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The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales

by the Comte de Villiers de l'Isle Adam
adapted by Brian Stableford

Short Stories
In this collection of "Cruel Tales," we meet a unique and colorful cast of extraordinary characters such as Akedysseril the Queen of India, Mayeris the big game hunter who capured the sacred white elephant, Maryelle the courtesan, Catalina the gypsy toast of Santander, Mahoin the brigand, the murderous Doctor Hallidon and Tomolo Ké Ké the Antipodean who traversed the Earth.

Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838-1889), pioneer of the Symbolist Movement, is known for his proto-science fiction works Axel (1885) and L'Eve Future (1886). He also wrote many "cruel tales", only a handful of which have ever been translated until the publication of The Scaffold and the adventures of Doctor Tribulat Bonhomet collected in The Vampire Soul. Poet Paul Verlaine called Villiers' works a "genial melange of irony, metaphysics and terror" and translator Brian Stableford dubs it "a bizarre literary landmark."

The Scaffold:
The Secret of the Scaffold
That Mahoin!
Monsieur Redoux's Phantasms
The Perils of Progress:
The Jeu-des-Grâces
The Heroism of Doctor Hallidonhill
The Savage Navigator
The Love of the Natural
Etna in One's Own Home
Exotic Adventures:
The Legend of the White Elephant
Tse-i-la's Adventure
Gifts from Beyond the Grave:
A Tale of the End of Summer
The Right of the Past
The Stake
The Celestial Adventure
The Travails of Creative Artistry:
Plagiarists of the Thunder
The Modern Legend
Milton's Daughters
The Elect of Dreams
The Paradoxes of Passion:
The Lovely Ardiane's Secret
The Lovers of Toledo
Sister Natalia
The Schoolfriends
Sublime Love
The Better Love
Introduction and Notes by Brian Stableford

Cover by Ladronn

Published by Black Coat Press in 2004
ISBN: 978-1-932983-01-2

Review by Glenn Russell

French dramatist, novelist and teller of tales, Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-1889) was one of the most inventive, creative writers of the 19th century, Refusing to be pigeonholed, he placed a premium on imaginative, experimental storytelling, expanding his unique literary voice, a voice simultaneopusly behind and ahead of his time. As Brian Stableford notes in his introduction to this collection of over two dozen tales most peculiar and distinctive, "Villiers was always a writer who sought to avoid conventional themes and narrative frameworks; no matter how far his circumstances were reduced - and there were times when he went hungry for days - the one thing he was always determined to do was to write as no one had ever written before, experimenting with both narrative technique and subject matter." Below are snapshots from six tales:

The Secret of the Scaffold
The famous Doctor Velpeau pays a visit to the cell of a condemned criminal, who, as it turns out, is also a medical man: Doctor Edmond-Desire Couty de la Pommerais. Since, as Doctor Velpeau explains, they are both men of science, a great benefit to society could be gained if he, Couty, would agree to give him, Velpeau, a special signal of awareness by blinking one eye after the fatal blow of the guillotine. When Couty hesitates, the good doctor asks Couty to think the matter over. The next morning, prior to the condemned being led out to the scaffold, Doctor Velpeau returns. Thereupon seeing the esteemed physician, Couty exclaims: “I have been practicing -- look! And while the orderr of execution was being read out, he held his right eyelid shut, while fixing the surgeon with the gaze of his wide-open left eye.” Now that’s Villiers-style black humor! -- in the name of science and progress, a doctor asks a man about to lose his life if he wouldn’t mind actively participating in a scientific experiment immediately after the guillotine chops off his head.

The Heroism of Doctor Hallidonhill
Villiers is a forerunner of the turn-of-the century literary Decadents, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Octave Mirbeau, in his disdain for the positivist/scientific philosophy that was all the rage back in the 1800s, a philosophy optimistically envisioning technology, science and modernism as the full flower of humanity and the savior of mankind. In this tale, Doctor Hallidonhill will take any step necessary, no matter how ghastly or grisly, to contribute scientific and medical evidence for the improvement of mankind. Indeed, one of his patients walks into his office ravaged by nature: hacking, coughing, looking like a living skeleton. The good doctor proposes an exotic cure. Months later the patient, robust, radiating health, returns to thank Doctor Hallidonall, but his return proves to be a grave mistake; the patient has underestimated the doctor’s dedication to his practice above all else. This short tale could serve as the basis for a Philip K. Dick-style novel.

The Lovely Ardiane’s Secret
Here we have a tale where Villiers provides his own cynical twist to shatter the traditional notion that happiness flows from honesty and virtue. The young, innocent Ardiane, a Basque girl of humble origins, fall in love with a pale-skinned, bold-eyed virtuous guard by the name of Pier. Events transpire to bring the two lovers together -- they eventually marry and have a child. Ah, love; ah, romance. But wait -- what exactly were the circumstances and events that transpired? Ardiane lays it all out to her Pier – she herself caused buildings to burn and neighbors to perish -- all as a necessary step so she could meet and marry and have a child with Pier. Pier is initially horrified and turns against her, however, as Villiers writes: “But the Basque woman was so ardently beautiful that by five o’clock in the morning or thereabouts-too-persuasive desires having blinded the young man’s conscience little by little -- her terrible campaign came to seem to him to be the endowments of a heroic heart. In brief, Pier Albrun weakened in the face of the delightful Ardiane Inferal -- and forgave her.” Ah, love; ah, family!

The Elect of Dreams
Mediocre, uninspired, unartistic minds demand to see all, leaving nothing to the imagination; mediocre, uninspired, unartistic minds demand mechanical, naturalistic explanations, leaving nothing to the imagination. Such is the spirit of this charming Villiers tribute to a young poet, Alexis Dufrene, and the power of imagination to surpass all such mundane explanations.

The tale begins with Alexis in his garret joined by two friends, Breart, a painter and Nedonchel, a musician. These two friends hear a sound from an adjoining apartment and insist on seeing what is going on in there. Alexis blocks there way, exclaiming that beyond the door there is a king and his treasure and if they dare to enter and insist on seeing the resident of the apartment for themselves, they will never be real artists. The friends laugh, ignore his plea and barge right in. Alexis reflects: “Out of disdain for the Imaginary, which is the only reality for any artist, who knows how to command life to conform to it, they prefer to postpone their sensations until they can see what’s there.”

Continuing to value his imagination and dreams as if they were a treasure-chest of rare gems, later in the story, by a twist of great fortune, Alexis is handed a real treasure that enables the poet to travel to an exotic land and become a king. Meanwhile, what is the fate of his two friends? Villiers end the tale with these words: “Breart and Nedonchel are still in Paris. Both of them noble aesthetes, stay up late every evening in the depths of taverns haunted by the young writers of the future, to whom they strive to demonstrate, by means of theoretical conclusions ”that it is always necessary to see things . . . as they are.” Indeed, Villiers pens this fairytale-like short story as a hymn to artistic imagination, which is most fitting since imagination was the author’s life-long polestar as he set about creating his own body of highly original writing.

That Mahoin!
Now here is a tale most cruel. A famous, infamous criminal is so unbelievably monstrous, so brutal, destructive, heinous, odious and wicked that when he is finally captured, his execution by guillotine draws thousands upon thousands of spectators, the entire town is too small to hold such a throng. But the public insists on seeing the spectacle. Men in the attics cut holes in the roofs and pop their heads out, eyes in the direction of the condemned man. Villiers writes: “Through the thousands of holes thus created thousands of talking but seemingly-decapitated heads appeared, directing their eyes towards the place of execution and fixing their gazes upon the bandit -- without him being able for the mmoment, to comprehend where the bodies could be to which those heads belonged.” What happens next is a stroke (no pun intended) of storytelling genius. Thank you, Villiers de L’lsle-Adam!

Monsieur Redoux’s Phantasms
An odd tale: upon leaving a dinner party in London where he is visiting, Monsieur Redoux, a corpulent businessman from Paris, finds himself in a wax museum. The museum is about to close, but in a fit of inspiration (or madness) Monsieur Redoux decides to stay among the wax figures since, after all, several of the wax figures are French Kings and Queens. As Villiers writes, “It was as if some kind of dark jester within his skull had suddenly shaken his bells- and he had not the slightest inclination to resist.” One way of reading this tale is to see the author anticipating what psychologist Carl Jung termed the archetypes – the magician, the trickster, the king, the warrior, the lover -- and how these archetypes can overtake a personality as they overtake the tale’s bourgeois Frenchman.

The Brian Stableford Website