The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales

More Villiers de L’Isle-Adam …

He put the “cruel” in conte cruel.


Raw Feed (2004): The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales, Auguste de Villiers L’Isle-Adam, translated Brian Stableford, 2004.

“Introduction”, Brian Stableford — Stableford puts Villiers’ Contes Cruels (Cruel Tales) in a personal and literary context. Published in 1883, just six years before Villiers’ death, Contes Cruels gave the shape to a type of story whose tone and frequent endings of bitter, revelatory irony influenced future horror writers. Not all of the stories in this collection come from that collection published in Villiers’ lifetime. Some were written afterward. With the collection’s publication, Villiers gave up trying to be a dramatist. Stableford talks about the possible reasons for Villiers’ erratic behavior and night haunting. (Stableford says his lodgings were so horrible, he probably just hated to go home.) Stableford has grouped the collection’s stories into various groups: the scaffold, the perils of progress, exotic adventures, gifts from beyond the grave, the travails of creative artistry, and the paradoxes of passion. (Villiers had an early interest in the occult but only a minority of his stories feature the supernatural.) Stableford sees Villiers as an author both behind and ahead of his time. He also talks about the inadequacies of previous English language translations of Villiers’ works.

The Secret of the Scaffold” — Stableford’s notes to this story say Villiers had a fascination with the guillotine and had seen several public executions with it. This story has a doctor convicted to death agreeing to help answer an old riddle — does the brain’s consciousness survive after the separation of head from body. He agrees to blink his right eye three times if he remains conscious. However, in an example of Stableford’s observation that Villiers’ tales often feature curiosity frustrated, the severed head only blinks its right eye once. Stableford’s notes say that Villiers grafted the names of real people on to what was an urban legend that goes back to a convict’s execution in 1836 (the story is set in 1864). I’ve actually heard the story associated with a scientist executed during the French Revolution, specifically Antoine Lavoisier. However, an Internet search tells me that there is no contemporary evidence that he offered to perform one final experiment at his death. There is mention of something similar being done in 1905 — after this story was written.

That Mahoin!” — Essentially this is a story built around a darkly humorous and incongruous image. When the notorious brigand Mahoin is executed, he goes to his death with his mouth agape because the last thing he sees is a town full of floating heads. The heads are actually protruding out of roofs and belong to the crowd come to see the execution.

Monsieur Redoux’s Phantasms” — Psychological tale about a respectable bourgeois man — almost obsessively given to weeding fancies out of his mind — taking the place of the king in a wax museum display of Louis XVI’s execution. He gets “trapped” (he could actually have escaped at any time) in a guillotine for a few hours. Wisdom and a rapidly aged face are his rewards.

The Jeu-des-Grâces” — An observational tale of human nature as three young girls play a ring toss game with the wreaths honoring their dead father. Perhaps, Villiers, with his attack on the “cult of sensibility” in his tale “The Disquietor”, was simply commenting about how morbid, static reverence of the dead must give way, eventually (rightly or wrongly) to the joys of youth.

The Heroism of Doctor Hallidonhill” — I liked this story about a patient, in good health, who returns to visit the doctor who, not too long ago, shortly pronounced him terminally ill. The doctor, rather than celebrate his good luck or humbly rue his misdiagnosis or ask the man what he did to effect this reversal, shoots the ex-patient so he can perform an autopsy and find his secret. This story says something about the pitfalls and extremisms and disproportions a scientific mind can fall prey to when untethered to other concerns.

The Love of the Natural” — In his introduction to this collection, Stableford says that, in some ways, Villiers was ahead of his time and justifiably cites this story as a prime example. Villiers takes the French story of the pastoral Daphnis and Chloe and uses it as an ironical attack on the pollution and artificial substitutes of modern life. Specifically, Villiers mentions butter, ersatz cigars made from soaking paper in nicotine extract, artificial eggs (Stableford makes no comment on these so I don’t know if they really were around when this story was published in 1888), chicory “coffee”, arsenic tainted wine, margarine, air polluted by locomotives, and deforestation by government order. Villiers ends by stating that, whereas Daphnis and Chloe were poor rustics, only the rich can now afford the natural life. A very modern complaint.

Etna in One’s Own Home” — This is a very peculiar and interesting story. One is tempted to call it an early technothriller except it’s more of a speculative essay with dramatic elements than a story. It has no individual characters to speak of apart from simply anarchists. Basically, it’s a warning (the metaphor of the ostrich is used) that anarchists have the technological means, with a clever combination of modern explosives, other chemicals, and a cunning delivery system of glass arrows to wreck a great deal of damage and strike at major governmental centers. (This was at a time when anarchists were causing trouble — the story is from 1886 — and were making lots of threats.) It is very reminiscent of stuff from the 1970s about how easily terrorists could assemble atomic bombs. Part of the story is straight essay and part is dramatized dialogue and meetings of anarchists, part of it quotes a fictional anarchist instruction manual. (Despite the change in technology, another modern seeming story from Villiers in an age of global terrorism.) Another oddity is the tone. Villiers clearly doesn’t want the anarchists to succeed, is writing the piece as a wake up call, but, on some level, he sympathizes with the anarchists since he dedicates the story (he often dedicated his stories to a specific individual) to “the evil rich”.

The Legend of the White Elephant” — Tale of a man (Mayëris who also shows up in the Villiers’ story “Aux Chrétiens les Lions! (Throw the Christians to the Lions!”)) who leads an expedition to steal a sacred white elephant from the Burmese Empire and sell it to the London Zoological Garden. He smuggles the elephant out of Burma by dying it’s skin. Unfortunately, the dye doesn’t come off, and he doesn’t get paid the promised reward.

Catalina” — Strange tale of a man who goes on vacation from studying “German metaphysics” and has an unexpected nocturnal encounter with a giant snake in a hotel room. He gladly retreats from “new recreational excursions into the contingencies of the Phenomenal World.” I suspect there’s a witticism about Hegelian philosophy here that I didn’t catch.

Tse-i-la’s Adventure” — A clever Oriental story which opens with a quote from the Sphinx: “Guess or I devour you”. It’s an ironical quote in the story’s context. The hero is a poor man who promises the local despot, Governor Tche-Tang, that he can grant him the ability to perceive treasonous thoughts in his subordinates’ minds as soon as they are conceived. He also says he can guarantee him a long, peaceful reign free from subversion. In exchange, he asks for riches, a title, and the governor’s daughter. As expected, the Governor threatens horrible torture for making a fraudulent promise. The hero has expected this. Alone, he reveals the secret. If the Governor kills Tse-i-la, he will be tacitly admitting no such power to foresee treason exists and fertilize such thoughts in the mind of his court. However, he, by granting Tse-i-la’s request, will put fear and uncertainty in his court. Why would he shower such rewards on Tse-i-la unless he delivered the goods? They will be so uncertain and fearful they will try their best to not even think of treason.

Akedysseril” — A surprising change of style for Villiers. This long story mixes lush, softly erotic prose with philosophizing about love. The terrible and bloody and attractive Indian Queen Akedysseril has a problem. A commoner who married a prince, she now runs a kingdom after his death. Good politics dictates she kill her brother-in-law Sedjnour and his beloved. However, she balks because she so respects their passion for each other; it reminds her of her love for her dead husband. So, she asks the local cult to figure out a way of killing the two through love, of manipulating them into killing themselves out of fear of losing their ecstatic union. The local head priest does. Akedysseril accuses him of great cruelty since he lets it be known to the two that they can have kingdoms of their own if they agree to marry others. Despondent and jealous, they are then reunited and sort of die of ecstasy (at least the cause of death is clearly stated and a fear of losing the joy of their delayed union after separation is seen as at least a motive of death). The chief priest tells Adedysseril she doesn’t really understand their minds because, however much she says she loved her dead prince, her thoughts and heart were already distracted by thoughts of political glory (she’s trying to unify India). At story’s end, she cries, for the first time in her life, at this revelation about herself.

A Tale of the End of Summer” — I didn’t really understand this story about two men, one a lifelong bachelor, one a widower, who seem to call famous women into existence via their imagination. How, exactly, this occurs is unclear as is whether the men consider themselves playing a whimsical game or are self-consciously bringing up ghosts. Not only was the plot unclear but so was the point.

The Right of the Past” — The story of how the ring of an imposter who styled himself Louis XVII came in to the possession of the Frenchmen who signs the armistice ending the Franco-Prussian War on January 12, 1871. In effect, we are invited to believe that France forsaking her royalty is ironically punished by having the ring of that royalty sign its humiliating surrender to Germany.

The Stake” — Not ever having been a Catholic, I’m not sure the ultimate significance of this story’s ending. Abbé Tussert is a disreputable deacon of the church, his clerical mark is a garb of scandal, his presence generates fear in the demi-mondain. At a gambling game of cards, out of money, he wagers the secret of the Church. He looses and reveals the secret: “… there is no purgatory”. This certainly disquiets the crowd he’s with. His mistress even — “perhaps penitent” — refuses his advances that night. Even I found the end a bit disquieting. It seems to imply no slack for sinners, that purgatory is some sort of last chance to clean up, a last chance that doesn’t really stand between you and immediate damnation to hell.

The Celestial Adventure” — I don’t know if the Sister Euphrasia mentioned at the beginning of this story is a real person, but the story relates the miraculous events involving a Jew, a flood, and his gift of gold — given in gratitude to being saved by the ruins of an old Cavalry on a hill — which wonderfully finds its way into Euphrasia’s hands at a critical time.

Plagiarists of the Thunder” — An allegory inspired by the disdain Parisians felt for composer Richard Wagner when he started out there (Villiers was a big and early fan) and plagiarism of some of the stories Villiers first told orally in salons. The allegory involves an island of parrots who go about their parrotting of various sounds, including the thunder, in the mistaken belief that impressions are a mark of talent. They try to imitate the thunder and don’t realize it is part of a greater thing which also contains lightening. Presumably, Villiers is commenting on hacks who skillfully imitate but don’t innovate or see crucial relationships.

The Modern Legend” — Another story about Villiers’ idol Richard Wagner. I can’t tell, from Stableford’s notes, how much of this story is fiction. It tells of a down and out Wagner encountering a merchant. Wagner self-confidently predicts that he will one day be proclaimed worldwide as a genius, the inventor of a new sort of music. The merchant thinks him mad, but he gives Wagner some money. Six months later he gets an anonymous sum of money. He doesn’t make the connection and merely ponders if the “madman” was locked up.

Milton’s Daughters” — For someone who has not read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, this tale’s main interest was Villiers account (I have no idea how accurate) of Milton’s troubled relationship with his daughters (who don’t approve of the old regicide), his dictation to them, his belief that poetry must be spoken and felt, and his frustration that his extemporaneous versions are not promptly written down and are then forgotten. (Stableford implies that Villiers was probably sympathetic, given his tale spinning in salons, to Milton’s complaint.)

The Elect of Dreams” — Ironical, rather jokey story, about a writer who makes up a story about the poor, suicidal tenant next door. He claims he is an exiled king dying, alone, in a strange city, with his wealth beside. It turns out that something like this is true. The man leaves the writer his fortune and advises him to dump his two unimaginative colleagues (one a painter, one a musician). The story ends with the two ex-friends, still poor, holding on to the aesthetic judgment that one must always see things as they are. Of course, they didn’t, through a paradoxical failure of imagination, see the truth of the old man.

The Lovely Ardiane’s Secret” — The up and coming Pier Albrun finds out that his success is because of the murders and arsons of his wife, Ardiane Inféral (pointedly described as a Basque). At first, he is appalled and tosses out the medal the town has awarded him for fighting a series of fires. But his conscience is “blinded” little by little. He comes to rationalize his wife’s crimes. Her victims, he thinks, would have died shortly in other ways and his newborn child needs him. He abandons “excessively rigid austerity”. Thus, Villiers concludes the story, “is not this denouement, for any serious and sincere mind, the most plausible?” This is Villiers in biting moralist mode.

The Lovers of Toledo” — Sardonic tale of the vagaries of love. Torquemada conducts an experiment where he unites two chaste lovers after a year’s separation. They are married, enjoy 48 hours of conjugal bliss, and wish it would never end. But, at the marriage banquet, they are stiff with each other and, in fact, live separately the rest of their lives, scared that their bliss is not replicable.

Sister Natalia” — Stableford says in his note this is a retelling of an old Spanish tale about a Franciscan nun who sneaks out of her convent, allows herself to be seduced by a man, bitterly repents after he leaves her, and sneaks back into the convent — where she finds out her absence wasn’t even noticed (she was gone at least six months).

The Schoolfriends” — A couple of schoolmates become quasi-whores in French society, and the story seems to suggest they have better things to worry about than who is taking whose “sweetheart” (or, as Villiers says, “unofficial pimp”).

Sylvabel” — Stableford’s notes say this is another old Spanish tale, specifically one of a new husband trying to break the will of his new wife. He fears she will disdain him so commits various acts of capricious violence (killing a favored horse and a favorite dog — allegedly over interfering with his hunt) with the explanation that he tries to keep his temper in check, but sometimes fails. (Actually, he’s quite a gentle sort.) The woman is impressed — but not by his cruelty. She knows his scam but is impressed he would sacrifice two favorite animals to do it and that he would persist so long in his sham when she is so derisive of him. Both are sure signs he loves her, and the couple lives happily ever after.

Sublime Love” — Rousseau-Latouche is a modern man with a very virtuous and learned wife. At first he likes that, and then it begins to disturb him. Eventually, he decides he wants to knock her off her moral heights and plots to tempt her with a young man who is also virtuous. But the two never do commit adultery, to his disgust. A rather refreshing story that asserts some people really are, sincerely and superiorly moral.

The Better Love” — A sardonic — but truthful — tale about the power of noble lies — even if told for ignoble reasons. A man is inspired to all sorts of acts of heroism by the letters from his fiancé back in France. (He’s with the African Rifles.). He gets them for years. However, she has actually taken up another man and got a nasty venereal disease rather than lead the chaste, faithful life waiting for him. Yet, as Villiers says, what would be the point of telling him the truth. The man dies happy “because real happiness can only be found, in this world, within oneself.” His faith in his love, however misplaced, made him happy.


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