Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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Term borrowed from historians of the Roman Empire to refer to literary works selfconsciously symptomatic of a supposedly parallel phase in 19th-century European culture. Such works characteristically deal with, or are themselves aspects of, Neronic and neurotic quests for eccentric and extreme sensations capable of combating the dire effects of ennui and spleen. Charles Baudelaire was the archetypal Decadent writer, although he took inspiration from the works of Edgar Allan Poe (which he translated into French). Decadent writers were interested in all things abnormal, artificial, morbid, perverse and exotic, and were much given to symbolism; they were inevitably drawn to fantastic themes and bizarre stylistic embellishments, and their best work dramatically expanded the range, the bizarrerie and the grandiloquence of fantasy.

Key figures in the French Decadent movement of the Fin de Siècle include Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917), Jean Lorrain (1855-1906), Joséphin Péladan (1859-1916), Rachilde (1860-1953), Rémy de Gourmont, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Pierre Louÿs. The short-lived UK Decadent Movement was nipped in the bud by the catastrophic fall from grace of its tacit leader, Oscar Wilde, but notable fantasy writers influenced by it include Arthur Machen, M P Shiel, Vernon Lee, Count Stenbock (1859-1895) and R Murray Gilchrist (1868-1917). German writers similarly influenced include Thomas Mann (briefly) and Hanns Heinz Ewers. US "Bohemian" writers like James Huneker (1860-1921), Lafcadio Hearn and Ambrose Bierce had some affinity with the spirit of European Decadence; other US writers who produced Decadent fantasies include George S Viereck, Ben Hecht and Emma Frances Dawson (1851-1926). Clark Ashton Smith, who was heavily influenced by the French Decadent poets as well as their US champion George Sterling (1869-1926), produced the ultimate examples of Decadent exotica, communicating something of that influence to other members of the H P Lovecraft circle and later writers in a similar vein, including such contemporary figures as Thomas Ligotti.

The central document of Decadent prose fiction is Huysmans' sarcastic comedy À rebours (1884), which was the "yellow book" that provided a guiding light for the hero of Wilde's ironic masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and inspired the famous periodical The Yellow Book (1894-1897), published by John Lane (1854-1925); Lane's Keynotes series included Machen's The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light (coll 1894) and Shiel's Shapes in the Fire (coll 1896). Further classics of French Decadent fantasy include Mirbeau's Le jardin des supplices (1899; trans Alvah C Bessie as Torture Garden 1931 US; new trans Michael Richardson 1995 UK) and Lorrain's Monsieur de Phocas (1901 France; trans Francis Amery 1994). The most striking example of German Decadent fantasy is Ewers's Alraune (1911). US Decadence achieved its earliest twin peaks in Hecht's Fantazius Mallare (1922) and Smith's poem The Hashish-Eater, or The Apocalypse of Evil (1922; 1989 chap). Anthologies replete with Decadent fantasies include The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins) (anth 1990) and The Second Dedalus Book of Decadence: The Black Feast (anth 1992) both ed Brian Stableford and The Dedalus Book of German Decadence: Voices of the Abyss (anth 1994) ed Ray Furness. [BS]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.