The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th Century

BOOK: The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th Century
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Terry Hale has been an avid reader, collector and researcher of French nineteenth century horror fiction since reading Mario Praz’s
The Romantic Agony
as a student. From 1978 until 1989 he lived and taught in France, amassing a considerable amount of material on the French horror stories of the 1830s which later became the subject of his Ph.D. thesis at Liverpool University.

Between 1994 and 1997 he combined a career as a translator, editor and publisher of French fiction with the role of director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He is now the British Academy Research Fellow at the Translation Performance Centre in the Drama Department of Hull University.

Terry Hale has edited for Dedalus Huysmans’
The Oblate of St Benedict
and the Gaston Leroux novels
The Mystery of the Yellow Room
The Perfume of the Lady in Black


Liz Heron was born in Glasgow and read Modern Languages at Glasgow University. She settled in London in 1976 and is a freelance writer and translator. She is the author of one non-fiction book,
Changes of Heart
(1986) and the editor of a collection of childhood autobiographies:
Truth, Dare or Promise
(1985). She edited
Streets of Desire: Women’s Fiction of the Twentieth Century

Her many translations from French and Italian include for Dedalus the Rachilde novels
Monsieur Venus
(1992) and
The Marquise de Sade


Title Page

The Editor


Frédéric Soulié    
The Lamp of Saint Just

Eugène Sue    
The Travels of Claude Belissan

Alexandre Dumas    

Pétrus Borel    
Monsieur de l’Argentière, Public Prosecutor

Alphonse Royer    
The Covetous Clerk

Xavier Forneret    
One Eye Between Two

Marquis de Sade    
Dorci, or The Vagaries of Chance

Charles Baudelaire    
Mademoiselle Scalpel

Catulle Mendès    
The Penitent

Villiers de l’Isle-Adam    
The Astonishing Moutonnet Couple

Jean Richepin    
Constant Guignard

Charles Cros    
The Hanged Man

Jules Lermina    
Monsieur Mathias

Leon Bloy    
A Burnt Offering

J.K. Huysmans    
A Family Treat

Edmund Haraucourt    
The Prisoner of his Own Masterpiece

La Harpe    
Jacques Cazotte’s Prophecy

Charles Nodier    
The Story of Hélène Gillet

Gérard de Nerval    
The Green Monster

The Invisible Eye

Henri Rivière    
The Reincarnation of Doctor Roger

Guy de Maupassant    
The Head of Hair

Théophile Gautier    
Mademoiselle Dafné

Jean Lorrain    
One Possessed




Anthologies of nineteenth-century French horror fiction – of which there have been two or three in recent years – tend to follow a well-beaten track. Théophile Gautier’s vampire story
La Morte amoureuse
of 1836 (translated variously as
The Dead in Love
and as
) is almost sure to figure, as is Prosper Mérimée’s tale of an animated statue,
The Venus of Ille
, of the following year. From the
, Guy de Maupassant’s tales of ‘psychic’ vampirism,
The Horla
(1886), and demonic possession,
Who Knows
(1890), are perennial favourites, as are two stories equally favourably disposed to the supernatural by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam,
The Sign
(collected by the author in 1883). A couple of other titles could be added to this list such as Gérard de Nerval’s magnificent tale of hallucination and madness,

The present anthology has no intention of pursuing a similar course. Indeed, of the twenty-four stories collected here, some nineteen have never been published before in English (including tales by the Marquis de Sade, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam). Of the other five stories – namely, those by Alexandre Dumas, Erckmann- Chatrian, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, and J.-K. Huysmans – every attempt has been made to present material with which the reader may not be immediately familiar.

This is not to pursue a policy of novelty for the sake of novelty – it is simply intended to demonstrate the breadth and range of French writing in relation to the strange and macabre. Indeed, if horror fiction is a vehicle for exploring forbidden themes – a claim which will be put forward here – then it would not be untrue to claim that French writers in the nineteenth century proved themselves every bit as inventive as their British and American counterparts of the same period.

One should not, of course, necessarily expect them to explore precisely the same themes though. Indeed, it might be legitimate to enquire whether such perennial favourites – with their clear insistence on the supernatural – as Gautier’s
The Dead in Love
or Maupassant’s
The Horla
are as representative of French horror writing as we like to imagine they are. As dramatic and successful as these tales may be, they represent but one strand of horror fiction – that which came to be known in the 1830s as the
conte fantastique
– in nineteenth-century France. There are at least two other strands of equal if not greater significance which we ignore at our peril: the
(or frenetic) story, with its strong melodramatic appeal, of the 1820s and 1830s (against which in a sense the
conte fantastique
was directly competing); and the
conte cruel
(what we might think of in English as grim little moral fables) which came to the fore half-a-century later (though the tradition is much older). As we shall see, neither of these two other strands are reliant on the supernatural to quite the same extent.

The first clearly recognisable development in the history of the nineteenth-century French horror story occurred in the early 1820s. Indeed, it was in 1821 that Charles Nodier coined the term ‘école
’ – or ‘
school’ – in order to designate the kind of writers who, in his words, ‘flaunt their atheism, madness and despair among the tombstones, exhume the dead in order to terrify the living, and torment the imagination with scenes of such horror that it is necessary to look to the terror-ridden dreams of the sick to find a model.’

The sort of works he had in mind at the moment he wrote those words were mainly British: stories such as John Polidori’s
The Vampyre
of 1819, which was translated almost immediately into French (Nodier himself co-authored a successful French stage adaptation the following year) and novels such as Charles Maturin’s
Melmoth the Wanderer
of 1820 (of which two French translations appeared simultaneously in 1821). The enduring taste in France for reading material of this kind is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Nodier was reviewing a new French translation of a German horror novel about a murderous dwarf – Christian Spiess’s
Das Petermännchen
– which had first seen the light of day in 1791.

The French are not renowned for letting the grass grow under their feet though and, in the course of the two decades after the invention of the term
, a great many authors tried their hand – with varying degrees of success – at writing novels and stories of the kind condemned (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) by Nodier. By and large, the more successful attempts soon owed but little, either in style or content, to their English or German counterparts.

Victor Hugo’s
Han d’Islande
(1823; tr.
Han of Iceland
, 1825), one of the best examples of the genre, is a complex tale of murder, betrayal and insurrection set in late medieval Iceland. Although the title refers to a mysterious dwarf (clearly modelled on that of Christian Spiess) of immense physical strength and capable of appearing at a moment’s notice, the most distinctive feature of the novel – and one which would clearly be of tremendous importance in the future development of the
in France – was the author’s lugubrious humour.

This is nowhere better to be seen than in the chapter in which the cowardly Benignus Spaigudry, carrying in a sack the severed head of a drowned fisherman, takes refuge during a storm in the house of the Nychol Orugix, the public executioner. Much to the former’s discomfort, the conversation takes a predictable turn under the prompting of another stranded traveller:

‘Master Nychol, what is the punishment for sacrilege?’ […]

‘That depends upon the nature of the sacrilege.’

‘If it should consist in the mutilation of the dead?’

The trembling Benignus expected at that moment the strange hermit would pronounce his name.

‘Formerly,’ answered Orugix, coldly, ‘they buried the criminal alive with the polluted body.’

‘And now?’

‘Now the punishment’s milder.’

‘Milder?’ said Spiagudry, scarcely breathing.

‘Yes,’ answered the executioner, with the satisfied air of an artist who knows his work. ‘First an
is branded with a hot iron on the fleshy part of his legs.’

‘And then?’ interrupted Spiagudry, painfully uttering the words.

‘Then they content themselves with hanging him.’

‘Mercy upon us!’ cried Spiagudry, ‘hang him.’

‘Why, what is the matter with you? You look at me as a criminal does the gibbet.’

‘I see with pleasure,’ said the hermit, ‘that people are now guided by principles of humanity.’

Following Hugo’s example, and quite unlike British or German horror writing from this period (which is largely incapable of self-irony), gallows’ humour of this kind would become one of the benchmarks of
writing. Another excellent example is provided by Jules Janin in
L’Ane mort et la femme guillotinée
(1829; tr.
The Dead Donkey and the Guillotined Woman
, 1851). Indeed, Janin is said to have commenced the novel – which includes descriptions of a brutal animal fight, a macabre attempt to reanimate a body which has been submerged in the Seine for three days (an arm falls off), some form of horrendous treatment for syphilis which involves branding, and the guillotining of the heroine after she has murdered the man responsible for luring her into a life of prostitution (though not before she has been raped by her hideously deformed jailer) – as a spoof of the fashionable
novel but finished by falling in love with his subject matter. If anything though the author was trumped by Honoré de Balzac (another writer, incidentally, whose literary career, like that of Victor Hugo, was closely associated at the outset with the
) who, in a hilarious book-review, followed the dead heroine into the makeshift dissection-room of a group of medical students.
But many equally striking examples of French gallows’ humour will be found in the stories in the opening section of this collection.

Behind the macabre laughter, these authors were exploring important issues though. During the course of the 1820s and early 1830s, there were many causes for anxiety – some of which are far from irrelevant even today. There was, for example, the controversial question of the death penalty, which Victor Hugo’s novel
Le Dernier jour d’un condamné
(1829; tr.
The Last Day of a Condemned
, 1840) deliberately set out to address. The rise in the student population led to questions being asked, not least by the students themselves, over the sacrilegious use to which corpses were put in the dissection theatres of the medical schools. There were more localised panics, such as that caused by the cholera epidemic of 1832.

More generally, there was the uncertain political climate – indeed, the entire period might be thought of as marked by fears of conspiracy, the threat of insurrection, and the various counter-measures taken by the authorities. The French Revolution of 1789 was by no means merely a distant historical memory (and, not surprisingly, many
novels do deal directly with that period), it was also a defining event in people’s minds. When the relatively anodyne revolution of July 1830 broke out, there were those who feared a return to the Terror and those, such as the writer Pétrus Borel, who would have welcomed such a development. And, needless to say, in the world of popular literature, as elsewhere, all these various issues and events were quite capable of being kaleidoscoped together. Thus, the question of the abolition of the death penalty could easily shade into a consideration of the ethics of the French Revolution when, of course, the guillotine, intended initially as a humanitarian measure, was introduced. Indeed, if there is one defining image of horror writing throughout the nineteenth century in France it is that of the bloody head severed from the human trunk.

BOOK: The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th Century
12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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