Claude Seignolle was a French folklorist and his story “The Ghoulbird” reflects his interest in peasant superstitions.
An author marginalized by a dearth of English-language translators of his work, as well as by the fantastic content of his fables, which puts him at odds with those who do not see fantastic literature as ‘serious’ literature, Seignolle is famous for recording the storytelling traditions of the peasants of Languedoc, Berry, Provence, Sologne, and Hurepoix. Though his stories are thrilling, his primary goal was to record the vanishing storytelling traditions of the French peasantry. The result was a body of work that recorded these superstitious stories with a certain nostalgia for residual forms of culture not entirely lost in the modern era.
At least one of Seignolle’s works, Invitation au château de l’étrange, has been lightly criticized for being less of a historian’s account than the work of a storyteller, a conteur (Faivre 218). Indeed, Eric H. Deudon states there are two kinds of Seignolle story: a old fashioned fable, as told by peasants, and a more modern kind of story centred around a contemporary protagonist who has an encounter with the fabulous (123). It is under this last category that “The Ghoulbird” falls.
Michel Rancourt, in his thesis at McGill University, has called Seignolle’s work an example of “le ‘Fantastique quotidien‘,” a term that can be translated “the everyday fantastic.” Laurence Durrell has commented on how “matter-of-fact” his depiction of the supernatural is.
Along similar lines, Deudon says that Seignolle writes about a devil torn between his diabolic and human nature (“un diable déchiré entre sa nature diabolique et sa condition humaine”). Indeed, one of his stories, “Le Diable en sabots” (“The Devil in Clogs”), is about the devil appearing as a mundane blacksmith in a French village. Some of this sensibility, in which the fantastic meets the everyday, bleeds into “The Ghoulbird.”
The narrator, a visitor at Guernipin, a manor house in the French countryside, peruses the zoological collection of Geoffrey de la Tribaldière, the lord of the manor. As a specialist in birds who appears knowledgeable about the peasant superstitions surrounding them, Tribaldière can be thought of as a stand-in for the Seignolle as a folklorist.
Since childhood, Tribaldière has collected specimens on countless animals and insects. A septuagenarian, he speaks with nostalgia about his hunting days. One creature has, however, eluded him: the Ghoulbird, a creature whose song on a full moon night lures people to the marsh to be drowned and devoured. At the mention of it, Sylvain, a servant to Tribaldière who appears to have a trace of Moorish blood, steps away fearfully.
Also known also as the Shrikedeath of Brittany and the Dreadfowl of Normandy, the Ghoulbird is one of several “protean creatures spawned by the popular imagination in days of yore, brewed by the peasants’ gullible minds during troubled nights.” It is a residual belief, once widespread, that fewer and fewer people believe—and yet those who still believe it do so with a holy terror.
The narrator has the enthusiasm of a tourist: he wants to listen to the Ghoulbird’s song himself. In this respect, he is a very modern character, an easy stand-in for the reader. However, Sylvain warns him that voicing a wish to hear the Ghoulbird, especially on a full moon night, is a bad, bad idea. To hear its song is to surrender one’s will to it and let it lead you on a sleepwalker’s journey to the marshes and to a drowning death.
Sure enough, the protagonist is called during the night by this “bird of Hell.” However, it turns out that the Ghoulbird, which can assume the form of any bird, is actually the creature who warns the victims of a deeper, more ancient entity that lures folk to their doom. The marsh harbours “an invisible ravenous monster, survivor of the times when dark powers ruled under the subtlest forms!” Peasant superstition is simply a misapprehension of a still more terrible reality, an atavistic creature from the edge of deep time predating upon humans.
This sense of deep time and unknown terrors is what lifts the story from a horror or ghost story into a weird tale.
If the Ghoulbird is indeed a residual belief from the time of the Moors in Southern France, the naming of the bird can be seen as referring to belief in ghouls. In Arabic folklore, a ghoul is a cannibalistic creature who lures travellers to their doom, dwelling either in graveyards or sandy wastelands. The marsh of Gobble-Ox where the Ghoulbird lives, while not exactly a grave site or desert, is nonetheless a place where the dead drown and are eaten. It is a wetter version of the ghoul’s traditional domain. In fact, if the ancient thing that dwells in the marsh could be given a name, one might call it a “ghoul.”
Returning to A. Faivre’s criticism that Seignolle has occasionally favoured storytelling over a strictly historical approach, this twist to the story could be seen as an example of his tendency to creatively adapt the folktales he collected. Italo Calvino also took some creative liberties in writing his Italian Folktales, staying truthful to them for the most part, but occasionally combining several versions into one, or taking other creative decisions. Seignolle’s story is not a direct retelling in any case, since it contains a modern protagonist as the narrator. However, he does imaginatively explore what ancient truths might lie behind the origins of the stories he collected, contributing his own ideas to the legend of the Ghoulbird.
Unfortunately, folklorists of the past have been known to embellish or tame the stories for their readership—think of the Brothers Grimm and Galland’s Thousand and One Nights. However, Seignolle has not sought to distort the stories he wrote about or fix them in time. He has done more than simply preserve the stories, like the insects Tribaldière keeps secured away in his matchboxes. Instead, he gives them new life by adapting them.
After all, a story only dies when it is no longer retold.
I hope you will join me next week for my reading of “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be” by Gahan Wilson (1967).
Deudon, Eric H. “Renaissance du Conte Fantastique Audjourd’hui: Claude Seignolle.” Romance Notes, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall 1980, 122-125. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43801679
Faivre, A. “Invitation au château de l’étrange par Claude Seignolle.” Revue de l’histoire des religions, vol. 180, no. 2, Octobre-Décembre 1971, 218. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23668072
Rancourt, Michel. L’Etrange, dans l’oeuvre romanesque de Claude Seignolle. 1976. McGill University, Master’s thesis.
Note to reader: In an earlier version of this post, I got carried away, imagining parallels between “The Ghoulbird” and Annihilation that Jeff VanderMeer told me on Twitter were “off-base.” I also did not give enough space to discussing the story itself. Sometimes I mess up. Sorry about that. I hope the current version of this post rectifies this.