Weird Fiction in France

Low Res Scan: Weird Fiction in France: A Showcase Anthology of Its Origins and Development, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2020.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

This anthology is mostly composed of stories three to four pages long though there is one novel and a novella. The “showcase” designation means it serves as sort of a sampler of Black Coat Press offerings since most of these works were previously published by them.

“Introduction”, Brian Stableford — Stableford traces the development of weird fiction in France, dubbed contes fantastiques, back to the manifestations of the Romantic movement there. Romanticism, in opposition to the Age of Enlightenment, emphasized mystery and emotion. Romanticism started in Germany but had different manifestations there. There was also an English version of the movement. French Romanticism was influenced by fey stories written by aristocrats as well as medieval romances and folklore, and France had a deeper tradition of fantastic fiction to draw on than England and the German states.

But there was some cross influences. French Romantics admired E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ann Radcliffe’s gothics, and Lord Byron. But it was Byron’s one-time doctor, John Polidori, that had the biggest influence. His The Vampyre was adapted into a stage play, and vampires were prominent much earlier in French literature than English. French Romantic works tended to be more frivilous and playful than their earnest and gloomy German counterparts. 

In 1830, Charles Nodier published a famous essay, “The Fantastic in Literature”, which explained why, after the Ages  of Reason and Enlightement, supernatural stories would be popular: 

When religions . . . shaken in their foundations, no longer speak to the imagination, or only bring confused notions to is, obscured . . . by an anxious skepticism, it is necessary that the faculty of producing the marvelous with which nature has endowed it is exercised in a more vulgar genre of creation, more appropriate to the needs of a materialized intelligence . . . The apparition of fables recommences at the moment when the empire ends of the real or conventional verities that lend a residue of soul to the wornout mechanism of civilization. 

In an 1832 essay, Nodier proposed three types of weird story: intrusions of the fantastic into everyday life, strange events that can’t be explained, and stories where the weirdness can be rationally explained or can be supernatural. The third type was by far the most common in French weird fiction and in this book. That theme was also aided by some pecularities of France:  the widespread interest in Mesmerism, the examination of mental illness by several doctors who wrote about their findings (thus leading to the popular “asylum novel”), and the romanticism of French writers around the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Stableford ends his piece with a defense of weirdness in literature: it’s an examination of the limits of sanity and the uncertainity of our perceptions done in a context of aesthetic concerns (including the weirdness of fiction itself and the many ways to construct it) and not the diagnostic ones of pyschology.

One o’clock; or, The Vision”, Charles Nodier (“Une Heure, ou la vision”, 1806) – The narrator comes across, in a ruined convent, a destitute man waiting for the appearance of an old love, now dead. She appeared to him as sort of a ‘crisis apparition” (as the Forteans might say) the night she died, and she has promised to appear to him at one in the morning. The story’s main interest is that the narrator, at story’s end, seems to have picked up the man’s madness, but that “madness” may be access to a knowledge science doesn’t possess.

The Delation”, S. Henry Berthoud (“La Délation”, 1831) – The homocidal rage of a spurned lover – or maybe some kind of possession – is what you get with this one. Paul returns home from a six month trip to find out that Clarisse is no longer interested in him and may be married now. I say “may” because it’s somewhat ambiguous. That may be a lie told by the voice whispering in Paul’s ear before he decides to shoot the couple at a ball. 

The Amorous Revenant”, Theophile Gautier (“La Morte amoureuse”, 1836) – One of my favorites in the anthology, and I’ve read the Lafcadio Hearn translation, “Clarimonde”, before. A 66 year old monk warns another monk about the dangers of gazing at women and how it “only requires a minute for you to lose eternity”. That’s what nearly happened to him when, on the way to his ordination as a priest, the courtesan Clarimonde appeared to him with statements of love if he’d only “tear the funeral shroud” he’s about to wrap around himself. But Romauld goes through his ordination anyway. But Clarimonde isn’t through with him, and, eventually, he’ll find himself leading a weird, split life: priest by day and sensual lover of Clarimonde by night in his dreams. And Clarimonde is far more than the very beautiful woman she appears. Romauld extremely exemplifies the eternal struggle between the spirit and the flesh.

The Diamond in the Grass”, Xavier Forneret (“La Diamente de l’herbe”, 1840) – With its skeletal plot and use of the folklore around glow-worms, this is a not very intersesting story about a girl running to a nocturnal assignation with a lover and finding him murdered. No motive is given nor the identity of the killer. It’s only point of interest is the girl’s internal dialogue.

The Magnetized Corpse”, Jules Janin (“La Mort magnetisé”, 1840) – Another favorite of mine in the book, this story uses the same idea as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” but was published before Poe’s story. Young Belfort is a dying Englishman, but he decides to help out a friend who wants to run a mesmeric experiment: prolong the moment of Belfort’s dying by hypnotism. After hypnotized, Belfort’s consciousness now has access to the magnetizer’s head and everything he experiences and thinks. Soon Belfort is criticizing the magnetizer’s taste in women, food, literature, and music and generally not pleased with the foggy nature of his thoughts This, decides the magnetizer, can’t go on. I appreciated the humor in this one.

Red Wine and White Wine”, Erckmann-Chatrain (“Vin rouge et vin blanc”, 1849) – You have to be careful about the wine you drink. There’s some very peculiar vintages out there. Narrator Ludgwig and his friend Hippel decide to visit the Johannisberg region on the Rhine to sample the local wines. But the one Hippel drinks gives him a very vivid nightmare where he experiences the life of an unpleasant, skinflint German burger on his last day before he drops dead of a heart attack. The two will learn, further in their travels, that the nightmare has a definite basis in facts, and Hippel will find his own unique way to make sure no one else drinks that wine.

The Green Monster”, Gérard de Nerval (“Le monstre vert”, 1849) – More bad wine in this one though I didn’t like it much. The Devil has long been rumored in Paris, and a noisy party in a deserted house brings the attention of the authorities. Since it’s the Devil’s house, the soldiers aren’t in any hurry to enter on an investigation. But a sergeant volunteers after he’s promised he can collect a pension early. He’ll need that before dressmaker Margot will agree to marry him. Inside, he’ll find a dead woman and wine bottles dancing in the air. He’ll take one of the bottles to drink on his wedding day. That is not a good idea.

Knightshade, Paul Féval (“La Chevalier Ténèbrae”, 1860) – Knowing that Féval was a major figure in French popular literature, a pioneer of crime fiction and fantasy fiction as well as a writer of historical novels, I was eager to read this one. (This novel was one of the first translated works released by Black Coat Press, and their very name comes from a series of crime novels by Féval.) Given his reputation, I expected a more lurid story. Instead it’s a mixture of historical fiction, romance, horror, and crime fiction. It opens in 1826 on the banks of the Seine at the country home of Archbishop de Quèlen (a real historical character who was Archibishop of Paris). He’s having a charity event, and several rich and important people are in attendance. The party takes to discussing stories about werewolves and brigands.

Baron Altenheimer, in attendance with his brother Monsignor von Altenheimer, relates a real tale of brigandage involving the Ténèbrae brothers. They are master criminals and conmen, violent, and adept at disguise. They are not just criminals though. They’re vampires, caught and executed several times, but somehow existing for centuries, and sometimes returning to sleep in their Hungarian graves. And then a police prefect shows up with news that, in disguise, the Ténèbraes are going to show up at the ball to steal the charity donations.

Now, the reader has some strong suspicions about who the impersonators are at the ball, but Féval keeps you guessing. An ineffectual aristocrat will pierce the mystery and surprise his mother in all kinds of ways that night.

But the extraordinary thing is, even after we get chapters from the Ténèbraes’ viewpoint, we’re still not sure if they’re running a con with the whole claim to be vampires or if they really are. This one deserves its reputation as an usuual and novel work.

A Spider’s Revenge”, Jules Lermina (“La Vengeance d’une araignée”, 1861) – Damien Vernier is a once happy man reduced by fortune to working “in one of the other cages invented by Cardinal la Balue, which is called Bureaucracy”. But he hasn’t hit bottom yet because he starts a vendetta against a spider in his office. This one leans heavily toward the insanity explanation of events.

Psylla, the Gold-Eater”, X. B. Saintine (“Psylla, le mangeur d’or”, 1864) – This one widens the general theme of doomed love so common in this anthology to include a snake becoming sort of an objection of romantic fixation on the narrator’s part. Here he discovers a snake at his home in Sardinia that just, at first, appears to be a particularly attractive example of a “necklace snake”.  He increasingly dotes on it. Weirdness enters when the snake starts eating his gold and, eventually, drinking his blood. Social scorn and poverty isn’t enough to break this obsession, and I took the whole thing to be symbolic of a man entranced with a beautiful and parastic woman.

This is a low-res post because I’ve already reviewed, however inadequately, “Claire Lenoir” by Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam under the title The Vampire Soul (Claire Lenoir). Stableford notes this is a slightly different translation than that one. Since Villiers did two versions, they may be based on different texts. In any event, my blogger diligence did not extend to comparing them.

Doctor Quid”, Jules Hoche (“Le Docteur Quid”, 1878) – This one is long on philosophy, particularly how everything (chemistry, sociology, psychology, marital attraction) can be reduced to numbers, and Hoche’s trying to come up with the formula to do that. Yet it ends on a rather farcical note. Yes, it is a good thing the modern scientists are married. It’s not really very weird and more another tale on the peculiar psychology of scientists.

The Serpent Flower”, Judith Gautier (“Le Fleur serpent”, 1882) – There is another doomed romance – well, three actually – at the heart of this story. The narrator, after several years, goes to visit Claudia Viotti, a woman he once wanted to marry. But the narrator left for India, and Scala, the narrator’s friend and long engaged to Claudia, married her instead. Count Scala seemingly died in an accident at sea after being married for six months. Claudia admits she didn’t wanted to marry Scala, loathed him, even tried to cast an evil eye on him, but he wouldn’t release her from the marriage. But now she’s remarried and has a son with her new husband, Leone Vitti. But tragedy strikes when the boy eats a flower he found and is fatally poisoned.

The narrator recognizes the symptoms and the flower. Serpent flowers shouldn’t even be in Europe. Their native to India. He knows that because he thought to develop medicines from their poison and sent some seeds to Scala. Maybe he’s indirectly responsible for the boy’s death. Or maybe there’s another cause. Whether through the hand of fate or the dead Scala, the serpent flower is definitely not finished with the Viottis. 

Wedding Night”, Catulle Mendès (“La Nuit de noces”, 1885) – Another one I liked for its unusual development of an old idea. Sylvain Brunel should be a happy man. It’s the wedding night with his new wife Gilberte. But, instead, he’s filled with trepadation. His old lover, Laurencia de Mortales, demanded absolute fidelity after her death or she would return from her “eternal sleep” to wreck vengeance. Sex with Gilberte becomes a weird double experience for Sylvain of being with both women. And there will be further proof that Laurencia has kept her promise.

Ellen’s Spirit”, Alphonse Allais (“Le ‘Esprit d’Ellen”, 1885) — Like “Wedding Night”, this is a story of love, sex, a dead woman, and revenge from beyond the grave. The narrator’s beloved wife Ellen has been dead for a year. Before she died, Ellen made him promise to be faithful to her. He still retains a “religious and exclusive” memory of her. But his friends, hoping to cheer him up, contrive a situation where he meets a woman. Perfume and wine revive “the beast” in him, and he has sex with her in her apartment, and then, shamed, goes home. There Ellen’s ghost appears to him. The story’s lingering power is how Ellen manifests and how she does and doesn’t communicate with her old husband.

The Horla”, Guy de Maupassant (“Le Horla”, 1887) – Justly regarded as a classic, this is Maupassan’t ambiguous horror story, told in the diary entries of its protagonist, about an invisible horror. Maybe the diarist is mad – he certainly seems dangerously inattentive at story’s end, maybe there’s an invisible vampire living in his home, maybe it’s an alien invasion. There’s even a metaphor that Charles Fort would later use: humans as cattle for the Horla. This is a longer version than Maupassant’s first and incorporated elements from another of his works. I suspect that’s the scene involving hypnotism which suggests to the narrator that the Horla can influence his very will. I lean toward a literal interpretation of events in the story, but Maupassant certainly provides plenty of material for considering this, as the narrator himself notes, the case of a seemingly rational man completly insane on one topic

The Egregore”, Jean Lorrain, (“L ‘Egrégore”, 1888) —  The concept of an egregore, the non-material manifestation of something created out of a group of human brains, has become more prevalent these days, so I was curious to read Lorrain’s story. But that’s not the concept Lorrain uses for the word. As physcist Forber explains to the narrator at a party:

It is the unfeeling and deleterious influence of a creature of darkness, of a dead man or a dead woman that installs itself beside you in the guise of a living one, insinuating itself into your life, your habits and your admirations, meddling with your heart and taking odious root there, while its damnable mouth breathes a fatal passion into you:  a commonplace madness; the folly of the artist or the amateur. And step by step, it increases the delusional and fascinating obsession, until you lie down one fine evening in the cold of the grave . . . the history of the Middle Ages is replete with the activities of Egregores.

And, as an example, he points out Hermann, an author, and how, he is sucking the life out of a once vital aristocrat and horseman Sarlys with the unwitting help of his victim’s sister.

The Double Man”, Marcel Schwob (“L “Homme double”, 1890) – The weirdness here as nothing to do with anything supernatural but rather the aberrant psychology of multiple personalities. Here, it’s a man hauled into court on charges of murdering a prostitute (there seems to be a hint of Jack the Ripper’s legend here) and stealing her jewels. Two minds, one body.

Leslie Wood”, Anatole France, (“Leslie Wood”, 1892) – A ghost story unusually tied up with some explicitly theological content. (All “true” ghost stories have theological consequences if accepted as real.) Leslie Wood, noted man about Europe; financier, mystic, journalist, and expert on matters political and economic; has returned to society after ten years absence and to great curiosity. He went to speak to one Reverend Buthogge about the matter of William Crookes, a real person and noted physicist and spiritualist, about the disappearance of Crooke’s spirit guide Katie King. The Reverend convinced him to sell his goods and become a missionary in Africa under the Reverend’s orders. After meeting the beautiful Annie, he wants to marry her, and the Reverend allows it. But the marriage is to be entirely spiritual. The Reverend will change his mind on that point but too late. Interesting in its plot but rather rather conventional, for the time, in its notion of the afterlife.

The Dark Angel”, Gaston Danville (“L ‘Ange noir”, 1892 – This one is certainly vivid in its details and the narrator’s distress at being haunted by a dead lover. However, I didn’t care for it that much though its ending did remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson”.

The Pensive Lady”, Remy de Gourmont (“La Dame pensive”, 1894). This is one strange story about Aline, a beautiful, happily married woman with children. She likes to go to the seashore and sing, rather like a nun singing in a convent. One day, she lays down to sing, and a fisherman, hearing her and thinking her a siren, approaches her. She is beautiful and scantily clad, and I’m not sure whether he actually has sex with her, but Aline rouses from her ecstatic state. The fisherman has “stolen” her, and he’s going to end up sorry. The weirdness here is mostly Aline’s mystical communion with the sea.

The Plague-Man”, Jean Richepin, (“L ‘Homme-peste”, 1895) == Surprisingly, there aren’t any other drug stories in this anthology. Interestingly, the story features the third pandemic of the bubonic plague which showed up in 1882 in China. Artist Michael Joshua Hawks and his “Intimations of Horror” carved, peculiarly enough, on blocks of talc are scenes of a plague outbreak. They are famous, but the narrator wants his friend to confess that they are a hoax and not real prophetic visions he’s had. Hawks takes the narrator to an opium den and brings his talc blocks with him. There we learn the origins of those visions. Except, maybe, we don’t. Are they mere precognitive visions or something more sinister? 

The Great Flower”, May Armand Blanc, (“La Grande flour” 1899) – If you can have a love affair with a snake, why not a flower? Well, here kind of a flower-woman. That’s what shows up in the window garden of our ineffectual hero Dominique Privat. Now, nobody else sees what he sees, and social scorn from his friends follows after he talks about it. So Privat has a decision to make. And, of course, he makes the wrong one. You don’t have to guess what this is an all an allegory for since Blanc clearly spells it out at the end.

Lucie’s Persistence”, Frédéric Boutet (“L’Insistance de Lucie”, 1903) – It’s another dead lover out for revenge, but Lucie has a better cause than most. She was the girlfriend of Canal, a young man with a bright future. While he was in college, they moved in together, married in the eyes of God if not man. Canal didn’t tell his parents about Lucie, but, after his graduation, they found out and forced him to break off the relationship with Lucie and enter an arranged marriage. Cowardly and callow Canal doesn’t break up with Lucie in person. He sends a note instead. Despondent, Lucie throws himself into the Seine. Now Canal wants his friend, the narrator, to check out his place because he’s scared to go into his bedroom.

The Saurienne”, Renée Vivien, (“La Saurienne”, 1904) – I don’t know what’s going on with this story. Oh, I know the plot. In the desert (probably Egypt which British Vivien, who wrote in French, visited), protagonist Mike Watts meets the Saurienne, a woman whose skin and eyes resemble a crocodile’s. She clearly has a sexual interest in Watts and tells him she knows the king and queen of the crocodiles. She can also ride crocodiles and proves it. Then she blatantly gestures toward the bushes with the clear intent of having sex with Watts. I suspect this is an allegory for something,  but not I’m sure of what. Vivien was a famously overt lesbian, and this may be some sort of comment on sexual relations of some kind. Or it may be an example of a Decadent interest in doom and the extremes of sexual attraction.

Sonia’s Soul”, Gabriel de Lautrec (“L ‘Ame de Sonia”, 1906) – I’m pretty sure the narrator of this story is just plain crazy. Stableford says, in his introductory notes, that Lautrec was originally part of the Symbolist movement and had an interest in occult. He latter dropped those and became a writer of “quirky quasi-surrealistic comedy”, and there is some of that in the tone of this story, which I liked. Our narrator tells us he’s been locked up in a rural cottage where he’s working on his The Objective of the Subjective, a work he is convinced will be acclaimed by the academy when it’s released. He goes on about Sonia’s soul which he claims to have breathed in when kissing her. (Here Lautrec specifically alludges to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Loss of Breath”.)  He claims he killed Sonia by “squeezing my hands a little too strongly around her neck” while embracing her. Is that true? Why is he locked in a cottage and not prison or an asylum? Of course, we have to take his word for where he is. Anyway, the narrator goes about the burden of having a body with two souls in it.  He wants Sonia’s soul out of his body before it dies. And, because he’s crazy, he has a crazy idea on how to do it. 

The Archangel in the Cabaret”, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (“L ‘Archange au caberet”, 1906) – I can’t say I liked this one much. It seems to be a statement on the decadence of Parisians who don’t recognize the divine and beautiful even when it’s in their midst. It’s the story of Marie who, from the earliest age, can see the comforting presence of her guardian angel. We follow her (though it’s a brief story) from her days as a young girl to a prostitute in Paris. One night, for the first time, she speaks to the angel and innocently wishes her friends could see the angel and asks him to go with her to the cabaret. 

Recommended for those with an interest in weird fiction and, though I wasn’t a fan of all the stories, its historical interest and amount of good tales made it worth reading.

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