Promethean Horrors – Xavier Aldana Reyes, Editor

A volatile and potent concoction, a distillation of the elements of two of the key genres of imaginative fiction, as part of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series editor Xavier Aldana Reyes has stitched together an assemblage subtitled Classic Tales of Mad Science, the distinct realms of science fiction and horror blended together as foolhardy researchers and the unwary unleash their Promethean Horrors.

Presented in the 1844 translation but published in the original German in 1816, the first of the ten stories is The Sandman by E T A Hoffman, a surprising synthesis of nightmare and fairy tale, the core of the narrative the shock of childhood trauma leading to questions of identity and perception as it charts the mental degradation of the protagonist and the circumstances of his downfall. Containing ideas and images which are vivid and innovative, they are often drowned in the torrent of Hoffman’s language, obfuscated by tedious passages of romantic rambling.

An affectation of the literary style of the time which is apparent in many of the pieces in the collection, the next is more focused, The Mortal Immortal of Mary Shelley dating to 1833, though that which is presented as science has more in common with alchemy, an elixir distilled to impart eternal life, itself a door for the writer to open to allow her to explore love, devotion, disappointment, jealousy and regret over a passage of centuries, all of which she herself experienced in the much shorter timespan of her own tumultuous life.

Another tale of a naive man who throws himself at first sight into the adoration of a woman, Beatrice is the name of Rappaccini’s Daughter, blooming in the imagination of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1844, glimpsed in the well-tended garden beneath the window of the narrator’s lodgings; the peculiarities of her father having made his peers at the University of Padua wary of him, for all the lengthy prelude and diversions, the conclusion is frustratingly abrupt.

The tendency to curtail analysis beyond the imparted shock another motif repeated throughout the collection, that sudden termination is delayed but inescapable in 1845’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Edgar Allan Poe taking an effective alternative approach to his oft-explored fascination and dread of premature burial, the clinical language with which the observations of the subject’s decline giving an impression of authority to the mesmeric proceedings documented.

A different approach to life and death are revealed in The Secrets of the Scaffold, August Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s 1883 offer of intercession by an “eminent surgeon” to a condemned man, not a blessing but a proposition “frightful and revolting” as he requests complicity in an experiment into the sensory state of a decapitated head to be carried out in the presence of Madame la Guillotine.

Inspired by Burke and Hare, both referred to in the text, Robert Louis Stevenson has an 1844 date with The Body Snatcher, filled with drinking, accusation and recrimination even before recounting the macabre details of the illicit nocturnal arrangements of those who visit the kirkyard after midnight; absent the “mad scientist” figure which defines the collection, recounting instead the genuine practices of the students of anatomy of Edinburgh’s medical school and countless other institutions, it is particularly grimly fascinating.

L T Meade brings a change of style, her 1897 piece focusing on narrative rather than atmosphere with barely a wasted word as a resourceful governess contrives to resolve the mystery of The Blue Laboratory of her employer, locked and forbidden to all except under his supervision; determined and capable, Madeline Rennick is quite the match for the cruel obsessions of Doctor Chance.

“In science, as in the rest of life, one thing leads to another, and you never know where anything is going to stop;” so wrote E Nesbit in 1909 as she explored The Five Senses, written with a clear vision and recalling Poe’s many exhumations of the fear of being buried alive but shifting his inherited maladies to the results of scientific endeavour, and despite her obstinate nature it is the sole female character, apparently inconsequential until that point, whose strength of will gives the only happy ending in the collection.

The eternal chronicler of existential dread, H P Lovecraft‘s nightmare predictably comes From Beyond, published in 1934, three scant years before his death, and thematically tied to the work of Nesbit’s Professor Boyd Thompson as the increasingly deranged Crawford Tillinghurst is also engaged in research expanding and enhancing the sensitivity of the human form though with results more ghastly and of danger not only to himself, for a door, once opened, can be traversed in both directions.

The author George Langelaan is a name perhaps less well known than many of his literary peers with whom he shares space in the pages of the anthology but the story from 1957 which represents him is possibly the most famous chosen by Reyes, with filmed adaptations in 1958 and 1986 starring Vincent Price and Jeff Goldblum in the title role.

Presented as an after-the-fact investigation into a murder where the wife has confessed her actions but not her reasons, The Fly is a well-constructed tragedy and one of the few stories where the character is a victim not of hubris or arrogance but a simple mistake whose repercussions are borne not only by him but his family, Langelaan’s prose refraining from judgement on either Professor Delambre or his wife Hélène whose only motive was love, her devotion liberating her from the curse of the Promethean Horrors where it snared those of earlier times.

Promethean Horrors is available now from the British Library

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