Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mathematic Conte-Cruel

I just finished an old collection of stories by Stanley Weinbaum, A Martian Odyssey and Other Classics of Science Fiction, edited by Sam Moskowitz and published back in 1962, (a “Limited Edition” from The Lancer Science Fiction Library).  It is an excellent selection of the author’s work; in my view, Weinbaum, along with David H. Keller, were two of the more talented science fiction writers of the 1930s.  Regrettably, Weinbaum’s promising career as a science fiction writer ended prematurely with his death in 1935—just a year and a half or so after publication of his first story in the genre, the classic A Martian Odyssey.

The last item in the Weinbaum collection is Brink of Infinity (1936), a conte-cruel—useful term!—though nothing very terrible happens to the narrator of the story.  Nevertheless, it contains several elements, in much subdued form, that would be familiar to present day fans of slasher films, with the exception that the intended victim is not a beautiful woman or a teenager—he is a middle-aged mathematician—and the weapon is not some type of blade.  Other elements of the typical slasher film, (a subset of conte-cruel), that are present in nascent form in Brink of Infinity include an isolated location, a psychotic and deformed villain, and a desperate use of wits to defeat the tormentor.  

Contemporary examples of conte cruel would include the films collectively labelled “torture porn” though some of these, like the horror film franchise Saw (2004), contain elements of morality and purposefulness that underlie the mayhem.  It may be that films that disproportionately emphasize gruesome special effects over theme or plot most approach conte-cruel; indeed, spectacularly gory special effects in contemporary films recall the late nineteenth century French Théatre du Grand Guignol, where many of the tropes still popular in horror films were developed along with elaborate stage tricks.

With respect to the older horror and fantasy literature typically discussed here, many of Saki’s darkly humorous short stories would fit into the category of conte-cruel, (see also 3. The Wolf as Juvenile Delinquent), as well as the work of Ambrose Bierce, (see The Damned Thing versus The Lurking Fear) This material is elevated above the level of mere fascination with morbidity and violence by the presence of intended farce and satire.  An excellent and entertaining example of this literature is Saki’s, The Story Teller (1913), in which the form of a moralistic fairy tale is upended to tell “an improper story”.  

Conte-cruel is one of those words that mysteriously find you just when you are struggling to label a phenomenon—in this case extreme, random, and meaningless violence presented as horror entertainment—and need a precise term.  I ran across this word some time ago; S.T. Joshi had used it dismissively when reviewing one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser collaborations, possibly the 1932 story, The Man of Stone (see Lovecraft as Shudder Pulp Writer:The Diary of "M...). 

The word conte-cruel has an interesting etymology involving Edgar Allan Poe, his pervasive influence on certain French authors of the mid nineteenth century, and the concept’s reintroduction to America—via Ambrose Bierce and his colleagues as well as Poe earlier—through the translated works of Baudelaire and Villiers, the latter having produced a collection of stories demonstrating the concept, Contes cruels (1883). 

According to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) conte-cruel fiction has been described as being typically devoid of supernatural elements and including a surprise twist at the end, in which the victim turns the table on his or her tormentor, or at least seems to for a time.  But even Villiers' work and much subsequent horror entertainment of this kind have included a mix of realistic and fantastic elements, as in the character of Michael Myers in the horror film franchise Halloween (1978), among many examples.

In Brink of Infinity, an aggrieved madman, horribly disfigured by an industrial chemistry experiment gone awry, holds all mathematicians responsible for his plight.  The narrator is captured and imprisoned by the maniac, who then challenges him to solve a mathematical riddle:  identify out of the infinite number of possibilities, the single numerical expression he is thinking of.  Or face certain death.  The narrator has ten questions he can ask over the next five days to narrow the options.  Until he can solve the riddle, the madmen holds him a gunpoint and locks him in a study to work on the problem.  It is implied that the narrator is not the first mathematician to endure—or rather, not endure—this predicament.

The rest of the story takes the reader through the narrator’s thinking process as he exhausts the ten questions.  Weinbaum’s tale is actually a reworking of an earlier story by George Allan England, The Tenth Question (1915), which Weinbaum’s widow claimed was written to amuse her and not originally intended for publication, (Brink of Infinity was published posthumously).

Though the setup is preposterous, the story is still oddly satisfying.  The villain has after all provided the narrator and the reader with what amounts to a brainteaser, and the reader will want to know the solution by the end of the story.  The narrator’s incarceration by a gun wielding maniac soon becomes irrelevant to this more engaging project.  Moskowitz noted that Brink of Infinity was “undeniably one of the most cleverly presented pieces of light entertainment ever written about what is essentially a mathematical abstraction.”
Surely the concept conte-cruel is much older than Poe or Villiers or the Grand Guignol, given human nature and its propensity for carnage, necessary or otherwise.  I cannot be the only one who notices the resemblance between conte-cruel imagery in film and fiction and the grotesque, almost artistic violence perpetrated recently by individuals and terrorist groups, both here and abroad.  I am not making the tiresome and false argument that violence in various media causes violence in certain segments of the population, only noting the queasy correlation between these reprehensible acts and their expression in contemporary horror entertainment, which is the documentation of our social nightmares. 

The current popularity of conte-cruel imagery in fiction and film, especially among young people seems related to the increasing conspicuousness of senseless acts of mayhem in the news.  Perhaps such acts manifest—for the fanatical and the mentally ill—what readers and viewers can experience vicariously in the conte-cruel.  Or perhaps the subgenre provides catharsis for our fear and rumination about the possibility of sudden, violent, meaningless death.


  1. Very insightful post. It brings up something which I am fascinated with and that is the link between what a society fears and the stories they tell about it. You can nearly always find what a society collectively fears by looking at their literature, films, music, and art throughout history. Such things evolve over time and some people, like Weinbaum, are prescient in their horror stories.

    As for the concept of Conte-Cruel in our current culture, I am what they call a "millenial" (I hate that term) and I have never really found value in the slasher or torture movies/books that have been popular since the 1980's. Such films have been around for awhile, of course, but didn't gain the popularity they enjoy until then. I feel like much of that popularity owes itself to the modern iunderstanding of the serial killer, a term not coined until the 1970's, and their cultural impact as they gained more exposure on the news. Of course people like that have been around forever and likely helped form the ideas Weinbaum employs in his story.I myself find no entertainment in watching or reading about people suffering. However, it's important to note that bloody entertainment has been around since humans have been able to think about entertaining themselves.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    You may be interested in an article by Mark Seltzer, excerpted in Ken Gelder's The Horror Reader, (2000)--"Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Culture". I discuss this--and probably don't do it justice--in an earlier post about Monsterology.

    He elaborates on what you suspect about the evolution of this phenomenon in the 70s.

    Thanks for visiting!

  3. Thank you for replying!

    I will check out the "Serial Killer's, Death and Life in American Culture." I briefly considered a career in abnormal psychology with an emphasis on criminal psychology but I realized I could not work with people who would inflict that kind of harm on another person. So, my interest is mostly academic these days.

    I feel like I should clarify that when I said I find no entertainment in people suffering, I was specifically referring to movies and books who linger too long on torture, etc, like Saw or Hostel. I much prefer to let my imagination fill in the blanks for me. That's one of the reason's Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors.

  4. I pretty much feel the same way. "Less is more" when it comes to graphic violence in horror entertainment.

    Its fairly easy to depict violence in text or film, but a really skilled author can have his or her readers do the imaginary work of filling in the rest of the scene.

    Unfortunately, "more is more" in the real world, where violence interacts with celebrity, politics, economic desperation, and hatred.

  5. So the film Martyrs would not be conte cruel because there is a reason for the torture but the book The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum would be because there isn't a real rhyme or reason to her torment?
    (I know I've come to the party a year too late but I just found this phrase and I'm a little obsessed)

  6. Your comments are still welcome, even a year later! I am not sure that the presence or absence of purposefulness in the cruelty depicted defines conte cruel. Some stories may involve a cruel or accidental fate, but often it seems the twist at the end is very meaningful, though ironic. A classic short story of this type is Saki's "The Interlopers"--several of his fall into or near this category.


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