Dedalus Books and the translators of this anthology are to be commended. Many of these short stories and novelettes are clearly receiving their first English translation. However, I am perturbed by the fact that the editor, and I really don't understand the reason for it, decided to incorporate extracts or samples of these stories rather than the complete works. It seems like a wasted effort on the translator's part when only a few selected chapters with omitted sections (marked as [...] within the text) are featured. Consequently, I had a hard time understanding the characters and following the narrative of some of these sliced-and-diced stories. That is why I must give this book 3 stars.
I assume excerpting is a choice that the editor made due to the length of each story. But I don't see why Dedalus couldn't just publish all of the stories as full versions. It would be more enjoyable to read them uncut and intact. I imagine fans of decadent literature would also appreciate having the full-length translations of these stories. Perhaps the editor is at fault for this. After all, Kirsten Lodge didn't resort to slicing and dicing in her The Dedalus Book of Russian Decadence: Perversity, Despair and Collapse. I also don't think there was any reason to include an excerpt of Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs" here, when the full translated version has already been published many times. Twisted Spoon Press had the right idea of translating the whole of Paul Leppin's Blaugast: A Novel of Decline, which, in my opinion, cannot be understood and appreciated as a 14-page extract (as it appears in this anthology).
For those interested, these are the following works in this book that are completely translated with no omissions:
Georg Trakl's "Desolation" - It's only a few pages long, but the three little vignettes are haunting. Trakl evokes a dark and melancholy atmosphere of a ruined castle, courtyard, and park. A count awaits his own dissolution in the castle's decaying tower. Trakl, according to the editor, is like "Poe filtered, as it were, through Mallarme."
Georg Heym's "The Autopsy" - This 3-page juxtaposition of the grotesque and the beautiful is a poetic gem. Heym describes the scene of a dead man whose consciousness dwells on romantic love and poppy fields while doctors cut into his corpse and remove organs: "And the dead man quivered gently with bliss on his white mortuary table as the metal chisels in the hands of the doctors broke open the bones of his temples." It's graphic and memorable.
Thomas Mann's "The Blood of the Wälsungs" (1906) - Mann's weird little drama centers on two snobby, narcissistic, incestuous twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. Mann clearly parallels the suggested incest in Wagner's Die Walküre by naming the twins after the opera's characters. There are occasional depictions of their sexual intimacy, but nothing pornographic. I liked the story mainly because of the believable and bizarre personalities of the Aarenhold house. The dinner scene is both eerie and comical.
Stanislaus Przybyszewski's "Androgyne" - The premise of the story is simple and appropriately decadent: the narrator develops a mind-rending obsession to find the woman who left him a bouquet of flowers. Przybyszewski's prose is stunning, mystical, surrealistic, although at times a bit too drenched in hyperbole and metaphor. The narrator enters a series of bizarre dreams that reflect his yearning for this woman. He encounters nightmares with crucifixions and orgies, apocalyptic dreams of chaotic storms obliterating the earth; the final dream takes place in a dreary necropolis where the narrator forms a mystical union with his beloved.
Peter Hille's "Herodias" - A mildly-interesting 4-page novelette based on Salome. Hille begins with the heading, "Guilty silence!" and tinkers with giving the notorious femme fatale a conscience: having John the Baptist's head leaves her feeling empty, unsatisfied, and contemplating meeting John after death.
Here are the other stories, represented as excerpts and replete with exclusions of text:
Hanns Heinz Ewers's "Alraune" (1911) - Ewers is better known as a precursor of horror than a decadent, but he certainly mixes both elements together in "Alraune," which strikes me as an original and compelling work. It draws upon "Frankenstein" and the concept of creating a monster, but in Ewers's twist, the monster is a grossly evil woman: she spent her childhood in a convent telling bed-ridden sick children that they would all die and go to hell; she encouraged one boy to stick "red hot needles into the eyes of a mole." It gets worse when she reaches adolescence and blooms into the femme fatale of all femme fatales. A parent's worst nightmare, Alraune makes Damien and Carrie look like the Brady Bunch. In the nearly 50-page excerpt, Ewers touches on vampirism, sadism, and pedophilia.
Arthur Holitscher's "The Poisoned Well" (1900) - It might have impressed me more if it wasn't so disjointed as an excerpt. Basically, it is a story of a man, Sebastian Sasse, who is lured and enchanted by Desiree, a femme fatale. The narrative is difficult to follow, weaving in and out of fantasies, dreams, and abruptly-ending scenes. Holitscher borrows from Huysmans in his descriptions of excess, lavish parties, and extravagantly decorated halls and rooms. The animosity between Sasse and Desiree's black cat is the most page-turning aspect here. Of course, I can't pass judgment since half of the story seems omitted.
Kurt Martens' "A Novel in the Age of Decadence" (1898) - I found this one a little tepid. A man attends a party where the host has promised to kill himself. At one point, it reads more like a mystery novel than anything else; again, I cannot judge the merits of Martens or his novel by reading only a sample.
Herman Bahr's "The School of Love" (1890) - This one is only slightly intriguing because of the protagonist's deranged longings and contemplations of love and women: "Women made one unclean. Being with them made the soul dirty."
Bottom line: This anthology is only for the decadent completist. There is very little here worth reading unless you love decadent literature. I do, but I personally am not satisfied with reading excerpts. I suppose this anthology contains some of the only English translations of Holitscher, Bahr, Martens, and Przybyszewski, so I'd recommend it if you're interested in these obscure fellows. If you are interested in either Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs" or Paul Leppin's "Blaugast," which are decadent classics, I advise seeking the full translations here: Venus in Furs (Penguin Classics) | Blaugast: A Novel of Decline). Ewers's "Alraune" is harder to find, but Joe E. Bandel has recently translated it and is selling it as e-book on his website.