The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Invisible Eye" (1857)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Invisible Eye” (original: “L'œil invisible ou L'auberge des trois pendus") was written by “Erckmann-Chatrian” and first appeared in (L’Artiste, Nov. 1857). Émile Erckmann (1822-1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890) were French journalists who became famous in their lifetime and are still best-known for their accounts, fictional and non-fictional, of life in the French countryside. “The Invisible Eye” is a neat little tale of detection and horror.
Mr. Christian, a poor painter, is forced to lodge in the roof of an old house in Nuremberg. From the corner of his garret he has a magnificent view of the town, and he sits and watches the people and animals and enjoys himself. He notices that not far from his window is the Inn Boeuf Gras, an old tavern popular with the locals. Across the street from the Inn is an equally ancient house which reproduces the carvings on the Inn’s exterior. But where the Inn is popular, the house is somber and silent and dreary. It is inhabited by one person, an old woman with small green eyes, a long thin nose, a withered smile, and a truly hideous glance, who Christian almost immediately dislikes. Christian is told that she is called “Fledermausse,” or “bat,” by the people of Nuremberg, and that she has the evil eye. One night Christian sees a man hanging from the cross beam of the sign of the Inn, and he also sees the Fledermausse looking at the dead man “with an air of diabolic satisfaction.”1 Christian discovers that the man is the third person to have hanged themselves after staying in the Green Room in the Inn Boeuf Gras. Christian is immediately convinced that the Fledermausse is behind it all and vows to bring her to justice, but he has no idea how she accomplishes the murders, so he begins spying on her, following her during the day and watching her house from his room at night. Several weeks later, when a peasant from Nassau occupies the Green Room, Christian watches the Fledermausse closely and sees her handling a mannequin dressed like the previous hanging victim. Later that day, Christian watches the Fledermausse dress the mannequin in the same clothes as the peasant from Nassau and then hang the mannequin from a beam of her shed. Christian is struck and appalled by this, realizing that she is using “the strange and subtle enticement of example”2 to force those in the Green Room to kill themselves. Christian is resolute in wanting to stop the Fledermausse“ so he goes shopping and buys a mannequin and a set of clothes identical to the Fledermausse’s outfit. Christian then stays in the Green Room, the traveler having left in a rage once he heard about the Green Room’s history. That night Christian dresses himself and the mannequin to match the Fledermausse. Christian pulls aside the curtain to his room and sees, in the room in the Fledermausse’s house directly opposite the Green Room, the mannequin of the peasant from Nassau hanging from a beam. The Fledermausse comes to the window, and Christian begins imitating her movements. There is a struggle of wills, Christian trying to take control of the Fledermausse and the Fledermausse trying to break free, but Christian beats her and hangs the mannequin, forcing her to hang herself. And that’s the last “suicide” to take place near the Inn Boeuf Gras.
“The Invisible Eye” isn’t a classic of horror fiction. Erckmann-Chatrian tell the story in a relatively straightforward fashion, and their only attempt at creating atmosphere is through the high-pitched narration of Christian. But as a combination of detection and horror, it is entertaining. If the atmosphere is lacking and there is nothing really scary about the story, it is still an interesting idea well-executed, and the poetic justice of its ending is well suited to the story.
“The Invisible Eye” is interesting as the final step in the French elevation of the artist–in the case of “The Invisible Eye,” a painter–from the bourgeoisie to a superior class. During the nineteenth century French society underwent an enormous social transformation, as the bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy as the dominant social class. As a result, the bourgeoisie became the target of fierce criticism for its greed, social climbing, and political ambition–criticisms usually voiced by its victims. French horror fiction of the first half of the nineteenth century, though not given the respect by litterateurs that, for example, romances and romans feuilleton were, often contained critiques of the bourgeoisie. Prosper Mérimée–as he does in “Venus of Ille”–criticized the bourgeoisie while emphasizing the alliance between the proletariat and the Republic. These horror stories also depicted the new role that society had wrought for artists: defender of the law, defender of the people. No longer seen as a social parasite, the artist was viewed as someone with special gifts and exceptional insight.3 In “The Invisible Eye,” the painter enacts such a role as a kind of detective tracking down an occult murderer and seeing to it that she pays for her crimes.
Print: Erckmann-Chatrian, The Invisible Eye. Ashcroft, BC: Ashtree Press, 2002.
1 Erckmann-Chatrian, “The Invisible Eye,” in Louis E. Van Norman, ed, The Lock and Key Library: The Most Interesting Stories of All Nations, volume 5 (New York: Review of Reviews, 1913), 235.
2 Erckmann-Chatrian, “The Invisible Eye,” 244.
3 See Renee Cailloux’s “La Nouvelle Fantastique: Regard sur la Societe francaise du XIXe siecle” (Thesis, San Jose State University, 2010), for more on this evolution of the perception of the artist.