Théophile Gautier was born France in 1811. He went on to gain acclaim as a critic, journalist and novelist and produced several poems and plays. He’s probably best remembered for his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), whose preface about art for art’s sake became a sort of credo in the nineteenth century. In his later years, Gautier was offered a sinecure as Princess Mathilde Bonaparte’s librarian, a cousin to Napoleon II. Alongside his other work, he also wrote several supernatural stories, some of which we’ll look at here. Unfortunately, I have only three Gautier stories available to me but both were good and worthy of note. “The Dead Leman” in particular is outstanding. Gautier died in 1872 of cardiac disease.
1. “The Dead Leman” or “La Morte Amoureuse” (1836) – A young priest questions his devotion to God on the day he’s to be ordained following one look from a beautiful woman in the crowd. He proceeds with the ordination but can’t stop thinking of the woman, who passes him a note containing her name and residence. She’s Clarimonde at Concini Palace. When he passes by her palace while being taken to the church through the bustling city, the head priest tells him the following about it. “It is the ancient palace which Prince Concini has given to the courtesan Clarimonde; shocking scenes take place there.” The young priest then notices her watching him from a palace window. When he’s brought forth to perform the last rites to Clarimonde upon her death following a night of debauchery, he gives into an irresistible impulse to kiss her corpse. She momentarily returns to life and promises to see him again. Afterwards, the priest falls into a long spell of unconsciousness that lasts for several days. The head priest attending him warns his protégé of the dangerous path he’s on, saying, “My son, I must warn you that you are standing on the brink of an abyss; beware lest you fall into it. Satan’s claws are long, and the grave is not always trustworthy. Clarimonde’s tomb should be sealed with a triple seal, for this is not the first time she has died.” As time goes on the powerful influence of Clarimonde puts the priest’s desire for her at odds with his vows to God. This is an excellent, well-written story that has stayed with me since I read it many years ago.
2. “The Mummy’s Foot” (1840) – A man buys the mummified foot of a 3,000 year old Egyptian Princess from a strange curio shop owner. The man selling the foot is gleeful over the thought of how angry the long dead father of the princess would be at his daughter’s foot being used as a paperweight. The purchaser of the foot is later visited by the princess searching for her missing limb. This is more fairy tale than horror but is interesting nonetheless.
3. “The Coffeepot” (Translation published in 1995) – A man witnesses a bizarre scene while visiting a friend’s family estate in Normandy. The coffeepot in the room starts to walk across the floor on its own accord. Then the paintings of people inside the tapestries on the wall step out of their frames and begin dancing together. The man falls instantly in love with a beautiful woman attending this fantastical, impromptu ball.
Article by Matt Cowan