Introduction

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1

In later 19th century France A crop of contes fantastiques[1] sprang up under the dual influences of Poe and Hoffmann, with contributions from Villiers de L’Isle Adam, Marcel Schwob, Henri de Régnier, and, at a more popular level, Maurice Renard and Maurice Level. However P.-G. Castex’s 1963 Anthologie du conte fantastique français stops in the early 20th century (with Apollinaire), and this seems symptomatic. It’s perhaps the case that the French vein of the fantastic was then more heavily impacted by the dual influences of surrealism and Kafka’s metaphysical non-rationalism; the stories and récits of such midcentury writers as Marcel Béalu and André Pieyre de Mandiargues would suggest as much. Meanwhile, however, a direct Poe-Hoffmann line of influence continued to flourish in Belgium: Franz Hellens and Michel de Ghelderode both paid tribute to Poe; Ghelderode and Jean Ray further acknowledged Hoffmann[2]. This may be one of the reasons why, in the 20th century, Belgian writers outdistanced their French confrères in the production macabre and uncanny fiction, at least in the form of the short story.

Factors of geography and climate no doubt play a part in the precedence of Belgium. A story by Gérard Prévot, ‘Les nuits du nord’, sets up a telling contrast between the lucid clarity of Tuscany and the bizarre enigmas encountered in Bruges. Three of the stories translated here are set in Germany, and Hellens, Ghelderode, Prévot and Brion all have stories entitled ‘Le brouillard’ (mist or fog)[3]. None of this, however, quite explains the penchant of Belgian writers for fantastic literature. This has become a recognized national phenomenon; l’école belge de l’étrange furnishes the title and the raison d’être for the 1998 anthology, The Belgian School of the Bizarre, edited and translated by Kim Connell. Perhaps it’s simply the case that the country as a whole is influenced by the enchanted atmosphere of Bruges – Bruges-La-Mort.

The centrality of le fantastique in 20th century Belgian literary culture and the relatively small size of the country contributed to a greater sense of writers of participating in a shared culture; Ghelderode and Ray became (mutually admiring) acquaintances, while Ray and Thomas Owen were friends. In France by comparison, comparable writers Marcel Brion, Claude Seignolle and Jean-Louis Bouquet all seem to have remained separate from each other and separate too from any larger sense of belonging to a group however loosely affiliated. There’s no doubt that Bouquet’s isolation has contributed to the relative neglect from which he has suffered.

  2

 Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s 2011 anthology The Weird is unusual in including several stories from continental European writers, also Latin-American and Asian ones. It may in fact may be the first English language anthology which seeks to seriously address weird fiction as a phenomenon of world literature. As such it implicitly rebukes the parochialism of much Anglo-American editorial custom. Take, for example, Horror; Hundred Best Books, a 1988 survey and guide edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. This should more properly be titled Horror; Ninety Nine Best Anglo-American Books; only one translated title, Gotthelf’s 19th century classic The Black Spider, is included. No room at the inn for such works as Meyrink’s The Golem, Briussov’s The Fiery Angel, Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, Seignolle’s Malvenue, or Topor’s The Tenant, though these (already translated) titles would have been worthy contenders – considerably more so than some of the Jones-Newman inclusions[4]. Popular genre anthologies and short story collections are less inward-looking, but not by much. In 1968 J.J. Strating edited an interesting and adventurous paperback anthology, European Tales of Terror. Strating however privileged the occasional contributions of mainstream literary writers (Hamsun, Cortazar, Schnitzler, Buzzati) with only a story from the Dutch fabulist Belcampo exploring the lesser known margins of the territory[5]. Peter Haining has done good work for international relations, for example promoting Edogawa Rampo, but he is an exception to the general rule. Maupassant’s macabre stories are frequently reprinted and genre anthologies occasionally include Gautier’s ‘Clarimonde’ (‘La morte amoureuse,’), Villier’s ‘Véra’, and stories by Erckmann-Chatrian. Otherwise non-Anglo-American stories are an endangered species.

 3

 Appreciation of le fantastique in world literature is heavily reliant on translation and availability, and some translators have taken a specific interest in the territory[6]. But here too there are problems. Jean Ray is perhaps the most interesting of 20th century continental authors of weird fiction; his stories vary widely in quality, with the balance too often on the debit side, but they are all marked by a distinctive voice, difficult to mistake for anyone else. His major work, Malpertuis, remains available in Iain White’s excellent translation, but only through Atlas, a specialist small press with little market recognition. A 1960s US paperback collection of translated Ray stories has long been out of print and two later translated collections are restricted to limited editions, now either commercially unavailable or else exorbitantly expensive. Mainstream publishing, perhaps, is suspicious of the marketability of translated weird fiction that falls into ‘popular genre’ rather than ‘literary’ territory. It’s symptomatic that Seignolle’s The Accursed (comprising Malvenue and Marie the Wolf) was published and promoted in the UK as a ‘literary’ work, with a foreword by Seignolle’s friend Lawrence Durrell, also that a translated collection of his short stories was published by a U.S. academic press (again with a forward by Durrell). This isn’t inappropriate, but in France Seignolle, with numerous collections of supernatural stories published as mass market paperbacks, is also viewed as a popular writer. As further evidence of cultural apartheid, the late Kim Connell snootily excluded Jean Ray from his Belgian School of the Bizarre anthology on the dubious grounds that his stories were ‘too close to formulaic fantasy.’

In this context the Vandermeers’s anthology, ignoring both geographical and cultural boundaries, provides a breath of fresh air. Along with internationally-minded reference works variously edited by S.T. Joshi, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Jack Sullivan and Neil Barron[7], also online blogs such as Edward Gauvin’s ’Weird Fiction Review’, The Weird just might indicate an overdue broadening of outlook.

 4

 It remains true that in the twentieth century the UK and the USA between them have provided the richest seams of macabre and supernatural fiction. However continental writers at their best bring something special to the table. I have selected what I think are some of the best untranslated Belgian and French stories, in the hope that these might circulate further among English language readers.

 

 


[1] ‘fantastique’, as adjective or noun, is a convenient umbrella term which tends to be used much more liberally in French than its English equivalents, ’fantastic/fantasy’ Some critics, for example Italo Calvino and Tzvetan Todorov, have sought to define ‘le fantastique’ more narrowly but in common usage it covers a multitude of sins – ghost and horror stories and fantastic and fabulist literature generally.

[2] Ray included Hoffmann’s Kater Murr (Tomcat Murr) in the frame story of Les dernières contes de Canterbury.

[3] The full title of Prévot’s story is ‘Par temps de pluie et de brouillard.’ Brion is French, but his story, set in Ireland, pays tribute to his Irish roots, featuring a protagonist named O’Brien.

[4]A subsequent, supplementary Jones-Newman guide, Horror: Another 100 Best (2005) is more welcoming to non Anglo-Saxon entries and in fact makes room for Hedayat’s Blind Owl, also Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, Pushkin’s ‘Queen of Spades’, Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and, oddly, Camus’s The Outsider.

[5] Strating also edited a companion anthology, Oriental Tales of Terror (1971).

[6] Notably Iain White, Edward Gauvin and Brian Stableford.

[7]  The Supernatural in World Literature: an Encyclopedia, eds Joshi and Dziemanowicz; Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, ed. J. Sullivan; Horror Literature: A Reader’s Guide, ed. Neil Barron.



 

 

8 thoughts on “Introduction

    1. There’s no single conveniently available source of information. The best resource is S.T. Joshi’s 4 volume encyclopedia, The Supernatural in World Literature, but even here the coverage of non-Anglo-US materials isn’t as thorough as it could or should be.

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