There is something oddly joyous in the stories of Jehanne Jean-Charles, even at their most malicious. The wink of her trick endings is one not of smugness but of merry complicity — a wink from your stylish, daffy aunt, the absent-minded one who wears galoshes, knows magic, and has unmanageable hair. “Isn’t life grand?” she’s apt to exclaim, giddy in the face of blackest misfortune, as if the universe had in causing suffering merely proved its infinite variety and capacity for surprise. Which is not to say that tragedy in her tales lacks suitable solemnity, that moving moments don’t get their due gravity. But bad things do befall the bulk of her characters, without apology or redress, sometimes even without explanation. The marvel of her style is that innocence and wonder go hand in hand with chicanery and malice.
Far from prolific to begin with, Jehanne may have been overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, the popular humorist Jean-Charles, famous for his many collections of overheard, inadvertent bons mots. Time has placed the couple on a more equal footing; today both writers, who traded greatly on their verbal wit, are forgotten.
Jehanne made her reputation with two collections, Les Plumes du corbeau (1962) and Les Griffes du chat (1964), re-collected in a single volume ten years later under the title of the first. This title, literally The Crow’s Feathers, involves a pun on plume (feather, or pen) and corbeau (crow, or a writer of poison-pen letters). The second title, literally The Cat’s Claws, carries a similarly wicked sous-entendu of being helpless in those claws’ clutches. All three books were published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, a great rebel among French editors. (A quick sidebar on Pauvert: De Sade was only available in samizdat editions before he scandalized conservative Catholic France by publishing them formally in the ‘50s. For this he was defended in court by Maurice Garcon, a peculiar jurist popular with artists, who was also one of the foremost historians of magic and the esoteric. The original publisher of The Story of O, Pauvert rubbed elbows with the Surrealists, and published Bataille, Dalí, Breton, and the revue Bizarre.) Around the time of the 1973 re-issue, movies were made of two of her short stories: Une méchante petite fille [A Wicked Little Girl], by Robin Davis, and Le bonheur d’être père [The Joy of Fatherhood], by Olivier Ricœur. The net effect was to make the former her most famous story.
“This afternoon, I pushed Arthur into the tub,” it begins. He nearly drowns, but his “glub-glub” brings the parents to the rescue. By the next paragraph, we’re off and running:
“Besides, if he didn’t say I’d pushed him, it was probably just because he knows quite well Mommy hates a tattletale. The other day, when I strangled him with the jumprope…”
This escalation, no less lethal for its levity, would recall the narrative motor of Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” were it narrated by a child psychopath. But Jehanne reins in the absurd in favor of the insidious, and the story winds down with a detailed plot for impending murder, to close on a startling image that suggests we may have just read the monologue of a vengeful ghost haunting her surviving brother. Once again, a story has led us to the sill of that door to the land of the dead, left unsettlingly ajar, but what has slipped through: a specter, or the breath of madness? Like any ghost story worth its sheets and bones, this tale could just as easily read as the schizophrenic suicidal trauma of a boy and his guilt over losing a sister. If this seems a lot to fit into 784 words, it’s a testament to Jehanne’s enviable economy. Concision and lightness of touch are but facets of her utter lack of sentimentality.
Jehanne continued to write well into the 80s, producing a total of four novels with various publishers and another collection, Vous avez dit horrible? [Did you say horrible?]. Pauvert said of her, “If she were English, she’d be read the world over.” His observation attests as much to the global reach of English letters as to the kind of tales Jehanne tells, for if influence or affinity her style betrays, it’s with the silken menace of Saki, though readers have claimed for her kinship with Matheson, Bradbury, and Dahl. (French editions for these writers were available roughly contemporaneously with their writing in English, through imprints like Denoël’s Présence du futur; not so the reverse.) Though her sense of mischief approaches John Collier’s, her prose isn’t quite as fancy. The forthrightness of Jehanne’s style and her choice of theme owe much more to Anglophone traditions of the fantastic than to the Surrealism that tainted many of her French contemporaries, although in sensibility she descends from the conte cruel, in which conventional morality is subverted and puffery punished.
As in “Wicked Little Girl,” Jehanne often favors the dramatic monologue, or a close third, and why not? After all, her M.O. is the ironic twist, and such structures set the speaker up for a fall. Often as not the character’s identity challenges our initial assumptions. In “Autopsy of a Hunter,” the lecturing professor turns out to be one of a race of sentient dogs that have inherited the earth. “Women, How Pretty You Are!” finds ladies who lunch raising babies for food. In “The Portrait,” a child is reprimanded at school for drawing his parents as the aliens they are. “Romantic” charts the affair of a farmer and his cow, “Sebastian’s Departure” the death of a lost cat, and “The Vestal Virgin” the ruin of a marriage begun in illicit passion. There is no mythology — whether Greek, folk, or monster — she turns to with any regularity. Animals aren’t always victims of man; in “The Velvet Paw” a stray lays claim to a single schoolteacher and thwarts her engagement. To summarize a twist is to flatten it to patness; the trick of the trick ending — and trick it is, no doubt about that — lies in flair. There is little we fail to forgive the stylish.
Modern readers for whom, as Joe Hill notes, “a surprise ending (no matter how well executed) was the mark of childish, commercial fiction and bad TV… akin to hearing a ballerina rip a noisy fart during a performance of Swan Lake” may prefer Jehanne’s longer pieces, in which the snicker-snack of her narrative trap snapping shut is more muted. These often turn on disappearances — of a character believed alive, a character believed to to be someone else, or simply a character from the face of the known world. “The Microclimate,” a rare tale with a SF tinge, finds the aging Madame Allaire envious of the lush blooming plants in her neighbor’s yard. Of course, the Zeds have a “microclimate,” a rare luxury that alters the weather over their property. It is as much the object of gossip in the gray community as are their flamboyant clothes and laid-back ways. When, at a town meeting, in the most abrupt possible fashion, the Zeds announce they are moving away, they leave their house and garden to Madame Allaire. The decorous widow, surprised to find the place spotless, nevertheless sets to cleaning, if only to fill the hours. Soon, the townsfolk are no longer stopping by to see how she’s settling in, and bereft of their envy at the microclimate,
“Indifference weighed on the life of Madame Allaire.
… Vaguely seeking a diversion, she resolved to organize the attic, which had no need of being organized. It contained a broken mirror and a single steamer trunk, with mothballed clothes and boxes of well-labeled mementoes: childhood, teenage years, engagement, marriage, death.”
Dwelling on memories of her late husband, she finds herself “listless, melancholy, and yet less sad.” She dusts off and puts on a fancy old dress and a feathered cabochon she’s only ever worn once.
“That was when she saw a sheet of paper stuck under the mirror, no doubt to keep it from slipping. She crouched down and tugged on it; it came easily. The mirror still stood without the help of the missive addressed to Madame Allaire, which she now read, sighing and waving her egret feather, looking lost suddenly happy. She re-read the last line a good twenty times — ‘And now, come join us if you wish,’ — before slipping the letter into the neckline of her beaded dress.”
And just like that, two paragraphs later, she is gone. After some debate, the house is handed over to her best friend, Madame Bondelle. We know some trace amount about her former neighbors the Zeds, but not what relationship they have to grief, to mirrors, to color, and to our world. The tone is even, matter-of-fact; the setting everyday. From materials of utmost simplicity, cannily arrayed, can the greatest mystery emerge.
For her anthology The Female Fantastic, Anne Richter chose Jehanne’s story “Annie,” perhaps because it suited her thesis of animal transformations as potentially liberating. In that tale, a newlywed woman, living a blissful life in a country manor her husband has inherited, meets a stone marten. By night, she and the weasel swap lives, so that in dreams she lives a ferocity and bloodlust she hadn’t realized her life was missing. The marten tricks her into changing bodies for good, and then frames her for the murder of her own children. Her husband and the marten leave; the house of sorrow is boarded up; and she alone, her name “still Annie,” is left to rehearse the story we have just been told, of love overshadowed by grief, the very memory of it fading from her animal mind and identity. The feel is that of a fairy tale, fleet and entrancing.
“Who is That Up There?” with its almost comically spooky title follows Helen, an orphan in a new home, a “modest one-story house in the woods, with an almost flat roof that seemed to sink the house into the ground, like a mummified mushroom.” Helen hears footsteps above, but the refusal of George and Georgina, her foster brother and mother, to even acknowledge her questions on the subject arouses her suspicions. Her eventual entrance to the attic, achieved with a hatchet, seems to lead her to the direst of fates — “her scream turned into a piercing howl, fading down the entire scale of unspeakable terror” — but then the story abruptly switches POV, another stylistic trick Jehanne often uses, to that of two elderly neighbors. Who are Georges and Georgina? What happens to Helen? The key lies in an earlier paragraph, a conversation between foster brother and mother incomprehensible to Helen:
“ — ‘Borrowed clothes cling to any skin.’ I can’t say I like this one.
—That doesn’t matter. It has to suit you, as mine suits me. And no point being so solicitous about Helen. The word solicitous makes you snicker. Yet you must know that with our disguises we don conventions, those of language, like any other. But I’m wrong to fear for you. How could you ever go back far enough to rediscover the notion of feeling?”
It’s not much of a key, and therein lies the eerie, elusive allure.