A trail of… plagiarism?

Did Maurice Renard really copy Edgar Allan Poe? What about Ewers and Erckmann-Chatrian? And McKenzie?

Basile Lebret
Dec 3, 2020 · 9 min read
A hand is seen erasing a signature and marking mine underneath it on a blank canvas.
A hand is seen erasing a signature and marking mine underneath it on a blank canvas.
Image thanks to geralt

Jean Ray once said that he wrote to H.G Wells in order to tell him that his idea for the Invisbile Man was ludicrous. What with light not being able to fall upon the cornea if one had been rendered transparent. In otherwords, an invisible human being had to be as blind as a bat.

Jean Ray was a liar and I already touched upon this on my paper on the Big Scare. Hence why I didn’t believe his story when I first heard it. But there’s another reason for my distrust. Maurice Renard once actually wrote The Man who Would be Invisible. A pastiche wherein an old man is sure that Wells’ story had to be based upon facts and scientific evidence, so he tries to recreate said experiment. The failure of the endeavour leads to him becoming blind leading his whole family to act as if the poor soul had genuinely become invisible — for he KNEW that cecity would be a consequence of such a transformation — in order for ur old chap not to mournthe loss of his eyesight.

What’s more, Renard actually dedicated his very first novel New Bodies for Old to HG Wells, a lenghty monologue sits at the very front of the book:

To H. G. Wells:

I beg you, Sir, to accept this book.

Of all the pleasures that its writing gave me, that of dedicating it to you is assuredly not the least.

I conceived it under the inspiration of ideas that you cherish, and I could have wished that it had come nearer to your own works than it does, not in merit — that would be an absurd pretension — but, at any rate, in that pleasant quality shown in all your books, which allows the chastest minds, as well as those that exact the greatest realism, to have communion with your genius — a communion which the ablest people of our time can acknowledge without feeling its charm lessened by such considerations.

But when Fortune for good or ill allowed me to discover the subject of this allegorical novel, I felt bound not to set it aside because of a few audacities which a faithful rendering involved and which an arrest of development alone — that is, a crime against the literary conscience — could avoid.

[vi]You now know — you could have guessed as much — what I should like people to think of my work, if by chance any one did it the unexpected honor of thinking about it at all. Far from desiring to arouse the creature of instinct in my reader and amuse him with scandalous descriptions, my work is addressed to the philosopher anxious for Truth amid the marvels of Fiction and for Orderliness amid the tumult of imaginary Adventures.

That, Sir, is why I beg you to accept it.

Even more interesting is the fact that Ray was very aware of Renard’s work for he wrote about it: “The whole of Maurice Renard’s work shell out pages like a rosary made of precious stones, scary stones and opalines gems, reflects of a human brain full of life.”

I was recently watching The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney Sr, wherein at some point the Phantom takes on the appearance of the Red Death. At least in the version I saw, in which shots of him in his red robe were oddly reminiscent of Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn. This precise scene I was almost certain was not in the original book, which I didn’t read but having already read a bunch of Gaston Leroux’s books, the journalist didn’t struck me as the type of guy who would pay homage to Edgar Allan Poe. To me, Leroux would have been more enclined to salute Renard’s or Vernes’ pragmatism, for they all stem from the same bud, and the three of them like to construct intricated lies only to then shatters them through science. Because it works.

As for the scene the party scene I was referencing earlier? Wikipedia actually says am right, it doesn’t exist in the book. Still, I knew this HAD to be a reference from the screenwriter to Poe’s short story the Masque of the Read Death. Being the conscious reader that I am, I went on, grabbed my omnibus of Poe’s work gathering dust on one of my shelves and began to read it, for I had never experienced it beforehand and this was as good an occasion as any. This tale of a ball taking place in an enclosed castle in the countryside, only to be disturbed by a ghost rang strangely familiar to my ear. For I once had read something similar.

In my mind, Maurice Renard was the culprit. I first took out a collection of short stories written by him but no plot came even close. So, I turned over to my semi-omnibus of his collected works. Searching through the short fictions inside of this book, I noticed a titled Chateau Hanté (Haunted Castle in English). This was the particular story I remembered. In it, a noble French man has taken refuge in a castle in the countryside because of his depressive state. Soon, the main character, in the form of his psychiatrist, assures the sad man that he should throw a party, medieval style, in his newly acquired estate. The idea seduces the depressed but on said day, a set of armor supposed to be empty crashes everyone’s fun and giggles.

Image for post
Image for post
Seriously though, doesn’t this make you think of Spawn?

Maurice Renard is credited as the creator of the “merveilleux fantastique” genre; which is just an elevated way of saying he treaded the same waters as Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells. Still, Renard possessed this weird way of trying to ground everything in the scientific realities of his time. Tet he always did it in a fun way. This educative pulp’s style gives his work a really distinctive vibe and it plays also a part in the way Chateau Hanté ends; what with everyone discovering that a rival noble, who was unhappy that the depressive man had bought the house found a way to pass as a ghost in order to then buy the haunted mansion a cheaper price. In a way, this is Dream Home in an ungory and fun way. But the question remains? Is this plagiarism? Some will argue that while the setting is the same, it’s the whole plot that matters. In other words, this exploitation is how genres are created.

A few months ago, I touched upon the whole Hans Heinz Ewers/Erckmann-Chatrian debate. Erckmann-Chatrian were a duet of French writers specializing in regionalistic and fantastic litterature. In their tale, L’Auberge des Trois Pendus, three men took their own life while residing in the same room of an inn. The main character decides to solve this mystery and sleeps there. Through time, he will discover that a witch inhabits the house right across the street and forces the guests to kill themselves by sheer magical suggestion. Being the hero, our man repells the spell and the witch ends up hanging herself instead.

Ewers, on the other hand, was a German writer who must have been very aware of Erckmann-Chatrian’s work because of their geographical proximity, for the French duet actually lived in the region bordering on Germany. A few years later, after L’Auberge des Trois Pendus was published, he released what may be his most well-known tale The Spider. In his story, three suicides have been comitted in the same room of an inn. After a quick introduction in third person, the German writer switches to a first person epistolary form — reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and now that I think of even more so that Dracula actually possessed an introduction short story named Dracula’s Guest actually written in the first person and not the epistolary form the book became a classic for — through the diary of a student who claimed he would solve the whole ordeal, when it is actually just an excuse to have a free roof over his head.

Bunch of details co-exist in both fiction. But the truth is, while Erckmann-Chatrian treaded the thin line they often liked, laying somewhere in-between naturalistic fiction and fairy tales, Ewers’ short story is undeniably a work of weird fiction with its main character being slowly hypnotized by a spider passing as a woman. It’s interesting to note that some Wikipedia entry notes The Spider as being a case of plagiarism of Erckmann-Chatrian’s work when such accusation appears, at most, debattable. Pretty much like Renard had done with Poe’s work, Ewers simply elaborated on a premises which existed somewhere else. Question then becomes, if fiction about repeated suicides in a same room had became a norm, like, say, the slasher genre movie, would we be having this conversation?

Before jumping onto my third comparison, I would like to note that since I wrote this paper, I discovered Marcel Schwob’s work. A French writer who pretty much wrote exclusively really short stories. One of those tales, aptly named Arachné, taking its name from the Roman tales of the same name by Ovidus, actually speaks of a murder who says he killed his wife while under the influence of a spider-goddess and do not fear his execution for she would comes to him everynight and loves him with a passion as sharp and gentle as death itself. The whole spider/hypnotism scheme made me connect some dotshere, yet I don’t know.

A werewolf is seen facing the viewer under a full moon. With the Title spread over his head.
A werewolf is seen facing the viewer under a full moon. With the Title spread over his head.
Cover of the Man-wolf Anthology

In 1838, Sutherland Mckenzies wrote Hugues The Wer-Wolf. In this tales, a family of Normand emigrant are treated as parias in their local English community. Folks say that every members of this French family are werewolves. Eventually every member die except for the first son, who discovers a strange attire, a werewolf disguise that he soon uses in order to terrify the townfolks who he thinks are responsible for the death of his relatives. Intertwined in all of this is a romance story with a butcher’s niece and an ending where a man is haunted by a hand pretty reminiscent of The Monkey’s Paw albeit in a rushed fashion. All in all, this short story, in style, resembles Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto — considered to be the first novel of Gothic horror- which also means that Mckenzie’s story seems stuck in-between Gothic litterature and earlier Medieval style type of writings.

By the way, before I go on about my point, do you know why a werewolf is called a werewolf? I know that some sources on the internet claim that it is a mix of wari meaning man, and wolf. But there’s an explanation in a French book which also works surprisingly well in Engish. See, In France a were wolf is named a loup-garou. Book goes on to explain that it means that this un loup dont il faut se garder. In English this would translate into a wolf you should be wary of. Anyway…

In 1859, Erckmann-Chatrian released the Man-Wolf, which is actually a story about a doctor trying to solve the sickness of a noble men inhabiting an isolated castle in the French mountains. While the writers used the title as a means to attract potential readers, in the end, the plot has nothing to do with werewolf. What’s interesting is that the French title of the Man-Wolf is actually Hugues-le-Loup and noone will ever make me believe that the duet of writers didn’t know of Mckenzie’s previous work. While both fictions entertain few, if any, ties, they still both took on the werewolf myth to apply to it a sensible explanation. Making this coinciding two titles ring eerily to me.

Next week will see the release of another episode of French Frights, this time about Pitoff’s Vidocq. Stay tuned!

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Basile Lebret

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Releasing a paper every Friday.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Basile Lebret

Written by

Releasing a paper every Friday.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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