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Weird fiction has long been not only unappreciated but actively maltreated by orthodox esthetic evaluation, but its stature has improved considerably in modern times, and that has encouraged a reexamination of the genres history.
It has required nearly two centuries since the beginnings of modern weird fiction in the cradle of the Romantic Movement for the concept to be properly formulated, and the course of its development usefully mapped.
That cartography can now be carried out with a reasonable degree of accuracy, as the present collection, albeit limited in time and space, hopefully illustrates. The book hopefully shows that fiction depicting hypothetical aberrations in nature or perception is not a necessarily a symptom of aberration on the part of the author, but frequently quite the opposite: evidence of a sanity contemplating its own potential limits and uncertainties, in a context that is esthetic rather than diagnostic.
Romanticism is not dead, and is no less preciously modern today than it was two centuries ago, and weird fiction is not the least of its achievements.
Cover by Mike Hoffman
Published by Black Coat Press in February 2020
Review by Glenn Russell
Weird Fiction in France - 27 short stories by turns fantastic, bizarre, strange, deranged, ghastly, grotesque and horrific, penned by 27 different French authors - among their number Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, Guy de Maupassant, Jean Lorrain, Marcel Schwob, Anatole France, Gaston Danville and Remy de Gourmont.
Scholar and literary critic Brian Stableford provides the translation, annotation and extensive introductory essay. A reader is given a clear overview and context for these French tales of the fantastique mostly written during the 19th century.
So what makes a weird piece of fiction weird? Taking Brian Stableford's Introduction as a guide, here's a few keys: rather than sticking with humdrum, routine experience, the 27 authors in this volume recognized the world of dreams and nightmares, imagination and madness, fantasy, horror, hallucination and the supernatural can insert and disrupt what generally serves as "normal reality" at any moment. The narrator or character within a story can ask: Is this happening real or illusion, objective or subjective? Did I really see what I think I saw or was I only "seeing things"? And, of course, that perennial question posed by poets, artists and writers be they Romantics, Decadents or Symbolists: Am I sane or am I mad?
When it comes to great works of literature, generalizations can only take us so far. Thus, as a way of sharing a more specific taste of what a reader will encounter in this collection, I will focus on selections from two of my favorite French authors - Jean Richepin and Gabriel de Lautrec.
I have chosen not to focus on the two most famous stories included: Théophile Gautier's The Amorous Revenant (sometimes entitled The Beautiful Vampire or Clarimonde) or Guy de Maupassant's The Horla. Ample information and reviews of these two classic tales are available with a simple internet search.
So, here you go with two wicked doses of Weird French Fiction:
The Plague-Man by Jean Richepin
His adventure revolves around the English artist Michael Joshua Hawk and his Illuminations of Horror wherein the artist rendered in a series of ink drawings an astonishing account, step by step, phase by phase, of the gruesome progress of the plague in a small, rural village in India. And Hawk has never once in his life left London!
Impossible! The narrator confronts Hawk and asks the artist why he insists on duping his friends with such a hoax. Hawk answers that he will prove the truth of his words. One evening he leads the narrator into a small, dark tavern run by a Hindu and then displays his Illuminations of Horror and asks the narrator to commit the details of his ink drawings to memory.
Having studied the illustrations carefully, the narrator raises his head and discovers a naked man seated on the floor in front of him, although he hadnt heard or seen him come in. The mans thin body is folded up and his face is seemingly reduced to two staring eyes buried amid an avalanche of white hair. The artist pronounces the word yogi. Immediately, eye to eye, the yogis gaze plunges deep, deep into his psyche and the narrator is transfixed.
The narrator relays what he begins to clearly see astonishingly, an Indian village caught in the grip of plague. Heres a snatch of his vision: crimson anthrax illuminating ardent embers on the back, the shoulders, the armpits, the groin; gangrenous pustules hardening into brown scars.
The narrator is a man of science and reason. Was what he saw a psychic trick or extended hallucination? Had the yogi simply been seeing at a distance, having made me share his vision in what occultists call the astral mirror? Or was he even more than that? Was he the formidable mahatma of evil that Hawk called the Plague-Man?
Sonia's Soul by Gabriel de Lautrec
Why will you say that I am mad? Echos of Edgar Allan Poe, author embraced by a vast number of French writers after the great America literary man's work was translated by none other than Charles Baudelaire.
Let's give our narrator a name: Gaspard. Monsieur Gaspard continues to press his case for his own sanity: since he's been provided pen and paper, he can complete his great work: The Objective of the Subjective, a book that will open doors for his entry into the academy, and once elected, people of great esteem will be obliged to recognize his sanity.
We have generous helpings of Gabriel de Lautrec black humor working here. One can only wonder at the content of Gaspard's great philosophical treatise. Perhaps his detailing the power of the subjective mind to penetrate objective reality will be on the level of Immanuel Kant or George Barkley. And subsequently to be judged sane by the finest minds in the country - can there be greater evidence of a man's sanity?
But before we become overly excited at the prospect of a phenomenal philosophic breakthrough, Gaspard recounts the key reason why he's been locked up in the first place: a rare accident that can happen at any time to any human: "I drank a soul, by mistake. It was Sonia's. With mine, that makes two, if I can count."
That's right, Gaspard! You can count. One and one makes two; Sonia's soul and your soul makes two souls. And how, may we ask, did you go about drinking Sonia's soul?
Gaspard blames literature. He took the words of the poets too literally when they write of two souls coming together. "I wanted to collect that soul on the lips, like a breath." But when poor Gaspard went to embrace Sonia so he could kiss her on the lips, he squeezed his hands a little too strongly around her neck.
That's life for you. As Gaspard muses, "But what does it matter? All the regrets in the world won't change anything."
Now that Gaspard has swallowed Sonia's soul, he suspects it is hovering in some corner of his being, "looking out from there with a flickering gaze, like some sly and timid beast."
The more Gaspard ponders the possibilities, the more possibilities he has to ponder. Is Sonia's soul prowling around his heart? What is it seeing or thinking inside him? And what if it dies? What if he finds himself with a corpse of a soul inside himself? Ah! Will it remain static or putrefy? Maybe it would be best to set it free from the prison of his body, now, before it inflicts damage.
I dare say no more. I urge you to treat yourself to these two weird tales in their entirely along with the other 25 collected in Weird Fiction of France.
The Brian Stableford Website