Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker, by Jean Lorrain

Tartarus Press, 2002
247 pp


"But I know that I play my part too. I make that dreadful hell myself; I, and I alone, provide its trappings." -- (128)

One thing before I post my thoughts about this book: my copy is from Tartarus, but Snuggly Books earlier this year released a very affordable copy (go ahead, click ... I reap no gain for each click from Amazon) making this book widely available for all.


As I posted on Goodreads earlier, I had no clue when I first picked up Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas that it would mark the beginning of my obsession with this author, and indeed, this entire school of writing.  I also noted that Lorrain's work has a way of causing the outside world to disappear because I am so deep into his, a rarity for me.  This collection of 27 short stories only cements that feeling.

Once again, I won't be going into any detail at all about any of these dark tales because, like the stories in The Soul-Drinker and Other Decadent Fantasies they really are best discovered on one's own.  The  contents of this collection are divided into Early Stories (7), Sensations (9), Souvenirs (3), Récits (4) and Contes (4), and they are some of the best, darkest, eeriest works I've ever read.

Brian Stableford's excellent introduction to this volume offers the reader a look at not just the contents of these stories, but also a brief glimpse into Lorrain's somewhat troubled life.  His stories here (and elsewhere) encompass what was at the time "sexual perversity," which as Stableford notes in another excellent work Glorious Perversity, cost him any chance of being translated into English and being noted as  a "writer of the first rank in his own country."  Luckily, Stableford himself has translated Lorrain's work, and as a bonus, he is an expert in the field of Decadent fiction.

Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker shows a very wide-ranging Jean Lorrain.  As always, most his stories reveal,  as one of his characters notes in "The Possessed,"  "the sheer ugliness and banality of everyday life that turns my blood to ice and makes me cringe in terror." (124). His Contes are just plain unsettling, taking place among the beauty and strangeness of nature, and his supernatural stories are dark, ambiguous, and caused no end of unease.

from AZ Quotes

One of the main themes in these stories, and the one that seems to crop up in all of Lorrain's writing, is the horror of the masque. As he notes in "One of Them,"
"The masque is the disturbed and disturbing face of the unknown. It is the smile of mendacity. It is the very soul of that terrifying perversity which understands depravity. It is lust spiced with fear, the alarming and delicious risk of throwing down a challenge to the curiosity of the senses. 'Is she ugly? Is she beautiful? Is she young? Is she old?' It is politeness seasoned by the macabre and heightened perhaps, by a dash of baseness and taste of blood -- for where will the adventure end? In a cheap hotel or the residence of some great demi-mondaine? Or perhaps the police station, for thieves also conceal themselves in order to commit their crimes. With their solicitous and terrible false faces, masques may serve cut-throats as well as the cemetery does; there are bag-snatchers out there, and whores...and revenants." (62)
His exploration into masks and the people beneath them and what they reveal about Paris society of the time through his eyes is one of the reasons I am so in love with this author.

One more thing:  among the stories here, there are a number in which the characters partake of ether as their drug of choice.  That should come as no surprise, but what's interesting is that they seem to develop an acute awareness of just how damaging ether is to the mind and to the body. For me, these are some of the best tales in the book -- a bit self-reflexive, if you will.

I cannot explain why these stories fascinate me the way they do, but while I'm in his brain I don't want to leave. I know that sounds kind of strange, but it is what it is.  It is a dark and dangerous place but for some reason, his work exerts some kind of bizarre pull that I can't resist.

Highly, beyond highly, recommended.

Monday, June 13, 2016

doppelgangers, part one: The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell

image from Melville House
Melville House, 2013
92 pp


First things first. This particular edition of The Poor Clare is part of Melville House's Art of the Novella series, which I subscribed to for a long time before I realized that I was starting to get duplicates. It's a wonderful set of books that has introduced me to the work of many authors I hadn't read before and is well worth every cent I paid.   In the front of this book, there's a brief note that this particular edition is reprinted from Gaskell's Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales (1896 ed.); it first made its appearance in Dickens' Household Words in 1856.

Second things second.   After finishing Nabokov's Despair and The Port-Wine Stain by Norman Lock, I found myself fascinated with the idea of doppelgangers (yes, I know there's an umlaut but I'm too lazy right now to do character map) in fiction, so I decided to put together a little mini-series of doppelganger books to fit into my summer reading.  Here's the list in no particular order:

  • Alraune, by Hanns Heinz Ewers (which I've been told is very strange)
  • The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg
  • The Devil's Elixirs, by ETA Hoffman
  • The Double, by Dostoevsky
  • Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
and of course, this book, The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  

And that brings me to third things third, which is where I talk about the book. I know that it's been labeled as a Gothic tale, but in my mind, this story of revenge and redemption sits much more squarely in the supernatural zone. It is a compelling and eerie tale,  involving a horrific curse that will come to have serious repercussions beyond anything even remotely imaginable. 

The story is revealed retrospectively through the eyes of a young lawyer who will eventually find himself caught up in the events that are chronicled in this tale.   Bridget Fitzgerald had served as nurse and companion to the now late Madame Starkey and her husband the squire in the English countryside of Lancashire,  after having followed them to St. Germains and to Antwerp. Her time with the Starkeys was only broken up by her marriage; when she became a widow she, along with her daughter Mary,  once again returned to the Starkey home.  The Starkeys had to live abroad to practice their religion, as England was staunchly anti-Catholic; eventually, however, they make their return followed by Bridget and Mary, where their power is great among the servants, and their word goes in the household.   Bridget is given a cottage to live in just a "short cut" away from the manor house; things were very good until rebellious Mary decides to leave home to take up a position with a good family, leaving only her little spaniel, a "dumb remembrancer of happy days", upon which Bridget lavishes love as if it were her child.   Mary writes faithfully at first, but  as time goes by, the letters from Mary to Bridget stop coming.  After some time of no communication, Bridget makes what turns out to be a fruitless search for her daughter before returning to her cottage and hiding herself away from the outside world.    Often heard talking to herself,  the locals come to believe that she's some sort of  witch.   However, her solitude is broken when one day,  during a hunt at the old Starkey manor, one of the participants shoots her beloved dog.  Bridget's rage knows no bounds when the shooter makes light of the dog's death; she lays a horrible curse upon him.  Unfortunately for everyone concerned, her grief, her rage and her thirst for revenge are just the beginning of a completely unforeseen tragedy.   

Elizabeth Gaskell, from The British Library

While anti-Catholicism is definitely woven into this tale in various ways, along with class differences   and the repressed anger/power of women,  another very important element found here is that of redemption,  which made me wonder if this story couldn't also be in part a plea for religious tolerance. That would make sense; after all, anti-Catholic feelings were still strong during Gaskell's lifetime, exacerbated by the influx of Irish immigrants coming to England during the Great Famine.

As to how the doppelganger element comes into the story, sadly I can't really go into any depth about it  without divulging too much.  What I can reveal is my own conclusion about why Gaskell chose to include it --  since it is female,  to me it represents the emergence of a part of the female self which has been stifled by men who desire a particular sort of quiet subservience in their women. Given the events of this tale and the time period, it seems a logical conclusion but again, I can't really give anything away.  

On the other hand, if you really don't care about picking up undercurrents or subtext and just want a well-written, different and entertaining read, The Poor Clare  is still a good choice for dark fiction readers. I loved it.  It's almost like a mystery in parts; the only down side is that it is a bit abrupt at the end so beware. I had to go back through the last few pages more than once to make sure I got it right.  Overall, though,  it's one of the strangest tales I've read in a while, and it's a very good one.  It's also very unlike Gaskell's other stories that I've read so it might be a new experience for readers who enjoy her work.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Port-Wine Stain, by Norman Lock

Bellevue Literary Press, 2016
224 pp


(read in May)

"To see oneself mirrored by another can be unnerving." 

This novel is really getting the short end of the stick from early reviewers over at LibraryThing, and I think that's just plain sad.   What I've noticed is that some of these people picked up this book expecting a Poe clone and didn't get it, thereby allowing their expectations to guide their reading experience.  I learned a long time ago that if you assume one thing and get another, well, newsflash , you're going to be disappointed -- so the trick for me has been to sit back and let the book take me where it's going to go. Someone once told me that "assume" makes an ass out of you and me, so I just let my books speak to me on their own. And this one spoke to me about just how easy it is for someone already quite impressionable to be pushed from sanity to madness.  That transition lands this book squarely into my reading wheelhouse.

The quotation from chapter one is from Poe's "William Wilson," an apt start to this novel since somewhere down the line the main character/narrator (a physician)  is going to encounter what he feels is his own doppelganger.  The story is told from his perspective to a friend, looking back from present (1876)  to thirty years in the past. He captures the attention of his friend by promising to reveal how he "came to know" Edgar Allan Poe and how Poe "initiated" him into the occult, ushering him "to the iron door of the tomb" where "he bid me knock;" the story of "the winter months I spent with him." He also reveals that for a short time, he was a "principal character in one of his horrors."

 However, there's a catch: as the narrator states right up front,
"I'm a careful observer of the body's minutest motions, its fevers, crises, maladies, disturbances, but however clearly I seem to see my past, I can't be certain that what I remember of it is the truth. Memory is as liable to blight as the soul ..." 
giving us our first clue that perhaps this narrator is going to be less than reliable.

Very, very briefly, young Edward Fenzil is an assistant to the renowned Dr. Mütter, who in 1844 Philadelphia is already famous for his successes in reconstructive surgery. One day Mütter receives a visitor who, as he reveals to Fenzil, is none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Fenzil has never heard of Poe, nor has he ever read any of his work. A week later, Poe returns, "fascinated" by Mütter's collection -- his specimens -- and Mütter gives Edward the task of showing Poe around and giving him "every assistance." The relationship between Fenzil and Poe intensifies as time goes on, as they spend long nights together and as Poe begins to bring young Fenzil into his rather bizarre world. But things take a very weird turn when Poe and his friends from the Thanatopsis Club decide to "initiate" Edward into the group, starting a sequence of events that lead to a most horrific tragedy and an unexpected ending that blew me away.

Here's the thing:  as I said, if you're expecting a Poe-centric story or Poe clone here, you're going to be disappointed. Yes, he's in the book, and yes, the author does take you into his sad, dark world, where he finds a "strange beauty in suffering."  But here the narrative firmly belongs to Fenzil, not Poe, so Edward is most definitely the one to watch.   Another thing: many readers have complained about the style and the prose of this novel, but anyone who reads widely in 19th-century literature will have no problems with it. I suppose that many of the negatives may come from people who do the so-called "fifty-page rule," and who didn't find it punchy or exciting enough within that space to continue reading or at least to give the book more of a chance.  It's not that I think the book is great, because I don't (like a 3.5 on a 5-star scale)  but it is very dark and examines how the sanity of a seemingly-normal yet impressionable person can be so easily tipped over the edge, making it a book that is right up my alley.

My thanks to LibraryThing and to Bellevue Literary Press for my copy.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Soul-Drinker and Other Decadent Fantasies, by Jean Lorrain

Snuggly Books, 2016
translated by Brian Stableford
265 pp


First and foremost, a big thank you and virtual hug to Anna at Snuggly books, who 1) gave me something to look forward to when she first told me that this was book was going to be published and 2) sent me a copy.

It's not often that I read a story that begins with a queen giving birth to a frog, but that definitely happened here in the final story, "The Mandrake."   I shouldn't have been surprised -- the one before that, "The Princess Under Glass," had a young girl stuck between life and death  floating downriver on a barge, and the one prior to that one, "The Marquise de Spôlete" (a personal favorite in this collection), takes on a rather twisted and (I'm pleased to say)  messed-up version of one of Lorrain's favorite subjects, Salome and the head of John the Baptist. And it gets better.  I know this will sound kind of dumb, but reading this book is the mental equivalent of walking through a museum of curiosities where you don't know what's going to be coming at you around the next corner but you do know that whatever it is, it's going to be good. And I mean really good. Really, really good.   Another thing: anyone familiar with Lorrain's novel Monsieur de Phocas is going to see a number of echoes between the two books, for example, the man who can only truly love the dying, masks, "the gaze," exile/displacement, hypocrisy, narcissism -- the list goes on.

As Brian Stableford, the editor and translator of this collection notes re the overlap/fusion of Naturalism and Symbolism in "examining the psychological roots of amorous attraction, and particularly its apparent paradoxes, perversities and abnormalities..."
"No other writer of the fin-de-siècle undertook a more elaborate exploration of those apparent paradoxes, perversities and abnormalities than Jean Lorrain, and no one else went as far afield in the search for discoveries of that curious kind than he did."
I haven't read too much in the realm of  fin-de-siècle literature, but after reading a novel and these short stories by Jean Lorrain, I think I trust Stableford's judgment.   While I'm not going to talk about individual stories here because it is such a treat to have discovered them on my own, I will say is that for me,  there's not a bad one in the bunch and each one is a separate little work of art on its own.  Another thing a reader might notice is that there is a clear divide in this volume.  While all as a whole reflect Lorrain's fascination with "strange and wayward amour,"  the "Naturalistic stories":  "Sonyeuse," "The Unknown Woman," "The Lover of Consumptives, "The Soul-Drinker" and "Ophelius" have a more contemporary feel; after that, there are the more supernatural tales, "contes" some of which are labeled as "Bohemian tales."  To put the last eight in some sort of contemporary perspective,  it's sort of like reading Angela Carter's excellent The Bloody Chamber - the subject matter is different, but the characters are there to be examined, their depths to be plumbed.

While personally I think everyone should read this book, it's really going to appeal more to readers of dark, strange fiction who don't mind sitting and mulling things over after reading each story.  It is definitely a thinking person's book and one to read ever so slowly so you don't miss a single word, a single nuance.  I love this author and I especially love this collection of strange yet compelling tales.