The author writes: "I came across the idea for this story from a book of woodblock prints by a nineteenth-century Japanese artist, Yoshitoshi. The book was called Thirty-Six Ghosts, and it contained thirty-six beautiful prints, each based on a Japanese ghost story or other theme of the supernatural....Plate number 27 was The Peony Lantern." Here is a reproduction of that print, and seeing it made the story even more evocative for me.
The story is told from the point of view of an old man who makes lanterns now, and is from a long line of lantern makers, but earlier in his life he served as Chamberlain of the Wardrobe for a young samurai named Shinzaburo. As a gift for his master's young wife, the narrator makes her a lovely peony lantern, and he is honored when he is told that the Lady Tsuyu adores it. When the samurai is called to war and falls in battle, it is the narrator's task to inform Lady Tsuyu of her husband's untimely demise. The day after he gives her the horrible news, he returns to her household to see if there is anything he can do, because he knows how much his master loved her and would wish to see her well taken care of. But when he arrives, the place is deserted:
A neighbor said the whole household had packed up and stolen away in the middle of the night. I found myself wondering if Tsuyu had taken my peony lantern with her. As I passed the house one last time, I saw on one white shoji panel many spots of a dark red stain. Ah, I thought, where the lady has gone she will have no need of lanterns.But two years later, one of the samurai's old servants comes running up to the narrator, exclaiming Lord Shinzaburo is back - he had not died after all. The narrator cannot believe it, but when he sees his former master, it realizes it is true. And when, on the first day of O-Bon, the Festival of the Dead, the narrator makes another peony lantern at the request of his master and hangs it on the gate post, it sets in motion a mysterious and terrifying chain of events...
This story, with its ghostly processions of silk lanterns and haunting atmosphere, might be better suited for R.I.P. Challenge time. It has a classic ghost story feel, and the historical Japanese setting was a perfect backdrop for the events. The narrator is more an observer than a participant, but his actions have unmistakable consequences, and the ending packs a nice little punch.
"The Peony Lantern" by Kara Dalkey; from The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Fifth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (St. Martin's Press, 1992)