Tartarus Press, 2002
"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.