A little Poe for Hallowe’en.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door–
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”–here I opened wide the door–
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”–
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my sour within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping something louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is and this mystery explore–
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;–
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning–little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door–
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if its soul in that one word he did outpour
Nothing farther then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered–
Till I scarcely more than muttered: “Other friends have flown before–
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore–
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore–
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!–
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted–
On this home by Horror haunted–tell me truly, I implore–
Is there–is there balm in Gilead?–tell me–tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us–by that God we both adore–
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting–
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul has spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!–quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadows on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted–nevermore!
The Decadents didn’t do Christmas. In fact, Christmas is pretty much the antithesis of everything the movement stood for. Nevertheless, I feel under a certain amount of pressure to acknowledge the season in some way or another, so I thought I would hark back to that terribly nineteenth-century Christmas tradition – the ghost story. I therefore bring you my top ten list of supernatural short fiction to come from the Decadent movement, in no particular order, with links to the full text where possible.
1. Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher
I found it hard to narrow things down to just one Poe story, but I finally decided on this one. It is the tale of a man summoned to the home of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, holed up from the rest of the world in his dismal, decaying house, along with his ailing sister Madeline. Poe clearly had a thing for women dying long, drawn-out deaths from unknown causes, as the motif appears quite often in his fiction. That, and being buried alive. Roderick’s sickness of the mind and morbid fascination with death betray him as a Decadent hero as far as I am concerned. I have a special place in my heart for The Fall of the House of Usher, as it was the first piece of fiction that really got me hooked on morbid literature, which would eventually lead me to Decadence. When I was little I used to wrap myself up in a bedsheet and wander around the house pretending to be Madeline Usher. Which may explain why I didn’t have any friends…
Arthur Machen has been pretty much neglected in recent years, which is a great pity as he really was one of the best occult writers of his generation. The Great God Pan is a tale which is disturbing precisely because nothing is ever fully revealed – and as all the best horror writers know, the imagination can conjure up things that are far worse than anything put down in print. Pagan religions appear quite often in Decadent art and literature, and Pan is especially popular, probably because of his connections with art and sexuality. Here he is shown as a demonic entity who terrorizes Victorian London through the means of a mysterious young woman born of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong.
A classic femme fatale story about two men who fall prey to a seductive sorceress who dwells in a mysterious forest. It is a tale of sensuality triumphing over spirituality, of surreal dreams, and deadly beauty. There is also a strong subtext of venereal disease.
4. Remy de Gourmont – Pehor
A gruesome little tale about the dangers of repressing sexuality. A sensual young girl is taught to feel shame for her desires, and direct her attention towards religion instead. Her sexuality takes on an unhealthy form, and she attracts the attention of a demonic lover, Pehor, who satisfies her longings, and eventually destroys her. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to find an online version, but it’s well worth tracking down.
This is a story of a village that lives in fear of the unknown things that live in the forest across the brook. It is said that werewolves dwell there, and Satanic rites are practiced. But one boy from the village, Gabriel, who is different from the others, is seduced by this mysterious unknown world, and is gradually seduced away from the world he once belonged to. This is a gorgeous story, full of mysticism and seduction. Stenbock creates a truly Decadent fairy tale.
The story that inspired Freud’s famous essay on the uncanny, The Sandman is a classic tale of obsession and self-perpetuating doom. It is the story of a young student persecuted by the childhood memory of the mysterious Sandman whom he believes killed his father. He is gradually driven from his senses as he meets – or thinks he meets – the sandman again in various guises in his adult life. He also finds the time to fall in love with a beautiful automaton, Olympia, along the way. For an added Christmas touch, think of it as the creepy version of The Nutcracker.
Written in the form of a diary, a man records his persecution at the hands of a mysterious, demonic entity. The Decadent movement boasts a wealth of literature that leaves the reader unsure as to whether they are being told of genuine tale of the supernatural, or an account of a diseased mind. The uncertainty makes it that much more disturbing.
A classic ‘mad scientist’ tale about a young man sent to collect from an old colleague of his boss. An old colleague with a nasty reputation for conducting grotesque, satanic experiments on himself that have left him half man, half bloodthirsty beast. It’s all ridiculously camp, but then some of the best Decadent literature is.
I’m cheating a little here, as this is part of a longer work by France called The Well of St Clare, but I think it works pretty well as a stand-alone work. It’s another tale of the conflict between the profane and the sacred. A religious man discovers the tomb of ‘Saint Satyr’, really a pagan god, and he experiences visions of sexual orgies and sickening rites, before he is finally destroyed. Another great Decadent piece of literature dealing with sexual corruption, physical and moral decay, and the instability and hypocrisy of conventional morality.
I recently discussed this tale in my review of Lee’s Hauntings, but I thought it was well worth another mention. Set in Venice, it’s the tale of an ailing composer slowly driven out of his mind by what he believes to be the spirit of a famous male singer, whose voice had the power to kill. The intoxicating, hedonistic Italian setting adds to the sense of claustrophobia and corruption.