Doctor LerneBy Maurice Renard (Black Coat Press; 2010)

Here we have the first-ever unexpurgated English language version of French maestro Maurice Renard’s 1908 masterpiece DOCTOR LERNE, SUB-GOD. It’s the first entry in Black Coat Press’ five volume compendium of Renard’s “Scientific Marvel Fiction,” translated by science fiction legend Brian Stableford. Also contained in this book is Renard’s 1905 novella “Mr. Dupont’s Vacation” and his 1909 manifesto “Scientific Marvel Fiction and its Effect on The Consciousness of Progress.”

The essay is about as exciting as its title implies. As for the mildly diverting “Mr. Dupont’s Vacation,” a potboiler about Dinosaurs loose on a tropical island, it’s essentially what you’d expect from a writer who, as Stableford concedes in his introduction, was “feeling his way” at the time he wrote it, and had yet to attain his full powers.

That’s definitely not true, however, of DOCTOR LERNE, SUB-GOD, a first-rate chunk of speculative delirium that takes the raw materials of H.G. Wells’ ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (Renard begins the book with a lengthy dedication to Wells) and spins an altogether unique and bizarre account that anticipates the work of David Cronenberg.

The tale is framed by a séance held by a group of partiers, one of whom is moved to write the following by a force outside himself (a device that makes sense after reading the remainder of the novel). That story-within-a-story is told by the naive Nicolas Vermont, who’s been summoned to visit his uncle Lerne, a renowned surgeon living in a secluded forest compound.

Investigating the place, Nicolas stumbles upon unsavory genetic experiments carried out by his uncle that involve plants and animals grafted together. Nicolas also falls in love with Lerne’s hot young GF Emma–which Lerne, as you might guess, is none too happy about. Before long Nicolas receives first-hand knowledge of his uncle’s experiments when a peeved Lerne grafts Nicolas’ head onto the body of a bull!

And the madness doesn’t end there. The real object of Lerne’s experimentation, it transpires, isn’t mere tissue grafting but mind control. Lerne demonstrates this when Nicolas (his head having been put back on his old body) has sex with Emma, unaware that Lerne is using his nephew’s body as a conduit to test out his telepathic powers.

DOCTOR LERNE, SUB-GOD probably won’t raise many eyebrows today with its chaste, non-explicit descriptions, but for a novel initially published back in 1908 its shock, horror and sheer perversity are downright mind-blowing. The sexual content in particular was unprecedented for the time, and must have scandalize readers of the time–even French readers (at least one of the sex scenes was omitted from the original 1924 English translation).

Beyond that the tale works simply because it’s compact and well-told. Constructed as a straightforward mystery, the narrative is consistently surprising and suspenseful, and packed with unforgettable imagery: rabbit ears grafted onto a plant stem, a frog with tree roots for legs, a possessed automobile that shifts gears and honks its horn seemingly by itself. Quite an arresting and fascinating book, this, and certainly one of the premiere literary excavations of recent years.