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One Of Cleopatra's Nights
by Theophile Gautier
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The French writer Theophile Gautier (1811-1872) was a leading writer of the Romantic movement and forms a bridge between the supernatural fiction of Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann and the pivotal pulp magazine Weird Tales. Gautier was fascinated by antique times and classical cultures; strange and fantastic events; exotic and compelling horrors; and love that transcends class, time, and even death. As the lush, passionate stories and novellas in One of Cleopatra's Nights demonstrate, Gautier originated or crystallized two powerful archetypes that entertain and haunt us still--the romantic vampire and the femme fatale. His collection should be read by fans of fantasy, horror, historical, and Romantic fiction.
The book (translated by the 19th-century fantasist Lafcadio Hearn) opens with "One of Cleopatra's Nights," in which a common hunter recklessly declares his love for the queen; instead of having him executed, she proposes to take him for her lover, if he will agree to one horrific condition. The second of the six tales is Gautier's most famous, "Clarimonde" (which also appears, in a different translation, in Italo Calvino's anthology of 19th-century fantasy classics, Fantastic Tales, under the title "The Beautiful Vampire"). If "Clarimonde" did not invent the romantic vampire, it established the formula, with its gorgeous, irresistible woman whose love will not surrender even to death, and who must imbibe her mortal lover's blood to remain at his side. In "Arria Marcella," a tourist's ardent fascination with a woman who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius brings the woman, and Pompeii, back to life--but not life as we know it. In the witty, slyly self-parodying story "The Mummy's Foot," a writer purchases the embalmed extremity to serve as a paperweight, only to find its original owner, a Pharaonic princess, has returned to reclaim her foot and lead him to the Egyptian afterlife. "Omphale" too is amusing and knowingly self-parodic, with its tale of a youthful French writer haunted by a legendary beauty of ancient Greece, or perhaps the late wife of a dead marquis. The collection concludes with the erotically charged novella "King Candaules," in which an ancient Greek ruler is unsatisfied with his beautiful wife's Oriental modesty, which allows only her husband to see her face; he arranges for one of his captains to see her naked, with ironic and tragic results. --Cynthia Ward
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