The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Venus of Ille" (1869)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Venus of Ille” (original: “La Venus d'Ille”) was written by Prosper Mérimée and first appeared in Lokis (1869). “The Venus of Ille” is regarded as a classic of European horror. It is at the least entertaining, if not frightening.

“The Venus of Ille” is about an old bronze statue found in the town of Ille, in the French Pyrenees. The statue is unearthed in the yard of Monsieur de Peyrehorade, an antiquarian. He is taken with it, and thinks more about it than about the upcoming wedding of his son. The nameless narrator is visiting Peyrehorade simply to look at the ruins in the area, but on hearing about the statue he is intrigued. Before he gets a good look at the statue he sees two locals throw a stone at the statue (while it was being unearthed it fell on a workman and broke his leg) only to have the stone thrower cry out in pain and say that the statue threw the stone back at him. The narrator laughs this away, but on seeing the statue up close he is not so sanguine. The form and body are magnificent, but its face is something else entirely:

As for the face, I should never be able to express its strange character; it was of quite a different type from that of any other antique statue I could remember. It was not at all the calm and austere beauty of the Greek sculptors, whose rule was to give a majestic immobility to every feature. Here, on the contrary, I noticed with astonishment that the artist had deliberately set out to express ill nature raised to the level of wickedness. Every feature was slightly contracted: the eyes were rather slanted, the mouth turned up at the corners, and the nostrils somewhat distended. Disdain, irony, cruelty, could be distinguished in that face which was, notwithstanding, of incredible beauty. Indeed, the longer one looked at that wonderful statue, the more distress one felt at the thought that such a marvelous beauty could be united with an utter absence of goodness.1 

Unfortunately Monsieur de Peyrehorade's empty-headed and unlikable son Alphonse, in a hurry to beat some rivals in tennis, makes the mistake of putting his wedding ring on the statue's hand; the son claims that he can't play tennis while wearing it. When Alphonse tries to retrieve the ring, after the wedding, the statue has closed its hand around the ring. That night something heavy climbs the stairs of the house and gets into bed with Alphonse and his wife. In the morning Alphonse is found crushed to death. The wife claims that she saw the statue embracing her husband, but she has gone mad and no one believes her. Alphonse's mother, Madame de Peyrehorade, never liked the statue, and after Monsieur de Peyrehorade passes away she has the statue melted down and made into a church bell, but even that does not help: “Since that bell is rung at Ille, the vines have twice been nipped by frost.”2 

Although “The Venus of Ille” is described as horror, it may be that Mérimée intended it as a conte cruel (see: “The Torture of Hope”). “The Venus of Ille” certainly repeats the traditional conte cruel message of the mercilessness of fate and the meaninglessness of man's position in the universe. “The Venus of Ille” is not particularly frightening, but it is well-written. Mérimée is a good storyteller, and "The Venus of Ille" will make readers want to search out other works by him. The story has a matter-of-fact tone which works well with the supernatural ending. Mérimée's knowledge of the Greek and Roman past gives a welcome context to the statue. Finally, even though it is a bronze statue, the Venus is an excellent example of the nineteenth century Fatal Woman.

The fundamental indecisiveness of the tale caters to Mérimée’s penchant for subverting readers’ expectations and leaving endings inconclusive. Ultimately a whole series of oppositions pitting pagan against Christian, past against present, rational against irrational, and love against death is left fundamentally unresolved, which makes La Vénus d’Ille strangely disturbing reading even today.3 

“The Venus of Ille” is not in the upper rank of best and creepiest horror stories, it is certainly entertaining and well worth searching out.

Recommended Edition

Print: Italo Calvino, ed., Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.



1 Prosper Mérimée, “Venus of Ille,” in Tales for a Stormy Night (Cincinatti: R. Clark, 1891), 131-132.

2 Mérimée, “Venus of Ille,” 173.

3 Carpenter, ”Prosper Mérimée,” 201.