Horror and noir writers should note this book and steal from it. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” offers a thousand horrors, perversities, and abominations, any one of which another writer might put at the center of an entire novel. Cannibalism and incest are only the tip of the iceberg, and in this book the icebergs kill people, too.
I was talking with a friend recently about a type of fiction that could be called the “genre of unremittingly bleak,” i.e., books like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Nelson Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” books that relentlessly present a world without hope or redemption. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” may be the world champion in the genre of unremittingly bleak.
It is the story of a medieval expedition sent by the Catholic church to make contact with the colonies on Greenland, who no one had heard from in many decades. The tone is set by the orders from the church to the leader of the expedition, which include this litany:
For every offence you will determine the proper manner of death: the stake, the wheel, the head vise, drawing and quartering, the slow hanging, suspension from the feet or carnal parts (only for men, since the female constitution does not lend itself to it), immersion in oil, or stoning… You will disdain, as too expeditious or indeed too gentle, the use of poison, fit only for politics; the sword, which turns the criminal into a gentleman; drowning, which, in those climes, will cause the condemned to expire of the cold ere he can experience the suffocation; or the beer funnel, for not only will intoxication muffle the pain, but it is also a waste of a scarce commodity and abases the executioner to the vile office of a common inn keeper.
The journey to Greenland is terrible. When the voyagers arrive they find, and become part of, a tiny group of people driven by famine, disease, and unremitting cold into a sordid condition where unthinkable acts have become commonplace. All of it is described in a quick style, with exceedingly elegant prose.
You also can see in the section quoted above the book’s dark humor, which many reviewers have commented on in glowing terms and is the book’s saving grace. Is the saving grace enough to save the book? My feelings about this are…mixed. The Voyage of the Short Serpent offers no light of decency or love amid the darkness, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and not even much attempt is made to develop characters. But if you accept the book on its own terms, it is fairly extraordinary. Arguably, the book’s main character and interest is its own relentless expression of a certain tone and voice of horror and black (like, black hole black) humor. The first encounter with Greenland’s native people goes like this:
It was on the fifth day of Lent that, in the freezing cold, we caught sight of two gnomes clad in oilskins which seemed somehow to attach them to small skiffs, which they maneuvered with paddles through the labyrinths of ice. They were clearly not our Christians, and we killed them with a couple of well-aimed arrows.
No more is said of the two unfortunate gnomes. You might need night vision goggles to detect the humor in this. The humor it has arises from the narrator’s breezy tone, which contrasts uncomfortably with the grand treatment we might expect to be granted to the first encounter with an alien culture. And also from the narrator’s (most of the book is written in the form of a letter from the expedition leader) medieval Catholic morality. It’s a kind of morality that doesn’t sit well with modern expectations anyway (the flippant murder of the native people is only the beginning), and then it becomes increasingly twisted and convoluted in the extreme circumstances of the Greenland colonies. (Accustomed to burning sinners at the stake, the book’s narrator finds there’s no wood available on Greenland, and so he has to “employ a mixture of peat and seal-oil to burn the accused.”)
I wasn’t able to find much comment on the historical accuracy of the book; maybe someone with better French and/or Googling skills can help. But I’d guess that a great deal of the book is taken directly from history, because so much of what happens is so ludicrously awful that it’s hard to imagine anyone making it up whole cloth. It’s a powerful reminder that human life and human pain were, by necessity, measured differently in medieval times. And also that you don’t have to imagine a sci-fi post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario to find conditions where society will degenerate abominably.
“The Voyage of the Short Serpent” won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise. It was Bernard du Boucheron’s first novel. He is described as “a major figure in French and international aeronautics and engineering.”