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.

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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.

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Illa’s End

My look at apocalpytic French science fiction works from before World War Two continues.

Normally, this, as with anything labelled as a review, would be cross posted to LibraryThing and Amazon. Well, the latter isn’t going to be happen anymore since my last review was rejected for violating community standards.

That was not the first review rejected by them, but I suspected the earlier case was Amazon cracking down on reviews on items which you did not purchase from there.

The second rejected review was a book I bought on Amazon. Why was it rejected? Sexual content? Race? Violence? Don’t really care enough to analyze it. And I’m not going to go to the effort of writing or editing a separate review for Amazon.

There’s a community of one that determines review standards here.

So, for any writers or publishers wondering why future reviews of their work won’t be reviewed on Amazon, that’s why.

I follow a one-strike rule here.

Review: Illa’s End, José Moselli, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Jean-Felix Lyon

Don’t ever do that again.

That, speculates Brian Stableford in his “Introduction”, is what Moselli’s usual publisher, Maison Offenstadt, told him after reading this “recklessly ultra-violent” story serialized as  La Fin d’Illa in 1925 in Sciences et Voyages. It may, speculates Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier in The Handbook of French Science Fiction, also be one of the reasons the publisher lost a court case in 1925.

Moselli was a true French pulp writer. Under a variety of names, he wrote a million words a year for adventure stories, police thrillers, technothrillers, and high enough quality science fiction that the Lofficiers regard him as one of the two most important French authors in that genre in the 1920s. And, like many a pulp writer, he would never see any of his work between the covers of a book in his lifetime. That would happen in the Moselli revival starting in the 1970s. Almost all his work was for Maison Offenstadt, and his editor there may not have even read the first installments of the novel when it was published. When he did, an abrupt end might have been ordered hence the novel’s truncated feel.

Nineteen Twenty-Five was a great year for French works of apocalyptic science fiction since it also saw the publishing of Ernest Pérochon’s The Frenetic People and Renee Dunan’s The Ultimate Pleasure. Unlike those stories, though, Moselli’s novel takes place in the distant past in the lost land of Gondawanaland.

The prologue starts in 1875 with the discovery, on a deserted Pacific Island, of a strange manuscript written on metallic sheets and an odd stone ball. The ship’s captain doesn’t end up selling them for the amount he hoped, and they end up being sold for a pittance to an antique dealer. Eventually, they are bought by a medical doctor, Akinson, in San Francisco who, in 1905, mails his translation of that manuscript to a friend in Washington D.C. Shortly afterwards, Akinson’s housemaid throws that stone balls in the fire – and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1905 results.

That manuscript is the account of one Xié, a general of Illa, one of two cities in the distant past on Gondwanaland. It’s the account of a dying, rather psychopathic, boastful man. He’s not much of a sympathetic character, but he’s determined, in the slim hope his writing will be found, that the future know of the ignoble Rair and that he, Xié, was the savior of Illa. Except, almost right from the beginning, we know he was the destroyer of Illa.

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The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories

My look at French romans scientifique with an apocalyptical bent continues.

Review: The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories, Renée Dunan, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.

Cover by Phil Cohen

While Ernest Pérochon’s The Frenetic People was an argument against justice, equality, and the liberty of scientists, Dunan’s The Ultimate Pleasure attacks human character as a whole though having little to say about the danger of scientists pursuing knowledge unsupervised. Published under the title Le Dernière jouissance, it came out in 1925 as did Pérochon’s novel.

Stableford’s “Introduction” gives a brief bio on Dunan. She was a literary critic and wrote in a variety of genres. She was very prolific between 1920 and 1925 in books and various magazines and may have written more than published. While she claimed that all her fiction was based on “the Neo-Platonism of Bergson, the Relativism of Einstein and the Pansexualism of Freud”, Stableford says the only consistent influence was the pansexualism since Dunan was also known as writer of erotica and sometime hack pornography. Dunan’s tales in this book, particularly The Ultimate Pleasure, are action adventure stories with philosophical ponderings. And, yes, there are some semi-erotic scenes in that novel.

Stableford says it

is a very peculiar addition to the tradition of dystopian fiction, not least because of its curious even-handedness, although that might be partly due to a reversal of opinion while the work was in progress. In its depiction of a future absolute tyranny it is remarkably stark. 

This is a post-catastrophe world. Thirty years before the novel’s main story, a massive fault split the earth open from Peru to the “Far North”. Out of the fault, the Bloody Sweats emerges, blood pouring from its victims’ pores. Millions die from it.

A team of scientists discovers the Bloody Sweats is caused by a gas emerging from the fault. Dubbed Necron, the gas isn’t the only danger. The newly exposed surface alters the atmosphere to produce a great deal of “cyanogen, carbon monoxide and free chlorine”. Oxygen in the atmosphere begins to be depleted. 

 The last relics of civilization disappeared. In parallel, the frenzy of pleasure-seeking and the fury of asceticism increased. Their partisans massacred one another. 

Forests, complete with wild beasts, spring up in once inhabited lands. People flee to Siberia.  Germans vanish entirely, and the Baltic nations kill all foreigners. Cannibalism shows up as do roving rural gangs. 

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Frenetic People

My look at pre-World War II apocalyptic romans scientifique continues.

Essay: The Frenetic People, Ernest Pérochon, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.

Cover by Yoz

The effects of World War One on literature are vast but usually hidden behind metaphors, displaced into other settings. This series is about the overt use of World War One in fantastic fiction. Pérochon’s novel uses the war in both ways.

Born in 1885, Pérochon saw combat, briefly, in the war. He was conscripted and went to the front but suffered a heart attack there in 1914 and was discharged. Another heart attack would eventually kill him in 1942 but not before he saw more horrors of the twentieth century. He ran afoul of the Vichy government. His only child and her husband joined the French Resistance, but she was imprisoned in Buchenwald though she escaped.

Pérochon was not one of those authors who routinely wrote science fiction. This was his sole venture into the genre. His usual stories were about the French poor working the land.

Stableford’s “Introduction” notes that the inter-war years saw no shortage in either Britain or France of stories about civilization destroyed in a future war. It seemed entirely plausible that the next war would see chemical, biological, and even atomic weapons delivered to cities via aerial bombardment. These stories tended to be more extreme in French romans scientifique. The Great War had, of course, been fought on French soil. Those French works tended to displace their future war stories more in time than British scientific romances did.

Published in 1925 as Les Hommes frénétiques, Stableford contends this novel doesn’t quite match the “sheer brutality of its excess” of José Moselli’s Illa’s End, also from 1925. However,

its far greater sophistication and mock-laconic attention to detail renders its account of superscientific warfare even more effective in its horror.

Having read both novels, I agree.

Our story opens at the Avernine Institute in the fifth century of the Universal Era. Avernine is a great scientist whose work resulted in an energy grid, using the ether, that extends around the world, a work so important that the time is called the Age of Avernine.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: On the Brink of the World’s End

Essay: On the Brink of the World’s End, Colonel Royet, trans. Brian Stableford, 1928.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

You say you don’t want to read any French tales about the ruins of Paris or philosophical musings on how the post-apocalyptic should be organized? You just want something pulpy and fun. Maybe a mad scientist tale . . . ?

Well, this one is close to what you want. There is a mad scientist. As to the apocalypse, well, you won’t get that. As the title suggests, we’re only going to the brink of the world ending.

That’s not a spoiler. Our narrator, philosophy professor Paul Lefort, tells us right at the beginning that the recently deceased French President, before he died, asked Lefort to, at last, reveal how the world almost ended twenty years ago at the hands of a “single man, simultaneously a genius and a madman”.

That man is Lefort’s best friend, Roger Livry. He’s a brilliant chemist and wealthy from an inheritance from an uncle.

It’s August 5, 192* when Lefort visits his friend whom he finds packing for a trip to Camp de Châlons. It’s here the story’s World War One content enters.

As Stableford’s note explains

During the Great War it had close links with the nearby Camp de Suippes, close to the front, also used as a training ground and to store stocks of chemical weapons.

Stableford, Brian note 55 on Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 315.

A bit later we get this about Livry’s wartime service:

Finally, during the hostilities, his conduct had been admirable. He had involved himself in the gas war, pursuing research at the front, under shell fire, into toxic substances employed by our pitiless enemies, inventing replies as he went along to their odious malevolence.

Doyet, Colonel. “On the Brink of the World’s End.” French Tales of Cataclysms, edited by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, Hollywood Comics, S.l., 2022, p. 316-317.

All very plausible and consistent with history.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Black Sun”

Essay: “The Black Sun”, René Pujol, trans. Brian Stableford, 1921.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

Stableford’s calls this a “corrosively downbeat” story and one of the finest works of French cataclysmic fiction because of its deft psychological touches, and I agree. 

He also suggests that the publisher wanted something like J. -H. Rosny’s The Mysterious Force, and there are some similarities. In both, a cosmic force disrupts life on Earth. Both, center on a small group in the country during changing conditions, particularly in the second half of Rosny’s tale. However, Pujol’s entire tale is set in rural France in village near a canal and limestone quarries. And, whereas Rosny’s tale has an alien force creating strong empathetic and telepathic ties within a group – while setting other groups against each other, Pujol shows the psychological strains on his characters. Its one flaw is that, as Stableford notes, its ending seems very rushed as if, in its third installment, his editor wanted Pujol to wrap his serial up.

The story centers around Dantenot, his fiancé Jane, and her parents Jérôme (an optician) and Amélie Sternballe. They are visiting Dantenot, a schoolteacher. 

It’s December, and the weather is unusually hot. The situation worsens with windstorms. People go mad from the heat or just drop over dead. On December 26th, a great storm devastates many things. While the story centers on this French village since Dantenot is the narrator, he does throw in asides about how similar events affected other parts of Europe and the United States.  Rail lines and aqueducts are damaged as are telegraph lines. Before they are cut off from the outside world, news stories appear about the unusual heat wave affecting the whole world. A local curre tells Dantenot that logic and science has no answers for it. Whether it grows hotter or cooler, some theory will be proposed as an explanation.

Eventually, things become so unbearable that the four seek shelter in the local quarries. There is a scene where Dantenot goes back to their home because the party forgot to bring food. He is somewhat resentful that they seem to think nothing of demanding he go back in the hot night to do this though they barely survived reaching the quarries. 

On a second trip, to get cutlery and supplies from a grocery store whose owner is dead, Dantenot encounters Cynécarmieux, an astronomer who has stumbled into the village. He wants food though he is convinced they are ultimately doomed. His theory is that the sun has met with a dead sun, a “black sun”, and its heat has increased. 

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Iron That Died”

Essay: “The Iron That Died”, Raoul Bigot, trans. Brian Stableford, 1918.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

This is one of those accidental alternate histories written during World War One.

Published in the December 1918 issue of Lectures Pour Tous, it was written before the November 11th armistice ended combat.

It’s not a particularly interesting story on its own merits though it does have historical interest since this is the first science fiction story to use to idea of iron suddenly removed from modern civilization, an idea taken up by other French authors as well as British and American ones.

The story opens with one Lieutenant Jacques in the trenches of the Western Front during some vaguely described – very likely due to wartime French censorship – battle. He’s the sole surviving officer after his position has been under artillery fire for 48 hours, “the hail of the 20s and the 150s”.1 Oddly, a list of German artillery used in the war shows no guns with those calibers whether measured in centimeters or millimeters.

The enemy attack is rebuffed, and Jacques, a man of delicate constitution, goes off to sleep. He was a scientist before the war and even has installed “an improvised wireless receiver”.2 Wireless receivers were in use by the French military by then, and it’s perfectly plausible a man of Jacques’ knowledge and training could make his own. French manufacturing provided some of the necessary parts used in British radios.

At this point in the war, it’s realized Germany needs to be beaten quickly after “what the Bocho-Maximalist had done to the old Greater Russia”3, a reference to the Bolshevik Revolution, aided by Germany sending Lenin to Russia, that had taken the Russian Empire out of the war.

As he’s about to sleep, the answer tot the gnawing problem of how to use his scientific knowledge at last comes to Jacques.

The next part of the story has Jacques sending letters to his superiors saying he has the idea for a new weapon and will only reveal to French Prime Minister Clemenceau. Eventually, he gets his meeting and makes his proposal and a secret plan, complete with combat tests and steps to avoid damage to neutrals, is put in motion.

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French Tales of Cataclysms

I continue to look at French romans scientifiques featuring apocalypses and disasters.

It’s a big anthology, but it’s a low-res scan because I’ve already reviewed J. -H. Rosny Aîné’s “The Cataclysm” (aka “Tornadres”) before, and three works – Raoul Bigot’s “The Iron That Died”, René Pugol’s “The Black Sun”, and Colonel Royet’s On the Brink of the World’s End – will be getting separate posts in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Low Res Scan: French Tales of Cataclysms, ed. Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, trans. Brian Stableford, 2022.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

The Lofficiers’ “Introduction” recaps the history of French apocalyptic and cataclysmic stories through the end of World War Two. This anthology has ten stories and two novels “published between 1802 and 1928”. This is another example of Black Coat Press’s less than stellar copyediting since the earliest story is actually from 1858. All the stories here are translated and introduced by Brian Stableford with the exception of The Tremendous Event.

Pierre Véron’s “The Paris Deluge” (“Le Déluge en Paris’) was probably written in 1859 and not published until 1862 since there was a tradition of setting these kind of stories a multiple of thousands of years in the future. And what kind of tale is it? The ever popular ruined Paris of the future and archaeologists reaching bogus conclusions about contemporary life from the artifacts they find. Those stories became popular with the demolition and reconstruction of large parts of Paris under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann.

Here the year is 4859. The story starts with the last ten years of the city. It’s submergence under the advancing sea is ainticipated. For the last ten years, the submergence of Paris has been seen as imminent, and now it’s only six days away. Wealthy people seek out agents to give their fortune to the poor. Critics attack their own works, and novelists are offering refunds to readers.  A vast number of balloons are being built to escape the city, the proceeds to be given to the Association of Ruined Stockbrokers. Then Véron has a silly interlude with various forms of marine life contemplating Parisian life as the ocean innudates the city. 

The story then shifts three thousand years into the future with a discussion between geologists and archaeologists. We then get a rather crytpic description of four items which, in keeping with this sub-genre, are ridiculously interpreted. In a rare end note from Stableford, he tells us that, usually in such stories, indirect clues are provided by authors to let us figure out what those objects really are.  Here, Véron ran out of space and offered the explanation in four footnotes.

Eugène Mouton’s “The End of the World” (“La Fin du Monde”, 1872) illustrates a problem all writers of science fiction faced in the early days of the genre: coming up with an appropriate narrative form for their tales. Mouton’s solution was to adapt an absurdist tone for this story which has no characters.

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“The Thing in the Cellar”

David H. Kellar is an author I’ve always meant to read more of after, decades ago, reading his first and very memorable story “The Revolt of the Pedesterians”. So, I’m glad my nomination to discuss this story was taken up by LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition group.

Review: “The Thing in the Cellar”, David H. Kellar, 1932.

Cover by Mauricio Villamayor

The story starts out by describing a house somewhere unknown though reference is later made to London streets so this may be around London England, but it could be around London in Pennsylvania, a state Kellar lived at one time.

The house’s cellar is much larger than the house. Perhaps the original house burned down and a smaller building was built over it. The entrance to the cellar is in the kitchen and has a massive door, reinforced with a sturdy lock. It is weirdly inappropriate for an interior door and more suitable for a door to the outside. The inhabitants of the house, over the years, have created a “barricade” of firewood, vegetables, and junk in the basement so the whole thing is rarely used.

We then switch to the Tucker family and their one child, Tommy. The Tuckers are hardworking if rather “simple-minded” people. Tommy is a good child and somewhat clever. 

He has one peculiarity. Being in the kitchen makes him nervous if the door to the cellar is unlocked or ajar. He’s fine when’s it’s locked. He even goes over to fondle the lock when its engaged. He absolutely won’t stay in the kitchen when the cellar door is open. He screams and flees. At times, when playing in the kitchen when his mother is working there, he will put things like bits of cloth or wood between the bottom of the cellar door and the floor much to the annoyance of his mother. He’s perfectly normal in the rest of the house. He’ll help his mother with chores – except he will not go down into the basement though he refuses to say why. 

When he starts school at age six, his parents are troubled enough that they take Tommy to see Dr. Hawthorn since the father, though proud of his boy’s performance in school, is a bit embarassed by this oddity regarding the cellar. 

Hawthorn talks to Tommy alone. Tommy doesn’t know what he’s afraid of. He’s never seen anything in thecellar or smelt anything. He just knows there’s something there to be afraid of.  Even Hawthorn gets frustrated with Tommy by the end of his talk. 

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