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Ether was Jean Lorrain's inspiration, but in the end it also killed him, horribly.
Lorrain, already a leading figure in the French Decadent Movement of the 1880s and 90s, was well aware of the dangers of ether, but unlike many other psychotropic drugs ether is a stimulant, and it provided the already ailing author with the stamina as well as the inspiration, to write. We can only assume that he hoped for some kind of Faustian bargain whereby any physical damage incurred would he offset by originality gained.
The drug certainly helped provide the feverish, nightmarish atmosphere of these wonderfully decadent and sophisticated tales, and many of the apparitions with which they are peopled. And, as he must have known it would be, Lorrain's fragile health was fatally undermined...
Brian Stableford's superb translations represent the first appearance in English of Jean Lorrain's ether-inspired 'night- mares", originally collected as Sensations and Souvenirs in 1895. They include the highly influential 'L'Egregore' ethe Egregore', 1887). The later tales also translated here for the first time are in the tradition of the contes cruel, and in them the influence of ether-drinking is still very much apparent.
In his authoritative new Introduction Brian Stableford presents Lorrain
as one of the select band of literary figures "whose life and art
were bound together into the most seamless whole. He was the man who embodied,
more intimately and more inescapably than any other, the absurdities,
affectations, paradoxes and perversities of the Decadent style and the
Published in 2002 by Tartarus Press
None of Jean Lorrains biographers has contrived to discover exactly when or why he began taking ether, or how much of it he took before realising (too late) that it was an extremely bad idea. The drug certainly helped provide the feverish, nightmarish atmosphere of these wonderfully decadent and sophisticated tales, and many of the apparitions with which they are populated.
Brian Stablefords superb translations represent the first appearance in English of Jean Lorrains ether-inspired nightmares, originally collected as Sensations et souvenirs in 1895. The later tales also translated here for the first time are in the tradition of the contes cruel, and in them the influence of ether-drinking is still very much apparent.
In his authoritative Introduction Brian Stableford presents Lorrain as one of the select band of literary figures whose life and art were bound together into the most seamless whole. He was the man who embodied, more intimately and more inescapably than any other, the absurdities, affectations, paradoxes and perversities of the Decadent style and the Decadent world-view.
Published in February 2016 by Snuggly Books
Review by Glenn Russell
Nightmares of an Ether-Drinkeris a collection of 27 very readable, highly provocative and enjoyable short-stories by Jean Lorrain, member of the French Decadent movement of the late 19th century. And Jean Lorrain was a decadent with attitude: as a leading journalist of the day, many of his literary reviews were brutal. How brutal? Marcel Proust challenged him to a duel. Guy de Maupassant likewise requested pistols at ten paces. You can read all about Lorrains fascinating life and the stages of his literary output in translator Brian Stablefords excellent 30 page introduction. And this introduction also includes how Lorrains ether drinking was part of the French literary scenes experimentation with substances like opium and hashish, conducted by, most notably, Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier. Sidebar: Brian Stableford notes how addiction to ether killed Jean Lorrain, since Lorrain found out too late that drinking ether is like imbibing rat poison. So, please dont try this at home, gang.
Ether doesnt play a part in all these stories but nightmares of one stripe or another most certainly do. For me, I couldnt put the book down. I started reading in the evening and couldnt stop; rather than sleeping, I spent the entire night riveted to every page, mesmerized by Lorrains breathtaking storytelling. Over the course of the next week I reread, slowly and carefully, recording a number of his stories on my digital recorder so I could listen whilst taking my walks. This being said, Id love to share my take on all these stories but since I am writing a book review and not a book, Ill exercise restrain and comment on three of my very favorites:
Well my goodness, a man terrified by reality. How did this happen? Serge explains how his mind-creations, those invisible ghosts and ghouls that haunted him during his ether-drinking days have disappeared but have been replaced by much more sinister phantoms: everyday people! We are given lurid detail of what happens nowadays when Serge encounters people in the street and when boarding the tram. For example: I was possessed . . . by the conviction that all the people facing and sitting to ether side of me were beings of some alien race, half-beast and half-man: the disgusting products of I dont know what monstrous copulations, anthropoid creatures far closer to the animal than to the human, with every foul instinct and all the viciousness of wolves, snakes, and rats incarnate in their filthy flesh.
Such visions of reality reveal the inglorious underbelly of hallucination-inducing drugs. And such horrific visions also speak to the decadent world-view. Recall how des Esseintes, the effete, hyper-sensitive aristocrat and main character in J-K Huysmanss novel Against Nature(À rebours), cult favorite of the decadents, becomes nauseated when spotting a few potbellied, mutton-chopped bourgeois at a train station. This negative experience of everyday people is intensified 100-fold in Lorrains tale. And If this short-story is in any way autobiographical, its no wonder the authors decadent lifestyle mirrored his decadent writing.
The Locked Room
The first night the narrator has an experience he will never forget. He is suddenly awakened from his sleep; he sits bolt upright in a sweat as he hears the playing of a harpsichord in the adjoining room. Then, even more mysterious and creepy, enveloped in the darkness of the night, he feels the pressure of breath on his face, then a thin, faint imploring voice: Take me away. Take me away followed by the noise of fleeing footsteps, a door closing and a key turning a lock. Horrified, he attempts to flee but escape is impossible, for the doors are locked. He pulls a chair over and sits up reading and keeping vigilant watch all night. The next morning he wakes up in bed. Were all the events of the previous night a nightmare? Or, did he really receive a visit from the mothers ghost? The narrator receives a sign that keeps him wondering.
With this short-story we hear echoes from another J-K Huysmans novel, Becalmed (En Rade), where a similar Parisian ventures to a similar French chateau with a similar guest house. The fin de siècle decadents were miles away from romantic notions of nature and country; rather, for them, rustic, rural life was primitive, uncouth, ominous and noxious. Here is the way our Parisian narrator in The Locked Room puts it: The guest-house of the Marquis de Hauthere stood beside that stagnant pool, in the midst of wild grasses, rotting in the rain. Its atmosphere was strange, unsettling and mysterious. The thick silence was undisturbed save for the weathervanes on the roof creaking in the October wind; all around was the conspiratorial silence of the voiceless and echoless woods, dormant beneath a blanket of fog.
A Posthumous Protest
Sitting in his armchair several evenings later, the narrator relates his shocking encounter: I saw oh horror! that the cut-off head shone strangely in the gloom. The fixed eyes were illuminated by a halo of light which bathed her, surrounding her golden hair with a radiant aureole. From those staring eyes her terrible eyes, whose dead pupils I had myself outlined in ultramarine darted two rays of light, directed at the sealed door, now laid bare by the curtain which I had removed. He then goes on to describe how a naked decapitated young woman appears at the doorway with blood trickling between her shoulders.
To see just how far the French decadent literary movement separated itself from 19th century romanticism, lets compare this Lorrain tale with The Mummys Foot by Théophile Gautier. In Gautiers romantic tale, the narrator purchases a mummys foot from a Parisian antique dealer and that night has a dream of enchantment where he travels back to ancient Egypt with a beautiful princess to have a series of thrilling, exotic, heart-throbbing experiences. Nothing of this sort for Lorrains narrator; rather, his meeting with a young, beautiful woman is horrific (after all, he decapitated her) -- he is pulled down into a ghastly, hair-raising nightmare. Ah, the decadents!
The Brian Stableford Website