After recently reading about Villiers de L'Isle-Adam in Husymans A'Rebours a quick browse through the Internet pointed to this translation of Contes Cruels/Cruel Tales, (1883), by Robert Baldick, the translator of A'Rebours, this edition in The World's Classics series from Oxford University Press is also accompanied by an introduction by A.W. Raitt, author of a biography of de L'Isle-Adam, the cover art is The Absinthe Drinker by Edouard Manet. It could be said that it's a slight misdemeanor to post on this book in one go as each of the stories it contains are worthy of a post in their own right, the title Cruel Tales conveys the underlying theme to these stories, a later collection of d'L'Isle-Adam's stories was entitled Curious Tales, much of the cruelty involved in these stories are more twists of fate, or portraits of the consequences of man's stupidity or greed. Some though do dip into what could be described as weird tales, like The Sign, were the protagonist visits an old acquaintance and has a dream of a darkened figure offering him a cloak, which by turns is a strange portent of his friend's death, the history and significance of the cloak is revealed on the last turn of the page. Also known for his early science fiction novel Tomorrow's Eve, (1886), translation available by Robert Martin Adams, this collection contains some stories that drift into the speculative as in The Glory Machine and also The Apparatus for the Chemical Analysis of the Last Breath, as well as being fantastic in their depictions of the possibility of future technologies, they incorporate a social comment, as in The Glory Machine, where technology is subjugated to serve the playwright's vanity.
The scope of the stories in this collection was quite staggering to digest, the originality and ingenuity of de L'Isle-Adam is indisputable, from the biblical like setting of the final story The Messenger, with appearances from historical figures - Nebuchadnezzar, which took on fantastical apocalyptic dimensions, to the strange historical tale and absent portrait in The Duke of Portland, some of the stories just left a slightly unsettling afterthought as in The Eleventh Hour Guest, where the true horrific identity of a mystery guest is slowly revealed, even a straightforward tale Sombre Tale,Sombre Teller which tales of a duel being told at a gathering of playwrights, de L'Isle-Adam manages to avoid making the story fall into cliche in describing the scenes as being wholly familiar, yet accentuating each scene leading up to the fatal moment manages to rebuild a new and keenly felt pathos. It would be great to see this collection reissued in it's entirety, although some of these stories will be featured in new translation by Stephen Romer in OUP's forthcoming French Decadent Tales, due in May 2013. Each of the stories open with a quote and most carry a dedication which are explained in the expansive notes at the end, the book also comes with a comprehensive chronology of the events in de L'Isle-Adam's life.