by Maurice Renard
Translated by Michael Shreve
Maurice Renard was born on February 28, 1875 in Châlons-sur-Marne and died on November 18, 1939 in Rochefort-sur-Mer. He was a French writer specialized in science fiction or what he called “Scientific Marvel Fiction”.
He came from a family of high magistrates but rather than opt for a career in law, he launched his writing career at the age of 22 and achieved rapid critical success with his science and “fantastique” fiction. His first collection of short stories was published in 1905, Fantômes et Fantoches, revealing the strong influence of Poe and earning the author the respect of Parisian literary circles. His first novel in 1908, Le Docteur Lerne, inspired by H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, mixed a crime thriller with horror and eroticism, a literary science fiction born of a learned imagination.
Along with his fiction, he also tried to popularize and legitimize the genre of “scientific-marvel fiction” as more than puerile entertainment or vulgar decadence, depending on who you talked to. Using Poe and Wells as models, he theorized and promoted imaginative literature in articles throughout his life. His foundational article on the history and theory of science fiction was in 1909, “Scientific Marvel Fiction and Its Effects on the Consciousness of Progress”, a veritable manifesto for the literary value of the genre. Later he would prefer the term “parascientific” and still later “roman d’hypothèse” or speculative novel.
In 1911 he published Le Péril Bleu, his second novel and generally considered his masterpiece, later to become a classic with its unique, non-anthropomorphic aliens of superior intelligence.
Unfortunately, after the First World War, in which he served as a cavalry officer, his financial situation deteriorated to the point where his only income came from his writing. He therefore entered into more mainstream fiction (crime and historical, even romance and adventure stories) with serials in newspapers and magazines to support his fantastic fiction. These also included numerous “contes de presse”, what might today be considered flash fiction, a genre that disappeared with Second World War.
Although he managed to become an important representative in the literary life in Paris between the wars, his critical acceptance took long to translate into popular success. His 18 novels and hundreds of short stories were mainly published in newspapers like L’Intransigeant and Le Petit Parisien, then after 1928 exclusively in Le Matin for his stories, which provided his main source of revenue in the 1930s.
Despite regular republications of some of his novels in the 20th century and a number of film adaptations of Les Mains d’Orlac, he remains a little-known figure to the public, even as his “scientific-marvel” is recognized as an important pioneer in science fiction. Not only is he neglected by literary scholars for writing science fiction, but also by science fiction specialists for his peculiar mix of genres, his atypical approach that dissolves the borders between horror, fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction and just plain weird.
Furthermore, he has never really been recognized in the English-speaking world, perhaps due to the lack of translations. Hopefully, this will change now that Black Coat Press and Brian Stableford have recently published translations of all his novels and science fiction short stories.
The present story (translated before I was aware of this project), published in August 1934 in La Revue des Vivants, bears analogy to H. P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1920) in its attempt to pierce the invisible world through scientific means.
They had a really nice set-up in Passy.
Florine crossed the small, well-kept yard whose neat lawn and hydrangea separated the little house from the laboratory pavilion. It had just turned noon. Philippe’s two assistants were leaving the pavilion. They greeted Mrs. Chambrun excitedly and with respect, obviously amazed at the familiar but unlikely sight of so much grace and elegance. She gave them a nice, friendly smile and headed for the stairs in the shade.
At the top of the stairs, a door opened onto a huge room. It used to be a painter’s workshop, but now, with its rows of chemical tanks and its array of electrical devices, it was a place of science — daunting, of course.
“Hey!” she said. “You changed the door. Was it because of the draft? This one certainly…” She swung the door back and forth on its rubber weather striping, and it shut tight, hermetically sealed.
Philippe Chambrun started laughing. He was just like the newspapers sometimes showed him: tall and bony with bright eyes and a large forehead, topped by crazy hair that flew off wildly in every direction. All kinds of colors spotted his white coat. He was pouring a blue liquid into a glass ball that he lifted up to get a better look.
Still laughing, he put down his glass, took off his glorious stains, and went up to his wife. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes before hugging her. She was exactly twenty-three years old and he was forty. They had been married for eighteen months.
Florine sulked and grumbled, “I know very well that it’s not because of the draft.”
“Well, what’s it for, then?” he asked, titling his head mischievously to one side.
And suddenly — which had not happened before — his wife acted up. Florine threw a fit. She pulled away, choking. “You’re making fun of me… Stop! Leave me alone! Why won’t you tell me what you’re doing here? Do you think I can’t understand?”
“Oh, Florine!” he scolded.
“Or are you keeping a secret?”
He was baffled and stared at her, trying to figure out a way to explain. “Come on! Florine, it’s nothing serious. What’s got into you?”
There are days when the most reasonable women in the world turn into temperamental little girls. Usually so thoughtful and calm, they suddenly start crying. Someone other than Philippe — less of a scholar maybe — would have understood what kind of tantrum causes tears. He did not see that she was crying over herself because she was thinking she was stupid, hateful and pathetic. He believed in words because you could not take them back. It shattered him to see his little Florine so strangely unhappy.
He thought about it. His face became terribly serious and pensive. “Okay. I’ll tell you. Are you happy?”
“Yes,” she smiled exquisitely and dried her eyes. “And I swear I’ll keep your secret. Because it is a secret, isn’t it?”
“A secret, yes, really, a strange secret,” he murmured. And he started walking back and forth, looking confused, not knowing what to say.
“So…” she pointed out all the equipment, “all of this…”
But just when he was about to answer, he became scared. “Not here! Not here! It would be better, certainly…”
It was Florine’s turn to look baffled. “Look, Philippe, we’re alone. Your assistants have left… Aren’t we alone, Philippe?”
“Do we ever really know?” he answered in a strange voice.
Worry gripped Florine. She no longer felt safe in the laboratory — and she was stunned by it.
“Let’s go,” Philippe continued more calmly. “Didn’t you come to get me for lunch?”
During the meal, she didn’t even try to ask him any questions. And he kept quiet. He was lost in thought, furrowing his brow, sometimes narrowing his eyes as if to follow the imaginary course of his thoughts in space. Then he looked at Florine again and relaxed and smiled, but he was still distracted.
Once, while the maid was out of the room, he said, “My assistants… they know nothing. I haven’t told them anything about it yet. I haven’t told anyone. And you see that I’ve been working in peace, which proves, it seems… it seems…”
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing!” he frowned.
She had the feeling again that he was afraid someone was listening to them. She trembled uncomfortably and proposed, “Let’s speak in English!”
He shrugged his shoulders and fell back into silence.
A little later, he gave her a worried look and continued. “…To modify the atmosphere of the laboratory. There you go. To transform it from the point of view of…” He stopped. He put his finger to his mouth and looked around suspiciously.
“I don’t get you,” she confessed.
“I know. You can’t understand like that! Listen, we’re going to… Keep your comments to yourself… We’re going to take the car and go for a drive, a long drive. We’ll come back tonight… late”
“Okay,” she said.
She had already told herself several times that it would certainly be better to forget about knowing Philippe’s secret research, but she did nothing to stop it. It was not that she wanted to push things even further to know if she should suspect some kind of madness in his wonderful intelligence — she had that passing thought for only a second — but she was in the grip of a burning curiosity that had to be satisfied.
The car cruised smoothly along at high speed. By five o’clock, Mr. and Mrs. Chambrun were sitting under a tree on the banks of the Loire for their tea.
“150 miles,” Philippe said, “that’s a ways. But maybe it’s totally useless to take such precautions. Well, after all, it’s no doubt better for me to share the secret. If it has to do with justifying or approving my work, at least the thing is certain.”
But he looked as worried as he did in Paris about what would result from his explanation.
“I’ll try to make you understand as quickly as possible. Without too many words. Don’t talk. Stay quiet and listen to me. Act just like we were sure that we were being spied on.”
Then he sat there for a few minutes preoccupied, trying to decide, and finally he took out of his pocket one of those little portable slates that you can erase in the blink of an eye after writing a little. And that’s how he wrote, little by little, what Florine read under his screening hand:
“No sense. Weak. Very few. Can only make us perceive a tiny part of nature. It would be absurd to think that only the things and beings that we see and feel exist. Good bet we live in the midst of a multitude of invisible, intangible beings. If they exist, what are they? Mystery. Maybe they’re unaware of our existence. But on the other hand, maybe they have all kinds of influence on us. We can even imagine (the worst) that they control us without us knowing. We owe it to them what sometimes (or always) happens to us, even sickness. And when we die, it’s them who kill us.”
Florine turned pale, opened her mouth. “Shh!” he stopped her with a quick, sharp sign of his hand. And he started writing again:
“I don’t think they can read our thoughts because… because, then, I think they would have stopped my work. But… But if they exist and if they’re intelligent, do they hear and understand our words? Do they read our writing?”
He very quickly, instinctively, erased the last sentence, looked at Florine and continued:
“In a few days I think I’ll succeed. Goal: fill the laboratory with some entities. Change the air in such a way that the invisible will become visible. What the world hides will appear. So that we can study them or at least observe them, photograph them. If they exist. As I believe.”
“They don’t exist!” Florine revolted. “No! It’s not possible!”
“Be quiet now,” Philippe ordered. “Not a word. I promise I’ll call for you when I’ve got some results.”
“But… What do you think they are like? What do you think they look like?”
“You can imagine anything you want…”
She felt unbearably nervous. “No! No!” she repeated, disturbed and anxious. “A thing like that!”
“We’ll see… We’ll see!” he concluded with a smile. “And now, we can go back.”
They took a short walk in the country to give the car a rest. The landscape was charming in the beautiful summer evening. A very gentle, caressing breeze blew along the river.
“The wind scares me right now,” Florine said. “It’s like someone brushing against you and you can’t see it.”
Philippe cheered up. “Like that it’s kind of nice.”
“I don’t think so.” She widened her eyes, grim, and scrutinized her surroundings, like someone groping along in darkness.
They went back to the car. The tank was filled up and Philippe got behind the wheel. They did not talk at first, but, after a few miles, she thought out loud. “It’s so far… Was it really necessary?”
“I don’t know, really. I don’t know anything. Wow! The night is falling fast. What time is it?” He turned on the headlights.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Her tone of voice surprised him. He stopped the car. “What?” he asked worriedly.
“It’s still light out and you just turned on the headlights.”
“Ah! Ah!” he was oddly serious. “I also thought that they were shining… that they were shining badly…”
He turned off the lights and rubbed his eyes.
“I don’t understand what I… A shadow. I feel like it’s nighttime. It’ll pass… probably…”
“You’re working too much. Your nerves are shot. Your eyes…”
“Hmf! Yes, maybe.”
“What do you think it is?” she was suddenly disturbed by his attitude.
The idea — the harrowing idea — was making his heart beat fast and hard.
“You drive,” he said brusquely. “Take the wheel. Tonight I… I don’t trust myself. I’m afraid I might blackout.”
And thus, they got back to Paris, very late at night.
When they were home, she hugged him and asked, “How do you feel? Are you in pain?”
“Not at all. There’s just a shadow around things… always.”
She waited a minute and then, “More?”
“… no …” he lied, and she knew it.
“I’ll go see the eye doctor tomorrow.” He was pretending to be calm.
“Of course,” she said. “First thing in the morning.”
Neither of them slept. In the morning, Florine asked, “Are you okay?”
He admitted that he was surrounded by a thicker fog. His mother had bad eyes. One of his great grandfathers had gone blind. “Besides, like you said last night, it’s fatigue, isn’t it?”
Lost in thought, she listened to him trying to find the source of his troubles in everyday causes to reassure himself and keep up appearances. All things considered, she told herself, it’s an incredible coincidence.
Florine called the eye doctor, but he wanted to go alone. She did not insist on going along. An hour later, he came back cheered up and in good spirits. “Healed! Healed, my love! It was nothing at all. A few eye drops, a treatment of electricity, and I’m as good as new.”
“But what was it, Philippe? What’s the diagnosis?”
“It’s vague, very vague. I have the feeling he just gave me any old treatment. What does it matter! I’m all better; that’s what counts.”
“The doctor didn’t advise you to stop working so much?”
“Yes…” Philippe confessed. “But that won’t keep me from continuing what you know about. Weren’t we stupid last night? Admit it. We were both thinking that…”
“What do you think? I still believe it.”
“Come on!” he scoffed. “The best proof of our mistake is that a human doctor has just cleanly wiped out the darkening.”
She said slowly, “Are you sure of that? Are you really sure it was the doctor?”
That threw him for a loop.
“But…” He was half-unsure, half-teasing, “It seems so to me!”
“We’ll never know,” Florine answered in the same slow, quiet voice.
“But look! Did I give up my project? Did I swear to abandon my work? No, so the invisibles have no reason to thank me!”
“You did nothing of the sort. But me… you have to forgive me, Philippe, because I love you so much, because, you see, all the discoveries in the world and all the glory doesn’t matter to me, but regarding your health, your life…”
“My life is not at stake,” he cut in. “Explain to me…”
“Your life is not at stake? That’s a question. Suppose… Do me the favor of supposing, just for a minute, that what happened can be attributed to them, that they wanted it like this… Them …”
“Let me finish. Couldn’t it be a warning? A first warning?”
“Be reasonable. In that case, we would have to admit — I’ll say it again — that they think my transgression is over.”
“It is, Philippe.”
“I smashed everything in the laboratory while you were gone.”
Silence. Philippe was biting his lip. “Ah! Ah!” he said at last. “Ah! Ah!”
“Do you forgive me?”
“Good God, my dear,” he said distractedly, “how could I not forgive you!”
He hugged her tightly. But she saw his face turned painful, pale, and tense. “I’m going to go see,” he said.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
He hugged her again. “Don’t bother. Besides, it’s almost noon. There’s time for me to check it out, and then I’ll come back.”
He turned around in the doorway and blew her a tender, friendly kiss, and smiled at her most affectionately.
“Thank you,” Florine said.
The two appalled assistants were picking up the wreckage in the middle of what looked like a war zone. He helped them without saying a word, and at noon when they left, he continued — alone, mechanically — to clean up. He was daydreaming while slaving away. In his imagination, the air was peopled by marvelous creatures, gliding and sailing like creatures at the bottom of the sea. The forms were translucent. There were all shapes and sizes. Tiny. Huge, too big for the laboratory to contain them whole. But they passed through, cloudy and aerial, because neither the walls nor any other material object was an obstacle to them. They went through everything like electromagnetic waves, as if their substance were composed of waves. Except, they were only visible in the cube of air in the laboratory which had been scientifically prepared for this very thing.
It was an enchanting dream. And the scientist’s eyes sparkled. “And what? Whoever takes no risks…”
He looked at what he was holding in hands: a switch that Florine’s hammer had torn the dynamo off. Philippe found the dynamo in the pile. But the damaged piece could not be fitted back on. He worked it out, whispering to himself. “Six months and a hundred thousand francs. This time, however, not a word. Florine will never know.”
Florine climbed the stairs, worried about what was keeping him so long. She found him lying stretched out on the ground, not moving.
The doctor could not bring him back. He attributed the cause of death to a stroke, caused by overwork, and said that the vision troubles of the previous night were a serious symptom that the eye doctor, unfortunately, had underestimated.
That proved absolutely nothing.