Horror—terror, fear, dread, any and all of its manifestations—is one of humanity's most dutiful companions. Yet we tell ourselves it is not only a recent invention but one which, with enough effort, we can control. As if the thing to be feared cares what we think; as if the problem of a snake coiled around the leg of the dinner table is a brief phone call from being resolved. As if the snake didn’t have a mind and desire entirely of its own.
If proof were needed of our long dalliance with horror, merely studying our reactions would suffice. When confronted with our fears, we raise our hands, cover our eyes, gasp, squeal. This reaction is an old one, built in, neither conscious nor learned. To offer further, we often create a literal buffer between us and our fears in the shape of a mask; those masks can be seen on soldiers in war, in the form of makeup for a job interview, or as surgical masks worn by theatre surgeons and peak hour commuters alike. Throughout history, civilizations of all stripes have known well the uses of the mask—our museums are full of fine examples; Ancient Greek theatre, too, used masks to clearly express gender, emotion, character, and class. But in one way or another, they all function like a snail shell: both as protection, and, paradoxically, as indication of the fragility it shields.
This strange dichotomy explicitly undergirds the various short stories in the French writer Marcel Schwob’s The King in the Golden Mask. The author prefaces his collection with an oblique explanation of his intentions; he proffers up his imagining of what a visitor from another world might observe of our own. This visitor possesses both “the blinkered view of the artist and the generalization of the scientist,” each of which serve to frame this visitor’s perspective upon our habits and customs. “Know that all in this world is signs,” he concludes as a way of signposting the collection’s overarching theme, “and signs of signs."
Signs and signs of signs: this concept, when nudged toward its logical extreme, becomes a terrifying idea. What is real? How can we know? Why is the real being obscured? What does it take to reveal it? These stories present scenarios that bind Schwob’s readers in a Gordian knot of questions. How does Schwob answer? With that which forces out the truth most effectively: terror and inexplicability. In Schwob’s hands, these two concepts inexorably extract the snail from its shell.
Schwob spent his youth under the guidance of his uncle Leon Cahun, Orientalist and curator of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. Schwob’s formative years would manifest remarkably in The King in the Golden Mask, which was the first of his short-story collections, written before he was bedridden by the sickness that would lead to his premature death at 38. Translated here in the first complete English edition by Kit Schluter, the collection is noteworthy for the writer’s stance on the nature of creativity and method of composition, but also for his exploration of the mask as signifier; the desire to hide what is beneath continues to be a modern preoccupation: make-up, filtered selfies and Botox, for example, all betray a society pathologically fearful of ageing and, by extension, death.
The concept of the mask is treated most explicitly in the title story, “The King in the Golden Mask.” In keeping with tradition, the king and everybody in his court wears a mask: the jesters wear smiling masks, the priests wear sober ones and the king wears one of gold. A vagrant comes to the court and questions this tradition, for how can one know what is true and what is fake when wearing a mask? “Who knows if you are not horrible despite your finery?” the drifter asks to the king. To wear a mask is to lack the freedom of knowledge, and the king is overcome with doubt. To wear the mask becomes torture, to be denied what is beneath the mask is unbearable—and so he removes it.
This coupling of terror and inexplicability gives Schwob's short fiction the feeling of being a new invention, as if it had been written not more than a century ago but instead more recently, in a time of faithlessness and uncertainty—a time not unlike our own. In the story “The Talking Machine,” a mad scientist demonstrates his invention: a giant, nightmarish throat and lips. “The monstrous lips shuddered and yawned apart; the tongue worked and the roar of articulate speech exploded: IN THE BE-GIN-NING WAS THE WORD.” The idea of a Doctor Frankenstein working away in a basement on a monster can, like some of the other notions in the book, be viewed as a quaint one, placing Schwob in an era even earlier than his own time, where wireless communication and advances in electrical technology were a novelty. But these ideas remain with us in similar ways. We are today on the cusp of harvesting body parts manufactured in laboratories by our own mad scientists. The Economist reported in January this year that Chinese biotechnology company Sichuan Revotek had successfully “bioprinted” a section of artery and implanted it into a monkey. US firm Organovo had also apparently transplanted printed human-liver tissue into mice. Taking the subject less literally, today we are surrounded by talking machines—by radios, televisions, computers, phones, each of these technologies quite comfortably able to roar with articulated speech. The precursor to the ubiquitous disembodied voice is the disembodied throat.
The story “The Faulx-Visaiges”—the point where the horror in the collection could be said to peak—offers another example. In 1444, after the end of the Hundred Years’ War, bands of bored soldiers terrorize the countryside, harassing the populace. Then comes something worse. A band of figures dressed in black and wearing masks of twisted faces appear, haunting the nights. They slaughter, eviscerate, skewer and sear, bringing terror to an already traumatized people. These men with the fake faces, cloaked in black, haunting a country already reeling from war, appearing after a lesser evil has tried their luck, has a contemporary analogue: the Islamic State.
Which inevitably raises the question: did Schwob know something of the future that his contemporaries did not? Often, writers who have successfully predicted the course of future events generally do not profess any clairvoyance so much as a sensitivity to the foolish and unchanging ways of man. Schwob uses the collection to tell the story of a world of abomination, violence and cruelty. Of course, this is the world at our door, a world which has always been at the door. The question is not what is out there—why ask when we already know?—but if we should step out into it. Even the faulx-visaiges (a historical spelling of the French for “false faces“) prove Schwob’s point that there is nothing new under the sun. The horror in the collection, then, is less that of the surprise of the horror film than it is of this slow, terrible recognition of human nature. It is the creeping awareness of having been abandoned by the gods long ago. “No one had any strength left to pray, or beg,” Schwob writes in “The Terrestrial Fire,” a story which imagines the moments before the end of the world. For the poor souls in “The Eunuchs,” the horror is in the longing for what they had and can never have again. The thieves in “The Cart” wake in the dawn to see they have left a trail of blood in their wake. They panic, scrambling to clean up their mess, horrified not by their crimes but at their sloppiness—at the possibility of being caught. “The Milesian Virgins” is the story of young women driven to suicide by what they see in a cursed mirror. But by allowing us to meet our own eyes, is not every mirror cursed?
Schwob disbelieved in originality—everything had been said, had been done—but he trusted in the creative spirit. His stories both draw on historical sources and forfeit narrative by instead acknowledging that thieves, pirates, street urchins and prisoners are equally cursed to be human, and to be human is to indulge in casual cruelty. This confluence is unexpected, even jarring. Indeed, the mystery and inexplicability of the stories often result in something profoundly moving.
Still, it’s clear what Schwob meant—in a sense, to deny originality was to pay homage to his own influences. This technique of layering his stories with the work of others imbues his work with depth. Typically, a narrative begins and is given space to unfold before Schwob forces an abrupt yet deft change in direction. This approach has both positioned Schwob in a long lineage of important story tellers and imprinted his singular perspective upon so many of the greatest writers who would follow, including Walser, Borges, and Bolaño.
‘The Sleeping City” is a perfect case in point. A storm sends the Jolly Roger off course. When the tumult clears, the pirates onboard the ship see an island they can't account for and, naturally, go ashore to explore it. Schwob was an admirer of the works of Rabelais, Poe and Stevenson, all of whom exerted particularly evident influence in these early stories; “The Sleeping City” could comfortably function as a delirious extension of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. This story can also serve as a thread linking writers of the past with those of the future: its title has a footnote appended to it which states it is from a mostly blank book found in a previously unexplored desert. The footnote both distances the author from the text itself, and establishes a scholarly authority. In this case, the story purports not to be a work of fiction; rather, the author is simply a medium, recording the tale for posterity. Schwob wouldn’t be the first to use the footnote for such reasons, nor—as Borges demonstrated so brilliantly—would he be the last.
In his translator’s note, Schluter writes that Schwob “made fiction new by making it deeply diachronic, indebted to history; as well, by migrating in a readerly approach to writing which previously belonged solely to the commonplace book, encyclopedia, and biography, and certainly not the short story.” Schluter has retained this newness in a fresh translation, but this newness is also related to the way Schwob manufactured creativity, relying not on the muses but on erudition and work. The translator notes that Schwob's original French is pocked with phrases and terms long out of use when he was writing—evidence he had stolen straight from his source texts in order to harness their spirit. This technique—of collage and pastiche, of squeezing inspiration from old or forgotten texts—is familiar to today’s reader in a way it perhaps wasn’t in Schwob’s time. Even so, while it is a method familiar to the Borges reader, it is one which has always been in use, a method which is at the heart of storytelling. The playwrights of Ancient Greece, for instance, worked over stories already well known to their audience.
Indeed, Schwob’s glance toward the past even as he looks forward into the future aligns him with the run of fiction writers. In his essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works,” Tom McCarthy picks up Schwob’s preoccupations—without naming him specifically—and shuffles them into a manifesto of sorts. McCarthy begins with a notably Schwobian claim: “I affirm, in no uncertain terms, that here, as elsewhere in my writing, I have nothing to say.” The purpose of the essay, then, is “to retune our idea of what a writer does, of what the very act of writing “is.”” The idea McCarthy espouses is that all worthwhile literature is that which “remixes” the writing of others, which itself is a remix of the writing of others, and so on. Nothing is new, nor should it be—writing should instead attempt to unearth the essence of writing, a task which is flawed by its nature: “Writing’s origin will always lie within this blind spot off the map and out of time—a spot whose retrieval is both impossible and the sole true task of any good writer (every significant literary work enacts, or re-enacts, in some way or other, the doomed escapade of attempting to retrieve it, and surrenders itself to the consequences).” It is clear Schwob plays a pivotal role in the transmission of this idea of writer-as-broadcaster from the nineteenth century to the twentieth; as well as Borges, he can count Rilke, Neruda, and Calvino among his admirers. In his essay “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” Roberto Bolaño states: “Read Jules Renard and Marcel Schwob, especially Schwob.” To paraphrase McCarthy, Schwob understood that the writer “is not an originating speaker: he or she is a listener. Not a casual listener, but an obsessive one, devoted to their task right up to the point of their own, and the task’s, annihilation.”
Consider the visitor from another world conjured in Schwob’s preface: is a century in the future not another world? Viewed from any given present, it may as well be. Schwob’s friend Edmond de Goncourt called him “the most hallucinatory resurrector of the past … the magical evoker of antiquity.” A mighty claim, but apt—Schwob, like Janus, looked back to look forward, and in so doing denied the present moment. He succeeded in dislodging himself from his time and becoming influential to modernists, post-modernists and successive generations of writers. And here he is again today. Schwob perhaps tapped into the universal by making himself timeless, capable of returning to any and every present to delight and inspire—as if a voyager from another world.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He has written for Full Stop, Overland, Words Without Borders, Music & Literature, and elsewhere. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.