Jean Ferry (1906-1974) was primarily a screenwriter, best known for his collaborations with Clouzot, Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju. A satrap of the College of ‘Pataphysics, he was known in his time as the greatest specialist in the works of Proust’s neighbor Raymond Roussel. His only book of fantastical tales, The Engineer, was published in 1953 and recently brought back into print by Éditions Finitude. Andre Breton is said to have taken Ferry’s wife Lila as the inspiration for his book L’Amour fou, and he called “The Society Tiger,” originally published in 1947, “the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long while.” Thomas Ligotti, in his interview on WFR.com lists “The Society Tiger” among his top under-appreciated weird stories. Readers in French can find the story in a new edition of Ferry’s fiction from Finitude, featuring 20 original collages by Claude Ballaré.
This story was originally reprinted here at WFR.com in November of 2011, in our first week of operation, and the story’s translator, Edward Gauvin, has recently updated and revised his translation to this current form. — The Editors
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Of all the music hall acts as stupidly dangerous to public and performers alike, none fills me with such supernatural horror as that old number known as the “Society Tiger.” For those who haven’t seen it—since the new generation knows nothing of the great music halls from between the wars—I shall recall this hoop-jumping spectacle. What I can neither explain nor attempt to convey is the state of panicked terror and abject disgust into which this display plunges me, as if into suspect and fearfully frigid water. I should simply avoid theatres where this increasingly rare number still figures on the bill. Easier said than done. For reasons that have always remained murky to me, the “Society Tiger” is never announced, I never expect it, or rather, I do—an obscure, barely expressed menace weighs on the pleasure I take from the music hall. Though a sigh of relief may lighten my heart after the evening’s final attraction, I know but too well the fanfare and ritual announcing that number—always performed, I repeat, as if impromptu. As soon as the orchestra starts in on that brassy, ever-so-typical waltz, I know what is about to happen; a crushing weight squeezes my chest, and I feel the live wire of fear between my teeth like a sour, low-voltage current. I should go, but I no longer dare. Besides, no one is moving, no one else shares my anxiety, and I know the beast is already on its way. It also seems the arms of my seat are protecting me, but how feebly…
First, the theater is plunged into utter darkness. Then a spotlight comes up on the apron, and the beam of that pathetic beacon comes to illumine an empty loge, usually quite close to my seat. Quite close. From there, this pencil of light seeks out a door to the wings at the end of the promenade gallery, and while the orchestra’s horns dramatically tackle into “Invitation to the Waltz,” they enter.
The tamer is a heartrending redhead, a bit weary-looking. The only weapon she bears is a black ostrich fan, whose plumes at first hide the lower half of her face; only her great green eyes show over the dark fringe of undulating waves. A plunging neckline, bare arms iridescent in the light as if in the mists of winter dusk, the tamer is sheathed tightly in a romantic evening gown, a strange gown with a heavy sheen, black as the deepest depths. The gown is cut from an incredibly supple and delicate fur. Atop it all, hair of flame spangled with golden stars erupts in cascades. The whole thing is at once oppressive and slightly comical. But who would think to laugh? The tamer, toying with her fan, reveals pure lips frozen in a smile, and advances, followed by the spotlight’s beam, toward the empty loge—on the tiger’s arm, as it were.
The tiger walks in a fairly human fashion on its two hind legs; he is suited up as a dandy of a refined elegance, and this suit is so perfectly tailored that it’s hard to make out, beneath the gray flared slacks, the flowered waistcoat, the blindingly white jabot with its flawless ruffles, and the frock coat fitted by a master’s hand, the body of the animal beneath. But there is the head, with its appalling rictus, the crazed eyes rolling in their crimson sockets, the furious bristle of whiskers, and the fangs that sometimes glitter under curled lips. The tiger advances quite stiffly, holding a light gray hat in the crook of his left arm. The tamer walks with a measured step, and if sometimes she arches her lower back, if her bare arm tenses, showing unexpected muscle under the tawny velvet of her skin, it is because she has just made a violent, hidden effort to straighten her suitor, about to fall forward.
Here they are at the door to the loge, which the society tiger swats open before stepping aside to let the lady through. And once she has taken her seat, even nonchalantly set an elbow on the worn plush, the tiger drops himself into a chair beside her. At this point, the room usually bursts into blissful applause. And I—I watch the tiger, wanting to be somewhere else so badly I could cry. The tamer gives a noble greeting with a nod of her controlled blaze. The tiger goes to work, handling props laid out expressly in the loge. He pretends to study the audience through an opera-glass; lifting the lid from a box of bonbons, he pretends to offer some to his companion. He pulls out a silk handkerchief, which he pretends to sniff; he pretends, to the great amusement of one and all, to consult the program. Then he acts the gallant and, leaning toward the tamer, pretends to murmur some declaration in her ear. The tamer pretends to take offense and, between the pale satin of her beautiful cheek and the beast’s stinking snout sown with saber blades, coquettishly raises the fragile screen of her feather fan. At this, the tiger pretends to fall into despair, and wipes his eyes with the back of a furred paw. And all throughout this lugubrious pantomime, my heart beats fit to tear inside my ribcage, for I alone see, I alone know that this whole tasteless charade hangs by but a miracle of willpower, as they say; that we are all in a state of horrifically precarious balance the merest trifle could shatter. What would happen if, in the loge beside the tiger’s, that little man with the look of a lowly office worker, that little man with pallid skin and tired eyes, should for so much as a moment stop wanting? For he is the true tamer; the woman with her red curls is but a figurehead. Everything depends on him; he is the one who makes a puppet of the tiger, an automaton more tightly bound than by cables of steel.
But if that little man should suddenly start thinking about something else? If he died? No one suspects the potential danger of every passing moment. And I who know, I imagine, I imagine—but no, better not to imagine what the lady in furs would look like if… Better to watch the end of the number, which always ravishes and reassures the public. The tamer asks if someone in the audience would like to entrust her with a child. Who could refuse anyone so charming? There’s always some unthinking woman who’ll tender, toward that demonic loge, a delighted baby, which the tiger cradles gently in the hollow of its folded paws, turning a drunkard’s eyes on the little fleshly morsel. In a great thunder of applause, the theatre fills with light, the baby is returned to its rightful owner, and the two partners take a bow before exiting the way they came.
As soon as they’ve passed through the door—they never come back for an encore—the orchestra erupts into its most deafening fanfares. Shortly after, the little man wilts into his seat, mopping his brow. And the orchestra plays louder and louder, to cover the roaring of the tiger, itself again once past the bars of its cage. It howls like hell itself, rolls around shredding its handsome clothes, which must be replaced at every show. Vociferations, tragic imprecations of desperate rage, furious and devastating leaps against the sides of its cell. On the other side of the bars, the false tamer hurriedly undresses so as not to miss the last metro. The little man awaits her in the bistro by the station, the one called The Great Never.
However distant they sound, the hurricane of howls unleashed by the tiger tangled up in ribbons of fabric might leave an unpleasant impression on the public. That is why the orchestra plays the Fidelio Overture with all its might; that’s why the stage manager, in the wings, hurries the burlesque bicyclists onstage.
I hate the society tiger number, and I will never understand the pleasure the public takes in it.
(Original French publication in book form: Le Mécanicien, Gallimard, 1953; repr. Finitude, 2010)