"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"The Age of Desire" (1985) by Clive Barker

"The Age of Desire" from Books of Blood: Volume Four (1985) by Clive Barker is a disappointment. In most stories, Barker's ebullient pretentiousness facilitates; here it aborts.

"The Age of Desire" is a man-hunt story. It follows the escapes and evasions of a human lab rat maddened after having his brain's desire centers permanently turned up to eleven. Jerome is pursued by cops, coveted by doctors.

        For Jerome, there was no forgetfulness, not this time. The encounter with Mrs. Morrisey, which had been interrupted by Dooley, and the episode with Boyle that had followed, had all merely served to fan the fire in him. Now, by the light of those flames, he saw clearly what crimes he had committed. He remembered with horrible clarity the laboratory, the injection, the monkeys, the blood. The acts he recalled, however (and there were many), woke no sense of sinfulness in him. All moral consequence, all shame or remorse, was burned out by the fire that was even now licking his flesh to new enthusiasms.

     He took refuge in a quiet cul-de-sac to make himself presentable. The clothes he had managed to snatch before making his escape were motley but would serve to keep him from attracting unwelcome attention. As he buttoned himself up-his body seeming to strain from its covering as if resentful of being concealed-he tried to control the holocaust that raged between his ears. But the flames wouldn't be dampened. His every fiber seemed alive to the flux and flow of the world around him. The marshaled trees along the road, the wall at his back, the very paving stones beneath his bare feet were catching a spark from him and burning now with their own fire. He grinned to see the conflagration spread. The world, in its every eager particular, grinned back.

     Aroused beyond control, he turned to the wall he had been leaning against. The sun had fallen full upon it, and it was warm; the bricks smelled ambrosial. He laid kisses on their gritty faces, his hands exploring every nook and cranny. Murmuring sweet nothings, he unzipped himself, found an accommodating niche, and filled it. His mind was running with liquid pictures: mingled anatomies, female and male in one undistinguishable congress. Above him, even the clouds had caught fire. Enthralled by their burning heads he felt the moment rise in his gristle. Breath was short now. But the ecstasy? Surely that would go on forever.

     Without warning a spasm of pain traveled down his spine from cortex to testicles and back again, convulsing him. His hands lost grip of the brick and he finished his agonizing climax on the air as he fell across the pavement. For several seconds he lay where he had collapsed, while the echoes of the initial spasm bounced back and forth along his spine, diminishing with each return. He could taste blood at the back of his throat. He wasn't certain if he'd bitten his lip or tongue, but he thought not. Above his head the birds circled on, rising lazily on a spiral of warm air. He watched the fire in the clouds gutter out.

     He got to his feet and looked down at the coinage of semen he'd spent on the pavement. For a fragile instant he caught again a whiff of the vision he'd just had; imagined a marriage of his seed with the paving stone. What sublime children the world might boast, he thought, if he could only mate with brick or tree. He would gladly suffer the agonies of conception if such miracles were possible. But the paving stone was unmoved by his seed's entreaties. The vision, like the fire above him, cooled and hid its glories.

     He put his bloodied member away and leaned against the wall, turning the strange events of his recent life over and over. Something fundamental was changing in him, of that he had no doubt. The rapture that had possessed him (and would, no doubt, possess him again) was like nothing he had hitherto experienced. And whatever they had injected into his system, it showed no signs of being discharged naturally; far from it. He could feel the heat in him still, as he had leaving the laboratories, but this time the roar of its presence was louder than ever.

     It was a new kind of life he was living, and the thought, though frightening, exulted him. Not once did it occur to his spinning, eroticized brain that this new kind of life would, in time, demand a new kind of death.


Barker's handling of alternating third person point of view is never satisfactory. Several confrontations begin in a promising chaos, but Barker clearly befuddles himself as he tries for omniscience. Not for nothing are tyro thriller writers advised to take apart the novels of Deighton or Lee Child before attempting their own.

Crichton's Terminal Man, another critique of enthroned bourgeois narcissism, is useful here as comparison. With assurance and economy Critchton dramatized how a hunted man might hide in the social interstices before his everyday rationality was completely dissolved by effects of medical experimentation. Barker, at the time he wrote "The Age of Desire," could not.

*   *   *

"The Age of Desire" was clearly designed to give the reader a widescreen techno-thriller experience. Barker, alas, could not figure out how to organise and deliver such a plot.

We should be thankful he concluded the story as quickly as he did. 


15 April 2020

Monday, April 18, 2022

Annus mirabilis 1835: Gogol's "Viy"

Rereading "A Treatise on Tales of Terror" (1944) by Edmund Wilson, I am shocked again to see to the connection boldly drawn between the founders of U.S. and Russian horror literature.

....The first really great short stories of horror came in the early or middle nineteenth century, when the school of Gothic romance had achieved some sophistication and was adopting the methods of realism. All four of these authors [Hawthorne and Poe, Melville and Gogol] wrote stories that were at the same time tales of horror and psychological or moral fables. They were not interested in spooks for their own sake; they knew that their demons were symbols, and they knew what they were doing with these symbols. We read the tales of Poe in our childhood, when all that we are likely to get out of them is shudders, yet these stories are also poems that express the most intense emotions. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not merely an ordinary ghost story: the house-see the opening paragraph-is an image for a human personality, and its fate-see the fissure that runs through the wall-is the fate of a disrupted mind. And as for Gogol, he probably remains the very greatest master in this genre. I should put in at least "Viy" and "The Nose"-the former, a vampire story, one of the most terrific things of its kind ever written, and the latter, though it purports to be comic, almost equally a tale of horror, for it is charged with the disguised lurking meaning of a fear that has taken shape as a nightmare. I should include, also, "Bartleby the Scrivener" of Melville, which oddly resembles Gogol in this vein of the somber-grotesque, as well as "Benito Cereno," a more plausible yet still nightmarish affair, which ought to be matched farther on by Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

1835 was the year of Gogol's "Viy," but also of Poe's initial labors to mount his haunted palaces, sweaty with the funk of antebellum hysteria.

(The year also saw sublime achievements from Hawthorne: "Young Goodman Brown," "Wakefield," and my personal favorite, "The Ambitious Guest.")

"Viy" is an extravaganza, an attempt by Gogol to - pace Harold Bloom - make a heap of all he knows of story-making.

Gogol's protagonist Thomas Brutus, in the course of "Viy", is flattened by a series of increasingly horrific events. His travails begin when he finds lodging for the night in an old woman's barn.

     The old woman found a special resting-place for each student; the rhetorician she put in a shed, the theologian in an empty storeroom, and the philosopher in a sheep's stall.

     As soon as the philosopher was alone, he devoured the fish in a twinkling, examined the fence which enclosed the stall, kicked away a pig from a neighbouring stall, which had inquiringly inserted its nose through a crevice, and lay down on his right side to sleep like a corpse.

     Then the low door opened, and the old woman came crouching into the stall.

     "Well, mother, what do you want here?" asked the philosopher.

     She made no answer, but came with outstretched arms towards him.

     The philosopher shrank back; but she still approached, as though she wished to lay hold of him. A terrible fright seized him, for he saw the old hag's eyes sparkle in an extraordinary way. "Away with you, old witch, away with you!" he shouted. But she still stretched her hands after him.

     He jumped up in order to rush out, but she placed herself before the door, fixed her glowing eyes upon him, and again approached him. The philosopher tried to push her away with his hands, but to his astonishment he found that he could neither lift his hands nor move his legs, nor utter an audible word. He only heard his heart beating, and saw the old woman approach him, place his hands crosswise on his breast, and bend his head down. Then with the agility of a cat she sprang on his shoulders, struck him on the side with a broom, and he began to run like a racehorse, carrying her on his shoulders.

     All this happened with such swiftness, that the philosopher could scarcely collect his thoughts. He laid hold of his knees with both hands in order to stop his legs from running; but to his great astonishment they kept moving forward against his will, making rapid springs like a Caucasian horse.

     Not till the house had been left behind them and a wide plain stretched before them, bordered on one side by a black gloomy wood, did he say to himself, "Ah! it is a witch!"

     The half-moon shone pale and high in the sky. Its mild light, still more subdued by intervening clouds, fell like a transparent veil on the earth. Woods, meadows, hills, and valleys—all seemed to be sleeping with open eyes; nowhere was a breath of air stirring. The atmosphere was moist and warm; the shadows of the trees and bushes fell sharply defined on the sloping plain. Such was the night through which the philosopher Thomas Brutus sped with his strange rider.

     A strange, oppressive, and yet sweet sensation took possession of his heart. He looked down and saw how the grass beneath his feet seemed to be quite deep and far away; over it there flowed a flood of crystal-clear water, and the grassy plain looked like the bottom of a transparent sea. He saw his own image, and that of the old woman whom he carried on his back, clearly reflected in it. Then he beheld how, instead of the moon, a strange sun shone there; he heard the deep tones of bells, and saw them swinging. He saw a water-nixie rise from a bed of tall reeds; she turned to him, and her face was clearly visible, and she sang a song which penetrated his soul; then she approached him and nearly reached the surface of the water, on which she burst into laughter and again disappeared.

     Did he see it or did he not see it? Was he dreaming or was he awake? But what was that below—wind or music? It sounded and drew nearer, and penetrated his soul like a song that rose and fell. "What is it?" he thought as he gazed into the depths, and still sped rapidly along.

     The perspiration flowed from him in streams; he experienced simultaneously a strange feeling of oppression and delight in all his being. Often he felt as though he had no longer a heart, and pressed his hand on his breast with alarm.

     Weary to death, he began to repeat all the prayers which he knew, and all the formulas of exorcism against evil spirits. Suddenly he experienced a certain relief. He felt that his pace was slackening; the witch weighed less heavily on his shoulders, and the thick herbage of the plain was again beneath his feet, with nothing especial to remark about it.

     "Splendid!" thought the philosopher Thomas, and began to repeat his exorcisms in a still louder voice.

     Then suddenly he wrenched himself away from under the8 witch, and sprang on her back in his turn. She began to run, with short, trembling steps indeed, but so rapidly that he could hardly breathe. So swiftly did she run that she hardly seemed to touch the ground. They were still on the plain, but owing to the rapidity of their flight everything seemed indistinct and confused before his eyes. He seized a stick that was lying on the ground, and began to belabour the hag with all his might. She uttered a wild cry, which at first sounded raging and threatening; then it became gradually weaker and more gentle, till at last it sounded quite low like the pleasant tones of a silver bell, so that it penetrated his innermost soul. Involuntarily the thought passed through his mind:

     "Is she really an old woman?"

     "Ah! I can go no farther," she said in a faint voice, and sank to the earth.

     He knelt beside her, and looked in her eyes. The dawn was red in the sky, and in the distance glimmered the gilt domes of the churches of Kiev. Before him lay a beautiful maiden with thick, dishevelled hair and long eyelashes. Unconsciously she had stretched out her white, bare arms, and her tear-filled eyes gazed at the sky.

Thomas Brutus will meet the image of the  witch in even more alarming circumstances later in the story.

*   *   *

Among Gogol's many accomplishments in "Viy," the reader marvels at a landscape permeated with the smell of Ukraine's black earth.


16 April 2022

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Night Wind Howls by Frederick Cowles (1938)

The collection The Night Wind Howls by Frederick Cowles (1938) was heavy going. Most of the stories barely rise to the level of adequate. The much-anthologized "Rats'' seems like the juvenalia of a better writer.

"Death in the Well" is "Treasure of Abbot Thomas" weakly retold - with the addition of that crippling cliche, the eccentric psychic investigator. (When I want to see great supernatural writers wrecked by clichés in this way, I'll read Blackwood and Hodgson.)

"Wood Magic" is also crippled by the psychic investigator wheeze. This squandered real potential.

"Gypsy Violin" is worth reading. The conceit that there is a hellish piece of music which the player can use to destroy his enemies is well-handled.

"Lavender Love" and "The Lamasery of Beloved Dreams" both sounded too wet to attempt.

(I know Cowles was as much of his time as I am of mine, but the reader is warned: there are some unpleasant references to the habits of Jews, Haitians, and "Gypsies" in the stories). Cowles wrote to pay the bills, which has never been an artistic handicap to the best workers in the genre. 


A few underlinings or glosses on the contents:


'....I will come for you at eight o'clock on the morning of the nineteenth of May.'

'But why leave it until then?' Carlos stammered. Suddenly he realised the significance of the date and hour. 'You can't leave it until then,' he screamed.

'That is the hour I am to be hanged.' 

'Just so! Just so!'

The House of the Dancer

'Imagination does play some queer tricks,' he said aloud as he retired to bed. He was quickly asleep, but Valerie de Brisson haunted his dreams. Her face hung over him, and the red lips held an invitation to kiss them. Instead he bent his head to kiss her hands, only to find, to his horror, that they were dripping with blood.

Wood Magic

Psychic investigator Dennis Carey versus Fairie Wood.

....'You must have noticed that some trees differ very much from others in the impression they make upon a reasonably sensitive mind. A chestnut in bloom usually gives me a feeling of peace and calm: a lilac appeals to the senses: limes are glamorous, romantic trees: a silver birch is wistful: and beeches, with their leaves rustling in the breeze, are vaguely disturbing. On the whole trees are friendly things, but sometimes, in the heart of a forest or even in some isolated position, you may come upon one which seems to be strangely sinister and evil.'

....'The day after the funeral I arranged for the destruction of the Devil's Oak. Two stout labourers lopped off the larger branches and then felled the tree. As the trunk toppled over to the ground something rolled out of the hollow bole. It was covered with green moss, but as I picked it up I knew instinctively what it was. It was the skull of a man....'

Twisted Face

....'I know why other tenants have left the cottage, and I know why neither the owner nor myself will attempt to hold you to your agreement.'

The Witch-Finder

....The sound of soft laughter disturbed him. He endeavoured to raise his head and so became aware of the fact that, in some mysterious manner, he had become fastened to the bed. His feet and hands were secured by ropes and his body spread-eagled in a most uncomfortable way. And then he realised that it was no bed he was stretched upon, but the rack—the rack of torture. Master Hugh licked his dry lips and voiced a protest.

'What is the meaning of this foolery?' he cried.

'Not foolery, my brave witch-finder,' answered the woman who had admitted him to the cottage....

The Florentine Mirror

'How much are you asking for it?' I inquired brusquely.

The Jew rubbed his hands together. 'It is yours for twenty pounds,' he replied. 'It is well worth fifty or even a hundred, but I shall be glad to get rid of it—that is, I mean to say, I require the room.'

The Vampire of Kaldenstein 

....The priest could not explain the matter and appeared to think that the Count might go on living and troubling the neighbourhood for an indefinite period.

King of Hearts

....On the 25th of October (it was a Tuesday, I remember) I walked down the shore of Loch Linnhe to Ardgour and then inland to Strontian, intending to seek a short cut back across the moors to Fort William. It was a foolhardy adventure for one who did not know the countryside. But I only realised my folly when, out on the hills, a thick mist suddenly descended.


'Come now,' chaffed Mackenzie. 'You don't mean to imply that here, in a respectable London club within fifty yards of Piccadilly, you are frightened to speak of a negro superstition?'

....As dusk fell we heard the dull, monotonous beat of the devil drums. Tum-ti-ti-tum, tum-ti-ti-tum, tum-ti-ti-tum they went all the time


....'Seemingly against his will he looked towards the box again and cried, "You can't accuse me. You're dead. Go away, oh, go away." He clung to one of the warders and screamed, "Don't let her touch me. Keep her away and I'll tell the truth. Yes, I killed her. I wanted her money but she wouldn't hand it over. I strangled her and then threw her body into the river. And all for the sake of fifteen shillings and sixpence...."

Out of the Darkness

'Now they do say that each evening, soon after eight o'clock, a phantom car speeds along that road. It starts from somewhere about the middle of the lane, tears along with a noisy rattle, and crashes into the river with a hideous splash. Several have heard it, although none but Mad Polly claims to have actually seen it. It is believed that if any other person sees the car it will mean death for him or her.'

The Caretaker

'....You mustn't think that a house is empty because you cannot see the people in it. The people are there, living in their own time and doing exactly the same things they have always been accustomed to doing.'

Gypsy Violin

'He or she for whom the first movement is played will go blind at the last note.'

Death in the Well

....He scratched with a wooden scraper. He must have been scraping for over ten minutes when he gave a cry of triumph. He had found the key-hole. I saw his light gleaming far below as he tried to clear it and then he inserted the key. My own torch showed him dragging and pulling, and then a block of stone swung out and revealed a dark aperture. A wild cry of excitement came up the well. 'It's here! It's here!' he yelled. He plunged his hand into the hole, and I heard a sobbing gasp of wonderment. And then I saw the pearl. It was almost as large as a hen's egg, and glowed like a pool of moonlight. But the pearl wasn't the only thing in that dark hiding-place. Something moved in the gloom—something green and horrible, with luminous eyes and a number of waving arms. I yelled a warning, but one of those arms shot out and struck Rutter in the face. He staggered, fell over the edge of the platform, and splashed into the water far below.


Retributive human combustion.

Lady of Lyonnesse

....This is the story of Matthew Cantell, once rector of Lishana, who sold his soul to the devil for the sake of a fairy's smile. Matthew Cantell who took to his bed a woman who had been dead a thousand years, and for his sin is doomed to haunt Lishana Cove until the ending of time.


....The beldame raised her bleary eyes and, lifting her right arm in a threatening gesture, screamed out, 'My curse upon thee, Sir Joshua Norton. The hands that fire my cottage shall perish, and their owner become a dead thing whilst yet alive.'


28 March 2017

Ray Russell's "Sagittarius" (1962)

"If Mr. Hyde had sired a son," said Lord Terry, "do you realize that the loathsome child could be alive at this moment?"

"Sagittarius" (1962) from Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Tales of Ray Russell (1985)

*   *   *

"Sagittarius" is for me the most satisfying of Ray Russell's trilogy of "S" faux-Gothic novellas. Third-person point of view that also imbricates extended first-person narration was clearly a salutary choice of approach.

"Sagittarius" is a club story, told in an Anglophile NYC gentlemen's club by an English lord to a U.S. (?) theater historian.

Though of different ages, Lord Terry and Rolfe Hunt appear deeply simpatico. Russell excels in his opening here, as the two men discuss the possibility that Stevenson's Edward Hyde character might have been "drawn from life" and sired a son.

....It was a humid summer evening, but he and his guest, Rolfe Hunt, were cool and crisp. They were sitting in the quiet sanctuary of the Century Club (so named, say wags, because its members all appear to be close to that age) and, over their drinks, had been talking about vampires and related monsters, about ghost stories and other dark tales of happenings real and imagined, and had been recounting some of their favorites. Hunt had been drinking martinis, but Lord Terry—The Earl Terrence Glencannon, rather—was a courtly old gentleman who considered the martini one of the major barbarities of the Twentieth Century. He would take only the finest, driest sherry before dinner, and he was now sipping his third glass. The conversation had touched upon the series of mutilation-killings that were currently shocking the city, and then upon such classic mutilators as Bluebeard and Jack the Ripper, and then upon murder and evil in general; upon certain works of fiction, such as The Turn of the Screw and its alleged ambiguities, Dracula, the short play A Night at an Inn, the German silent film Nosferatu, some stories of Blackwood, Coppard, Machen, Montague James, Le Fanu, Poe, and finally upon The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had led the Earl to make his remark about Hyde's hypothetical son....

*   *   *

"Sagittarius" excels "Sardonicus" in control and execution. "Sardonicus" is gothic recrudescence at play with old cliches. "Sagittarius" strikes the first-time reader as  an ambitious reinvigoration of tradition. For anyone who values skillful storytelling, it is a pleasure to read and to master.

After its clubland opening, "Sagittarius" begins again: Lord Harry relates a youthful  adventure in the theater world of fin de siècle Paris, and his encounters with an actor named Sébastien Sellig, a man now lost to history.

He was appearing at the Théâtre Français, in Racine's Britannicus. He played the young Nero. And he played him with such style and fervor and godlike grace that one could feel the audience's sympathies being drawn toward Nero as to a magnet. I saw him afterward, in his dressing room, where he was removing his make-up. César introduced us.

     He was a man of surpassing beauty: a face like the Apollo Belvedere, with classic features, a tumble of black curls, large brown eyes, and sensuous lips. I did not compliment him on his good looks, of course, for the world had only recently become unsafe for even the most innocent admiration between men, Oscar Wilde having died in Paris just nine years before. I did compliment him on his performance, and on the rush of sympathy which I've already remarked.

     "Thank you," he said, in English, which he spoke very well. "It was unfortunate."


     "The audience's sympathies should have remained with Britannicus. By drawing them to myself—quite inadvertently, I assure you—I upset the balance, reversed Racine's intentions, and thoroughly destroyed the play."

     "But," observed César lightly, "you achieved a personal triumph."

     "Yes," said Sellig. "At irreparable cost. It will not happen again, dear César, you may be sure of that. Next time I play Nero, I shall do so without violating Racine."

     César, being a professional, took exception. "You can't be blamed for your charm, Sébastien," he insisted.

     Sellig wiped off the last streak of paint from his face and began to draw on his street clothes. "An actor who cannot control his charm," he said, "is like an actor who cannot control his voice or his limbs. He is worthless." Then he smiled, charmingly. "But we mustn't talk shop in front of your friend. So very rude. Come, I shall take you to an enchanting little place for supper."

     It was a small, dark place called L'Oubliette. The three of us ate an enormous and very good omelette, with crusty bread and a bottle of white wine. Sellig talked of the differences between France's classic poetic dramatist, Racine, and England's, Shakespeare. "Racine is like"—he lifted the bottle and refilled our glasses—"well, he is like a very fine vintage white. Delicate, serene, cool, subtle. So subtle that the excellence is not immediately enjoyed by uninitiated palates. Time is required, familiarity, a return and another return and yet another."

     As an Englishman, I was prepared to defend our bard, so I asked, a little belligerently: "And Shakespeare?"

     "Ah, Shakespeare!" smiled Sellig. "Passionel, tumultueux! He is like a mulled red, hot and bubbling from the fire, dark and rich with biting spices and sweet honey! The senses are smitten, one is overwhelmed, one becomes drunk, one reels, one spins . . . it can be a most agreeable sensation."

     He drank from his glass. "Think of tonight's play. It depicts the first atrocity in a life of atrocities. It ends as Nero murders his brother. Later, he was to murder his mother, two wives, a trusted tutor, close friends, and untold thousands of Christians who died horribly in his arenas. But we see none of this. If Shakespeare had written the play, it would have begun with the death of Britannicus. It would then have shown us each new outrage, the entire chronicle of Nero's decline and fall and ignoble end. Enfin, it would have been Macbeth."

     I had heard of a little club where the girls danced in shockingly indecorous costumes, and I was eager to go. César allowed himself to be persuaded to take me there, and I invited Sellig to accompany us. He declined, pleading fatigue and a heavy day ahead of him. "Then perhaps," I said, "you will come with us tomorrow evening? It may not tempt a gentleman of your lofty theatrical tastes, but I'm determined to see a show at this Grand Guignol which César has told me of. Quite bloody and outrageous, I understand—rather like Shakespeare." Sellig laughed at my little joke. "Will you come? Or perhaps you have a performance . . ."

     "I do have a performance," he said, "so I cannot join you until later. Suppose we plan to meet there, in the foyer, directly after the last curtain?"

     "Will you be there in time?" I asked. "The Guignol shows are short, I hear."

     "I will be there," said Sellig, and we parted.

Fascinated by Sellig's thespian skill, Lord Harry almost simultaneously becomes obsessed with another performer at a more plebeian venue. (This is not the last doubling or twinning author Ray Russell will explore in "Sagittarius".)

….the evening following my first meeting with Sellig, César and I were seated in this unique little theatre with two young ladies we had escorted there; they were uncommonly pretty but uncommonly common—in point of fact, they were barely on the safe side of respectability's border, being inhabitants of that peculiar demimonde, that shadow world where several professions—actress, model, barmaid, bawd—mingle and merge and overlap and often coexist. But we were young, César and I, and this was, after all, Paris. Their names, they told us, were Clothilde and Mathilde—and I was never quite sure which was which. Soon after our arrival, the lights dimmed and the Guignol curtain was raised.

     The first offering on the programme was a dull, shrill little boudoir farce that concerned itself with broken corset laces and men hiding under the bed and popping out of closets. It seemed to amuse our feminine companions well enough, but the applause in the house was desultory, I thought, a mere form . . . this fluttering nonsense was not what the patrons had come for, was not the sort of fare on which the Guignol had built its reputation. It was an hors d'oeuvre. The entrée followed:

     It was called, if memory serves, La Septième Porte, and was nothing more than an opportunity for Bluebeard—played by an actor wearing an elaborately ugly make-up—to open six of his legendary seven doors for his new young wife (displaying, among other things, realistically mouldering cadavers and a torture chamber in full operation). Remaining faithful to the legend, Bluebeard warns his wife never to open the seventh door. Left alone on stage, she of course cannot resist the tug of curiosity—she opens the door, letting loose a shackled swarm of shrieking, livid, rag-bedecked but not entirely unattractive harpies, whose white bodies, through their shredded clothing, are crisscrossed with crimson welts. They tell her they are Bluebeard's ex-wives, kept perpetually in a pitch-dark dungeon, in a state near to starvation, and periodically tortured by the vilest means imaginable. Why? the new wife asks. Bluebeard enters, a black whip in his hand. For the sin of curiosity, he replies—they, like you, could not resist the lure of the seventh door! The other wives chain the girl to them, and cringing under the crack of Bluebeard's whip, they crawl back into the darkness of the dungeon. Bluebeard locks the seventh door and soliloquizes: Diogenes had an easy task, to find an honest man; but my travail is tenfold—for where is she, does she live, the wife who does not pry and snoop, who does not pilfer her husband's pockets, steam open his letters, and when he is late returning home, demand to know what wench he has been tumbling?

     The lights had been dimming slowly until now only Bluebeard was illumined, and at this point he turned to the audience and addressed the women therein. "Mesdames et Mademoiselles!" he declaimed. "Écoute! En garde! Voici la septième porte—Hear me! Beware! Behold the seventh door!" By a stage trick the door was transformed into a mirror. The curtain fell to riotous applause.

     Recounted baldly, La Septième Porte seems a trumpery entertainment, a mere excuse for scenes of horror—and so it was. But there was a strength, a power to the portrayal of Bluebeard; that ugly devil up there on the shabby little stage was like an icy flame, and when he'd turned to the house and delivered that closing line, there had been such force of personality, such demonic zeal, such hatred and scorn, such monumental threat, that I could feel my young companion shrink against me and shudder.

     "Come, come, ma petite," I said, "it's only a play."

     "Je le déteste," she said.

     "You detest him? Who, Bluebeard?"


     My French was sketchy at that time, and her English almost nonexistent, but as we made our slow way up the aisle, I managed to glean that the actor's name was Laval, and that she had at one time had some offstage congress with him, congress of an intimate nature, I gathered. I could not help asking why, since she disliked him so. (I was naïf then, you see, and knew little of women; it was somewhat later in life I learned that many of them find evil and even ugliness irresistible). In answer to my question, she only shrugged and delivered a platitude: "Les affaires sont les affaires—Business is business."

     Sellig was waiting for us in the foyer. His height, and his great beauty of face, made him stand out. Our two pretty companions took to him at once, for his attractive exterior was supplemented by waves of charm.

     "Did you enjoy the programme?" he asked of me.

     I did not know exactly what to reply. "Enjoy? . . . Let us say I found it fascinating, M'sieu' Sellig."

     "It did not strike you as tawdry? cheap? vulgar?"

     "All those, yes. But at the same time, exciting, as sometimes only the tawdry, the cheap, the vulgar, can be."

     "You may be right. I have not watched a Guignol production for several years. Although, surely, the acting . . ."

     We were entering a carriage, all five of us. I said, "The acting was unbelievably bad—with one exception."

     "Really? And the exception?"

     "The actor who played Bluebeard in a piece called La Septième Porte. His name is—" I turned to my companion again.

     "Laval," she said, and the sound became a viscous thing.

     "Ah yes," said Sellig. "Laval. The name is not entirely unknown to me. Shall we go to Maxime's?"

     We did, and experienced a most enjoyable evening. Sellig's fame and personal magnetism won us the best table and the most efficient service. He told a variety of amusing—but never coarse—anecdotes about theatrical life, and did so without committing that all-too-common actor's offense of dominating the conversation. One anecdote concerned the theatre we had just left:

     "I suppose César has told the story of the Guignol doctor. No? Ah then, it seems that at one point it was thought a capital idea to hire a house physician—to tend to swooning patrons and so on, you know. This was done, but it was unsuccessful. On the first night of the physician's tour of duty, a male spectator found one particular bit of stage torture too much for him, and he fainted. The house physician was summoned. He could not be found. Finally, the ushers revived the unconscious man without benefit of medical assistance, and naturally they apologized profusely and explained they had not been able to find the doctor. 'I know,' the man said, rather sheepishly, 'I am the doctor.'"

     At the end of the evening, César and I escorted our respective (but not precisely respectable) young ladies to their dwellings, where more pleasure was found. Sellig went home alone. I felt sorry for him, and there was a moment when it crossed my mind that perhaps he was one of those men who have no need of women—the theatrical profession is thickly inhabited by such men—but César privately assured me that Sellig had a mistress, a lovely and gracious widow named Lise, for Sellig's tastes were exceedingly refined and his image unblemished by descents into the dimly lit world of the sporting house. My own tastes, though acute, were not so elevated, and thus I enjoyed myself immensely that night.

     Ignorance, they say, is bliss. I did not know that my ardent companion's warmth would turn unalterably cold in the space of a single night.

"Sagittarius" is an impeccable celebration of theatrical Paris, of assumed and hidden identities, and of the perils of pretense. It richly rewards careful reading and rereading.


15 April 2022