Edited by Hugh Lamb
(2018, Collins Chillers)
In his introduction to The Invisible Eye peerless bibliophile and editor Hugh Lamb writes:
Erckmann–Chatrian stand apart from most of their contemporaries in European fiction who wrote in this vein. They did not essay the conte cruel, like Villiers de l'Isle Adam, or go in for paranoid fantasies, like Guy de Maupassant. Their tales are simple and straightforward, with all the effects up front. By rights, they should have dated severely. The pleasant surprise for modern readers is that they haven't....
A picture of the Erckmann-Chatrian partnership in action is provided by Hugo Erichsen in his engrossing 1894 book Methods of Authors:
In France, the best example of literary partnership is found in that of M. Erckmann and M. Chatrian. How these men worked in concert has been described by the author of "Men of the Third Republic." "M. Chatrian is credited with being the more imaginative of the two. The first outlines of the plots are generally his, as also the love scenes, and all the descriptions of Phalsbourg and the country around. M. Erckmann puts in the political reflections, furnishes the soldier types, and elaborates those plain speeches which fit so quaintly, but well, into the mouths of his honest peasants, sergeants, watchmakers, and schoolmasters. A clever critic remarked that Erckmann-Chatrian's characters are always hungry and eating. The blame, if any, must lie on M. Chatrian's shoulders; to his fancy belong the steaming tureens of soup, the dishes of browned sausages and sauer-kraut, and the mounds of flowery potatoes, bursting plethorically through their skins. All that M. Erckmann adds to the ménu is the black coffee, of which he insists, with some energy, on being a connoisseur. Habitually the co-authors meet to sketch out their plots and talk them over amid much tobacco smoking. Then, when the story has taken clear shape in their minds, one or the other of the pair writes the first chapter, leaving blanks for the dialogues or descriptions which are best suited to the competency of the other. Every chapter thus passes through both writers' hands, is revised, recopied, and, as occasion requires, either shortened or lengthened in the process. When the whole book is written, both authors revise it again, and always with a view to curtailment. Novelists who dash off six volumes of diluted fiction in a year, and affect to think naught of the feat, would grow pensive at seeing the labor bestowed by MM. Erckmann and Chatrian on the least of their works, as well as their patient research in assuring themselves that their historical episodes are correct, and their descriptions of existing localities true to nature. But this careful industry will have its reward, for the novels of MM. Erckmann and Chatrian will live. The signs of vitality were discovered in them as soon as the two authors, nerved by their first success, settled down and produced one tale after another, all too slowly for the public demand. 'The Story of a Conscript,' 'Waterloo,' 'The History of a Man of the People,' and, above all, 'The History of a Peasant,' were read with wonder as well as interest."
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The Invisible Eye (1870)
Our narrator, a young artist, rents an eyrie among the rooftops of Nuremberg. His paintings flow from his observations of the urban spectacle on display before him. He prospers until his attention is drawn to two nearby buildings on either side of his street, identical in appearance but worlds apart in their uses.
Not far from my garret-window, a little to the left, rose the auberge of the Boeuf-gras, an old inn much frequented by the country-people. The gable of this auberge was conspicuous for the peculiarity of its form: it was very narrow, sharply pointed, and its edges were cut like the teeth of a saw; grotesque carvings ornamented the cornices and framework of its windows. But what was most remarkable was that the house which faced it reproduced exactly the same carvings and ornaments; every detail had been minutely copied, even to the support of the signboard, with its iron volutes and spirals.
It might have been said that these two ancient buildings reflected one another; only that behind the inn grew a tall oak, the dark foliage of which served to bring into bold relief the forms of the roof, while the opposite house stood bare against the sky. For the rest, the inn was as noisy and animated as the other house was silent. On the one side was to be seen, going in and coming out, an endless crowd of drinkers, singing, stumbling, cracking their whips; over the other, solitude reigned.
Once or twice a day the heavy door of the silent house opened to give egress to a little old woman, her back bent into a half-circle, her chin long and pointed, her dress clinging to her limbs, an enormous basket under her arm, and one hand tightly clutched upon her chest.
This old woman's appearance had struck me more than once; her little green eyes, her skinny, pinched-up nose, her shawl, dating back a hundred years at least, the smile that wrinkled her cheeks, and the lace of her cap hanging down upon her eyebrows – all this appeared strange, interested me, and made me strongly desire to learn who this old woman was, and what she did in her great lonely house.
I imagined her as passing there an existence devoted to good works and pious meditation. But one day, when I had stopped in the street to look at her, she turned sharply round and darted at me a look the horrible expression of which I know not how to describe, and made three or four hideous grimaces at me; then dropping again her doddering head, she drew her large shawl about her, the ends of which trailed after her on the ground, and slowly entered her heavy door.
'That's an old mad-woman,' I said to myself; 'a malicious, cunning old mad-woman! I ought not to have allowed myself to be so interested in her. But I'll try and recall her abominable grimace – Toubec will give me fifteen florins for it willingly.'
This way of treating the matter was far from satisfying my mind, however. The old woman's horrible glance pursued me everywhere; and more than once, while scaling the perpendicular ladder of my lodging-hole, feeling my clothes caught in a nail, I trembled from head to foot, believing that the old woman had seized me by the tails of my coat for the purpose of pulling me down backwards.
Toubec, to whom I related the story, far from laughing at it, received it with a serious air.
'Master Christian,' he said, 'if the old woman means you harm, take care; her teeth are small, sharp-pointed, and wonderfully white, which is not natural at her age. She has the Evil Eye! Children run away at her approach, and the people of Nuremberg call her Fledermausse!'
The motif of doubling seen in the two buildings is repeated in guests who rent a third-floor room at the Boeuf-gras, and the incidents antecedent to their suicides.
"The Invisible Eye" is a nicely articulated and carefully balanced narrative; there are no wasted words or wasted motions.
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The Owl's Ear (1860)
"The Owl's Ear" starts as a bit of droll rural buffoonery, but culminates as a bitter dollop of misanthropic revulsion.
The shepherd, burgomaster, and constable of the village of Hirchwiller discover a little man in the nighttime depths of a circular cistern among local Roman ruins. (The cistern has remarkable acoustic properties). The trespasser is jailed and hangs himself before dawn.
The narrator subsequently finds a letter fragment the man left behind in the cistern:
My 'microeartrumpet' has therefore the double advantage of multiplying ad infinitum the intensity of sounds, and of being able to fit the ear, which in no way impedes the observer. You cannot imagine, my dear master, the charm that one feels on hearing these thousands of imperceptible sounds which, on fine summer days, blend into one mighty buzzing. The bee has his song like the nightingale, the wasp is the warbler of the mosses, the cicada is the lark of the tall grasses, in this the mite is the wren – it has only a sigh, but this sigh is melodious!
This discovery which, from the sentimental point of view, makes us live the life of universal nature, surpasses in its importance all that I could say about it.
After so many sufferings, privations, and worries how happy it is in the end to gather the rewards of our labours! With what leaps the soul rises up to the divine author of these microscopic worlds, whose splendour is revealed to us. What then are these long hours of anguish, hunger, scorn which overwhelmed us in the past? Nothing, sir, nothing! Tears of gratitude wet our eyes. One is proud to have bought through suffering new joys for humanity and to have contributed to its improvement. But however vast, however admirable are the first results of my 'microeartrumpet', its advantages are not limited to that alone. There are others more positive, more material in some respects, and which can be translated into figures.
Just as the telescope causes us to discover myriads of worlds, completing their harmonious revolutions in the infinite, so too my 'microeartrumpet' extends the sense of hearing beyond all the limits of possibility. Thus, sir, I shall not stop at the circulation of the blood and vital fluids in the living body; you hear them running with the impulsiveness of cataracts, you perceive them with a distinctness which terrifies you, the slightest irregularity in the pulse, the lightest obstacle strikes you and has on you the effect of a rock against which break the waves of a torrent.
It is undoubtedly a tremendous conquest for the development of our physiological and pathological knowledge, but it is not on this point that I insist.
By pressing your ear to the ground you hear the hot springs surging at immeasurable depths, you assess their volume, the currents, the obstacles.
Would you like to go any further? Enter an underground chamber sufficiently large to pick up a considerable quantity of sounds; then, at night, when all is asleep, when nothing disturbs the inner sounds of our globe, listen!
Sir, all that it is possible for me to tell you at present, because in the midst of my abject misery, my privations, and often my despair, I have only a few lucid moments left to gather together geological observations, all that I can assert for you is that the bubbling incandescent lava, the glow of boiling substances is something terrifying and sublime, and which can only be compared to the impression of the astronomer sounding the endless depths of the universe with his telescope.
However, I must admit that these impressions need to be studied further and classified methodically, so as to draw from them fixed conclusions. Consequently as soon as you condescend, my dear and worthy master, to send to me at Neustadt the small sum that I ask to provide for my basic needs, we shall see that we agree with a view to establishing three subterranean observatories, one in the valley of Catania, the other in Iceland, and the third in one of the valleys of Capac-Uren, Songay, or Cayembé-Uren, the deepest of the Cordilleras, and as a consequence …
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The White and the Black (1867)
"The White and the Black," for all its tonal modesty, reaches uncanny heights of poetic sublimity: it is a masterful story.
Near its climax, the narrator attends a christening celebration at a family's home where the son has been arrested for the murder of his beloved and condemned to death.
So I dreamed, laughing at men who, thinking themselves free, are dragged on by threads attached to the stars. So astrologers have told us, and we must believe them.
I laughed then amongst the shadows as the music ceased.
A great silence fell around. The clock alone broke the stillness with its regular tick-tack; outside the moon, slowly rising over the Rhine, behind the trembling foliage of a poplar, threw its pale light over innumerable ripples. I noticed it, and saw a black boat pass along in the moon's reflected light. On it was a man, all dark like the boat. He had a loose cloak around him, and wore a large hat with a wide brim, from which hung streamers.
He went by like a figure in a dream. I felt my eyelids heavy.
'Let us drink,' cried the organist.
The glasses clattered.
'How well the Rhine sings! It sings the air of Barthold Gouterolf,' said the son-in-law, 'ave-ave-stella!'
No one made reply.
Far off, far off, we could hear the rhythmic beat of two oars.
'Today,' cried the old postmaster suddenly, in a hoarse voice, 'Saphéri makes expiation.'
No doubt he had long been thinking, thinking of that. It was that which had rendered him so sad. My flesh crept.
'He thinks of his son,' said I to myself, 'of his son who dies today!'
And a cold shiver ran through me.
* * *
The Burgomaster in Bottle (1849)
In "The Unnameable" Lovecraft's characters ponder the unwholesome nourishment enjoyed by trees in cemeteries. "The Burgomaster in Bottle" ponders nourishment received in similar surroundings by a grapevine. What dreams might come to those who drink the wine from those grapes?
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My Inheritance (1860)
Existence determines consciousness. A young music conductor inherits his uncle's money and estate. Immediately the thoughts of a landowner break over him in this droll story.
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The Wild Huntsman (1877)
An ambitious short novel, "The Wild Huntsman" begins its ninety pages with very evocative scene-building in a rural summer landscape. Théodore, a young painter, is on a walking tour
One morning I stepped out before daylight from the door of the Swan hostelry at Pirmasens to cross the wooded hills of Rothalps to the hamlet of Wolfthal. The boots came to arouse me at two o'clock, as I had requested; for towards the end of August it is best to travel at night, as the heat during the day, concentrating at the bottom of the gorges, becomes insupportable.
Picture me, then, on the way at night, my hunting-jacket buttoned closely to my figure, my knapsack depending from my shoulders, my stick in my hand. I walked at a good pace. Vines succeeded to vines, hemp-fields to hemp-fields; then came fir-trees, amongst which the darkened pathway wended; and the pale moon overhead seemed to plough an immense furrow of light beyond.
The excitement of the walk, the deep silence of the solitude, the twittering of a bird disturbed in its nest, the rapid passage through the trees of an early squirrel going to drink at a neighbouring spring, the stars glinting between the hills, the distant murmur of the water in the valley, the first clear notes from the thrush uttered from the topmost spray of the pine-tree, and crying to us that far, far away there was a streak of light, that the day was breaking, and at length the pale crepuscule, the first purple tint on the horizon, appeared across the dark coppices – these numerous impressions of the journey insensibly led up to the birth of the day.
About five o'clock I came out upon the other side of the Rothalps, nine miles from Pirmasens, into a narrow winding gorge.
I can always recall the sensation of freshness and delight with which I welcomed this retreat. Below me a little torrent, clear as crystal, rushed over its moss-grown stones; on the right, as far as the eye could reach, extended a forest of birch; and to the left, beneath the lofty pine-trees' shade, the sandy path meandered to the deep roads.
Below the road the heather and the heaths sprang up with golden drops; still farther away some briars, and then a streak of water with its clustering green cresses.
Those who during their youth have had the happiness to light upon such a place in the forest depths, at that hour when Nature comes forth from her rosy bath and in her robe of sunshine, when the light plays amongst the foliage, and drops its golden tears into the untrodden depths, when the mosses, the honeysuckle, and all climbing plants burn incense in the shade, and mingle their perfumes under the canopy of the lofty palm-trees, when the parti-coloured tomtits hop from branch to branch in search of insects, when the thrush, the bullfinch, and the blackbird fly down to the rivulet and drink their fill, with wings outstretched over the tiny foaming falls, or the thieving jays, crossing above the trees in flocks, direct their flight towards the wild cherry-trees – at the hour, in short, when all Nature is animated, when everything is enjoying love, and light, and life – such people as those to whom I have referred alone can understand my ecstasy.
I seated myself upon the root of an ancient moss-grown oak, my stick resting idly between my knees; and there, for the space of an hour, I abandoned myself, child-like, to endless day-dreams.
By degrees the light increased; the humming of insects grew louder, while the melancholy notes of the cuckoos, repeated by the echoes, marked in a curious way the measure of the universal concert.
While I was thus meditating, a distant sharp note, skilfully modulated, struck upon my ear. From the moment of my arrival at this spot I had heard, without paying any attention to, this note; but so soon as I had distinguished it from the numerous forest noises I thought: 'That is the note of a bird-catcher, his hut cannot be far away, and there must be some forester's house close by.'
Théodore shortly meets Frantz Honeck, gamekeeper to the Grand Duke Ludwig. He becomes a guest of Père Honeck and his granddaughter Louise, sketching and painting them and the surrounding woodland. This idyll lasts several weeks, until:
So I determined to set out next day to the Lake of the Wild Huntsman as soon as Père Honeck had left us for Pirmasens; and about eleven o'clock I went to bed satisfied with the resolutions I had taken.
But other things occurred in the course of that night, such strange events as will never be effaced from my mind.
Philosophers think that there is nothing in this world that does not come under the control of our senses, and such men when dying gaze in an affrighted manner into the gloom as if they could perceive something terrible which they fear to meet in a closer inspection. Then some one says, 'What do they perceive yonder? are there other beings in existence which are visible only to the dying?'
The fly, fluttering towards the sunlight, does not see the spider which is watching for him in his web; he does not perceive him until it is too late to escape his clutches. But what can one say upon such a subject as that to which I have referred? These beings either exist or they do not exist. We shall know one day, and the later the better!
I slept quietly enough until about one o'clock, when the plaintive howling of Waldine and Fox awoke me suddenly. I raised myself upon my elbow and listened intently. The moon was shining brilliantly just opposite my window, the trellis-work with the leaves and climbing plants crossed its disc in black relief, as did the little hexagonal panes, and farther away five or six sprays of the fir-trees cut the shining surface.
Just awakened from sleep as I was, this effect of light and shade had a most peculiar appearance, but the howling of the dogs had a most depressing effect; they gave forth their yells in full cry slowly, and in a prolonged howl, from a low note to the highest sharp of which a canine throat is capable.
I now remembered that Spitz, the old dog belonging to my aunt Catherine, had howled in just such a manner while my uncle Matthias was dying; and this thought made my blood run cold.
Soon the lowing of the cows, the cries of the goats, and the grunting of the pigs mingled with the howling of the dogs in a most dreadful ensemble. Then Père Honeck jumped out of bed, the window underneath was opened hastily, and the rattle of a gun being loaded struck upon my ear. I waited for the shot, and my blood chilled as I listened, but the dogs continued to howl, the cattle to low without cessation, and just as the blood was leaving my flushed cheeks, I heard the old keeper call out: 'Fox, Waldine, keep quiet there!'
It was a great relief to me to hear his voice, and I may confess that the superstitious fears I had experienced dispersed; it seemed as if the dread influence had passed away, and I arose full of courage.
From the old gallery I immediately perceived Père Honeck, gun in hand, standing upright before the low wall of the yard. He was only half-dressed; his head was raised, his hair was dishevelled; he had all the appearance of a person listening intently for something.
I hurriedly descended the staircase.
'In the name of Heaven what is this all about?' I asked in a low voice.
'Ah!' he replied, turning his head, and pointing towards the gorge of the Losser, 'it is that brute who is passing with his band. Listen! It is the Wild Huntsman.'
I listened, but no sound except the distant murmur of the river broke upon my ears. I was surprised. 'But, Père Frantz,' I said after a pause, 'I do not hear anything.'
Then the old keeper, as one who is awaking from a dream, turned very pale, and fixing his grey eyes upon mine, said with a strange look in his face: 'It is a wolf – yes, the old wolf of the Veierschloss with his cubs. Every year that beast prowls about the house. The dogs even are aware of his presence; they are afraid of him.'
Then approaching the hounds he said, as he patted their heads to reassure them: 'Come, come, old fellow; Waldine, lie down; that cursed beast is far away by this time; he will not return.'
The dogs, trembling still, rubbed themselves against their master's legs, at the same time the goats and cows ceased to bleat and bellow.
Père Honeck, rising, grounded his gun, and with a forced smile said: 'I am sure you were afraid, M. Théodore; is it not so? Those sounds at the dead of night always produce a very curious sensation; so many ideas crowd upon one's brain. But you see dogs are like human creatures; when they get old they dote – a poor wretched wolf frightens them; instead of attacking him they cry like blind animals, and attempt to save themselves. Well, well, they are quiet now, and the cattle also; so we may go to bed and have a good sleep.'
As he spoke he opened the door of his room, and shivering, I once again ascended to my own.
All this appeared to me very unnatural; the tone of the old keeper's voice, his pallor, the curious expression of his grey eyes as he spoke of wolves and their cubs, all seemed to me equivocal. I was quite upset and nervous. Was this the effect of the chill night-air, the sudden interruption of my sleep, or what other cause had rendered me so excited? I could not understand, but for the first time the conviction of invisible influences, of supernatural beings, took possession of my mind.
I jumped into bed and hid my head beneath the clothes up to my ears; then with wide-open eyes I kept looking at the lattice and thinking of all these things. The moon had passed away from the window; she was now lighting up the side of the house and the fir plantation below. While I slept I fancied I could hear the dogs growling again from time to time like the distant muttering of a storm; these animals were as nervous as I was.
At length all was quiet, and my brain being worn out by these strange occurrences, I fell fast asleep.
This brings us to about the halfway point in "The Wild Huntsman."
Erckmann-Chatrian now shifts gears and gives the reader about forty pages of Père Honeck telling Théodore the origin story of the Huntsman. Père Honeck's anecdote is an interminable and undramatic killer of reader patience and interest. The effect shatters the atmosphere of sylvan uncanny. It also spoils the any good will toward the characters and what should have been a touching finale as Théodore and the old gamekeeper say their goodbyes.
* * *
Lex Talionis (1872)
Dr Taifer is an army surgeon stationed at a Cairo military hospital perched on the edge of a precipice. An officer friend dies under mysterious circumstances, and Taifer slowly pieces together the crime's solution.
"Lex Talionis" (The law of retaliation) is a finely crafted and perfectly executed non-supernatural story.
My resolution was taken. Without losing a moment I went to the Kasba, entered the hospital, and knocked at the door of Castagnac's room.
It would seem the sight of me was not very welcome, for when he looked round he gave a slight start.
'Hulloa! Is it you?' said he, with a forced smile. 'I was not expecting you.'
For an answer I showed him the letter he had written to Fatima.
He became pale, and when he had looked at it for some seconds he was about to throw himself upon me, but I stopped him with a gesture.
'If you move a step,' I said, laying my hand upon my sword hilt, 'I will kill you like a dog. You scoundrel! You have murdered Dutertre! I was in the amphitheatre and overheard all! Do not deny it. Your conduct towards that girl has been disgraceful. How could a French officer degrade himself to such a degree! Now, listen. I would give you up to justice, but your disgrace would also reflect upon us. If you have any courage kill yourself. I give you till tomorrow. If tomorrow, at seven o'clock, I find you alive, I will myself hand you over to the commandant.'
Having said these words, I left the room without waiting for his response, and hastened to order the sentinel not to allow Lieutenant Castagnac to leave the hospital on any pretence whatever. I also ordered the door-keeper to keep a sharp watch, and told him that I should hold him responsible for whatever might follow if he was negligent or cowardly. Then I calmly walked to my lodgings, as if nothing had happened. I was even more merry than usual, and prolonged my dinner till close upon eight o'clock.
Since Castagnac's criminality had been proved to me so certainly, I was pitiless. Raymond cried to me to revenge him.
When I had dined I went to the shop of a seller of resin and bought a pitch-torch, such as our spahis carry at their night carousals. After that, entering the hospital, I went direct to the amphitheatre, taking care to double lock the door behind me.
The voice of the muetzin announced the tenth hour; the mosques were empty; the night was dark.
I sat down in front of my window, breathing the lukewarm puffs of the breeze, and gave myself up to thoughts which had beforetimes been so dear to me. How much had I suffered, how much trouble had I not gone through during the last five days. In all my past life I could not find the like. It seemed to me as though I was escaping from the grasp of some malignant spirit to enjoy new freedom!
So time rolled on. The guard had already twice relieved the sentinels, when, all of a sudden, I heard quick stealthy footsteps upon the stair. A light knock echoed on the door.
I made no reply.
A nervous hand sought the handle.
'It is Castagnac,' I said to myself, astonished.
Two seconds passed.
'Open,' cried some one from outside.
I was not deceived. It was he.
I listened, and heard him try to force open the stout oak door with his shoulders.
All was silent. He listened. I remained perfectly quiet, holding my breath. Something was thrown down upon the stairs. I could hear his steps die away.
I had escaped death.
But what if he should return?
Fearing another and more fierce attempt upon the door, I put up the two great bars which made a veritable prison of the room.
It was labour thrown away, for on reseating myself I saw the shadow of Castagnac thrown upon the wall between the two bastions. The moon, which rose on the side of the town, threw the shadow of the hospital upon the precipice. A few stars sparkled on the horizon, not a breath of air was stirring.
Before committing himself to the dangerous path the old soldier halted, looking towards my window. He hesitated for a considerable time.
At the end of about a quarter of an hour he made the first step, proceeding with his back against the wall. He was come to the middle of the ledge, and no doubt flattered himself he would now be able to arrive at the slope which descends to the Kasba, when I uttered the death-cry: 'Raymond, where are you going?'
Although he was taken by surprise, he had, however, more coolness than his victim. The wretched fellow did not budge an inch, and answered me with an ironical laugh: 'Ah! ah! Are you there, doctor? I thought you were. Listen, I shall come back, and we shall have a little account to settle together.'
Lighting my torch and holding it over the precipice, I cried: 'It is too late. Look, you scoundrel, that is your tomb.'
The immense tiers of the abyss with their black rocks, glittering, bristling in grotesque shapes, were lighted up down to the very bottom of the valley.
The scene was titanic. The white light of the torch fell, step by step, between the rocks, making their enormous shadows dance in the profundity, and seemed to hew out endless shadowy forms.
I was overwhelmed by the scene myself, and recoiled a step, as if struck with giddiness.
But he – he who was not separated from the gulf by more than the space of a single foot, how great must his terror have been!
His knees shook, his hands clung to the wall. I advanced once more. An immense bat, attracted by the light, hovered in mystic circles around the huge walls, like a black rat, with sharp nails, swimming in a circle of light. Far off, very far off, glimmered the waters of the Rummel.
'Mercy!' cried the murderer, in broken tones. 'Mercy!'
* * *
The Crab Spider (1860)
This one will make your flesh creep; a fine weird zoology story which also has the patience to fold-in some psychic seance drama and slightly satirical social comedy. "The Crab Spider" is one of the finest stories in the collection.
16 October 2021