000-200,000 Shinto shrines in Japan (that number doubles when we include Buddhist temples). The reason the range is so inexact is due to the nature of the shrines themselves. The shrines can be as grand and elaborate as Fushimi Inari, the massive, sprawling shrine in Kyoto with thousands of red torii gates that cover a mountain, or as small as a birdhouse nestled beneath a tree in a sleepy neighborhood. The larger shrines are registered within their respective legal jurisdictions and are easy to track, but the smaller neighborhood ones are often makeshift shrines by residents and not registered, which makes the official shrine count in Japan just a rough estimate.

Regardless, each shrine is a dedication to a kami, and is regarded as their house. Some shrines hold multiple kami, while others are dedicated to just one. It also means, anyone can go to any shrine whenever they have a specific intention in mind, and pray to the kami who will best serve that purpose. There are shrines for fertility (and pregnancy, or post-pregnancy), shrines or pets (all different kinds!), for marriage, reducing or avoiding traffic (seriously!), general success in life, different health concerns, and the like. One of my favorite examples is the Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo, which offers "Tech Protection," especially for those who struggle with internet viruses, tech-based scams, or general computer issues.

silhouette of a fox statue against a sunset in japan

The reason I'm explaining this is to demonstrate how important Shintoism is to the Japanese. It's synchronized with their calendar and seasons, life stages, and milestone events. Shrines are regarded as both holy and real places of power. Which seamlessly brings together yokai, kami, and even yuurei into every day life.

A few definitions that will be important for the remainder for the blog:

Yokai: A classification of monsters in Japanese culture and beliefs that have animal-like behavior, seek revenge, or generally scare and stalk the living. They need a physical body to exist, but some can shape-shift.

Kami: a mythological and holy being from Japanese Shintoism which is comparable to a god or highly-regarded spirit. They do not need a physical body to exist, and often are said to exist in inanimate objects or throughout nature as omnipresent. They have no strict gender or identity.

Yuurei: A classification of ghosts in Japanese literature and culture; a wandering spirit that can take action against the living (but not to be confused with a poltergeist), but who don't need a physical body to exist.

Most Japanese houses will also have a space dedicated to a family or ancestral shrine, making the gap between past and present even slimmer. It's a natural display that is also a common practice across other Asian cultures.

These practices in Shintoism and beliefs across Japan, then, do make it feel difficult to classify Ghost Train as a fantasy, when to Japanese the yokai, kami, and yuurei mentioned in the story can and have been perceived as nonfiction. But, as with any group of people across nations, cultures, or identities, there is no single definition that makes them homogeneous in thought and in complete agreement with each other. If you were to survey Japanese people, most would say kami are real; but not that they need them to live or be successful. They also may have mixed reactions if asked whether yokai are real, and most will also admit they have not seen one. That does not diminish the power and influence kami, yokai, and yuurei continue to have in Japanese literature, media, and culture, though.

In Japanese anime, manga, movies, and literature, yokai and kami are often vessels for life lessons, pivotal to the plot, and introduced to challenge or assist a protagonist. There is no question the influence yokai and kami have on Japanese culture, and how important they are to cultural identity.

All of this being said, in Western books, it is very difficult to convince publishers and editors — and frankly, audiences — that demons and ghosts are real. Hence for the "fantasy" label on Ghost Train.

In order to effortlessly infuse the fantasy into the historical fiction, I abided by three boundaries I set for myself: Facts in Fiction, Keeping it Realistic, Rely on Real Horrors.

Facts in Fiction:

The historical fiction aspect of Ghost Train kept me on-track to accurately follow timelines and events for the story to play out. So when I introduced folklore and demons into the story, I worried it would diminish the very real history and take readers out of the story.

But then I remembered, it didn't matter about me or the readers. It mattered only that the characters believed in the folklore and the paranormal, and then the readers would follow.

After years in Japan, I was already pretty familiar with folklore and the yuurei behind ghost stories. But now it was time to take my knowledge up a notch and understand the mindset, origin stories, and motives of the yokai. I wasn't in the business of creating brand new mythical beings when there was already a rich history and repertoire of folklore to pull inspiration from. To me, reading their origin stories and accounts from history of appearances and events involving a yokai or yuurei, they became fact to me. "In 1846, a mermaid appeared before a fisherman, and he sent a postcard to his family speaking of the encounter." To me, I had no question as to whether or not the encounter happened. In order to write Ghost Train, I had to absorb the history and folklore and see them as synonymous.

That kept the folklore as fact in my writing, and allowed me to play freely in the safety of the fiction label, but ensuring I didn't tread too far into a direction that would push down the effects of the history and the very real events that took place in 1877 Kyoto.

Keeping it Realistic:

a ghost of a skeleton behind a person dressed in a kimono at night

Without spoiling anything, one of the critical elements that went into balancing fiction and fantasy was the need to make it feel natural and not gimmicky. The ghosts and demons appear suddenly, but in places the characters know they can reside. They come alive in the stories that they tell, and with reasons that are revealed through patterns of behavior, choices, and dialogue made by the characters. There are clues as to why the ghosts and demons may emerge, and there is a question the audience can keep asking: is it fear or something else that stirs these creatures to appear?

So in the dead of night and deep in darkness, these ghosts and monsters lurk, preying on the real fears people may have outside of reading the story. Horror authors very much play on the real fears of readers, and I am approaching Ghost Train no differently. I wanted to keep the horrors subtle, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it-moment, just like in real life (did that move, or was it just a trick of the light?).

The places in Ghost Train are real. The temples and places the characters can go to worship, go to market, reside, and work are all found on a map — even today. Placing the paranormal creatures inside these locations felt easy, as I made conscious decisions based on other folklore and knowing the behavior of certain yokai, allowing me to predict where they'd be and how they'd interact with characters. The yokai and yuurei feel the rules of their origin stories, which I researched to ensure accuracy. They won't appear randomly and without cause or reason. They won't behave outside of their norms, and retain a sense of doubt and mystery around them, so not all questions are answered.

And that's the best way to keep the horror and fantasy alive.

Rely on Real Horrors:

In the title, I admitted the type of fantasy in Ghost Train was "dark." And I do feel the need to address that and clarify why it's labelled as such. Fantasy has a range of ways it can be portrayed and manifest in stories. It can be lighthearted, or focus on magic, it can focus on space and technology that doesn't exist, it can bring in unicorns or dragons, and let humans fly. Fantasy can also come in dark forms — with creatures that possess a maliciousness, and powers that could negatively affect society or enact pain and rage on humans. Ghost Train is considered a "dark fantasy" for the types of fantastical elements that are in the story: ghosts with melancholy, demons with devious agendas, and shadows that lurk and stir danger.

Any history is rife with horrific crimes and stories of humans doing terrible things to each other. Japanese history is no different from any other nation or culture's oral or written history. Ghost Train, then, had plenty of material to work with as inspiration. Not only did I rely on the way historical events played out, but I was able to bring it together with real horrors, and real folklore. That's what, I hope, enhances and heightens the tension in the story and mounts the stakes for the characters.

The accumulation of fantasy, reaslism, and horror is why Ghost Train is both a historical fiction and a dark fantasy. It takes a very real landscape and historical timeline, and plays with the idea of what would society have done in the same time and place had the demons and spirits been real and interacting or influencing the story. The characters are faced with difficult decisions, and grapple with the interplay of fantasy and realty, tradition and change. And that, I hope, is the magic of the novel.

Missed the blog about how the history and past were honored in Ghost Train? Read (click right here!) all about the research and dedication it took to turn the story into a historical fiction so readers can both learn about the true events that were the basis for the novel while having fun with the imagination that goes into the fantasy elements.

Every week, on my TikTok and Threads channel, as well as here at my Folklore Friday blog, I share the origin story to a mythical creature, legend, or folklore from Japan. To take a closer look at some yokai and yuurei that will be mentioned in Ghost Train, watch my videos or read back through the blog!

Concerned about needing to study up and memorize all of the folklore and yokai before reading Ghost Train? Don't be! There is a glossary printed in the back of Ghost Train that will serve as a guide to identifying and learning about all of the yokai and kami mentions. Rest assured, all of the information needed to read and understand the book will be available within the same cover.

Even more exciting, a companions' guide to Ghost Train is in the works — stay tuned for more information, and be sure to subscribe to my newsletter for a first look at the upcoming materials!



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