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Champavert: Immoral Tales

by Pétrus Borel
translated by Brian Stableford

Short Stories

Champavert was the archetypal collection of the French "contes cruels," and the book still remains among the cruellest of them all. It is also one of the greatest collections of short stories ever published; the only reason that it has never been translated before is that the job was so challenging that only an insane person would tackle it. Pétrus Borel the Lycanthrope (as he called himself) declared himself dead before the book was published, but not many people believed him, even though he was the most honest man in Paris. Here are seven classic tales of horror, fantasy, and the twistings of fate, including the final story, "Champavert, the Lycanthrope," translated from the French for the very first time by the well-known fantastist and critic, Brian Stableford.

Monsieur de l'Argentière, the Prosecutor
Jaquez Barraou, the Carpenter
Don Andrea Vesalius, the Anatomist
Three-Fingered Jack, the Obi
Dinah, the Beautiful Jewess
Passereau, the Student
Champavert, the Lycanthrope
Introduction and Notes by Brian Stableford.

Published by The Borgo Press in January 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4344-4591-9

Review by Glenn Russell

Outsider tales from the man-wolf -- masterpiece of 19th century French literature, January 4, 2014

At the time the fiery romantic literary artist Petrus Borel penned this collection of seven short stories he was a lycanthrope, that is, a human on the outside, a wolf on the inside. And as a man-wolf he was an extreme outsider to society and culture, to convention and rules, to comfort and routine, an outsider telling his tales as he viewed humans and human society through his wolfish eyes. And what he saw wasn't pretty: any beauty and purity life offers up is defiled by twisted, debased bipeds who thrive on vanity, greed, bigotry, lecherousness and pure evil. Is it any wonder what we encounter in these pages are `Immoral Tales', tales where Borel's characters act in ways miles removed from any sense of decency and a standard of right and wrong? And is it any wonder the reading public who encountered his tales of depravity and brutality triumphing from the first word of the first sentence to the last word of the last sentence despised his writing?

So what was man-wolf Petrus Borel's message? How did he compare to other 18th and 19th century authors writing as social outsiders? Did he see our retreat from society and human interactions leading us to spiritual inwardness as did the Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard; to aesthetic freedom and ascetic renunciation as did German pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; to a state of nature and goodness prior to society as did French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau? No, not at all. For Petrus Borel, society and human life is so poisoned, so diseased, so contaminated to its very core, there is only one way out: oblivion.

With this worldview of the man-wolf Petrus Borel, we turn to a few of the tales:

Monsieur De L'Argentiere, the Prosecutor
Two aristocratic men speak as friends as they partake of a meal together. We read, "They were leaning voraciously over the table, like two wolves disputing a carcass, but their dull interlocutions, muffled by the sonority of the hall, were like the grunting of pigs. One of them was less than a wolf; he was a Public Prosecutor. The other was more than a pig; he was a Perfect." As we follow the story we see just what friendship means here. The Pubic Prosecutor acts with such trickery, such lecherousness, such sheer evil, that friendship, innocence and love are trampled, while all along employing reason and logic in his role as Public Prosecutor. Friendship was one of the keys to a good life in the ancient Greek and Roman world, championed by such great philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Cicero and Seneca. Petrus Borel shows us what friendship has been reduced to in 19th century Paris.

Don Andrea Vesalius, The Anatomist
A howling, frenzied mob stands at the gate of a palace, objecting to the wedding of a young girl to an old doctor who they see as nothing less than a torturer, a necromancer and a murderer. A handsome capped cavalier, the young girl's lover, leads the crowd in their attack on the palace. The attack brings on the king's mounted guard. The crowd is dispersed, the cavalier wounded. Since, as it turns out, the old doctor is too elderly and impotent to have relations with his young wife and bride, over the next four years she has separate rendezvous with three other lovers, including the capped cavalier, lovers who vanish when she awakes the following morning. And what happened to these three lovers? In the course of discovering the truth, we follow the doctor as he leads his young wife to his laboratory. We, along with his young wife, encounter the grittiest of scenes. The author writes, "The workbenches were laden with partly-dissected cadavers; there were shred of flesh and amputated limbs underfoot, and muscles and cartilage were crushed by the professor's sandals. A skeleton was hanging on the door, which, when it was agitated, rattled like those wooden candles that candle-makers hang up as their sign, when they are stirred by the wind." We find out just how far the old doctor will go to become a world-famous anatomist.

Champavert, The Lycanthrope
This tale begins with a letter written by Champavert, wherein we read, "I've often reminded you of that night, when, after having wandered for a long time in the forest, appreciating all things at their price, distilling, analyzing and dissecting life, passions, society, laws, the past and the future, breaking the deceptive optical glass and the artificial lamp illuminating it, we were sickened with disgust before so many lies and miseries." Oblivion, according to wolf Champavert is the only way out, but fortunately for lovers of great literature, on the way to oblivion Petrus Borel wrote these tales with richly poetic language and powerful emotions, tales that are (as stated boldly on the book's back cover) one of the greatest collections ever published. We are also fortunate Brian Stableford tackled the challenge to translate this collection into English and provided a 9 page introduction.

The Brian Stableford Website