“#11 Torture Garden. Fin-de-siecle decadence at its best. At one time one of those ‘suppressed’ books and now chiefly remembered as one of Frank Frazetta’s better paperback covers”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “The Thirteen Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine 1983)
“In a broader sense the expression fin de siècle is used to characterize anything that has an ominous mixture of opulence and/or decadence, combined with a shared prospect of unavoidable radical change or some approaching ‘end.'”- Wikipedia
First published in 1899, Torture Garden still leaves a taste of decadence in your mouth. Written by a French journalist disgusted with the pomposity of his own society, he shows us a foreign one equally beautiful, equally deadly. Mirabeau was famous for writing about forbidden subjects and shoving them in the reader’s face. In this book, he decided to examine the connection of sex and death by way of art and beauty.
Torture Garden begins with a discussion about law and society among a gathering of cultured guests. As it turns to punishment, a quiet guest begins to tell his tale of a trip he recently took to China.
But first he gives us his back story:
After being raised in by a ruthless businessman of a father, our hero suddenly found himself penniless while still a young man (dad’s shady business deals having caught up with the family). So he becomes a patron of the only man more twisted than his father: a government minister. His political friend, named Eugene, becomes worried the narrator will become a lead weight on his career, so he manages to send him on a government paid scientific mission to Asia. It doesn’t matter that the hero of the book doesn’t know a thing about his subject- embryology- the important issue is getting him out of France.
While traveling to China he meets an Englishwoman, the beautiful and sensuous Clara. Unfortunately for him, Clara has an unhealthy obsession with death. Once they reach China, she takes him to a the Torture Garden of the book’s title: A massive garden outside a penitentiary. Those convicted by a Chinese judge are executed by bizarre and unusual means. After visiting and describing the gardens, he leaves with Clara. But Clara is so lost in her ecstasy she soon faints. A Chinese ferry woman, who has witnessed Clara’s swoons before, takes them both to the only place Clara can recover: a floating sex club. End of book.
There isn’t a lot of plot or character development in Torture Garden. Mirabeau was obsessed with hammering home his belief about French society being one big execution chamber. There is an interesting scene where the narrator and Clara encounter an executioner who fancies himself an artist and deplores the crude mass killings of gunpowder. I’m not sure if the description of the prison or the torture garden has any basis in reality; I’ll leave that one for late-period Manchu Dynasty scholars.
A fascinating example of “Decadent 90’s” writing from the same decade which gave us The King In Yellow.