I've always felt that the opening story in any anthology or collection should not only whet the appetite for what will follow, but also offer the reader an idea of what to expect thematically. The first story, Julius Zeyer's "Inultus: A Prague Legend" (1892) meets both of those criteria. This story is a blending of art, aestheticism, myth, death and a femme fatale sort of figure, along with an added religious/nationalistic dimension that enhances this tale of "bloodthirsty madness." It begins with a chance meeting between a poor poet and a sculptress who is trying to create a sculpture of Christ; eventually and reluctantly he agrees to serve as her model. His face, though "beautiful and melancholy" isn't quite enough for her as she desires something more. Zeyer also has another story in this book, "El Cristo de la Luz: A Toledo Legend" the story of a zealous, would-be murderer who has a rather unexpected mystical union with Christ. After reading these two, which are part of a tryptich called Tři legendy o krucifixu (1895), I decided I would really like to read more of Zeyer but there seems to be little of his work published in English, and a book I would like to have about him, Julius Zeyer: The Path To Decadence by Robert Pynsent, is long out of print with used copies selling in the three figures. Yikes.
Following Zeyer are two stories by Bozena Benešová, another writer who is woefully untranslated as well as the sole woman writer represented here. The "Biographical Notes" section describes her prose as
"anti-sentimental and psychological, dealing with women's issues, typically from the point of view of a marginalized female protagonist"
all of which are reflected in her "Tale for All Souls' Day" (1902) and "In the Twilight" (1900). The first takes place over five days in October and is related through the point of view of a woman in mourning. She has four months left to go until the end of her "imprisonment" so that she can go "out into the world, for the sun, for life, for love." After all, social convention requires that the "year of mourning must run up to its last minutes." It is from this story that the book's title is derived, as she recounts the crumbling of her brain, her steps toward regrowing , and the moment when, as she says, "straight away my head exploded." More overtly critical in nature, her second story finds a woman "wholly overcome with pain and sorrow ... so long suppressed" finding herself letting it all "burst out in full force."
Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, by Johann Liss. From The National Gallery
My hands-down favorite in this volume is "Cortigiana" by Miloš Marten. Here, as in Zeyer's work, art and death come together in the story of Isotta, a beautiful scholar of Plotinus from childhood and now a courtesan in plague-ridden Florence. She has discovered a way of "taking her revenge from life for its fradulence," and after one such moment, decides to "pursue the caustic fire that was penetrating her," taking her cue from the story of Sardanapalus in one final, fatal act of revelry. I couldn't help but think of Poe as reading this one, but there's more than a touch of the vampiric as well.
The Death of Sardanapalus from Wikipedia