UNTIL RECENTLY, it looked as though American readers had deliberately made up their minds not to respond to the work of Michel Tournier. In Europe, where Tournier is recognized as the major French novelist of the past 20 years (Janet Flanner praised his second novel, The Ogre, as "the most important book to come out of France since Proust"), his morally often uncomfortable works have aroused hot controversy and sold in the millions. But until the past year or so the U.S. editions, brought out in generally excellent translations by Doubleday, have lapsed into obscurity or gone out of print after selling only a few thousand copies.

The turning point seems to have been the fine appreciation of Tournier's work by Roger Shattuck, which appeared in The New York Review of Books in April 1983, some months after the American publication of his most accessible novel, The Four Wise Men (Doubleday). Since then, Pantheon Books has reissued The Ogre in its Modern Writers series; Friday, Tournier's superb Robinson Crusoe novel, will soon be published in a Vintage Aventura paperback edition; and Doubleday has now brought out The Fetishist, a collection of short stories.

As the title implies, an element of the perverse and the grotesque is dominant in the tales, as it is in Tournier's novels. Almost unanimously, the stories in The Fetishist explore the lives of characters who have been sent of the rails by natural instincts that have been bent or misfocused.

Although no indication is given of the order in which the stories were written, they grow more accomplished as the book progresses, and it seems likely that they are presented chronologically. From the first page, however, they deal with the ideas that fascinate Tournier the novelist. One of his favorite themes appears again and again: the powerful and destructive stress that nature inflicts on civilized pursuits, and the inversion of conventional values that tempts the special people who sense this tension too strongly.

In "Veronica's Shrouds," among the most successful stories in The Fetishist, a woman photographer becomes obsessed with Hector, a male model whose beauty exasperates her as "postcard stuff," a betrayal of the photographic art. She moves him into her house, and when the narrator visits her a year later he finds Hector much changed, the nature seemingly wrung out of him: "His rather childish, puppyish behavior, his splendid animal swagger, his sunny, optimistic efflorescence had all disappeared." He has become thin, angular and corpselike. Veronica, the photographer, defends the regimen she has forced upon him to bring about this change.

"He has become photogenic. And what does photogenesis consist of? It implies the possibility of producing photos that go beyond the real object. In vulgar terms, the photogenic man surprises people who, although they know him, are seeing his photos for the first time: They are more beautiful than he is, they seem to be revealing a beauty which had previously been hidden. But such photos do not reveal that beauty, they create it."

But still she is not satisfied. She begins to make "direct photographs" of Hector by saturating his body in a developing bath which corrodes his skin, then having him press himself against exposed photographic paper. Her final triumph over Hector's natural humanity is to wrap him in chemically treated linen shrouds to produce images of the entire surface of his body. It is implied that this finally kills him, and Veronica is last seen wearing around her neck a tooth on a leather thong which Hector had previously sported as a symbol of independence and harmony with nature.

BENEATH the surface of the story are many dark currents set in motion by Tournier's virtuosic use of symbols. There are countless references to religious fanaticism and the Spanish Inquisition, the eroticization of death a la Tristan, and the perversion of nature by technology. And all this in 12 pages.

By packing so much information into his work, Tournier reveals himself as a didactic writer, albeit one with a dark and irrational message. Even in his novels, he seems determined to include so much data, and to rivet it into the design of the book with such a plethora of symmetries, coincidences and bizarre plot devices, that his characters often seem more like prototypes, moving with the momentum of the ideas they embody, than like real people. Tournier's genius as a novelist keeps the books so Medusa- fascinating, however, that this shortcoming rarely intrudes.

In the stories, however, there is less room for such embellishment, and the lack of curvature in the way the characters are drawn becomes an impairment. Two short tales at the beginning of the book, "Amandine, or the Two Gardens," and "Prikli," dealing with children, are especially unconvincing. Both are about small children who get their first awareness of the irrational side of life, represented by sex, in abandoned gardens. No flashers or child-molesters appear on the scene; Tournier is after more metaphysical game. As little Amandine comes to the center of the walled-in and overgrown garden where she has followed her cat, she finds a ruined statue of Eros. Next to it is her cat:

"Kamicat is sitting under the dome. He lifts his head up to me. He is as silent as the stone boy. Like him, he has a mysterious smile. It looks as if they share the same secret, a rather sad and very sweet secret, and as if they would like to teach it to me. It's odd. Everything here is melancholy, the ruined pavilion, the ramshackle benches, the untamed lawn covered in wildflowers, and yet I feel full of joy. I want to cry, and yet I'm happy. How far away I am from Papa's well kept garden and Mama's well polished house. Shall I ever be able to go back to them?"

This articulate tot bears no resemblance to any living child. She's Innocence about to be lost, with gushy overtones of Sophie from Der Rosenkavalier. Prikli, the sexually confused little boy in the other early tale, has also become far more of a demonstration of thesis than a character by the time he meets his gruesome fate.

Like Thomas Pynchon, a writer whom he in some ways resembles, Tournier exploits the power that myths have as a form of history innately shared by everyone. But while Gravity's Rainbow gets much of its feeling of dream menace from its use of 20th-century pop myths like King Kong and The Wizard of Oz, Tournier's books draw on the resonance of biblical stories and saints' lives. One of Tournier's greatest strengths is his ability to amplify the shadowy feelings these references evoke in readers through his highly allusive writing style and his sense of design.

The Ogre, for example, is divided into six sections, each of which transforms and intensifies the content of its predecessor. As its densely factual narrative follows the novel's ex-gas-station-attendant hero eastward across the Third Reich, it generates supernatural and occult overtones. The coincidences and strange correspondences increase until the entire book begins to resonate with Tournier's implied visions of its story as a monstrous recasting of the Saint Christopher legend. Gemini (Doubleday) the cruelest and most disturbing of the novels, is almost plotless as it explores the metaphysics of identical twinship, its narrative a supersaturated solution of every imaginable form of symmetry and complementary relationship.

But to achieve these effects Tournier needs room, and this is just what the short story form denies him. It would probably be a mistake to approach his work by way of The Fetishist. These stories are best appreciated in light of the novels, and it is the reader who has already been admitted to Tournier's unique fictional world who will best appreciate them for the marvels of compression that they are. Barbara Wright has translated them wonderfully, and Doubleday is to be thanked for its continuing efforts to bring a great contemporary novelist to the attention of American readers.