The King in the Golden Mask


I have just received this book as purchased from an Amazon trader.

THE KING in the GOLDEN MASK and other stories

By Marcel Schwob (1867 – 1905)

Carcanet (1982)

Translated by Iain White

I intend to real-time review this book in due course and, when I do, my comments will be found in the thought stream below or by clicking on this post’s title above.

33 thoughts on “The King in the Golden Mask

  1. image


    “While one watches over the dead, one can hear the strigae: they sing airs that carry one away and which, despite oneself, one obeys.”

    I just read this first work in the book in my garden on a beautiful summer evening, and, during this process, one by one those birds landed on my neighbour’s roof and looked at me quizzically. Quietly, with my iPad I took that photo and I am now indoors.
    It seemed highly appropriate as this is a story of a hedonist type who is sad about the end of every meal, a thought then leading, through some striking imagery, towards some morbid considerations of those he has seen died, including his own plump wife, the dead who are often pecked empty by the ‘strigae’…
    Haunting and somewhat frightening.

    “We are the playthings of destiny.”

    A new writer to me who has been recommended, reputedly in significant connection with other fin de siècle writers, even Apollinaire, and possibly influenced by Borges, but that was only by cursory incomplete glance at the book’s cover, as I do not intend to read the introductory material by the translator until I have reviewed all the Schwob.

  2. TRAIN 081

    “The great terror of my life seems far distant from the shrubbery in which I am writing. I am an old man in retirement, resting his limbs on the lawn of his little house;…”

    Meanwhile, this story, of which the above is the beginning, is a striking account of working as a train driver on the Paris – Marseilles line in 1865, when a cholera plague was spreading into Marseille, and he was worried about his train being a carrier of the illness towards Paris…
    And I will have nightmares following my reading about the journey taken on a certain night, very evocative of driving a train in those days, and the frightening double-take involved of machine and man … Just like I did above, as a parallel aside, when comparing the circumstances of my reading the previous story side by side with the thoughts of the narrator when starting this one!


    “The novels I have read, which formerly gave me pleasure, I now take in at a glance and judge for what they are worth; I see each fault in composition — and at the same time the symmetry of my own inventions is so perfect that you would be dazzled were I let you to see them.”

    This strikes me as an unlikely blend of Denis Diderot’s LE NEVEU DE RAMEAU (1761) and Hans Heinz Ewers’ THE SPIDER (1915).
    But above all it is an original and amazing portrayal, in a startling series of spider images, of that earlier volition of murder but here mixed with love – somehow rewarded by punishment from spidery forces. (The axle trees and the grey spokes, remind me of the trains in the previous story. And more oriental Thugs and hemp to match the Chinese in the train story, too.)


    Too many choice quotes to choose just one from this masterpiece of the weird. I have never read it before and it is genuinely frightening, nightmarish, haunting, incantatory as the rhythm of the train on which I sit with two strangers, with a flesh-coloured veil and a leopard skin blanket. That train again, on a a track toward volitionless murder enacted by one’s own hands. Again, by equal refrain, reminding me organically, if not specifically, of that Bartlett story about Bill as well as of Schwob’s own Train 081 and of Grau’s Billy Clean. I am on track toward rich territory at the moment, it seems.
    You must read The Veiled Man, if you are at all interested in ghost stories or weird literature or just literature in general. How have I missed this story so far in my life? I have caught the Schwob train at last.


    This story should be in every good Ghost Story collection for its standing on its head all the traditional trappings of such stories in a disturbing as well as cerebrally original way. I laughed – and shivered. There is also a train as a means of arrival and a chimney flue as a means of exit. Brilliant.

    “Man was so created by the Lord as to be able while living in the body to speak with spirits and angels, as in fact was done in the most ancient times; for, being a spirit clothed with a body, he is one with them.”
    Emanuel Swedenborg

    My choice of quote, not necessarily the story’s.

  6. THE FAT MAN – A parable

    Notice how The Fat Man in the title is fat compared to the relatively thin A Parable. This is perhaps a Fable not a Parable?
    A Fat Man who seems to imbue everything he owns with fatness is visited by a thin man who teaches him about all the wrong things he eats or does to make him fat. And a general cross-attenuation begins.
    The last sentence is tantalisingly oblique, even meaningless, and thus this represents an amoral moral to the fable or parallel parable… fattening the main text retrocausally with meaning while depleting the moral itself of meaning. Well, that’s how I absorbed the whole work anyway into my own fat sump of meanings that have been collected by my flensing all the books I review.

  7. THE DOM

    As a result of a chance small talk question from his jester, a maharaja, who hadn’t thought too deeply about his own riches in contrast to many of his subjects’ abject poverty, feels impelled to flense himself as if into that earlier skeleton and put others above himself, so as to shrive his soul to the bottom bone. The ending portrays his repose simply as a dead skeleton with his emaciated tendons stretching his hands toward the heavens. I am left with the question as to what happened to the soul that once inhabited him or whether there was ever a soul at all. Any fiction story poses a question a bit like that about itself when it’s finished and eventually forgotten, I guess.
    (I wonder what happened to the jester. And why DOOM is spelt with only one O.)


    “; living closely in the dismal proximity of aquatic creatures had fixed the muscles of their faces in a bestial placidity.”

    This is another unique turn of vignette or prose poem or fable / parable or short short story – unique in the sense that each one is so different from those of any other author as well as different from each other as written by this single author but all with the singular presence of that author’s no doubt high denominator soul filtered through the translation or ‘transmission’ of the text.
    Meanwhile, its symbiosis with a fish soul, as it were, in this particular text matches sublimely a similar pervasive symbiosis in one of the two other books I am concurrently real-time reviewing.
    This text is equally sublime, highly textured, with its description of a mountain conclave of almost prehensile examples of humanity with spears, living in raised piles on the blue ‘mountain’s-eyes’ where they fish, together with their hard instinctive trade in minerals, alongside sacrificial bonds with others outside their own tribe.

  9. Mérigot Marchès

    “…filled only with silt, flat stones and soft creatures and the fry of eels.”

    A haunting hunt for now riparian treasure from the Hundred Years War, where the hunters seem to be joined by the ghost of the one who had planted such war booty. The anniversary of your own death is a date to exploit not only to regather the valuable hinterland of your life, if you become a ghost, but also I guess, to put the flesh back on, at least for a while?


    By dint of finding appended annotations in a 15th century manuscript of a farcical play, I seek further information of the Bohemians from Egypt in that era, criminals and troublemakers, including a Princess of Cairo who seemed to be a sort of ring-leader and sexual tauntress – and the power of writing by various magistrate’s clerks as a magic force, by ink and meaning and extraneous doodle … and the dark deeds thus ensuing.
    Did the magistrate couple carnally with this still living woman after her death or (an unwritten, if inferred, question in this story) with the animal into which she had reincarnated?
    I even wonder at the physical text of this story itself and what extraneous power it has, by dint of ink or meaning and my own pencilled doodles upon it, and whether such power survives its translation into modern English?


    “…chitterlings, fat and firm, with light red wine.”

    …as if dipped in the blood of the word – these historic firebrands who receive sacrilege’s punishment of inner fire burning outward after consuming a chaliceful of ‘Corpus Domini’…


    “The moon rose, like a yellow aerial mask, above the trees.”

    Masks for faces, masks of masks, masks over diseases, diseases over masks, portraits with their own masks fixed upon the painted faces, a complex of fable upon fable making a gestalt that seems as if you have read it forever and it has read you forever, but in reality you sense you have never read it before. Several layers of meaning like masks themselves, moral upon moral, jester as priest, priest as jester, woman as mask of woman…
    You will come away wanting to read it again with new eyes, but you never can do so because it is always something you’ve never read before.


    “…and the oil was solid, like a yellow rock with a white crest.”

    I don’t think you will ever encounter such a vivid account of the end of our world, blending frozen images with the triangulating grey whorls of itemised beating beast life, including human, as they succour each other, in deadly symbiosis (cf earlier Amber-Trader and the fish-man unions in this and other concurrent books), while, eventually, trapped heat shows reviving signs beyond its trap – as well as the ever-latent cruelty of survival.
    The name ODJIGH ever now to become the sign of this syndrome of death and redeath, a word with no possible anagrammatised or easier mnemonic version? A word that is its own impenetrable and irremoveable mask.


    “It is terrible, to be sure, to think that the incantations of women can cause the moon to descend into a mirror-case or plunge it, when it is full, into a silver bucket along with the drenched stars or, while the Thessalonian night is black and men who can change their skins are free to roam about, cause it to fry in a pan like a yellow medusa of the sea:”

    A richly Clark Ashton Smith like prose about all manner of conniving women in Libya, who, by all accounts, are even more terrible than that account of the fried moon! Many triangulations amid many scenic open-ended cupolas of sumptuously incidental colours galore, as two sisters argue about men, including the narrator and his brother – and whom, I guess, to embalm first and with what invasive lusting methods! This book’s stripping down to the bottom bone….


    “In the year MCCCLXXXIV, being a young man without money, I fled the city of Florence by the highways, with Matteo for companion. For the plague was devastating the city.”

    Another Matteo it was who recommended Schwob’s work to me… And thus I am here to read this lively picaresque tale of two men chasing women and fleeing plague. But the moral is not in the apparent fate of the story’s Matteo, but in the patience of real-time reviewing eventually to find links towards life’s ultimate gestalt. Here, then, to echo the masks over disease, and disease over masks etc earlier in this book’s eponymous tale, is added a mask of disease over real disease … Is this two negatives making a positive?


    “The hanged girls’ breasts heaved like the palpitating wings of a throttled bird.”

    Factoring the strigae into the Biblical story of the nubile virgins who committed a plague of suicides? Their striking mirror images also reminds me of the earlier masks that are better scried by the mirrors’ future than by direct eyesight. More dualistic than an X ray’s view of an inner skeleton, these visions of outer decay, I’d say. Embalming-women embalming their future selves?


    “Then he went before the green ape and recognised that he had been mistaken, seeing that the ape was in fact a goat…”

    By my green candle!
    This is a work that is full of witchen flight, and other devilish doings, and should be put in my Dysfunction Room.


    “After the meal she would rise, staggering, and being in liquor would piss standing against the wall like a man.”

    There are some powerful images in this story and what today despite its ancient ways and ancient setting would be called graphic child abuse.
    But, rest assured, the abuser gets his come-uppance which, in the circumstances, is not a spoiler to know.

    [Telling comparisons between two concurrent reviews within an hour of each other HERE, about the nature of gender in peeing.]


    “He must have been a great age, for the tendons of his limbs showed through the skin.”

    …as no doubt did the ribs of his canoe? An old man found adrift in the wild ocean with his flute, found by the rum-sodden sailors who suffered the slings and arrows of the sea in their ancient ship. This is an absolutely amazing work, summoning up a William Hope Hodgson and an Edgar Allan Poe as well as a doom, through music, of, say, ‘Songs for Dead Children’ by Gustav Mahler. A weird classic.


    “Being of all nations, of every colour, speaking every language, not having even gesture in common, they were bound only by a like passion and common murders.”

    This is an astonishing fantasy of a pirate ship with cosmopolitan crew and a Captain who cannot bear silence. They seem to be disparate leitmotifs but with a gestalt of ‘the eyes of one alone.’ They reach a most incredibly envisioned land (reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith, but only slightly so) with a sleeping city, where, almost as a RELIGIOUS LOVECRAFTIANISM, there takes place a mass series of discrete like-for-like embraces or hugs, bone with bone unto wax. A summation, for me, of this whole book’s flensing soul.
    That silence from ‘The Flute’ of never hearing a baby born again…. yet, with an indefinable Jarryist State of absurd hope.

    I say the ‘whole book’ above, as if in summation of this whole review, too. I have glanced ahead at the short items listed below, that I have not yet read. I may well read them, but by their first glance, I suspect they will be insusceptible to my style of real-time reviewing by their being more like non-fiction than fiction. However, should I read them, and If I am stirred to review them, I shall be back here in due course to do so. Meanwhile: this is the end and thanks for sharing this wonderful journey with me. And enormous thanks to Matteo for recommending it.


    And I note the ‘strigae’ have now vanished…

  21. I was in Salzburg this week and passed a man who was so thin you could see the exact shape of the skull beneath his skin. Alarming among shops, but not that ancient city that surrounded them.

  22. Pingback: The Assassins and Other Stories – Marcel Schwob | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS

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