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Le roi au masque d'or
Marcel Schwob
Parangon, 124 pages

Le roi au masque d'or
Marcel Schwob
Marcel Schwob was born in Chaville (Seine-et-Oise), France, on August 23, 1867. With an early interest in writing, and smitten with English and German literature, he put his talents to literary criticism, translation (Defoe's Moll Flanders and Shakespeare's Macbeth and Hamlet), and the publication of short story collections. His prose-poem of the events in the life of a young woman, Le Livre de Monelle (1894) came from his deep love for a naive young female factory worker and prostitute whom he tended for several years and died in his arms (of tuberculosis) at only 25-years of age. Schwob published three collections of fantasy: Coeur double (1891), Le roi au masque d'or (1892), Vies Imaginaires (1896). He is also know for a treatise on French slang, a study on the early French poet François Villon, and memoirs of a near fatal trip to Samoa. After numerous operations from late 1890s onwards, Schwob, in steadily failing health finally succumbed to his mysterious ailment in Paris on February 12, 1905, only 37-years old.

Biography: 1 (in French), 2 (in German),

E-TEXTS, etc.:

LITERARY CRITICISM: 1 (in French), 2 (in Portuguese), 3 (in Spanish), 4 (by Aleister Crowley), 5 (in French)
Cover of English edition of Mimes
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

While this review refers to the recent (Feb. 14, 2002) French edition, an English edition of this title also exists.

If in English, dark fantasy is frequently marginalized by those who discuss "serious literature," the case is even worse in French, where the snobbery of the literary elite isn't about to allow them to admit that works of imaginary fiction are more than just cheap popular fiction. Nonetheless, Le roi au masque d'or is perhaps the greatest collection of early French dark fantasy. Published in France in 1892, when a young American artist, Robert W. Chambers, who would in 1895 publish the classic horror collection The King in Yellow was at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Schwob's book while thematically different from Chambers', could well have been an influence on Chambers (though I've never seen this postulated). Descriptions like "the moon, like a yellow aerial mask" in the title story and the arrangement of somewhat off-genre tales at the end of the collection also suggest parallels with Chambers' work. The 21 short tales in Le roi au masque d'or are perhaps most akin, in terms of mood and their extensive vocabulary, to the best of Clark Ashton Smith's prose poem tales, with a smidgen of A. Merritt, and of course with a tinge of the conte cruel so popular in France in the late 19th century. Indeed, some stories are dedicated to such famous practitioners of the conte cruel as Octave Mirbeau (Le jardin des supplices), and Jean Lorrain (Contes d'un buveur d'ether).

The title story, supposedly loosely based Buddhist legend, is perhaps the darkest, one in which everyone in a gloomy castle is hiding behind masks: the doomed leper-king, his priests, his court fools and the women of the court. A nasty cruel twist completes the tale. The theme of masking/unmasking crops up in some of the best French horror works of the last century: Jean Lorrain's Histoires de masques (c. 1900) and André de Richaud's La nuit aveuglante (1966). "La peste," a tale of the black death in 14th century Italy, has a wonderfully disgusting finale. Schwob's preoccupation with disease isn't all that surprising since he suffered from a chronic incurable intestinal disorder that eventually killed him. "La flute," a story worthy of William Hope Hodgson, tells of a meeting at sea with a single survivor in a lifeboat, and his damned and damning piping. "Les embaumeuses" a tale of seductive and deadly female embalmers is very similar to one of the stories [t. Winter Damon's "Blue Roses, Red Wine" (?)] in the recent collection The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique, stories set in Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique. Smith himself had a reading and writing knowledge of French* and would undoubtedly have appreciated Schwob's work. "La cité dormante," a tale of a lost, and ultimately fatal city, frozen in time, is also very reminiscent of Smith.

Schwob's stories also include tales of prehistoric times: (i) "La mort d'Odjigh," tells of a cave man's trek along with a lone wolf and some lesser beasts, to break the hold of the Ice Age on the lands of his people, (ii) "L'incendie terrestre" reverses the conditions to intense volcanic activity, postulating a population bottleneck in which only Adam and Eve survive. The last couple of decades of the 19th century were a time of intense interest in evolution and anthropology, spawning Schwob's stories and the numerous prehistoric tales J.H. Rosny (e.g., Quest for Fire), to whom "La mort d'Odjigh" was dedicated. Some other stories are more straightforward historical tales of murder, by or for a woman: "Blanche la Sanglante," "La charette," "Cruchette," "Les faulx-visaiges," "La Grande-Brière." "La machine a parler" tends more to science-fiction. A mad scientist has created an artificial talking machine, but when it attempts to declare its superiority to God, it tears and collapses.

Several of the final stories in Le roi au masque d'or answer to Schwob's obsession with innocent young women (see author blurb) which he explored more fully in his lovely Le livre de Monelle. In "Le pays bleu" a sickly young country girl takes the narrator into her home, and after some time eventually disappears, leaving a note that she has gone to "the blue world." In "Retour au bercail" a young girl in Paris longs to return to her home and job as a pig-keeper in the country. Finally, in "Bargette" a young girl wishes to see the marvelous, magical lands in the south, and so embarks on a river barge (a plot taken up again in Jean Vigo's classic French film L'Atalante (1934)), but she is soon disillusioned. While these stories don't bear any of the standard fantasy tropes, their atmosphere radiates fantasy

While I would, of course, recommend reading Schwob in the original French, given the extensive vocabulary this may not be possible for everyone, so the English edition is always a fall-back. Either way, you should be able to sense that Schwob was a remarkable writer, capable of packing a plot, lovely poetic descriptions and some genuine nastiness in stories which in many cases are only 3 or 4 pages long! While not quite as short as Lord Dunsany's tales in The Food of Death (1915), Schwob's tales while florid, rich and atmospheric also have very little filler to them. So if you enjoy the likes of Clark Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany, track yourself down a copy of Le roi au masque d'or/The King in the Golden Mask, and enjoy some of the best dark fantasy to ever come out of France.

Copyright © 2002 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

Table of Contents
TitleGenreDedicated To
Le roi au masque d'orDark fantasyAnatole France
La mort d'OdjighPrehistoricJ.H. Rosny
L'incendie terrestreEnd of the worldPaul Claudel
Les embaumeusesDark fantasyAlphonse Daudet
La pesteHorrorAuguste Bréal
Les faulx-visaigesHorrorPaul Arène
Les eunuquesHorrorMaurice Spronck
Les MilésiennesHorrorEdmond de Goncourt
52 et 53 OrfilaHorrorGeorges Courteline
Le sabbat de MofflainesSatanismJean Lorrain
La machine à parlerScience-fictionJules Renard
Blanche la SanglanteMurderPaul Margueritte
La grande BrièreMurderPaul Hervieu
Les faux-saulniersHistoricalCharles Maurras
La fluteSea horrorRachilde
La charetteMurderOctave Mirbeau
La cité dormanteLost raceLéon Daudet
Le pays bleuFantasyOscar Wilde
Le retour au bercailYoung womanCatulle Mendès
CruchetteYoung woman/MurderW.-G.-C. Byvanck
BargetteYoung womanMaurice Pottecher

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