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Martyrs of Science and Other Victims of Devilry & Destiny

by S. Henry Berthoud
adapted by Brian Stableford

Short Stories

S. Henry Berthoud (1804-1891) was a writer of considerable ability, remembered today mostly for his often reprinted collections of folkloric legends from Northern France. Yet, he was a writer who came close to inventing science fiction as early as the 1840s.

This unique collection assembled, translated and introduced by Brian Stableford, gathers 32 of Berthoud's best works, displaying his often pioneering surges of imagination. It includes samples of his remarkable supernatural stories, his eccentric scientific fantasies, featuring real or imaginary scientists, his ground-breaking visions of the prehistoric past of Paris, and his futuristic novella about the Year 2865.

Misanthropic Tales
The Painter Ghigi
The Day After the Wedding
Nocturnal Terror
Folklore and Fakelore
The Devil's Chess Game
The Mouth of Hell
The Devil's Sonata
The Sabbat Bow
The Antique Ring
The Lady of the Cold Kisses
The Barn in Montecouvez
The Wedding at Cavron-Sain-Martin
The Sire with the Broken Armor
The Farmer's Supper
Saint Mathias the Hermit
Martyrs of Science
A Voyage in the Heavens
The Master of the Weather
The Madman
The Cauldron of Bicêtre
The Second Sun
Scientific Fantasies
The Star-Eaters
Luminous Flowers
Which Should Not be Read by People Afraid of Nightmares
The Story of a Tree in the Champs-Élysées
The Diabolical Coal-Merchant
A Haunted Room
A Scientist's Cruelties
Stories for Children
Heidenloch Castle
The First Inhabitants of Paris
The Year 2865
Introduction and Notes by Brian Stableford

Cover by Mariusz Gandzel

Published by Black Coat Press in November 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61227-229-0

Review by Glenn Russell

S. Henry Berthoud (1804-1891) - French journalist and pioneering fiction writer in a wide range of subjects - the supernatural, scientific fantasies, fantasies about civilization’s past and future, invented folklore, tales with cruel, unexpected twists, tales for children and tales of obsessive scientists, real or imagined, frequently pushed to the brink of madness. Scholar and translator Brian Stableford’s comprehensive twenty-three page introduction provides ample biographical information and literary context for a reader new to Berthoud to appreciate the author’s imaginative and frequently groundbreaking body of writing. Martyrs of Science collects in one volume more than thirty tales from Berthoud's wide-ranging fictional spectrum.

With his first published book, Misanthropic Tales in 1830, Berthoud is now recognized as the inventor of the French contes cruels tradition, that is, short tales concluding with cruel, ironic, nasty or horrific twists of fate. Quite the switch from the usual “happy ever after” stories many French readers were expecting. Among the cruel tales in this collection, several feature the theme of madness mixed in with another key ingredient: in The Day After the Wedding, madness and dream turned nightmare; in Nocturnal Terror, madness and terror aroused by a ghost story; in Alice, madness and heartfelt love. With The Painter Ghigi the narrator is filled with remorse after admitting responsibility for two murders. His remorse is compounded by another murder he commits in hot-blooded passion and yet again even more remorse when he is horrified by a familiar face being carted off to the gallows. My personal favorite is Prestige where one of the characters conceals a monstrous inner self lurking in the murky shadows of his own personality, a tale written fifty years prior to Robert Luis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and My Hyde.

The Folklore and Fakelore section (fakelore as in made-up folklore) showcases eleven tales where dark supernatural forces make their appearance, usually in the form of satanic messengers or the Devil himself. One in particular, The Devil's Sonata, is an eerie, spooky tale where old man Niéser, musician and lover of music from a distinguished musical family extending over generations, has a problem – he has but one heir to pass on the family’s musical tradition, a beautiful daughter who unfortunately doesn’t have a musical bone in her body. Thinking he can salvage his dilemma with a musical grandchild, Niéser decides to sponsor a contest by offering a small fortune as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who can both compose and play the best sonata, even if, he boldly asserts, it is the Devil himself. Quite the ominous words, you foolish old man! Meanwhile both daughter Esther and her handsome lover Franz Gortlinger are distraught since Franz possesses no more musical talent than Esther.

But then it happened when Franz, all forlorn and disheartened, rambles through the deserted town streets on the evening preceding the next day's competition. Through a window he sees an elderly gentleman playing the piano in an isolated house. As if an iron filing drawn to a powerful magnet, Franz enters, listens to the music and is transfixed. The music stops and the gent turns to Franz. “Listen to me”, said the old man. “Niéser has made a criminal oath in swearing that he would give his daughter to whoever composes the best sonata, even if it were the Devil himself, and played by his hand. Those words have been heard, and repeated by the echo of the forests, have been carried on the wings of the wind and night all the way to the ears of the one who dwells in the valley of darkness; the Demon’s cries of joy burst forth. But the genius of good was alert; so, without taking pity on Niéser, the fate of Esther and Gortlingen has touched him. Take this score; go into Niéser’s drawing-room; a stranger will present himself to dispute the prize; two others will seem to be accompanying him: the sonata I have given you is the same one that they will play, but mine has a particular virtue: watch for an opportunity, and substitute this one for his.” Franz follows these instructions exactly. What takes place the evening of the competition when the three musicians play their sonata for Niéser is as memorable as it is harrowing.

Each of the five Martyrs of Science tales features a scientist’s one-minded obsession with discovery that has him labeled an oddity if not a madman. One thing for sure - Berthoud didn’t permit facts to hold back his imagination as there’s large doses of fiction laced in with the historic record. By way of example, A Heavenward Voyage is a compelling adventure of one eccentric explorer par excellence, Ludwig Klopstock by name, a man always distracted and dreamy, a poetic solitary, a romantic loner in his tattered, stained jacket and pants, forever casting his eyes upward to the stars.

When Ludwig marries a poor young lass from the village and shortly thereafter has a son, he transforms into a well-groomed, caring husband and father. Then fate strikes a cruel blow: Ludwig’s beautiful baby son dies of fever. Ludwig’s wife goes mad and poor Ludwig returns to his pursuit of chemistry and astronomy. He makes astounding discoveries however the scientific establishment twists facts by various unethical maneuvers thus depriving him of any credit.

Suffering such maliciousness at the hands of others, Ludwig turns his mind exclusively to the heavens and yearns to leave this earth to have his soul soar unimpeded in a crystalline, ethereal realm. Then Ludwig is given the opportunity of a lifetime: surrounded by a cheering crowd in a nearby field, Bitorff the famous balloonist is about to take off in his newfangled balloon. Ludwig pushes his way through the crowd and insists on joining the balloonist. Observing the passion and courage of the scientist, Bitorff agrees to take Ludwig aboard. At this point, no pun intended, the story really takes off!

With the last two groups of stories, Scientific Fantasies and Stories For Children (Berthoud sought to improve popular scientific literacy, especially among children), we have various fictionalized accounts of men and women interacting with animals, plants, insects and other phenomenon in nature as they conduct offbeat research and make unexpected discoveries. To take a quote from one of their number, A Scientist’s Cruelties, we read: “It is true that that eccentric—as he has been called for forty years, and perhaps more—has dedicated all his time, his fortune, his health and his life to the study of just two animal species: cockchafers and cats, but let us add that these studies provide the key to the entire system of organization of insects and mammals. What does it matter that the unfortunate fellow does not have the smallest pension, is nothing at the Natural History Museum, and leaves others to take possession of his discoveries or claim credit for them. One cannot show oneself to be more authentically eccentric!” All in all, for anyone interested in the range of scientific exploration as it developed in the nineteenth century, from biology and chemistry to archeology to physics, these imaginative tales will prove highly informative, stimulating as well as entertaining.

The Brian Stableford Website