French and German Supernaturalism - Mid-Victorian Horrors - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

French and German Supernaturalism
Mid-Victorian Horrors
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The work of Balzac, Hugo, and others in the early nineteenth century spelled only the tentative beginnings of a supernatural tradition in France. It was only in the middle decades of the century that several significant writers emerged to lay the groundwork for a substantial and self-sustaining pattern of weird writing.

Prosper Mérimée (1803—1870) wrote a number of works on the borderline of the weird, but none of them amount to anything except “La Vénus d’Ille” (Revue des Deux Mondes, 15 May 1837; usually translated as “The Venus of Ille”). This tale alone, however, would be sufficient to ensure its author a worthy place in the canon of supernatural literature. The core of the plot appears to be based upon an anecdote in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in which a man becomes unwittingly engaged to a statue after putting a ring on her finger. This is exactly what the protagonist of “The Venus of Ille” does. It is the worse for him that the copper statue of Venus that is excavated near the town of Ille reflects “malice verging on viciousness” (192) on its metallic features. Some of the supernatural touches are uncommonly fine; when the man tries to get the ring off the statue’s finger and finds himself unable to do so, he states harrowingly, “she has bent her finger” (213). The narrator, the man’s friend, is horrified to find the man killed on his wedding night: “One would have said he had been squeezed in an iron ring” (217). The bride, now driven insane, claims that the statue killed him. There is perhaps no overarching message in this tale—it is a simple account of supernatural revenge—but the skill of its execution is unmatched.

Théophile Gautier (1811—1872) could be said to be the first French author who actually concentrated on the weird and supernatural. Although his best-known work is the landmark mainstream novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), he engaged in le fantastique throughout his career in works of widely varying styles, themes, and subject matter. English-speaking readers have perhaps been unduly focused on certain tales, to the detriment of others, as a result of Lafcadio Hearn’s stylish translation of One of Cleopatra’s Nights and Other Fantastic Romances (1882), which in fact contains tales that are not truly weird and omits others (probably on the grounds of length) that are, so we must cast a somewhat wider net in assessing the full range of Gautier’s supernatural work.

Two dominant themes can be said to infuse these works—love (whether physical or spiritual) and time-defiance. The latter comes to the fore in a number of tales short and long. While—as Albert B. Smith (Théophile Gautier and the Fantastic 56), the most exhaustive commentator in English on Gautier’s weird work, rightly contends—it is an exaggeration to say that “Une Nuit de Cléopâtre” (Presse, 29 November—6 December 1838; “One of Cleopatra’s Nights”) is in any sense weird, it may well have contributed its mite to subsequent writers’ focus on Egypt as a locus of aeon-old horror. The tale is exactly the sort that a high Romantic like Gautier would find appealing: Cleopatra, bored by the sameness of her illustrious life, is captivated by a commoner who expends great effort to show her that he loves her, and she invites him to spend one night of lovemaking (although much of the time is apparently spent in a lavish banquet) before she lets him take poison and kill himself. Cleopatra’s sense of the horror of Egypt is vividly etched:

“… this land is truly an awful land; all things in it are gloomy, enigmatic, incomprehensible. Imagination has produced in it only monstrous chimeras and monuments immeasurable; this architecture and this art fill me with fear; those colossi, whose stone-entangled limbs compel them to remain eternally sitting with their hands upon their knees, weary me with their stupid immobility; they trouble my eyes and my horizon.” (16—17)

There is much more of this, but this will do. Later writers seized upon the notions here expressed of a land obsessed with death and crushed by the weight of the centuries. Egypt is also the focus of “Le Pied de la momie” (Musée des Familles, September 1840; “The Mummy’s Foot”), a more light-hearted tale in which a man who obtains a mummy’s foot in a shop as a paperweight finds that not only it comes to life but that its owner, an Egyptian princess, materialises and takes him back to ancient Egypt. He wakes up from what appears to be a dream—but then finds a replacement paperweight that the princess had given to him. The narrator’s expression of irritation at his moving paperweight is amusing: “I became rather discontented with my acquisition, inasmuch as I wished my paperweights to be of a sedentary disposition, and thought it very unnatural that feet should walk about without legs, and I commended to experience a feeling closely akin to fear” (233).

“Arria Marcella” (Revue de Paris, 1852) again looks to the ancient world as a source of wonder and terror. Here, three contemporary Frenchmen wander through Pompeii; one of them—named, with fairly obvious significance, Octavien—finds himself so captivated by the figure of a lava-covered woman (the actress Arria Marcella) that he goes back in time to when Pompeii was flourishing; she makes the cryptic remark, “Your desire has restored me to life” (207), as if she already knows her future. In any case, their attempt to marry is met with opposition by her father, a Christian, who “performs an exorcism” (212) and restores her to a cinder. “Le Roi Candaule” (Presse, 1—5 October 1844; “King Candaules”), which Hearn also included in his collection, is still less a weird tale than “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” being nothing more than an artful retelling of the ancient account (found most notably in Herodotus) of the Lydian captain Gyges who, having been allowed by King Candaules to see his wife naked, is compelled by her to kill Candaules and assume the throne himself, with the queen as his bride.

It is evident from the above that the themes of love and time-defiance are frequently intertwined in Gautier’s work, and it is only a matter of emphasis that allows us to distinguish them. A number of stories that focus on physical and spiritual love, however, abandon any attempts at time-travel and focus on other supernatural phenomena. The short novel Avatar (Moniteur Universel, 29 February—3 April 1856) is perhaps the most striking of these. Here, Gautier broaches—decades before Barry Pain’s An Exchange of Souls (1911) or H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933)—the notion of personality exchange. Octave de Saville is dying of love for a Polish countess; he approaches an unscrupulous doctor who, having travelled to India and absorbed from the yogis the secret of separating the soul from the body, successfully transfers Octave’s soul into the body of the Polish count. But the countess senses the change in her purported husband at once, especially when he fails to respond after she speaks to him in Polish. At one point the count (in Octave’s body) shows up with the dramatic cry, “Thief, brigand, rogue, give me back my body!” (149). An extraordinary duel follows in which each contestant realises that the body he is seeking to kill is his own. Octave, realising that the countess will never love him no matter what body he occupies, agrees to undergo a reversal of the soul-body switch; but when the time comes, Octave’s soul, “instead of rejoining its own [body], rose, rose as if glad to be free, and appeared indifferent to its prison” (167). The doctor, whose own body is giving out, thrusts his soul into Octave’s body. Gautier fully realises the bizarrerie of the scenario, and this novel may perhaps be the summit of his work in supernatural horror.

Another tale of what might be called a detached soul is Spirite (Moniteur Universel, 17 November—6 December 1865), although terror is largely absent in the narration of the scenario. Here, Guy de Malivert senses an immaterial presence in his room. His friend, the Baron de Feroë, who appears to have a wondrous knowledge of the supernatural, states that he “had recently been visited by a spirit, or at least that the invisible world was seeking to enter into relations with you” (68). It transpires that the spirit, who is “sympatheitc, kindly, and loving” (72), is that of a young woman who admired Guy from afar but died of unrequited love in a convent. Spirite (as Guy names her) implausibly dictates this account to him in several lengthy sessions. Up to this point, the tale is really a love story that uses its supernatural premise as a not entirely convincing motivator of the plot. The only supernatural incident of any consequence is a memorable scene in which Guy sees Spirite in a sleigh—and then is horrified and amazed when the sleigh passes through a carriage crossing its path. But as the narrative proceeds, Gautier emphasises the degree to which Guy, now entirely in love with Spirite, finds his entire worldview altering (“Nature now appeared to him only in a vague, misty, splendid distance that served as a background to his fixed thoughts. The world was for him only the landscape of Spirite, and he thought even the finest prospects unworthy of this function” [240]). Spirite had prevented Guy from committing suicide, for this would separate them forever (by taking him to Hell, so we are led to believe). But when he is killed by bandits in Greece, Guy’s soul can finally unite with Spirite. The tale is intermittently effective, but perhaps not enough time is spent on a full analysis of the anomalous relations between a physical man and the immaterial spirit of a lovely young woman. Much time is also occupied by a satirical portrait of the countess d’Ymbercourt, a woman who is herself in love with Guy but whom he scorns.

If spiritual love is sufficient for Guy de Malivert, it is very much otherwise with the protagonist of “Omphale” (Journal des Gens du Monde, 7 February 1834; “Omphale: A Rococo Story”). Here the figure of the mythological Omphale detaches itself from a tapestry to become a flesh-and-blood woman. She announces herself as the Marchioness de T——, the original of the figure in the tapestry. In the course of the story she makes love to the protagonist before the tapestry is taken away by his uncle and sold. There is more carnality, and much more actual terror, in “La Morte amoureuse” (Chronique de Paris, 23 and 26 June 1836; translated as “Clarimonde,” “The Dead Leman,” “The Vampire,” and other titles), a pioneering vampire tale. The narrator of the tale, a priest, speaks in anguished tones about the fascination that Clarimonde exercises over him, to the point that he almost refuses to become a priest at his ordaining ceremony. Later, when he is taken to her deathbed, he continues to be enthralled: “My arteries throbbed with such violence that I felt them hiss through my temples, and the sweat poured from my forehead in streams, as though I had lifted a mighty slab of marble” (116). He wonders whether she is a “ghoul, a female vampire” (123). After her death, she comes to him from he tomb; they go to a great castle, where Clarimonde, in failing health, avidly drinks the priest’s blood after he cuts his finger. Later, her coffin is dug up and holy water sprinkled upon it, whereupon “her beautiful body crumbled into dust, and became only a shapeless and frighful mass of cinders and half-calcined bones” (148). There is much made of the conflict of religion (specifically Christianity) and Clarimonde as the representative of the infernal powers; at one point she cries, “Ah, how jealous I am of that God whom thou didst love and still lovest more than me!” (128). But it is, of course, doubtful whether the priest really does love God more than he loves Clarimonde, and the tale is an effective parable of temptation and spiritual weakness.

The short novel Jettatura (Moniteur Universel, 25 June—23 July 1856) is worth some discussion. In this story of a Frenchman, Paul d’Aspremont, his fiancée Alicia Ward, and the Count d’Altavilla, who also loves Alicia, the evil eye is apparently brought into play. At any rate, the count is convinced that Paul has the evil eye—but is this merely a means of scaring Alicia away from him? Paul himself comes to believe that he has the evil eye and looks back upon various incidents in his past that appear to confirm it. The work ends spectacularly: Paul and the count have a duel in which the count is killed; Paul blames himself for the death and undertakes the horrible act of blinding himself; but when he comes to Alicia, he finds that she is dead, so he tosses himself into the sea. In the end, the matter of whether Paul actually had the evil eye is never confirmed, so this tale must remain one of ambiguous supernaturalism.

The extensive array of Gautier’s writings in the supernatural—which to this day remain scattered (at least in English translation) over a number of volumes, many of them long out of print—is a testament to its perennial fascination for him. Gautier had a pretty broad understanding of what he meant by le fantastique, as Albert B. Smith notes after examining Gautier’s numerous articles and reviews:

When Gautier uses fantastique in a general sense, it may have one of three meanings: unreal, designating either supernatural or imaginary phenomena; real, but unusual, unwonted, or exaggerated; capricious, designating a certain cast of mind or products or conduct inferred to be derivative from such a mind. He frequently qualifies as fantastique an apparently supernatural aspect which objects or situations may have. (21)

For our purposes, only the first and perhaps the third are of relevance. It is also of note that Gautier did not always interpret the supernatural as a source of terror, which is largely absent in such works as Spirite. The flamboyance of Gautier’s style and imagery, typical of the Romanticism of his own temperament and of his era, even makes such non-weird specimens as “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” close cousins of his actual supernatural work.

A brief discussion of Charles Baudelaire (1821—1867) is warranted here. I say “brief,” not because Baudelaire isn’t worth ample study and analysis from a number of perspectives, but because his actual contribution to the literature of the supernatural is not as extensive as his reputation suggests. The dominant themes of Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868) appear to be—beyond, or through, their probing of the multifarious themes of love and death—the transcending of boundaries, especially the moral and social boundaries that led Baudelaire to be afflicted with unutterable weariness with the conventionality of the Parisian society of his day. That said, Baudelaire does employ the supernatural to convey his message, as when, in “Le Revenant” (The Phantom), a lover proclaims that he will return from the dead to make love to his beloved; but he concludes, “Let others reign by love and ruth / Over thy life and all thy youth, / But I am fain to rule by fear” (127). Perhaps Baudelaire’s most concentrated horrific poem is “Les Métamorphoses du vampire” (The Metamorphoses of the Vampire), in which a seductive female vampire, “kneading her breasts against her iron stays,” tempts the narrator with lascivious words and then “suck[s] all the marrow from my bones” (291). It is no surprise that this was one of the poems that led to the book’s banning in 1857. Baudelaire, as the stylish translator of Poe and as a leading founder of the Decadents, played a role in the development of supernatural literature, but his own contributions to the form are modest.

As Gautier and Baudelaire were winding down their careers, another French writer—or, rather, a pair of them—came to the fore in the writing of supernatural fiction, although it was only a relatively small segment of an output that chiefly featured historical novels. I speak of Emile Erckmann (1822—1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826—1890), who, as “Erckmann-Chatrian,” produced a surprisingly interesting array of weird fiction in the 1860s. To call them French writers is something of an oversimplification, for by birth they were the products of the disputed province of Alsace, which was a political and military football between France and Germany both before and during their lifetimes; much of their weird work is set in Germany and clearly draws upon the German Gothic fiction of the generations that preceded them.

Erckmann-Chatrian’s chief weird work is the able werewolf novella “Hugues-le-loup” (in Contes de la montagne, 1860), usually translated as “The Man-Wolf.” The focus of this work is the Count of Nideck, the name of whose ancestor, Hugh Lupus, would seem to make it pretty clear why he became a werewolf. But we are led to believe that his transformation is the result of a witch known in the locality as the Black Pest. The first manifestation of his lycanthropy is of interest: “That low receding forehead, that sharp-pointed face, that foxy-looking beard, bristling off both cheeks; the long meagre figure, the sinewy limbs, the face, the cry, the attitude, declared the presence of the wild beast half-hidden, half-revealed under a human mask!” (89). This description is careful to specify that the count has not been fully metamorphosed into a wolf, but merely that he now bears certain outward, and perhaps superficial, characteristics of a wolf. Indeed, throughout the work sympathy is extended toward the count, who is presented as a kind, honourable nobleman; and it is no surprise that, as the novella proceeds, the focus of our interest shifts to the Black Pest, who is pursued by the protagonists in a suspenseful climactic scene. Even here, though, we are told that “she is near [my emphasis] to the nature of the wolf, and some great mystery overshadowed her being” (124). In the end it is not entirely clear whether a supernatural transformation, either of the count or of the witch, has taken place.

Erckmann-Chatrian’s shorter works reveal an admirable originality of conception that is not quite matched by skill in execution. A certain obvious but not ineffective moralism runs through many of these narratives, as in “L’Oreille de la chouette” (in Contes fantastiques, 1860; “The Owl’s Ear”), in which a man devises a wondrous invention—a “microacoustic ear trumpet” that acts upon the hearing as a microscope does upon the sight—but kills himself from discouragement; “L’Heritage de l’oncle Christian” (in Contes fantastiques; “Uncle Christian’s Inheritance”), a ghost story that underscores the transience of humanity and the vanity of covetousness in its portrayal of a succession of ghosts who claim ownership of a house that the protagonist has just inherited from his uncle; and “La Reine des abeilles” (Contes du bord du Rhin, 1862; “The Queen of the Bees”), a touching tale of benign supernaturalism in which a blind girl gains sight by sympathetic union with the thousands of bees she keeps.

At times Erckmann-Chatrian’s tales can become quite grim. “L’Oeil invisible” (L’Artiste, 1857; “The Invisible Eye”) is the gripping tale of an old woman who appears to induce the occupants of a room in a tavern to suicide through the “evil eye” until the narrator turns the tables on her and induces her to commit suicide herself. In “L’Esquisse mystérieuse” (in Contes fantastiques; “The Mysterious Sketch”) an artist, for no reason that he can understand, draws a sketch of a woman being murdered—only the face of the perpetrator is not filled in. It transpires that just such a woman was murdered, and the artist himself is arrested for the crime after the police see the sketch; but later the artist, coming upon the actual perpetrator, is compelled to fill in that person’s face in the sketch, and the murderer is arrested and confesses. Finally, “Le Cabaliste Hans Veinland” (in Contes du bord du Rhin, 1862) tells of a professor of metaphysics who, having killed a man in a duel, flees to Paris, where he falls into poverty and misery, gaining thereby a furious hatred of the entire human race. He then casts his astral body into the body of an Indian (with whom he shares a soul) and brings back cholera to France, which kills thousands. This last tale is particularly powerful—or would be if the development were not quite so clumsy. As for “L’Araignée crabe” (in Contes fantastiques; “The Crab Spider” or “The Waters of Death”), it has gained celebrity in recent years, but it is simply the unremarkable tale of a giant spider. As I say, the power of Erckmann-Chatrian’s work rests upon its novel conceptions rather than the effective working out of those conceptions; but it is, at any rate, refreshing to see work of this period extending well beyond the already hackneyed ghost or revenant. For decades Erckmann-Chatrian’s work was difficult to find in English, but Hugh Lamb remedied the problem with the compilation The Best Tales of Terror of Erckmann-Chatrian (1991), revised as The Invisible Eye (2003).

Some note should be taken of the work of Paul Féval (1816—1887), although he specialised chiefly in sprawling crime and adventure novels, such as the celebrated Mystères de Londres (1844). But in two other works, La Vampire (1856) and La Ville-vampire (1875), Féval effectively made use of the vampire myth. The former anticipated Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” in its depiction of a female vampire, while the latter even more impressively anticipated Stephen King (’Salem’s Lot, 1975) and other recent writers in depicting an entire city populated by vampires. But since these novels were not translated into English until very recently, their influence upon Anglophone literature has been minimal.

The only German writer of this period who need concern us is Wilhelm Meinhold (1797—1851), whose Maria Schweidler, die Bernsteinhexe (1843; usually translated as The Amber Witch) is—apparently—non-supernatural but of considerable interest. Set in the Thirty Years’ War and purporting to be a fragmentary chronicle narrated in the first person by Pastor Schweidler, Maria’s father, the novel is in essence the account of a love triangle: Maria is loved by both the ruthless Lord Wittich and the gallant Rüdiger of Nienkerten. Beneath this trite scenario, however, is the persistent fear of witchcraft among a credulous and religiously indoctrinated populace. The pastor blandly states at one point that “Witchcraft began in the village” (154) when a cow becomes sick; later a woman gives birth to what she calls a “devil’s imp” (154). When Rüdiger doubts the existence of witchcraft, the pastor thinks he is an atheist!—as, indeed, he would be if the Bible is regarded as an infallible document. Maria herself believes in witchcraft, but pleads her innocence in vain as she is increasingly looked upon with suspicion and finally arrested, questioned, and on the verge of being tortured. This last scene is probably the most powerful in the book, evoking any number of earlier Gothic works where sadistic religious figures abuse a helpless and terrified victim:

She shook like an aspen leaf when he bound her hands and feet; and when he was about to bind over her sweet eyes a nasty old filthy clout wherein my maid had seen him carry fish but the day before, and which was still all over shining scales, I perceived it, and pulled off my silken neckerchief, bgging him to use that instead, which he did. Hereupon the thumb-screw was put on her, and she was once more asked whether she would confess freely [!] … (205)

She does in fact confess before the torture begins. Rüdiger saves Maria at the end; but the supernatural may enter in the account of another woman, Lizzie, who admits that she is a witch and was the cause of the various sicknesses that had beset the town and caused suspicion to fall upon Maria—or, rather, Lizzie claims that she has a familiar called Dudaim, who alternately appears in the form of a woodpecker, a cat, and other shapes. Possibly we are to understand all this as a hallucination on Lizzie’s part, but it is not entirely clear that all the events of the novel can be satisfactorily resolved except by appeal to this supernatural entity. Meinhold went on to write an actual supernatural novel, Sidonia von Bork, die Klosterhexe (1847; Sidonia the Sorceress), who is apparently a real witch and must be overcome only by an angel of light. This novel, however, although it was translated in 1849 by Lady Wilde, has not had anything like the influence of The Amber Witch, which for much of the nineteenth century was taken as an actual account of a witch trial.