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An Oasis of Horror

a short story
by Brian Stableford


Amer savoir, celui qu'on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd'hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir image:
Une oasis d'horreur dans un désert d'ennui!
Charles Baudelaire, "Le voyage".

 


1. Spleen de Paris: 30 June 1845

"Existence," said Charles Baudelaire to his father's ghost, "moves in the midst of a multifarious epidemic in which no one is ever quite content with the disease that has fallen to his lot. The metaphorical consumptive contemplates with peevish frustration those afflicted with St. Anthony's fire; the spiritual leper would prefer the particular ruination of lupus; those whose souls bear the scars of smallpox would rather entertain the demon of cholera....no, it won't do, with it? Too obvious. We're all sick--so what? To yearn to be sick in a different way is as good a definition of futile hope as any, but it can't explain...."

Waiting for a reply from his absent father, present only in feeble spirit, would also have been as good a definition of futile hope as any, but that wasn't why he trailed off. He had conceived a new beginning.

"It is unnecessary to envy the dead body its oblivion," he said, "for annihilation is within the grasp of any man, but to envy the dead soul its transcendence of life is another matter. The objective of one who is unhappy with life is not to cease to be, but rather to discover a realm in which being is not so direly bound by discomfiting circumstance--which is to say, a realm in which the pattern of discomfiting circumstance is not so stifling in its arid monotony. No--it pains me to admit it, but it may be true that there are points at which all communication fails, where silence is preferable to verbal expression because the act speaks for itself, more eloquently than any steel nib...."

He set down his pen, dissatisfied. He had, in any case, already taken care of the formal necessities; he had written his will and placed it in an envelope, with a covering letter, addressed to his lawyer, Ancelle. He had bequeathed all his possessions to his saviour, Jeanne Duval, and had asked the lawyer to watch over her and guide her, just as he would have watched over and guided him, in accordance with the order of guardianship for which his mother had applied to the Tribunal in the previous September. He had asked Ancelle to remember him to Jeanne as a hideous example--a dire warning of the extremes to which a disorderly life might go. That was enough; his dead father needed no suicide note to understand what Charles was doing and why, and nothing could be said that would enlighten Madame Aupick, let alone the general. His mother and stepfather had long grown used to their particular sicknesses, and did not understand the politics of resistance. When his mother had gone to the Tribunal to have Ancelle appointed as his legal guardian, it was in the genuine belief that she was acting in his best interests, in a spirit of valiant palliation.

Charles picked up the dagger in the same hand that had set down the pen, and placed the point to his left breast, feeling for a gap between the ribs.

He did not expect to discover what it felt like to die. He expected to feel a sudden shock of pain, in which his consciousness would sooner or later dissolve--sooner, if his hand were steady and the blade punctured his heart at the first stroke; later if he faltered, and was forced to move the blade from side to side, groping for fatality.

Jeanne had told him that he need have no fear of death, because she had favoured him with a special kiss that would deliver him to vampire undeath, but he had not believed it when she said it and he did not believe it now. He did not expect to be clawing his way out of the tomb on the day after his burial. Jeanne Duval was certainly a lamia--a serpent in human form, a temptress asp--but Charles did not believe that her sting was more powerful than that of death.

He took a deep breath, and pressed the dagger home.

His hand was not steady, and he had to grope for fatality, cursing himself the while because his heart was so unexpectedly hard to find. Then he found it, and the felt point strike like a cobra's fang, opening the ventricle to let out the pulsing blood.

He waited to die. And waited. In the end, the pain faded away, but consciousness did not. He never lost his grip on consciousness for an instant, and never would again.

"Has heaven rejected me, then?" He asked his father, eventually, "or is it simply that my blood is no longer my own, and will not flow to my bidding."

He checked his pulse, and could not find one. He breathed on a mirror, and it did not fog--although his reflection was still there, as dull and sickly as ever, wearing a rictus snarl. His heart had evidently stopped; his lungs no longer sucked in air; he had left life behind--but not for death. Jeanne had told him the truth.

Another man might have picked up his hat and rushed to see his sometime mistress, in order to begin his education in the politics and practices of undeath, but Charles did not. Jeanne was an actress, of sorts, but she was not a poet. She knew how to exist as she existed, but Charles did not think for a moment that she had the slightest idea what possibilities there might be in undeath.

"Perhaps there have been undead poets before," he said, no longer to his father but more straightforwardly to himself, "and perhaps there are some still active, in the New World if not in the old--but that does not matter. They could no more teach me what I need to learn than Jeanne Duval. It is 1845, and wisdom is being rewritten with every day that passes. It is not the ancient alchemy of undeath that I need to discover but the new chemistry: the new atomism. It is not a mentor that I need but a method of investigation; I am the Lavoisier of vampirism, appointed by fate to discover its oxygen. I am the sick man who has finally found the disease that will fulfil me. I cannot ask, and do not want, to be happy, but I have found me sublimity, my astonishment, my horror. Henceforth, I am the poet of undeath--and could never have wished for any other fate, had I ever believed that this one might be achievable."

He did take up his hat, then. Before he closed the door behind him he looked around his room with new eyes, no longer seeing its shabbiness, its unworthiness, its vile mundanity. It was no longer a manger fit for beasts but a cradle fit for a messiah. He no longer had the slightest desire to leave it behind forever.

"I need to look at the world," He said, to his impatient writing-desk, "but I shall return--and in time, I shall know how to vent my spleen!"

 


2. Les métamorphoses du vampire: 1845-1848

It was not that simple, nor that easy. He never missed the beating of his heart, or the necessity to draw breath, and learned to feign the latter easily enough. He would not have missed the necessity to eat and drink, either, had he been relieved of them, but he was not. The undead, he discovered, hungered and thirsted for more than blood. Indeed, the first of many inherited misconceptions he had to put aside was the notion that the undead were entirely dependent for their sustenance on human blood. Human blood tasted sweet, to be sure, but it was an indulgence--perhaps a fetish--rather than an appetite. To sustain himself, he learned by trial and error, his only absolute requirements were red meat and water--in which, he presumed, all the raw materials of blood were conserved.

What he did miss, however, was sleep. His sleep, as a living man, had long been so overfull of dreams as never to give him a moment's respite, but he had never grasped the significance of that fact until sleep was denied to him. He could feign sleep as easily as he could feign breathing, but he could not actually lose consciousness. He could dream, but he could no longer cage his dreams, carefully placing them beyond the bounds of conscious life. His dreams were free now, and would have to be tamed--if he did intend to tame them, and if it were possible to tame them--in a different manner.

That, he knew, would take time.

For a while, he considered the possibility of becoming an apostle of undeath, openly acknowledging his condition and advertising its merits. From time to time he planned essays on the subject, but never took the risk of writing one down, let alone attempting to publish one.

"The transition to undeath is not pleasant," he told his imagined audience, "but nor is it surprising. It is more like waking up than going to sleep; the sensation seems familiar. That may seem odd to you, but one sometimes requires a spur to bring out the fullness of what one has always known. Perhaps, when you leave life behind, you will find death more familiar than you had anticipated. You might think of death as a moment that cannot be experienced twice, but it is entirely possible that you will one day realise--cursing yourself for not having realised it before--that death is always with us, an inevitable companion of life. We begin to die before we are born, and even as we are conceived we carry forward a legacy of death that extends throughout the history of creation. Death is original sin, and we live with it constantly. The embryo in the womb is sculpted by death, as an artist chips a statue free from inchoate stone. The elements of the growing body are ceaselessly replaced; every aspect of our form has been remade a dozen times before we achieve maturity. We know death intimately, but it is the dullest sickness of all, the ultimate uniformity. It is a rare victim who learns the desire to be rid of it, and a rarer one who finds the means, but it can be done. Only follow me, and I shall show you the way. I am the resurrection and the undeath, the way to salvation."

He could not do it, not because he would have been staked through the heart, burned at the stake, beheaded or crucified merely for making the suggestion, but because it was essentially blasphemous. He was, after all, an incorrigible Catholic.

In that respect, if not in any other, he learned to do as other vampires did; he feigned humility as he feigned life; he pretended to be a man. He took care to appear to breathe as a man breathed, and he took care to appear to write as a man wrote. As Jeanne Duval was an actress, whether she was on stage at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Antoine or in his bed, so Charles became an actor, not merely in the salons he frequented and the Café Brasserie, but in the privacy of his room and his writing-desk. He was undead, but he played the part of a living man addressing other living men.

He stuck to his resolution of never seeking help from Jeanne--although she understood the change in his condition from the first moment she saw him undead--but he did begin to understand her a little better than he had before. He came to understand the peculiarity of her whoredom--why she did not like to accept the gifts that pleased other whores, including money; why she was reluctant to accept food or wine in restaurants; and why she was so proud of her seemingly meagre needs. He never tried to discover her real name, age or place of origin, not so much because he was not curious or because he suspected that she had long since forgotten all those details, but because he preferred to exercise his imagination on such questions. He wanted to think of her as a representative of some primal African race, ancestral to all humankind: an infertile Eve, who lived in civilization but was not part of it. In his own mind, he reconstructed the myth of Eden, preferring a version in which Adam abandoned his second wife as he had abandoned his first, to be given another of the same name on which to father Cain, while the one he left in Eden--Genesis being explicit in the statement that he was expelled alone--had entered into a more intimate relationship with the serpent, and had found a better fate than death in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Charles preserved that fantasy, jealously, even after discovering, somewhat to his dismay, that undeath had not rendered him immune to aging, disease or death. He wanted to believe, even then, that Jeanne was different, and that her undeath really was undying. His friends, who had ever been able to comprehend his interest in her, could not comprehend either why he maintained his relationship with her even though she was no longer his mistress.

"She is beautiful in her fashion," Banville told him, after encountering her in his presence in January 1848, "but beyond her relentless irritability she is remote and indifferent. There is no feeling in her for other human beings, no reward for attention paid to her. She might have amused you once, but I cannot understand your continued fascination."

Nadar, who was also present, concurred. "She's seductive, but insubstantial. She's long accustomed and inured to the fact that the men she fascinates move on. She understands that there is no future in any of her dalliances, and expects no more than desertion. In this instance, at least, you should indulge her. You'd do far better to let her alone, now that she's of no further use to you in bed."

"There is a sense in which she is my only true companion," Charles told them, "and always will be. There may be others like me, but I do not intend to seek them out; she is different, because she knew me before, and made me what I am."

"I know that you can never hear two men agree without wanting to argue the opposite case," Banville pressed him, "but I can see that there is more to your interest in Jeanne than a simple desire for dissent. Alas, your explanations make no sense."

"I can see the goddess in her," Charles told them. "I can see the sublimity of her conduct as well as the beauty in her face. There is always an element of horror in sublimity, as there is always an element of pain in beauty, but it only serves to sharpen the sensation for the connoisseur. Art comes from the Devil as well as from God, Theo, and the true artist must love and fear both virtue and its opposite."

"Now that is sheer perversity," Nadar opined.

Charles made no attempt to deny it. "When I call Jeanne my dark Venus," he said, instead, "I do not mean by that that I ever worshipped her, or ever desired to do so--but I always knew that there was something in her more or less than human. There is nothing that she can teach me about what I desire to become, but that does not alter what she is."

He said no more, because he was committed to playing the part of a living man, even with such friends as Banville and Nadar, let alone Murger and the Brasserie crowd.

Charles continued to see Jeanne, not to interrogate her or to worship her, let alone to sleep with her, but to study her as a specimen of his own kind and to imagine her as the better Eve. There was, however, one thing that did intrigue him, almost to the point of asking her a question--one matter relative to which the products of his imagination seemed vaguely imperfect.

Obviously, she did not kiss all her lovers in the way that she had kissed him. Very few of those she took to her bed, he had to suppose, had ever seen her metamorphosis or calculated its significance. For the majority, she remained forever flesh, although she presumably drank their infant blood from its marrowbone cradle as thirstily as she had drunk his. He did not know whether it was her generosity that granted him the sight of her true self, or whether there had been some special capacity for sight in him. She had seen that he had seen and had known that he had known--and had seen and known, too, that when he saw and knew her as a snake and as a skeleton, he did not recoil, being entirely content with the confirmation of his fascination--but that in itself did not explain why she had kissed him in the serpentine fashion that had allowed him to survive the dagger's penetration of his heart.

Sometimes, he wondered whether she had actually intended it at all, or whether she was as helpless to determine the inheritance of her legacy as she was to determine so much else in her life.

Either way, he did not want to learn the secret of the kiss from her, because he had no intention of communicating it to any of his own lovers.

 


3. L'invitation au voyage: 1848-1855

As Charles watched the barricade being constructed from his window, on the morning of the 15th, his first thought was: This is nothing to do with me. Mine is only a pretence of life, a mere masquerade. Then the National Guardsmen came, and tried to tear down the incomplete barricade. He saw one of the defenders run through with a bayonet--a man whose blood was all too ready to flow and flood, and whose flesh was entirely unresistant to the shock of fatality--and he went downstairs.

He took his place at the barricade, consenting to be armed with a rifle that had not been fired since July 1830, because he had something to defend, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of his fellow men, to whom injustice had been done. When he heard from Nadar that the rumour had been put about the Brasserie that he had donned a workman's blouse and run from barricade to barricade trying to raise a mob to assassinate General Aupick he was momentarily annoyed, but then consented to laugh, and even to wonder why he had not thought of doing exactly that. He left the barricade, though, when he concluded that it was doing more harm than good to those whose interests he desired to represent.

"You did the right thing," Banville told him, "not simply because the revolution has soured, as revolutions inevitably do, but because ours is a different and more effective path of rebellion."

"Not if it leads to your Parnassus or Gautier's art pour l'art," Charles told him, risking a quarrel. "I am pioneering a different way."

"By imagining yourself in love with my mistress?" Banville retorted, although Charles knew that he was far more intent on defending the New Parnassus than Marie Daubrun. "I wish now that I had never counselled you to abandon Jeanne Duval."

"All my life," Charles told him, pointing to the window so that his friend would know that he was referring to the barricade rather than Marie, "I have sought oases of horror in the vast desert of ennui, but when civil order disintegrates and human society is reduced to chaos there is no relief in horror--quite the opposite, in fact. The horror of the sublime requires a very different mise-en-scène. I require nothing of your mistress that need occasion your jealousy. She is a merely an example, an actress cast in a role; I view her as a writer, not as a seducer."

"Sometimes," Banville told him, "I think the Brasserie rabble might be right, and that you might be going mad."

Sometimes, as he dreamed while he was wide awake, Charles thought that might be possible, and he was not so foolish as to believe that undeath was any insulation against the dangers of madness. He had been undead long enough, by the Year of Revolutions, to know how imperfect its insulation was, even against the diseases of the living.

The repression that followed the revolution did not please him any more than the monster the revolution had become, and such order as it restored seemed to him to have been bought at a terrible price. He had had to leave Paris behind to go to Dijon; he had work to do, not merely for the support of his remaining appetites, but in pursuit of the only utility left to him. Alas, he was ill, and found it as difficult to work, even in more pleasant circumstances, as he had often found it while he was alive.

"Those who are brought back reluctant from the tomb," he said, to the absent Jeanne, "rudely wrenched from the oblivion they would have preferred, are doubtless conformists in undeath as they were in life. Small wonder that they so often become angry and wretched, when they discover that they have no more won immunity from pain and terror than they have won immunity from original sin. Legend doubtless speaks the truth when it portrays vampires pursuing what ends they may still find, by stake or fire or the guillotine, shunning daylight in the meantime as if it were the unquenching fire of hell."

Charles had never been overfond of daylight before he left life behind, but he found it just as endurable afterwards as he had before, even in Dijon, where the sun shone far more fiercely than in smoke-cloaked Paris. He did not seek it out, but nor did he live in fear of it. He dedicated himself to his learning, and his work, in spite of his fevers and his aches, and in spite of the deliria that disturbed his waking dreams.

He knew that the delirium was not caused by the venom that Jeanne Duval's vampire kiss had injected into his flesh and his soul, but he suspected that she might have communicated another poison to him as well: the poison of the pox. He did not blame her for that any more than he blamed her for the other--indeed, he blamed her less, for he had been warned of that sort of danger attendant on sleeping with whores.

"A voyage to Cythera must be taken at the pace granted by the wind," he told his father's ghost, "and whether there are gallows-trees standing on the shore or not, dream-vision will provide them. Dreams are essentially morbid as well as wayward, although they can be enlivened as well as tamed by rhyme and metre, shaped for the sympathy as well as the comprehension of the ear. I shall not mind their morbidity, any more than I mind their waywardness, because I know that it merely the dark component of their oxymoronic mask. I shall welcome them, for what they make of me. As my living body was once sculpted by disease and death, so my undying mind shall be etched by disease and dreams. I am content."

Even so, the first thing he did on his return to Paris was to visit Jeanne Duval. He did not question her directly, but he did go fishing for enlightenment "Undeath has spared me once," he told her, "but I do not believe that it can spare me forever. The interval it has purchased might be thirty years or it might be a dozen, but the pox is within me, and is consuming me still. You and I shall not be companions for all eternity."

"I never expected that," she told him. "The pox won't kill you, if you don't yield to it, but I don't think you have the capacity to resist. I never did."

Charles told himself that she could not know that, but he knew that she could and did. There were many things that she probably did not know--including her given name and how old she was--but she did know how to live with the pox inside her. She knew how to carry the disease without injury to herself, and she knew how to recognise those who could not.

There was no alternative for Charles but race against time: to work, in spite of his deliria. He had worked even before committing suicide, but not as he worked thereafter. That was partly because the undead had to sustain themselves just as the living did, whether they pretended to breathe or not and he could not have lived on the pittance doled out to him by Ancelle even if he had been prepared to abandon to the ideals of dandyism, but it was mainly because he had a far greater sense of vocation. He was, after all, the Lavoisier of undeath. As soon as he had become a vampire he had announced the imminent publication of his book of verses in 1845, and he had continued to advertise it ever since. It had begun its imaginative existence as Les lesbiennes, had been transmuted into Les Limbes, and was now Les fleurs du mal, growing all the while in its actual substance as he wrote poem after poem. In the meantime, he supported himself by publishing prose, commemorating the life he might have lived had he not left life behind in La Fanfarlo and encouraging his fellow artists as best he could in my essays on the Salons and other ephemerae.

By the time he had been ten years a vampire, Charles had left far behind him all the misconceptions regarding undeath that he learned on the stage of the Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin and the pages of romans feuilletons. When the revolution of 1848 had given way to Louis Napoléon's coup d'état, and the consequent exile of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue, he became convinced that there were more undead among the living than anyone had ever suspected, although their appetite for work had helped to hide their presence. Whether there might be any labouring in the fields or in manufactories he could not tell, but he suspect that an inability to lose consciousness would be less an asset than it might seem in such repetitive occupations. His judgment was that the great majority of the past's undead must have worked as he had worked, not necessarily with a pen in hand--and perhaps more likely with a paintbrush--but certainly in the production of art...and probably in the production of modern art, which sought to move the world into the future.

He was determined, though, that undeath should not make an obsessive recluse of him. He cultivated the new friends forced upon him by his poverty. He entered more fully into the Bohemia of those whose pens and brushes were all that stood between themselves and penury: those who wrote or painted for a living. With Ancelle as his guardian, he found himself caught in a strange limbo between two worlds--an heir without access to his fortune, a Tantalus whose hunger and thirst could never be appeased--equally far from home in the Café Brasserie and the salons, among those who counted their fortunes in sous and those who reckoned in louis. He was not unwelcome in either milieu, and such suspicion as he excited in both had little or nothing to do with having left life behind without having fallen dead. In spite of his conviction that the undead were far more likely to labour as artists than as agriculturalists or wage-slaves, though, he never met another of his own kind--not, at least, in person.

By 1855, it seemed to Charles, in retrospect, that the revolution of 1848 had not been the most important event of that year for him at all. It was in 1848 that he had translated Edgar Poe's "Mesmeric Revelation," although it was not until three years later that he realised the importance of the role that Poe was to play in his career and his life, and began to suspect that Poe too must have been undead for some years before finally departing the world in that same crucial year of 1848. Even in 1851, translation still seemed a mere sideline within his work, but he came to understand then that if he were to be the writer he wanted to be--the secret apostle of undeath--he need not, and perhaps should not, restrict his efforts to the definitive volume of his poetry that was still in gestation. If Poe had been a voice of undeath, as seemed increasingly obvious, then he ought to do what he could to assist in the transmission of that voice, by importing it into his own language.

That too became part of his vocation, hampered but never stopped by the progress of the disease that was making undeath as impossible for him to endure as life had been.

 


4. The Phosphorescence of Putrescence: 1855-61

By 1855, those effects of undeath that had proved cumulative, perceptible only with the passage of time, had revealed themselves in full. Charles understood by then that he had lost the faculty of forgetfulness along with the ability to sleep. His memory had become a store from which nothing was any longer discarded.

At first, he thought that this must be an envious situation, especially for a writer--but he realised soon enough that its advantages were undermined by darker corollaries. He realised that just as the living body is sculpted by death, so the active mind is sculpted by forgetfulness. He realised that sleep--true, dreamless sleep--was no mere absence of mental activity, but rather a process of release and disposal. He realised that a mind that had lost the ability properly to discriminate between dreams and wakefulness had also lost the ability to reformulate and reorganise its memories. In the short term, that had caused him, and would continue to cause him, no acute difficulty--but in the longer term, it might, and probably would, engender a chaos of superfluity.

The realization of what was happening to him had grown in Charles by slow degrees, but by 1855 the evidence was irresistible. Jeanne, he saw then, had contrived to overcome the difficulty by learning to forget without going to sleep--but she had not been able to retain the discrimination that sleep normally exercises. Her forgetfulness was random, and it was powerful--except for the kind of unconscious memory that her body had, which required no input from imagination. She had become a creature of ingrained habit, with a layer of conscious memory so thin and delicate as to be hardly more than a gloss. She retained her language, well enough to memorise small theatrical parts, but she hardly knew who she was, let alone what elaborate combination of experiences had made her what she was. She could relate to other people, well enough to be seductive, but her seductiveness had no greater objective, no place in any plan for the future--and she was forever restless, without knowing why. That was the price she had paid for her immortality. That was how she had learned to live with the pox, to carry it without being consumed by it

It was not a price that Charles could ever be prepared to pay. He was an artist; memory was the core of his expertise. He had, therefore, to make the most of his gift-cum-curse while he still could. He had to take the tide of opportunity. He had to publish what he could, while he could, even if Les fleurs du mal was not yet finished--and in spite of the gulf of incomprehension that still separated him from a completer understanding of his own state of being.

"My undeath," he told his father's ghost, "is no simpler an opposite of your death than life was and is. The living are dying while they live, and the transition to undeath does not banish death entirely from the body, any more than it banishes sickness and disease. Undeath preserves--indefinitely, I must suppose, if one can adapt oneself fully to its requirements--but the immunity it confers is by no means absolute. Such freedom from age and decay as undeath confers is not only conditional on the cultivation in consciousness of a new kind of forgetfulness but on the cultivation in corporeality of a new kind of robustness. Jeanne has that kind of physical obstinacy. Perhaps I might train myself to it, if I wanted to, but my fate lies in another direction. What I am trained to do by my own experience of life is to become more and more conscious of the frailty of my flesh--not in the general sense of which the living are always aware of their mortality, or the specific sense in which the living feel particular aches and pains in response to particular injuries and diseases--but in a new sense peculiar to the state of undeath. I am becoming hyperconscious of my own inner decay: of the creeping chaos afflicting my various bodily tissues and mental capacities, under the dual pressure of mortal syphilis and fatal insomnia."

"If you do not have to die, my son," his father's ghost told him, bitterly, "then I would advise you against it."

"It is in the nature of the dead to envy the undead, even when they are sick," Charles told his father. "But I am free of that kind of envy now. Syphilis is the one disease whose possession in metaphor could not require the sufferer to envy others their own sicknesses, because syphilis is the great mimic among diseases. It is ubiquitous; there is no symptom it cannot present, no ignominy it cannot contrive."

"Perhaps," his father insisted, "you might yet be able to cultivate the faculty of forgetfulness without unconsciousness. Then, your flesh would surely acquire the same fortitude as Jeanne Duval's, without any further effort."

"I doubt it," Charles relied. "At any rate, it hardly matters. No matter how much I might resent the appalling profusion of my accumulating memory, or the extent to which that profusion is shot through with superfluity, I cannot do without it. Nor can I resist the ravages of death and disease as they became similarly profuse and disordered--or even the exaggerated consciousness of that increasing disorder."

It was true, or so he firmly believed. There was only one thing he could do in response to his slowly-discovered predicament, and that was to work. he worked as hard as he could, stealing poetic inspiration as and when he could, and filling the remainder of his time with prose, original and translated. When he could not work at all, he dulled his senses with laudanum, even though it could not deliver him to unconsciousness. All that it could do, at best, was to grant him a kind of separation within himself, so that he seemed to exist on two planes at the same time, drifting between the ethereal and the mundane as he drifted between salon society and Bohemia.

He published Les fleurs du mal in 1857, although it was not finished, and was rendered even more incomplete by the censors, who demanded that six poems be deleted. He published a new version in 1861, although it was still not finished. In the meantime, he began work on a second volume, which was to consist entirely of poetry in prose, and would be called Spleen de Paris. When General Aupick died he went to live with his mother at Honfleur for a while, fully intending to look after her, but it proved impossible; no matter how strong his desire was, his condition--physical, mental and spiritual--was no longer equal to the task. He had to abandon her for her own good, as she had once abandoned him for his.

His work suffered too, but not in the same way. He could write as never before, but only briefly and with increasing trouble in the formulation. Poetry increased in difficulty more rapidly than prose, and original prose more rapidly than translation--but he could not have tolerated the translation of any writer with whom he had a less manifest kinship than Edgar Poe. Poe became his alter ego, communicating order and discrimination when he could no longer find it in himself, calming him and giving him a focus that he needed as desperately as he desired it.

Year by year, the excess of memory corroded and corrupted his mind, while versatile disease corroded and corrupted his flesh. He could no longer have the least doubt that he would one day leave undeath behind just as he had left life, faltering and groping to a far greater extent. He felt further and further removed from the world of living men, more and more alien to its habits and customs. He still went out to all his old haunts, but he began to feel that he was indeed a haunter rather than a participant in what went on there: a spectator who, while not yet disembodied, was nevertheless not wholly present.

Might he have felt the same had he still been alive? He could not tell for certain, but he could not believe it. Had he been burdened by a mere mélange of conventional poisons, he should have been able to enjoy the bounty of forgetfulness and the grace of ordinary pain. As things were, he remembered too much and felt too deeply. He could feel the disease working within his flesh, conducting an entire orchestra of petty miseries, and he could not rid himself of the ceaseless mental pressure of every vile nuance.

It was sublime, of course; it was beautiful too, in its fashion, but it was excessive, and it became increasingly problematic for him to select out moments and ideas for preservation and analysis in written form.

Charles could not have been free of Jeanne Duval even if she had not come to see him to demand her petty tributes--but in truth, he would not have wanted to be free of her. She was still his goddess, his creator, and if she was also his damnation, there was some cause for gratitude even in that. Art, as he had assured Banvilla and Nadar, came from the Devil as well as from God, and undeath had brought it forth in him more extravagantly than life...if only for a little while.

"All those who find life unendurable are likely to find undeath no less so," he told Jeanne, when she came to visit him one day in 1861, "but all those who find life woefully inadequate to feed their dreams will find in the dread excess of undeath an immeasurable, if temporary, exaltation. There are many kinds of people who would derive nothing from a lamia's kiss but catastrophe, but there are a few kinds, at least, who might find it rewarding. I belong to one such kind, Jeanne, while you belong to another, but there must be others who could find a means therein to supply their own wild hunger. You must continue your quest, Jeanne, when I am gone. You must not give up. You must learn to love again, for ever and ever, and you must use your kisses wisely, however sparingly."

"I have no quest," she told him, cruelly. "Nor wisdom, nor economy."

The next time she came to see him she found him in a very poor state, but she did not look at him with pity, and demanded her tribute regardless. He gave her what he could--more grateful now than ever before for the modesty of her needs and demands.

"I love you, Jeanne," he said to her, as she made to leave. "I worship you. I always have."

"I've heard that before," she told him, "more times than I remember." She seemed to be making light of the matter, and gave the impression that she had no idea of the import of her words.

"You are an archetype of irony, as I am," he told her, "but your undeath really is incurable. Mine, alas, is not, although I have another disease, which certainly is. Nature favours discreet diseases, which allow their hosts abundant time to communicate the infection, and yours is very discreet indeed. I hoped at first that mine might be as clever, in its own way, but it was too profligate and too impatient, and it will cauterise my soul before the pox sends my flesh to its final ruination. Now, I hope for a different kind of immortality."

"You're mad, Charles," she told him, mildly. "You always were, but now it has run away with you. Who will keep me when you're gone? What will become of me?"

"You'll survive," he assured her. "You might lack a worshipper, for a while, but you'll not lack lovers. In time...you'll kiss another at least as worthy as me. In time, you must."

"Some might think my life disorderly," she said, as she placed her hand on the doorknob, "but it isn't."

"Mine is," he told her, "but not entirely--and I am glad that I did not die when I first repented its impossibility. I hardly knew what disorder was, in those days. I do now."

"Goodbye," she said, as if it were forever--but that was the way she always said goodbye.

"One day," her victim told her, continuing even when she had closed the door behind her, because it did not matter in the least whether she could hear him or not, "a future Lavoisier will teach everyone in the world the trick of leaving life behind without actually dying, and your kind of poison will be mixed by apothecaries in their mortars for sale as a tincture. One day, we shall all be able to toy with memory and damnation, conscious of every movement of decay that moves within our diseased flesh. Then, we shall see what can be made of undeath by artists who can master every skill and conquer every thirst."

Instead of saying goodbye, he reached for his pen. Jeanne Duval could not understand him, any more than she could understand herself, but Charles assured himself that there would come a day when everyone could understand him, and would.

"There will come a day," he said, to the smoke-fogged air in his dingy room, as he set his nib to paper and began to scratch away at the illimitable irritation that would not let him rest, "when you, my reader, my hypocrite brother, will understand everything that I have recorded here. There is a time to every purpose under heaven, and beyond the corrosions and corruptions of our petty envies and haphazard diseases, you and I are of the same sad kind."

He fell silent then, but his pen continued to scrape away, extending its broken trail of scrupulously-stolen blood across the jaundiced page.


© Brian Stableford 2006.
This story is published here for the first time.

Sheena by Brian StablefordThe Stones of Camelot by Brian Stableford
Streaking by Brian Stableford Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia by Brian Stableford

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