In which visionary experiences, Death personified, some truly awful weather, and characters with freaky names all come together to make life odd in a remote part of Alsace-Lorraine.
First published in 1862
Anthologized in The Invisible Eye, edited by Hugh Lamb (translator unknown).
Published by Ash-Tree Press
Erckmann-Chatrian might sound like the moniker of a rather tiny law firm, but it’s a name that any lover of the macabre should seek out.
Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian wrote in a specifically French genre called fantastique, a mashup of horror and fantasy with its roots in the medieval chansons de geste, such as The Song of Roland. Fantastique plots are frequently non-linear or inconclusive, and the events they describe may be cryptic or unexplained. Atmosphere is key, and Erckmann-Chatrian dole that out in copious quantities.
“The White and The Black” begins in a locale reminiscent of any classic Universal Pictures horror movie, an alehouse in an isolated town during a thunderstorm. In this case, the town is Vieux-Brisach,1 and the patrons clustered in the inn are some of its most prominent citizens, including the burgomaster and the local notary.2
Among the drinkers is the eccentric church organist Theodore Blitz, whose reaction to the storm gives you an idea of the story’s offbeat tone:
“From the church of Saint-Landolphe nine o’clock sounded, when Blitz hurriedly entered, shaking his hat like one possessed, and saying in his husky voice: ‘Surely the Evil One is about his work! The white and the black are having a tussle. The nine times nine thousand nine hundred and ninety thousand spirits of Envy battle and tear themselves. Go, Ahriman! Walk! Ravage! Lay waste! The Amschaspands are in flight! Oromage3 veils her face! What a time, what a time!'”
Blitz then engages in a verbal sparring match with the town materialist, the engineer Rothan. Their argument serves to establish Blitz as Vieux-Brisach’s resident mystic, but almost as soon as the debate begins, the town magistrate enters and changes the subject.
His name is Ulmett, and he has bad news: Gredel Dick, described as “one of the prettiest girls in Vieux-Brisach,” has been found garotted, her body dumped under a sluice gate. At the same time, her would-be beau, Saphéri Mutz,4 has fled, apparently indicating his guilt.
A short time later, however, Mutz makes an appearance. Without warning, he enters the inn as the storm reaches its height. He then has the following odd exchange with Blitz:
“Theodore Blitz slowly arose. After he had looked at us, he walked up to Mutz, and, with an air of confidence, he asked him in a low voice, pointing to the dark street: ‘Is it there?’
“‘Yes,’ said the man, in the same mysterious tone.
“‘It follows you?’
“‘Yes, behind me.’
“‘That is so, it is surely so,’ said the organist, throwing another look upon us.”
“The White and the Black” contains a number of episodes such as this, when it seems that more is going on than is being revealed.
Of course, in short order Mutz is arrested, and led away by the gendarmes. It’s after this point that “The White and The Black” veers into even weirder territory.
The second half of the story presents us with perhaps the most dismal christening party in all literature, plus a number of visionary events, including a visit from Death and a hallucinatory tableau that extends across the Rhine. We also learn that the narrator of the story is named “Christian Species.”
Now, if your last name is “Species,” I know there are far worse first names that you could have; for example, “Parasitic,” “Invasive,” and “Alien” all spring to mind. I can’t help thinking, however, that something simple would have been best, perhaps a standard French name, such as Jacques. “Jacques Species.” (Pause.) OK, that’s no good either.
According to the Erckmann-Chatrian entry in Jack Sullivan’s The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Erckmann did the writing and Chatrian the editing; I think that indicates who thought up “Christian Species” and “Saphéri Mutz.”
In the end, the main theme of “The White and The Black” is the ultimate inscrutability of everything around us. In this, Erckmann-Chatrian have locked arms with many other authors of supernatural fiction, down to the present. This broad tendency is why, if I had to characterize the philosophical tone of the genre, I would describe it as “conservatively agnostic.”
It’s conservative insofar as many supernatural stories contain what M. R. James called a warning to the curious: an exhortation to maintain the status quo, which includes a respect for traditional beliefs. “The White and The Black” deals with this during Blitz’s debate with Rothan, as well as in his general religious pronouncements.
Supernatural fiction is also agnostic, however, because it presents us with a picture of universe where inexplicable things can happen to innocent people with no warning whatsoever, and for no apparent reason. “The White and The Black” addresses this at its very end, when it makes an overt statement about the perpetually unknowing state of the human race.
In short, what supernatural fiction presents us with is very much like the world we live in, despite its fantastic — or make that fantastique — elements. And because “The White and The Black” is an exemplar of this, I recommend it to you highly.
1A real place, a.k.a. Breisach am Rhein, if you’re German.
2The prominent citizens are all fake, though.
3I have not one clue what this is a reference to. Web, you have failed me.
4There’s not one “Bob Smith” in this entire story, guaranteed.