“Having passed through death… we will explore hell,” says Bishop, a friend of artist Edouard Cucuel, to their mutual guest, a Mr. Thompkins in William Chambers Morrow’s 1899 travelogue Bohemian Paris of To-Day.
Leaving the Cabaret du Néant (Nothingness / Death) and about to enter the Cabaret de l’Enfer (Hell) — with its monstrous demon’s mouth of a door — the trio’s evening had long since passed the bizarre, knocking now at the Gates of Hell itself. Or at least a nightclub meant to look like it. Complete with a man at the threshold dressed in red tights and devil’s horns, this was an approximation of hell. A hell on earth, so to speak. And a bit of fun at that.
BOHEMIAN PARIS OF TO-DAY (1899)
Such is a scene in one of the last works of little-known American author W.C. Morrow, a colleague of Ambrose Bierce and early-practitioner / respected author of “the Weird tale.” Working from the notes of Edouard Cucuel, Bohemian of Paris of To-Day was an odd departure for Morrow. With the exception of a pamphlet, Roads around Paso Robles (1904), it was the only travelogue he ever produced.
The book is best known for its chapter on Montmarte, particularly sections showcasing the strange and often salacious hotspots of fin de siècle Paris. Possibly the best account we have of the notorious Cabaret du Néant and Cabaret de l’Enfer — both of which appear to have operated at least through the early 1920s (with the buildings still standing as late as the 1950s) — Morrow’s transcription of Cucuel’s notes provides details that photos (which abound on the web) never could.
The Cabaret du Néant, for example, was funereal and thick with the trappings of death — a place where tourists dined off of coffins and were served by undertakers. It was a nightclub that catered to the thrill-seeking tourist who wanted more than the dancing girls of the Moulin Rouge. Its main attraction? An illusion on stage of an attractive girl in an upright coffin. Before the crowd’s eyes, she transformed into a skeleton. A trick with mirrors, most likely.*
“Enter and be damned,—the Evil One awaits you!” were the words that welcomed the visitor at the next stop along the way.; at the gaping mouth of the Cabaret de l’Enfer, Mephisto himself greeted you. There, at eerily lit red tables, imps served black coffee with cognac, calling it “seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier.”
The nearby heavenly Cabaret du Ciel completed the trio. It was arguably the most boring of the clubs — the kind Oscar Wilde would have skipped.
Overall, they were clubs any modern-day Goth would love to be caught dead in. Some might call it bad taste. Others, campy fun.
The travelogue is interesting, but it is also telling. Why did such places interest not only tourists and Parisians alike, but artists like Cucuel and the writer who transcribed his notes, W.C. Morrow?
Morrow — a displaced southerner who became a San Franciscan of some fame whose short stories reminded many a critic of the work of Morrow’s friend, Ambrose Bierce — wrote many a serious horror tale. His most famous collection, The Ape, The Idiot and Other People (1896) had established him among known “weird tale” writers of his day. A mere three years later, he had apparently abandoned the short story (for he would publish no other collection) and was here transcribing the notes of an artist wandering about Paris. It makes Bohemian Paris of To-Day stand out as such an odd departure for Morrow — especially considering the subject matter of his most famous work.
“His Unconquerable Enemy” (first published in 1889 and later collected in the aforementioned volume) is unquestionably the best story written by Morrow. And it most certainly belongs to the class of horror fiction often called conte cruel. As opposed to the supernatural weird tale, the conte cruel concerned itself with the horrible in human nature in a world where death by violence seems almost inevitable. In the tale, a western doctor tells the tale of Neranya, a temperamental servant of the Rajah with a penchant for violence who is punished for his frequent offenses by being systematically dismembered with each passing transgression. Finding himself in a personal hell by the end of the story — as nothing more than mere head and torso in a cage — Neranya pulls off one final (if implausible) act of revenge that ends in his falling upon the Rajah and killing him. It is a vicious act in a tale completely devoid of the supernatural, and it belongs to a class of short-story called the conte cruel.
INFLUENCE OF THE CONTE CRUEL
In his seminal study Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) , H. P. Lovecraft observed that “[the Conte Cruel]… is less a part of the weird tradition than a class peculiar to itself… in which the wrenching of the emotions is accomplished through dramatic tantalizations, frustrations, and gruesome physical horrors.”
So how did a writer of such violent and disturbing fiction come to transcribe the travels of an artist through the equivalent of themed restaurants that were the nineteenth-century equivalent of Disney’s Haunted Mansion?
The words of horror master Clive Barker — quoted by Rob Lowman of the Los Angeles Daily News regarding Barker’s “Freakz” live show at Universal Studios in the late 1980s — may provide an answer. For Barker, author of The Books of Blood (1984-1985) and director of Hellraiser (1987), putting together the equivalent of a Halloween Haunted House may seem like a step down. But it may be better seen as a step sideways — from one kind of scare to another.
“There’s something deeply perverse about this,” says Barker of his live show. “If something like this happened to us in real life… we’d reject it wholesale. But if it’s a safe environment, like a movie or a ride or a book then we can put [it] down.”
Or simply leave, like we would a nightclub where skeletons appear on stage and the devil serve us drinks.
Barker continues: “what it is, is a confrontation with death in a very safe environment. If we walk away from the play environment having confronted death… then maybe we are stronger when we confront it in the real world. We all need to do this. We’re all going to die. The years tick on and you get closer to the end, and that’s part of the dynamic of being alive. Knowing we’re on that journey.”
Taking Barker a step further, perhaps a trip to hell helps us explore the dynamic of being damned. If only for an evening.
Morrow shares that journey with us — via both the tourist traps of turn-of-the-century Paris and the gruesome horrors of the conte cruel; as radically different as these writings are, they resonate with Barker’s keen observation that “If we walk away from the play environment having confronted death… then maybe we are stronger when we confront it in the real world.”
Perhaps the camp of the cabarets and the carnage of the contes cruels are not all that incompatible.
Perhaps Morrow saw this too.
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* For a really cool article about the Cabaret du Néant and the use of mirrors with the girl-in-the-coffin-trick click here.
Note that Morrow’s Bohemian Paris of To-Day is also available from archive.org. There, you will also find the full-text of his collection of Weird Tales The Ape, The Idiot and Other People, including “His Unconquerable Enemy.”
For more information about little-known horror authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, read S.T. Joshi’s seminal The Evolution of the the Weird Tale. In fact, get it on amazon.com along with my book!