"The fay of opium is a mistress who refuses herself at first, but soon lavishes her lovers with the most intoxicating caresses."
--- Jane de La Vaudère, "Parisian Orgies"
Snuggly Books, 2020
read in December
Prior to buying this book, it was the back-cover blurb that sold me, promising a "hallucinogenic sampling of psychotropic fashionability and fin-de-siècle exoticism." Couple that with the star-studded table of contents and the fact that it was edited by Brian Stableford, it was a no-brainer -- I had to read it.
That promise was definitely kept, and my god, I reveled in this book from first page to last. First, the selection of stories is excellent, and second, Stableford's extensive scholarship and knowledge is beyond compare. This isn't the first book he's edited which I've read pen in hand, iPad at the ready, and I always find something either in his introductions or notes that sends me scuttling through the internet.
There is no bad story at all to be found here, and the "sampling" includes not only Hashish and Opium, but also those who engage in other hallucinogens of choice. My personal favorites begin with two stories by Theophile Gautier, "The Club of Hashishins" and "The Opium Pipe," which open this anthology. The first, as is explained in the introduction, borrows "extensively from Hoffman" and presents
"within the context of a hallucination a brief tribute to the extravagant fringe of the French literary and visual imagination."
I couldn't help myself -- Gautier's drug-induced encounters and dreams made me laugh out loud, as did Charles Newill's "The Club of Hilarants," in which a man gets his comeuppance after rejecting a suitor's offer for his niece's hand in marriage. The mood changes from humorous after X.B. Saintine's "The Doctor's Hallucinations: A Moving Terrain. The Danae Delusions" with Marcel Schwob's "The Portals of Opium," in which curiosity (and opium) lead a man with "a desire for strange experience" to become "lost -- as wretched as Job." Speaking of exoticism, you can't do better than "Opium and Smara" by Jean Lorrain which I'd read before (although it was a great, decadent pleasure to read them again), but Jane de La Vaudère's "Parisian Orgies," my favorite tale in this book, exemplifies it. The description of the "great hall of the Moulin Bleu," for example, stopped me in my tracks with some of the most descriptive prose to be found in this anthology:
"There were Hindu Pyres there, surrounded by byaderes with gauze langoutis, tragic mourners and Brahmin sacrificers. Egyptian houses, boats of flowers, gallant guinguettes, Byzantine Palaces and prehistoric grottoes offered women of all colors, all sellers of lust. The Moloch of Salammbo reared up in a corner, gigantic and terrifying, and the faint sounds of kisses departed from niches where cardboard gods raised their murderous arms. The priestesses of amour, always ready for sweet sacrifices, only had to disturb their jewels to offer their flesh to caresses..."
but that is nothing compared to her descriptions of what follows at the "rendezvous of the Ladybird" cabaret. According to the editor, this story "first appeared as three chapters in the novel Les Androgynes, roman passionel," in 1903, later appearing in Snuggly's The Demi-Sexes and the Androgynes, which after reading this story, I immediately pulled from my shelves onto the physical tbr pile. The last story I'll mention is also delightfully decadent and bizarre, "The Night of Hashish and Opium" by Maurice Magre, which begins with a woman in India encountering three bad omens before undertaking a strange encounter at the Pagoda of Chillambaram.
The remainder of these excellent stories are as follows:
"The Double Room" by Charles Beaudelaire
"The Opium Smoker's Dream," by Pompon
"The Malay," by Jean Richepin
"The Green God," by Gabriel de Lautrec
"The Phantom of Opium," by Louis Latourette
"Telepathy," by Theo Varlet
"The Opium Den," by Louy de Lluc
"The Initiation," by Frederic Boutet
"Dropping in on Anika," by Victor Margueritte
The only downside of reading this book, is that it is yet another that needs to come with a warning label, as it caused me to pick up five more books even before I'd finished it. Of these, four were from Black Coat Press and were edited or adapted by Brian Stableford:
while number five, Claude Farrere's Black Opium: Ecstasy of the Forbidden
(1904) is a reprint of the 1974 edition, from Ronin Publishing (2016). The toll on my wallet would have been much worse except for the fact that I already own several books mentioned in this one, a number from Snuggly books, some from Black Coat Press, and a couple from Dedalus.
I get that French decadence is not for everyone, but it certainly is something I love, and this book is no exception. Truth be told, I could read this book over and over for days on end -- it's that good, an experience of sheer reading bliss.