The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Fiction

While I don’t have that much interest in French fantasy literature, I am interested in French weird fiction and supernatural horror.

Review: The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Fiction, Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, 2022.

Cover by Nathalie Lial

The origins of this book, its organization, and even the deficiencies of its index are similar to The Handbook of French Science Fiction. Both books cover works produced in French by non-French writers, and, in fact, that’s much truer of this book since it concentrates on the rich tradition of Belgium fantasy and horror written in French. In fact, the only writer to get his own section in this volume is Belgium Jean Ray. (Coverage of him was one of the main reasons I bought this book.)

The origins of French fantasy are what you might expect: medieval romances and ballads and poetry and religious dramas. But it received its own unique stamp from several other things: some of the first publications of famous fairy tales, the Tales of the Fey often produced under pseudonym by female aristocrats, and occult and esoteric texts. The latter are so important that the Lofficiers carry coverage of them throughout the whole book, and French works of that sort (like the ones that inspired The Da Vinci Code and Jacques Bergier’s and Louis Pauwels’ The Morning of the Magicians) have become international bestsellers.

The Age of French Proto-Fantasy moves into fantasy literature as we know it today with the nineteenth century, a period which would see several notable authors like Honoré Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Anatole France dabble in the genre. It also was influenced by foreigners, especially the English Gothic which became the roman noir in France. John Polidori’s The Vampyre, translated into French in 1819, kicked off a major enthusiasm for works centering on that supernatural entity.  It was at this time a distinction would arise between two sub-genres — fantastique populaire and fantastique littéraire. Some of the authors here, like Alexandre Dumas and Paul Féval, made their reputation as writers of feutilleton, serialized novels published in newspapers.

Starting in the 1820s, under the influence of E. T. A. Hoffman, a fantastique romantique movement developed. Under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, a fantastique réaliste emerged. Less tied to metaphysics than Hoffmanesque works and emphasizing math and science, it was more respectable for the literati. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, decadent fantasies, also known as fantastique symboliste, started appearing.

In between the world wars, surrealistic fantasy made its appearance.

In the era of the 1950s and 1960s, the lines between the popular fantasist and the literary fantasist started to blur. There was also the presence of writers associated with the Grand-Guignol and film also made itself felt.

Folklore, both national and regional, was an important influence, particularly among Belgium writers.

The pace of the coverage picks up – and the retention in my mind faded – starting with the 1970s. I was unaware that a French version of Black Coat Press exists as a revival project. Oddly, I found at least one instance of a Black Coat Press translation of a work not listed as a footnote as they usually are. It’s title also was translated differently from their publication.

Fantasy in literature was often associated with crime fiction, and French fiction can boast both the first literary superhero, various mad scientists, the first masked supercriminal, and such long running super criminals as Féval’s Black Coats, Marcel Allain’s and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas, and the Sinister Mrs. Atmos, a Japanese scientist determined to have her vengeance on America for nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Lofficiers also cite Charles Lomon et Pierre-Barthélemy’s Les Atlantes, Aventures des temps légendaires (The Atlanteans: Adventures in Legendary Times) from 1905 as the “first great epic fantasy novel of the 20th century”. Its authors were two librettists who drew from motifs in opera.

While there is not a lot of biographical material here, there is a bit. I was, for instance, surprised to learn that Guy de Maupassant, author of the classic “The Horla”, ended his days in a mental asylum – where he believed he was being stalked by invisible creatures.

This is a good overview of its subject. In fact, it’s the only English language one that I know of, and, if you’re interested in these French genres, you will find something of interest.

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