When it was known that the Queen had given birth to a frog there was consternation in the court; the ladies of the palace remained mute, and no one any longer ventured into the high vestibules except with sealed lips and heart-rending gazes that spoke volumes.
— Jean Lorrain, The Soul-Drinker (translated by Brian Stableford)
Where can a story go after such a beginning?
Written in the Yellow nineties (1890s), the stories of The Soul-Drinker reflect the French literary trends of the time. They split into two groups: psychological probings of perverse loves (naturalism) and mock-folktales (symbolism). Both feature a heavily ornate style and themes of moral decadence.
The first group of stories has a similar thrust to Barbey’s Diaboliques, although Lorrain doesn’t attempt such a high level of historical realism. He does use framed narratives, but in a more traditional Holmes-Watson setting, where the Watson narrates what shocking discovery Holmes tells him he has made (although the degree of unreliability is substantial).
Lorrain’s women are dissolute—diabolical, even, like Barbey’s—but instead of them striking precisely, daggers-to-hearts, they seem to be striking with such variety they might as well be the embodiment of everyone on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express.
Lady Vianes are everywhere; blonde, brunette or red-haired, Lady Viane is woman, the woman, the true woman, the Eve of Genesis, Flaubert’s Ennoïa, the eternal enemy, the dancer who drinks the blood of prophets, Salome, Herodias, the impure beast, Bestia. When she kills us physically, she’s called Debauchery; when she kills us morally, she’s called Hatred, and sometimes Life.
The quote insists on its message to the point of hysteria where any genuine shock becomes grotesque, and then even the grotesque loses its original meaning.
If excessive euphemising is one way to neutralise the unpalatable, excessive exaggeration is the other. Pushed far enough, the mealy-mouthed and the loud-mouthed meet at the ineffective extreme with their backs to each other. The difference lies in their respective wakes: pasty grey versus glossy gold. Neither may be to to your liking, but the scenic diapason is worth reviewing. (In other words, I read Lorrain once, it’s questionable that I will do so again).
The men are not spared any soul-sucking roles. Here Fauras is “the lover of consumptives”, seeking thrills in those who are at death’s door.
Fauras is a tender individual, an elegiac, obsessed with exquisite impressions of sorrow, infatuated with mourning; he wears crepe in his thoughts and has a funeral urn in the place of his heart. Delectably heart-broken, the most angelic of beings, he defoliates the evergreen cypresses of regret eternally, over new amours, a phoenix incessantly reborn!
Wearing crepe in his thoughts? Not bad. But, funeral urn in place of his heart? That one line was probably what made the book worth for me.
The punctuation in the quote demonstrates again the point about hysterics: only the voice of disturbed adulation ends on an exclamation mark a sentence containing a semi-colon. It doesn’t sound “normal”. The reader comes away—dare I say—sympathising, if not empathising, with the protagonist’s perversions.
From a societal standpoint, stories like this force the readers to evaluate their opinions (or form them, if previously nonexistent) about the role of mental disorder in crime, in love, in life. What is mental order, anyway? Draw the line.
Lorrain eschews the delicacy of the slow-reveal either for the piling up of congeries—he likes his near-synonyms in heaps—or for the first line shock of a Queen giving birth to a frog.
The frog is emblematic of the second group of stories, the mock-folk tale with their artificial plots and their deus ex machina endings. The narrative technique here is straightforward, the voice is objective, but thickly symbolic and morbidly supernatural.
Perhaps the bloody scenes among the lush jewels and thriving nature should bring into question the mental state of the writer (Lorrain resorted to taking ether so that he could keep producing new stories at a savage pace), or perhaps they are just strange and should be accepted as such. Sometimes letting the mind roam over the bizarre is inspirational in its own right: you don’t need ether to hallucinate, your brain will fizzle and bubble producing its own acidic rainbows while trying to make sense of it all. Because it will make sense.
Have a pencil at hand, in case it makes a story too.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.