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Reviews (FJM)

from Reviews (FJM)
concerning Les Mille-et-un fantômes : Une Journeé à Fontenay-aux-Roses

     Horror at Fontenay (Une Journeé à Fontenay-aux-Roses), translated and adapted by Alan Hull Watson who has also translated De Sade and Huysmans, is really a sort of Decameron of horror stories, told over dinner. It begins with Dumas taking a day's hunting at the village of Fontenay. Dumas is attracted to a commotion at the Mayor's house, and finds a quarry worker, Jaquemin, at the Mayor's gate trying to get himself arrested for murdering his wife. At first he is not believed, but, so terrified is Jaquemin, that an investigation is launched. Dumas tags along. Jaquemin leads them to the cellar of his home, where he displays to all doubters the beheaded body of his wife. Dumas, along with others witness the confession. As a legal witness Dumas is requested to remain until official documents can be drawn up. To make the wait more comfortable Mayor Ledru, who has heard of Dumas, invites him to stay to dinner. The Mayor is occupying a house that once belonged to Scarron, the poet and playwright, whose wife eventually married Louis XIV. The Mayor has some rather eccentric other guests for dinner. Remarkable among them is Aliette a very old man who claims to have lived for hundreds of years like the Wandering Jew. The discussion turns to the events of the day. Jaquemin had insisted that after he sliced off her head, his wife's head rebuked him. This Doctor Robert, who is a tough minded materialist, insists is physically impossible, whereupon Mayor Ledru, himself a doctor, disputes this based on an event that happened to him personally during the Revolutionary Terror, and of experiments he was conducting at the time. This story is rather unforgettable, but as I can hardly tell it without giving away the plot, I cannot say too much more. No supernatural explanation is required here. The question is does life persist, and if so, for how long after the head is severed? Not something easily determined without an experiment not easily repeated.
     Mayor Ledru's story is followed by that of a Scotch Judge who is haunted by the ghost of a man he had hanged. The ghost first appears in the form of a black cat, and later as a gentleman usher. The cat is visible to the judge but no one else.
     Then there is a macabre story that involves the desecration of the Royal Tombs at Saint Denis, just after Marie Antoinette's Execution. This was an event that I was unaware of, although I've always fancied I had a pretty good knowledge of the period surrounding the Terror. It was decided to dig up the bodies of the Kings and rebury them in a common tomb, to remove all traces of royalty in France. Henry IV emerged in rather good shape, even as to his beard. But one of the workman, drunk and obstreperous, yanks the beard off. This annoys the other workmen who still had a high regard for Henry, as a good king. The workman is cursed, and Dumas traces his undoing with great precision.
     There are two more stories, and finally a vampire story. Of these, the vampire story is the best. Interestingly, the vampire seems to have been a vampire even before his death, and a very evil person to boot. He casts no shadow. He is eventually forced back into his grave by his older half brother.
     Although I am not a great afficianado of the horror story, I've read my share. These stories by Dumas are unusual in several respects, and very effective. First of all, they do not conform to the usual horror story formula we've come to know so well, i.e. someone like Doctor Frankenstein is conducting an experiment he shouldn't be meddling in. This formula sort of gives many horror stories a sort of moral stance usually directed against science, or in some instances a refusal to believe in the occult. Dumas avoids this cliché, either deliberately, or perhaps because he was working too fast, or because this formula was not established very well at the time this book was written. There is horror aplenty in these stories, and they are told in a vivid, chilling, often cinematic style, with plenty of dialogue and well visualized dramatic action. They compare favorably with anything written in the genre up to that time that I know of including Poe. In fact they make excellent reading even today. They are not stories you will soon forget. They have all the qualities of vivid nightmare that is the hallmark of effective horror. I recommend it to anyone who likes a good shudder, and the book deserves to be better known, while the stories should be included in any anthology of the genre.

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