Anne Serre’s The Governesses (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson) is like someone else’s feverish vision, something you shouldn’t be seeing. The tightly crafted prose keeps the hallucinatory qualities in check, and Serre’s coy delivery means nothing is easy to pin down. Monsieur and Madame Austeur hired the three young governesses to enliven their home, but they have since become more than employees; not quite like family, they are mysteriously unshakable fixtures in the domestic realm. So much about this fairy tale of voyeurism moves in strange ways, the plot unfolding in little discrete episodes: the governesses hunting strangers, entertaining suitors, planning a party, teasing the old man across the street. The whole thing has a sense of humor about it, though it’s hard to be sure whom the joke is on. There are no real conflicts, and while you could easily sink your teeth into the nuanced presentations of gender and sexuality, the smooth structure also gives you permission to delight in this eerie novella as much as it delights in itself. —Lauren Kane Read More
Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for a virtual wine tasting on Friday, November 13, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, or scroll down, or visit our events page.
On Halloween, when many people abandon themselves to the linked joys of sugar and horror, we more literary types decide to dine from transgressive fiction. I have at hand two books by the French writer Gabrielle Wittkop (1920–2002): Murder Most Serene (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) and The Necrophiliac (translated by Don Bapst). The former, set in Venice between 1766 and 1797, is a murder mystery in which the wives of a nobleman named Alvise Lanzi keep dying from poison. Perhaps the killer is his mother, Ottavia, whose basement cellar for Nebbiolo wine also hides “flasks and phials”; or it could be her cicisbeo, who is also a spy; or the maid, Rosetta Lupi, in her “apron edged with lace”; or Alvise’s jilted lover Marcia Zolpan, a “fine-looking girl” with “a very short neck.” It could even be Alvise himself. The setting is one of grotesque, end-of-empire decadence. Elaborate feasts are the norm. The other book, The Necrophiliac, is the diary of a man in Paris who, as the title suggests, has sex with the dead. It might be the most disgusting and challenging book in the alternative canon. We cannot understand Wittkop without it, but fortunately, in the parts I could bring myself to read, there wasn’t any food.
Wittkop is an elusive and legendary figure in European letters, but her work has been slow to appear in English. Biographical information about her in this language is scarce. She was born in Nantes, France, in 1920; she married a Nazi deserter named Justus in Paris during the occupation and later moved with him to Germany. In her afterword to Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures, the translator Annette David describes Justus as a “German essayist” and reveals that he was gay. Both Justus and Gabrielle died by suicide—separately, seventeen years apart—when faced with terminal illnesses. Gabrielle Wittkop wrote travelogues, arts coverage for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and novels that were popular in France and Germany. She was influenced by E. T. A. Hoffman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, Miguel de Cervantes, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, though her first and foremost love was the Marquis de Sade. She must have seen horrors in occupied and postwar Paris, but we can only speculate on how they influenced her worldview. Her preoccupation with death began, she said, in childhood. The narrator of Murder Most Serene offers this justification: “Why this obstinate dwelling over a corpse’s pluck?… Simply because it is there inside us all, day and night.” Read More
The History of EC Comics tells the story of one of the most infamous and influential forces in twentieth-century American pop culture. Founded in 1944, EC Comics quickly rose to prominence by serving up sharp, colorful, irresistible stories that filled an entire bingo card of genres, including romance, suspense, westerns, pirate tales, science fiction, adventure, and more. Perhaps most crucial to the company’s success, however, was its pivot to horror. In the following excerpt, Grant Geissman chronicles the origins of such gruesome, bone-chilling series as Tales from the Crypt and explores how the relationship between two key figures—the artist, writer, and editor Al Feldstein and the company’s publisher, Bill Gaines—acted as an engine that propelled EC Comics to the forefront of the industry.
With Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein both working and hanging out together, Feldstein had the boss’s ear. On their car rides to and from the office, Feldstein began to chide Gaines for playing follow-the-leader. “You’re taking Saddle Justice and turning it into Saddle Romances because Simon and Kirby came out with a romance book and it’s doing well,” the ever-ambitious Feldstein said to Gaines. “We’re gonna follow them and get clobbered when it collapses, just like the teenage books collapsed. Why don’t we make them follow us? Let’s start our own trend.”
Gaines and Feldstein had talked about the old radio dramas they had loved as kids, shows like Inner Sanctum, The Witch’s Tale, and Arch Oboler’s Lights Out. Inner Sanctum and The Witch’s Tale both featured hosts who introduced the tales—the former by “Raymond,” a spookily sardonic punster, and the latter by “Old Nancy,” a cackling witch. Feldstein recalled that as a kid he used to climb down the stairs to sneak a listen, and was happily terrified by them. Gaines had similar recollections. Feldstein kept pushing for that, and Gaines finally said, “Okay, we’ll try it.” This was, in fact, a somewhat similar concept to the one the artist Shelly Moldoff had pitched on the aborted Tales of the Supernatural comic. Gaines was apparently mum about the situation with Moldoff, and Feldstein later said that he knew nothing about it at the time. Read More
Like everyone on Twitter, I have been transfixed by the HBO documentary series The Vow, about the self-improvement cult/pyramid scheme/sex trafficking ring known collectively as NXIVM. The organization’s leader, Keith Raniere, was found guilty on seven counts of racketeering and sex trafficking in 2019, and this week, on October 27, he was sentenced to a hundred and twenty years in prison. The most sensational headlines of the case are about the former teen actress Allison Mack’s involvement in a secret sadomasochistic group within NXIVM known as DOS (“dominus obsequious sororum,” a phrase in a language that could at best be described as Latin-esque that supposedly meant “lord over the obedient female companions”) in which she and other “masters” recruited other women as “slaves,” some of whom were made to have sex with Raniere. Grotesque details abound in this story, particularly of slaves being branded with a soldering iron near their crotches with a symbol containing both Mack’s and Raniere’s initials.
The Vow follows former high-ranking members within NXIVM as they leave the group. It also attempts to answer why anyone would be caught up in something so heinous, what the filmmakers call the love affair before the betrayal. I suppose that’s why the first episode seems oddly positive in its depiction of Executive Success Programs (ESP), the personal growth seminars that were most people’s entrees to NXIVM. Former members talk about being amazed by the “technology” that Raniere had invented to help them overcome their fears and limiting beliefs, and how happy they were to have found such a welcoming, understanding community.
This technology, in reality, is nothing more than a proprietary blend of therapeutic methods cribbed from cognitive behavioral therapy, Scientology, Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism, multilevel marketing sales techniques, and, most notably, neurolinguistic programming (NLP), which NXIVM’s cofounder, Nancy Salzman, was practicing when she met Raniere in 1998. NLP, a kind of hypnotherapy, has been derided as pseudoscience, and of course none of Raniere’s methods were, as he often bragged, “mathematically reproducible.” What is more telling is his reliance on Salzman to form the basis of his self-improvement regime. Members said Salzman “downloaded” information from Raniere in order to create ESP’s educational modules. If this is true, she seems to have extrapolated liberally from Raniere’s ideas in her creation of a practical curriculum. Unlike L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, Raniere has never written a NXIVM scripture or treatise or even workbook; he didn’t teach or manage money or answer emails. There were women for that.
On a visit to the UCLA Library, the author and scholar Maryse Condé found herself lost in the stacks. A library can be a spooky place. It is little wonder that they are so often listed among haunted buildings. The whispering shuffles of paper, the eerie quiet, the echoing click-clack heel-toe of shoes on cool linoleum floors. The impatience of a long-shelved book awaiting a reader might be the only thing to rival that of a spirit biding her time until the perfect audience appears. Says Condé of the inspiration for her novel I, Tituba … Black Witch of Salem, “I got lost in the huge building and found myself in the history section in front of a shelf full of books about the Salem witch trials. Looking through them, I discovered the existence of Tituba, whom I had never heard of before.”
Armed only with what scant information history managed not to mislay about the life of this woman, Condé invented the rest. What she, and we, do know is that Tituba played a critical role in one of the U.S.’s most infamous events. One of the few Black women in Salem, she was the first woman to be accused of witchcraft during the witch trials. Her deposition, which survives in the historical record, appears as a chapter in the text. Condé’s Tituba narrates the story of her life in a flamboyantly ironic voice. She is a modern and charming heroine capable of evoking both witchy cackles of satisfaction when her oppressors get their due, and tears of sorrow and rage at her ultimate fate. History observed through the veil of intersectional feminism does not look rosy, of course. Colonialism, the slave trade, racism, Puritanism, misogyny: how quaint were the Puritans to think there was only one devil in Salem. “I wanted to offer her her revenge,” Condé has said. The title itself is an unashamed confession. I, Tituba … Black Witch of Salem is a reclamation of this woman’s place in history and literature, and an act of revenge on the history that forgot her.
Like the best characters, Tituba is a contradiction: born from violence, she embraces love. From the very first sentence, Condé lays plain the degrading terror of life as an enslaved woman: “Abena, my mother, was raped by an English sailor on the deck of Christ the King one day in the year 16** while the ship was sailing for Barbados. I was born from this act of aggression. From this act of hatred and contempt.”
Breece D’J Pancake’s dozen stories, completed in the last four or five years of his life, include some of the best short stories written anywhere, at any time. Forty years of the author’s absence cast no shadow. The shadings, the broad arcs of interior, antediluvian time, are inside the sentences. The ancient hills and valleys of southern West Virginia remain Breece Pancake’s home place; the specificity and nuance of his words embody the vanished farms, the dams and filled valleys, the strip-mined or exploded mountains. His stories are startling and immediate: these lives informed by loss and wrenching cruelty retain the luminous dignity that marks the endurance of all that is most human.
Breece Pancake’s stories are the only stories written in just this way, from inside the minds of protagonists coming of age in the mountains of an Appalachian world closed to others. I’ve said, in a quote for an earlier edition of his work, “Breece Pancake’s stories comprise no less than an American Dubliners.” I meant not that the author’s style is similar to Joyce’s, but that the stories are a map of their physical locality, above and below ground, just as Joyce’s stories are a map of Dublin’s streets in Joyce’s youth. And that the links between the stories are as finely calibrated, and as naturally present in the material itself, as those in Joyce’s Dubliners. Colly’s mourned father in “Trilobites” is a literary relation to Bo’s dead father in “Fox Hunters” and foster son Ottie’s never-known father of “In the Dry”; the stories share a generational, nearly biblical sense of time. There is the long-ago time in which men and women brought forth their issue in the isolated, virginal hills they owned and farmed and hunted; there is the loss of the land, of living from it; there is industrialization, exploitation, ruin. Read More