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Introduction by Italo Calvino
I. The Visionary Fantastic of the Nineteenth Century
The Story of the Demoniac Pacheco by Jan Potocki
Autumn Sorcery by Joseph von Eichendorff
The Sandman by E. T. A. Hoffmann
Wandering Willie’s Tale by Sir Walter Scott
The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac
The Eye With No Lid by Philarète Chasles
The Enchanted Hand by Gerard de Nerval
Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Nose by Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol
The Beautiful Vampire by Théophile Gautier
The Venus of Ille by Prosper Mérimée
The Ghost and the Bonesetter by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
II. The Everyday Fantastic of the Nineteenth Century
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The Shadow by Hans Christian Andersen
The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens
The Dream by Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev
A Shameless Rascal by Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov
The Very Image by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam
Night: A Nightmare by Guy de Maupassant
A Lasting Love by Vernon Lee
Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce
The Holes in the Mask by Jean Lorrain
The Bottle Imp by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Friends of the Friends by Henry James
The Bridge-Builders by Rudyard Kipling
The Country of the Blind by H. G. Wells
Introduction by Italo Calvino
The fantastic tale is one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth-century narrative. For us, it is also one of the most significant because it is the genre that tells us the most about the inner life of the individual and about collectively held symbols. As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria. We are inclined to enjoy them in another way, as elements in the spirit of a bygone era.
The fantastic tale arises between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the same ground as philosophic speculation: its theme is the relationship between the reality of the world we live in and know through perception and the reality of the world of thought that lives within us and directs us. The problem with the reality of what we see—extraordinary things that are perhaps hallucinations projected by our minds, or common things that perhaps hide a second, disturbing nature, mysterious and terrible, beneath the most banal appearances—is the essence of fantastic literature, whose best effects reside in an oscillation between irreconcilable levels of reality.
Tzvetan Todorov, in his Introduction to Fantastic Literature (1970), holds that what distinguishes “fantastic” narrative is precisely our perplexity in the face of an incredible fact, our indecision in choosing between a rational, realistic explanation and an acceptance of the supernatural. The character of the incredulous positivist who often appears in this kind of story, seen with compassion and irony because he must surrender when confronted by something he does not know how to explain, is not completely negated. According to Todorov, the incredible event the fantastic story tells must always allow for a rational explanation, unless it happens to be a hallucination or a dream (a fail-safe device that sanctions just about anything).
On the other hand, the “marvelous,” according to Todorov, is different from the fantastic in that it presupposes our acceptance of the implausible and the inexplicable, as in fables or The Thousand and One Nights. This distinction is faithful to French literary terminology, where fantastique almost always refers to macabre elements, such as ghosts. The Italian sense of the term, on the other hand, more freely associates the idea of the fantastic with fantasy. In effect, we Italians speak about the fantastic in Ariosto (in Orlando Furioso, for example), but according to French terminology we should be talking about the marvelous in Ariosto.
The fantastic story is born at the beginning of the nineteenth century with German Romanticism, but during the second half of the eighteenth century the English Gothic novel had already explored a repertory of motifs, settings, and effects (especially macabre, cruel, and horrifying effects) which the Romantics employed profusely. And since one of the first names that stands out among them (because of the achievement of his Peter Schlemihls) belongs to a German author born a Frenchman, Adelbert von Chamisso, who brings to his crystalline German prose a lightness typical of the French eighteenth century, we see that the French component is also essential from the first. The French eighteenth century makes a twofold bequest to the Romantic fantastic story: first, the spectacular pomp of the “marvelous tale” (from the féerique at the court of Louis XIV to the oriental phantasmagorias of The Thousand and One Nights, discovered and translated by Galland), and second, the linear, direct, and cutting style of the Voltairean “philosophic tale,” where nothing is gratuitous, and everything tends toward a single end.
If the eighteenth-century philosophic tale had been the paradoxical expression of Illuminist Reason, the “fantastic tale” is born in Germany as the open-eyed dream of philosophical idealism, with the declared intention of representing the reality of the interior, subjective world of the mind, the imagination, giving to that world a dignity equal to or greater than that of the world of objectivity and of the senses. For that reason, it too presents itself as a philosophic tale, and here one name stands out above all others: E.T.A. Hoffmann.
An anthology should delineate its own limits and impose some rules on itself. This one has adopted the rule of including a single text by each author: this rule is particularly cruel when it becomes necessary to choose one story to represent all of Hoffmann. I’ve chosen his best-known tale because, we might say, it’s an “obligatory” text: “The Sandman,” where the characters and images of tranquil bourgeois life metamorphose into grotesque, diabolical, and terrifying apparitions, as in nightmares. But I could also have oriented my choice toward other texts by Hoffmann that almost completely lack the grotesque, “The Mines of Galun,” for example, where Romantic nature poetry attains the sublime by means of the fascination of the mineral world.
The mines young Ellis sinks into, to the point where he prefers them to sunlight or the embrace of his wife, constitute one of the great symbols of Ideal interiority. And here we see another essential point that any discussion of the fantastic must take into account: attempts to clarify the meaning of a symbol—Peter Schlemihls’s lost shadow in Chamisso, the mines where Ellis becomes lost in Hoffmann, the street of the Jews in Achim von Arnim’s “Die Majoratsherren”—do nothing more than impoverish their rich suggestiveness.
Hoffmann excepted, the great works of the fantastic genre during German Romanticism are too long to be included in an anthology that seeks to offer the widest possible panorama. A length of fewer than fifty pages is another limit I have imposed on myself, and it forces me to give up some of my favorite texts, which have the dimensions either of a very long story or a novella: Chamisso, about whom I’ve already spoken, and his short novel Isabel of Egypt, the other beautiful works of Arnim, and Joseph von Eichendorff’s Memoirs of a Lazy Man. To have offered a selection would have involved contravening the third I
’d established: to offer only complete tales. (I made one exception: Potocki. His novel, Manuscript Found in Saragossa, contains tales which, despite being rather interconnected, enjoy a certain autonomy.)
If we consider the diffusion of Hoffmann’s acknowledged influence on the various European literatures, we can be confident that at least for the first half of the nineteenth century, the “fantastic tale” is synonymous with “tale in the style of Hoffmann.” In Russian literature, Hoffmann’s influence produces such miraculous fruit as Gogol’s Saint Petersburg Tales, but we should note that even before any European inspiration, Gogol had written extraordinary tales about witchcraft in his two collections of stories set in the Ukrainian countryside. From the outset, the critical tradition has studied nineteenth-century Russian literature from the perspective of realism, but the parallel development of the fantastic tendency—from Pushkin to Dostoevski—is clearly visible. It is precisely in that line that an author of the first rank like Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov acquires his proper dimension.
In France, Hoffmann has tremendous influence on Charles Nodier, on Balzac (on the self-avowedly fantastic Balzac and on the realist Balzac in his grotesque, nocturnal suggestions), and on Théophile Gautier, from whom we can derive a branching out from the Romantic tree that will play an important role in the development of the fantastic tale: aestheticism. With regard to the philosophic aspect: in France, the fantastic is tinged with the esoteric from Nodier to Nerval, or with Swedenborgian theosophy, as in Balzac and Gautier. Gerard de Nerval creates a new fantastic genre: the dream tale (Sylvie, Aurélia) more supported by lyrical density than by plot structure. As for Mérimée and his Mediterranean stories (and also his Nordic stories: the suggestive Lithuania of Lokis), with his skill at capturing the light and soul of a country in an image that instantly becomes an emblem, he opens the fantastic genre to a new dimension: exoticism.
England takes special pleasure in playing with the macabre and terrible. The most famous example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The pathos and humor of the Victorian novel leave a certain margin so the “black” or “gothic” imagination can carry on its work with renewed vigor: the ghost story is born. Its authors perhaps make a point of ironic winks, but in the meanwhile they put something of themselves on display, an interior truth that is not part of the conventions of the genre. Dickens’s propensity for the grotesque and macabre finds a place not only in his great novels but also in his minor productions, such as the Christmas stories and tales about ghosts. I say “productions” because Dickens (like Balzac) programmed his work with the determination of someone involved in the industrial or commercial world (and his best works are born in just that way) and published serials filled in the main with narratives he wrote himself but conceived to open the way to the collaborations of his friends as well.
Among the writers in his circle (which includes the author of the first detective novel, Wilkie Collins), there is one who stands out in the history of the genre: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, of an Irish Protestant family, the first example of a professional ghost story writer, since he wrote practically nothing else but tales of ghosts and horror. It was at that time that a “specialization” in the fantastic tale appeared which has developed considerably in our century (both in popular and highbrow literature, but often between those extremes). This is not to imply that Le Fanu should be taken as a mere artisan (which is what Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, would later be). To the contrary: the drama of religious controversies gives life to his tales, as do the popular Irish imagination and a grotesque, poetic, and nocturnal vein (see “Judge Harbottle”) in which we recognize once again the influence of Hoffmann.
What all the very different authors I’ve named up to this point have in common is the placing of a visual suggestion in the foreground. And this is no coincidence. As I said at the outset, the true theme of the nineteenth-century fantastic tale is the reality of what we see: to believe or not to believe in phantasmagoric apparitions, to glimpse another world, enchanted or infernal, behind everyday appearances. It is as if the fantastic tale, more than any other genre, were destined to make its entrance through our eyes, to become concrete in a succession of images, to entrust its power to communicate to the ability to create “figures.” It is not so much a mastery in the manipulation of language, or a pursuit of the brilliancy in abstract thought that is narrated, as is the clarity of a complex and unusual scene. The theatrical element is essential to fantastic narrative: no wonder movies have nourished themselves so much on it.
But we cannot generalize. If in the majority of cases, the Romantic imagination creates around itself a space populated by visionary apparitions, there also exists the fantastic story in which the supernatural is invisible. Rather than seeing it, we feel it. It comes to form part of an interior dimension, as a mood or a conjecture. Even Hoffmann, who takes such delight in evoking anguishing and demonic visions, has stories in which he deploys a tightly knit economy of spectacular elements, where images of everyday life predominate. For example, in “The Abandoned House” (La casa deshabitada) the closed windows of a ruined old house amid the rich palaces of Unter den Linden, a glimpse of a woman’s arm or a girl’s face are sufficient in themselves to create an expectation full of mystery, one that is all the greater because those movements are not observed directly but reflected in an ordinary mirror that takes on the function of a magic mirror.
We can find the clearest examples of these two directions in Poe. His most typical tales are those in which a dead woman, bloody and dressed in white, emerges from a coffin in a dark house whose magnificent furnishings exude an air of dissolution. “The Fall of the House of Usher” constitutes the richest elaboration of this kind. But take “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where visual suggestions, reduced to a minimum, are concentrated in an eye opened wide in the darkness, while all the tension concentrates in the murderer’s monologue.
To compare the distinctive features of the “visionary fantastic” to those of the “mental,” “abstract,” “psychological,” or “everyday” fantastic, I first considered selecting two stories from each author that would represent the two tendencies. But I quickly noticed that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the visionary fantastic clearly predominates, just as at the end of the century the everyday fantastic prevails, reaching the apex of the incorporeal and the ungraspable in Henry James. I concluded that with having to give up only a minimum with respect to the original project, I could unify both the chronological order and the stylistic classification by calling the first part, which includes texts from the first three decades of the nineteenth century, “the visionary fantastic,” and calling the second, which reaches the dawn of the twentieth century, “the everyday fantastic.” Inevitably, things become a bit forced in operations like this, which take their point of departure from opposed definitions. Actually, the labels are interchangeable, and a story from one group could just as well be transposed to the other. The important thing is that it remain clear that the general direction is toward the gradual interiorization of the supernatural.
After Hoffmann, Poe is the author who has had the greatest influence on the European fantastic genre. Baudelaire’s translation must have functioned like the manifesto of a new formulation of literary taste. The result was that Poe’s macabre, decadent effects were taken up more easily than his lucid power of ratiocination, which is his most important distinctive feature. I spoke first about his reputation in Europe because in his own country Poe’s figure did not become so emblematic that it was identified with a concrete literary genre. Contemporary with him, even a bit earlier than Poe, another great American achieved extraordinary intensity in the fantastic tale: Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Among the authors represented in this anthology, it is certainly Hawthorne who goes deepest into a moral and religious conception, both in the drama of the individual conscience and in the relentless representation of a world forged by a thwarted religiosity, like that of Puritan society. Many of his tales a
re masterpieces (both of the visionary fantastic—the witches’ Sabbath in “Young Goodman Brown”—and of the introspective fantastic—“Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent”). But not all. When he leaves his American settings behind (as in the all-too-famous Rappaccini’s Daughter), his powers of invention indulge in more foreseeable effects. But in his best works, his moral allegories, always based on the indelible presence of sin in the human heart, have a power to make interior drama visible that will be equalled in our century only by Franz Kafka: there can be no doubt that an antecedent of The Castle is one of Hawthorne’s best and most anguishing stories: “My Kinsman Major Molineaux.”
It’s important to point out that before Hawthorne and Poe, the fantastic in the literature of the United States already had its tradition and its classic author: Washington Irving. And we must not forget an emblematic tale like William Austin’s “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” (1824). A mysterious divine condemnation obliges a man with his daughter at his side to race forever onward in a two-wheeled carriage never able to stop, driven by a hurricane through the immense geography of the continent. The story, with elemental obviousness, expresses the components of the nascent American myth: the power of nature, individual predestination, adventuresome intensity.
So what Poe—unlike the Romantics at the beginning of the nineteenth century—inherits is an already mature fantastic tradition, which he transmits to his followers, who often are nothing more than inferior imitators and affected stylists (some of them, like Ambrose Bierce, rich in the spirit of the age). Until, with Henry James, we find ourselves face to face with a new line of force.
In France, it was not long before Poe, who became French through Baudelaire, created a school. And the most interesting of his adherents in the specific area of the short story is Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who in “Vera” offers us an effective mise-en-scène of the theme of love that continues beyond the grave. In “Torture with Hope” we have one of the most perfect examples of the purely mental fantastic. (In their own anthologies, Roger Callois chooses “Vera”; Borges “Torture with Hope.” Both excellent choices, especially the second. If I propose a third story, it’s because, more than anything else, I don’t want to repeat the selections of my predecessors.)