"...when the devil mixes himself up with our affairs, he is not easily shaken off."
-- from "The Invisible Eye," by Erckmann-Chatrian
translated by Terry Hale and Liz Heron
The first of the Halloween reads.
One huge benefit of swimming out of the mainstream in my choice of books is that I occasionally come across collections like this one. There are twenty-four stories included in this volume, nineteen of which, according to editor Terry Hale, are making their English translation debut here; the other five by authors whose names may be more familiar are represented by somewhat lesser-known material. The book is divided into three sections, encompassing "Frenetic Tales," "Contes Cruels," and "Contes Fantastiqes," and Hale notes that this book is "intended to demonstrate the breadth and range of French writing in relation to the strange and macabre." He also notes that while "the French horror story of the nineteenth century may have freely requisitioned ideas gleaned from British, German and American authors," the writers here (and many others with works not found in this book, I'm sure) had been putting their own spin on them from the Romantics on through the writers of the fin-de-siècle:
"Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Romantic writers of the 1820s and 30s brought to the genre narrative sophistication and their own set of macabre fears and anxieties concerning such matters as the death penalty, anatomical research, the cholera epidemic, infanticide, and man's inhumanity to man; the rise of spiritualism in the mid-century presented a fresh collection of moral problematics; finally, the end of the century, especially under the pioneering work in the discipline later to become known as psychology, witnessed a renewed fascination in diabolicism and morbid sexuality." (35)So if you're looking for the standard horror fare, that's not what you're going to get here. That doesn't mean these stories aren't frightening, because they are, but in very different ways than one might expect. In some cases, all that's required is a bit of thought before the true, underlying horror actually hits you.
Now to the book, and while there will be no spoilers whatsoever, anyone who doesn't want even the briefest of descriptions ought to go read something else at this point.
Hale notes that "the first clearly recognisable development in the history of the French horror story" dates back to the 1820s, and this volume opens with six tales from the "école frénétique" a termed coined by Charles Nodier in 1821. For me there are three standouts in this section: "A True Account of of the Travels of Claude Belissan, Clerk to the Public Prosecutor" by Eugène Sue, "Solange," by Alexandre Dumas, and Xavier Forneret's "One Eye Between Two." Sue's tale follows the exploits of a disgruntled man who feels the need to chuck civilization, return to his natural state, and raise himself to a "state of savagery." This one is really good, with a great satirical and ironic ending that I never expected. Dumas' entry occurs during the Reign of Terror, where "they guillotined thirty or forty persons a day," and is related by a loyal citizen who does what he can to protect the woman he knows only as Solange. This one takes a weird, weird turn at the end when things go horribly awry. Forneret's very weird story is a tale of love, vengeance and revenge that takes place in Spain, with one of the most bizarre endings ever. Yikes. The other tales here are Frédéric Soulié's tale of revenge, "The Lamp of Saint Juste;" "Monsieur d'Argentière, Public Prosecutor," where the sting comes at the end, and "The Covetous Clerk" by Alphonse Royer that has a delicious, ironic twist to look forward to.
|French burial vault, from Pinterest|
"A sudden ray of sunshine bursting through a stained-glass window brought the face of the devil to life; and it would have been easy to believe that Christ's tempter paid the baroness the compliment of a smile."In this story, enough said. This section opens with "Dorci, or the Vagaries of Chance," written by The Marquis de Sade. Very tame considering it's deSade, it is the tale of two brothers who couldn't be more different; for one of them "kindness will get the better of him." Charles Beaudelaire is up next with his "Mademoiselle Scalpel" which finds a man in the hands of a woman with a grotesque fantasy. "The Astonishing Moutonnet Couple" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam follows, in which we learn the secrets of happiness for couple who were "a model of conjugal existence." It's not at all what you'd think -- ick. The next five stories all share a keen sense of irony as well, falling under the heading of black humor. Jean Richepin's "Constant Guignard" is a twisty tale in which a Good Samaritan suffers through an early life of "unfortunate events" and then things just get worse, followed by a similar sort of story by Charles Cros called "The Hanged Man." Jules Lermina gives us his "Monsieur Mathias" about which I can say absolutely nothing, while Leon Bloy's "A Burnt Offering" should leave you cringing and squirming by the time you reach the end. Then, the story I giggled my way through, Huysmans' "A Family Treat" which is pure Huysmans. I know that remark says basically nothing, but if you've read his work, you'll get it. Satire at its finest.
|Guy de Maupassant, 1892, from Nice-Matin|
Hands down the weirdest tale in this section is Guy de Maupassant's "Head of Hair," followed by Henri Rivière's "The Reincarnation of Doctor Roger." Maupassant's story is not only disturbing, it's completely unsettling as we watch a man whose "madness, his obsession, was there in his head, relentlessly devouring him." The subject of this tale led a relatively "quiet existence" until he was thirty two, when his life changed in an instant with the purchase made in an antique shop. But wait until you get to the ending. Rivière's contribution here centers around a man who feels that he must right a wrong from his past, but of course, it's not that simple. This one can go one of two ways, and that's up to the reader. As for the rest of the tales, we open with "Jacques Cazotte's Prophecy," as reported by La Harpe, in which Cazotte reveals not only that he is "able to foretell the future" but then goes about telling everyone their respective fates. It's okay, not earth-shattering. Charles Nodier's "The Story of Hélène Gillet" takes the reader back in time to the seventeenth century where a young woman is to be executed for a crime she may or may not have committed. The subtext is very loud here so it sort of lessens the impact of the supernatural aspect. de Nerval makes an appearance with "The Green Monster" which really isn't one of his best, but still worth reading. It all starts with a police sergeant's desire to win the girl of his dreams, which he does, but to the very strange detriment of both. The next story is from the pens of the duo Erckmann-Chatrian, "The Invisible Eye," in which suicides lead a man to discover the truth of what actually happens in a certain green chamber of a particular inn. This one's just plain fun. "Mademoiselle Dafné" by Théophile Gautier follows, very gothic in tone, complete with secret underground passages and nefarious plots. There's much more to this story, though, and it's always a pleasure to read Gautier because his writing is magnificent and he has quite a bit to say. Last but not least is Jean Lorrain's "One Possessed" which I think might have been an earlier, much shorter version of his Monsieur de Phocas, since the stories are nearly identical. Now that's a book that should not be missed for sure.
If you read this anthology with the idea in the back of your head that, as Hale says here, "horror fiction is a vehicle for exploring forbidden themes," then this collection completely adheres and is quite successful. As I said, it's not your run-of-the-mill sort of horror story anthology and while not every story worked for me, it certainly gives an insight into the sort of anxieties that dominated over several decades of nineteenth-century France, and in that sense, it also works well as a coherent collection. I'll also say that I have not been disappointed in any Dedalus publication so far, and this is yet another to hold a special place in my home library. Highly, highly recommended, but beware: reading this book increased my tbr pile as I added works by different authors represented here.