Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is fond of urging students in his writing workshops to “abandon the haunted castle and consider the haunted bus stop.” Meant as a rejection, in favor of something more contemporary, of all that is outdated and clichéd in the fantastic as a genre, the image speaks to Châteaureynaud’s ironic, affectionate take on the plight of modern man. The puny bus stop, where a lone, lost traveler shelters from the storm, at once ridicules the grand, foreboding castle—grown portentous and self-important—yet by being quite aware of its reduced stature, the bus stop also manages a certain pathos.
It is in Kafka, whom Châteaureynaud counts among his influences, that the creaky old castle begins to crumble. As J.-B. Baronian notes, Kafka “literally metamorphosed” the fantastic as genre. He had no need of “vampires, succubi, peris, or mechanical devices to express the irrational, to convey the ‘deterritorialization’ of human existence. In their stead was the City, the Administration, the Court, the Police.” But if Châteaureynaud favors the bus stop—way-station on a mournful journey—Jacques Sternberg would probably prefer the cubicle. The simple titles of his most famous novels reflect the 20th century nightmare of mechanization, drudgery, and dehumanization: The Employee, The Suburb, The Misdemeanor, A Working Day.
The black sheep of an Anvers diamond merchant family, a French Resistance fighter, longtime manual laborer, member of the Panic movement, a writer for Fiction (the French F&SF), an editor for Planète, and a contributor to the groundbreaking Présence du futur series, Sternberg is generally classified as a writer of dystopian SF and the fantastic, but refused both those labels, considering himself chronicler of fear and terror in all their insidious contemporary forms. He claimed merely to avail himself of the tools of various genres in doing so. He is best remembered today for what we would now call short-shorts, of which wrote more than 500 (by some counts twice that): collected, re-collected, or still scattered in periodicals. He claimed to know the end of every story before he started, writing toward it, but disavowed any knowledge of its meaning. He thought of his short-shorts as one-panel cartoons, especially those of Chas Addams, his early inspiration. Critics have accused him of practicing the short-short as a rabbit punch.
The plots of these stories range from simple trick reversals to surprises potentially profound; they include damning parables and more open-ended ones. There are fables, koans, liturgies, jokes, descriptions, aphorisms, and one-liners:
(from La Géométrie dans l’impossible, Eric Losfeld, 1953; repr. Contes glacés, Marabout, 1974)
He was so well-mannered that, at death’s door, he waved his wife through first.
Some take great leaps between sentences, some proceed from observations other writers would discard as cliché, and others, when they end, simply drop off a cliff. Some remind me of wind-up teeth from a joke shop, chattering away with the same slightly cackling malice; others clamp their jaws down on your hand and draw blood. They are uniformly nasty, though they run the spectrum of nastiness from random acts of vandalism to the purely despairing, from mean-spirited to bleak. Like any true punk, he can’t resist the cheap shots, even when hunting bigger game.
“Creation: A Chilly Tale”
(December 16, 1979 in the Sunday Le Monde)
On the first day, God created the head cold. It didn’t seem like much to Him.
On the second day, He created the flu. It was better, but still quite harmless.
On the third day, He created pneumonia. He was fairly, but still not completely happy with it.
On the fourth day, He created the plague. This allowed him to envision epidemics, but one day we’d manage to check them, and He knew it.
On the fifth day, He created cancer, and he was really quite satisfied with this initiative. But cancer was missing something, and privately, He was aware of this.
So on the sixth day, he created death.
On the seventh day, he could take a rest. He’d earned it.
Through them all, we hear the wicked snicker of the inveterate misanthrope. There is no low he hasn’t foreseen, no debasement he hasn’t anticipated. It would seem humans can do nothing to further disappoint him, only confirm his worst expectations. And yet in this domain humanity constantly manages to outdo itself, providing him a steady supply of unpleasant surprises.
He finds this… reassuring.
It warms the very cockles of his heart.