I was looking for a book to read that I could use to update my
Horror Index Page, as have been diligent of late to add
a new book to each of my 100-plus indices. As I read the description of this one, I thought "aha!" this is perfect. Fantômas sounds like
The Phantom of the Opera, or even
or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
He is a ruthless murderer, but even more, he is a master of disguise (even better
than The Jackal!), and an escape artist par excellence. He seems to be everywhere at once, making
the crimes he commits appear unconnected. That is, to everyone but the detective, Juve, who is determined to catch him once and for all. I am not one
for gory and perverted crimes, so I wondered how I would react.
Well, as it turned out, this one won't go on the Horror page. Sorry, but I was just not horrified. Yes, the crimes are heinous, but gosh, the book is just too damn amusing to get wrapped up in the disgusting activity. The constant changes of identity is what I found fascinating, and not only Fantômas, but Juve and other characters. It was classified as pulp fiction, beloved by the French when the first volume appeared in 1911 (translated into English in 1915, and 31 more were on their way, one per month) by two "ordinary" journalists, Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Here's a definition for "pulp fiction:" "Pulp fiction refers to a genre of racy, action-based stories published in cheaply printed magazines from around 1900 to the 1950s, mostly in the United States. Pulp fiction gets its name from the paper it was printed on."
But it was also considered surreal, and I think because it is SO surreal, one cannot take it seriously. In fact, the activities of Fantômas are outrageous and unbelievable. He is capable of doing anything and getting away with it. So, therefore, I was embarrassed to find it not only amusing but comical, when I was supposed to be shaking in terror, heart pounding, with goosebumps and spine tingles to complete the effect. Fortunately, the Good Readers at Goodreads had a lot to say about this one, some also commenting on its humorous nature.
I was also delighted to find that this volume and four more have been translated into English and are available for free at Project Gutenberg! Yep, I will certainly add them to my voluminous eBook collection, but I wonder if after reading five, they will not become boring. I mean, the crimes will be different, but the theme is the same. Juve spends his life tracking down Fantômas, but never catches him.
Here is the Wikipedia page, and here is the official Fantômas website, and apparently, as of yet, only those first five issues have been translated into English. I do actually own the Dover paper copy. I bought it back in 2012 before I started collecting eBooks. But since these five are available for free, I recommend downloading them. This first one, at least, was not the least bit difficult to read, like some mysteries, but we already know beforehand that Fantômas is the guilty one. For helpers, this Dover edition lists him and the main characters, and also names some of those whom Fantômas impersonates. And to make matters even more fun, Juve is also a master of disguise, often appearing as a bum or a disreputable person when he is undercover. But I found I was able to figure things out before they were presented in the book, except for one other person in disguise, who really surprised me, and he was to be one of the main characters throughout the series. In any case, the whole reading experience was just downright fun. And even though it was not the thriller I expected, I still did not want to put it down.
Here's just a few other points of interest, then I will tell you a bit about the story, but in keeping with my policy for writing reviews on murder mysteries, I will keep it short and not give away more than necessary to whet your literary appetite. By the way, the cover on this book is the original design of the first edition based on a poster for the first Fantômas serial by Louis Feuillade. Here are some quotes from the Introduction to the Dover Edition, which by the way is now only available as an eBook. DO NOT pay for it. Get it free from Project Gutenberg. I'm sure the paper book is available at Amazon or other used book sellers if you want the Dover edition for the additional commentary, which is helpful. This quote refers to the thrillers the French readers loved.
They were not disappointed: treated to brutal murders and spectacular crimes on the pages within, the exploits of the villain continued to shock and delight over a course of thirty-two consecutive novels. Fantômas poisons a baroness with opium-laced black roses. He leaves severed hands scattered about a Monte Carlo casino. His bandits crash a city bus to pull off a dazzling heist. He places a double-crossing minion face up in a guillotine to witness his own execution. He releases plague-infested rats on ocean liners, withholding the serum for himself as he watches the infected passengers writhe in agony.
None of those crimes, however, happen in this edition, so that's not a spoiler. Some of the reviewers
at Goodreads commented that they were unable to understand his motives for killing, but that's just the point. Psychopathic killers kill because they
enjoy it, and the commentary has been made in serious conversations also, about what is happening now 0n the planet with these killer vaccines which are really
bioweapons and the people that are promoting them as safe. And not all of the crimes committed by Fantômas are murders. He sometimes is just a thief, but
makes himself known to the victims to torture them with fear.
The Dover edition continues to add the number of other artists influenced by Fantômas, especially those whose genre was avant-garde and surrealism. Numerous films were also adapted to these stories. Both the Wikipedia page and the Fantômas website linked above supply a wealth of information. By looking at the pictures, I'll bet the films are scarier than the novels, although a couple are designated as comedies, so maybe not. The earliest films were silent and I'll bet there are some available to watch for free online. I will investigate.
Dover also mentions a bit about how so many novels were able to be produced in such a short amount of time, and they were all around 380 pages. (This edition is 297.) The two authors worked on chapters on their own, dictating them onto wax rolls for transcription, once they had outlined a general theme, then later tied them together. Wow! But the nature of the activities of Fantômas, who seems to be everywhere at once would allow it. The series "officially" ended in 1913. Souvestre died in 1914, but Allain later resurrected them into a number of other mediums until he died in 1969.
And now, I will just supply you with a bit on how the story begins:
"What did you say?"
"I said: Fantômas."
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing. . . . Everything!"
"But what is it?"
"Nobody. . . . And yet, yes, it is somebody!"
"And what does the somebody do?"
It is a cold late December, and the Marquise de Langrune is at her château of Beaulieu, where she spends ten months out of the year. She is a recluse, but has a circle of local friends that come to dinner every Wednesday. Tonight, assembled there, are President Bonnet, a retired magistrate and Abbé Sicot, the parish priest. Also included is Baronne de Vibray, a young and wealthy widow, and a woman of the world. And last, there are two young people, Thérèse Auvernois, the orphaned granddaughter of the Marquise who lives with her, age fourteen, and Charles Rambert, the eighteen-year-old son of a friend of the Marquise, Etienne Rambert, a wealthy landowner who spends most of his time in South America tending to his rubber plantations. He was to arrive at the château the next morning. He and his son barely know each other. He had also recently had Charles's mother, who was supposedly insane, put in an asylum. We'll see about that.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to the uncommon number of murders of late, and as the party leaves the dinner table, President Bonnet begins to speak in more detail, but still with hesitancy. It is Charles who brings up the name of Fantômas.
"That is what I am coming to, for, of course, you have understood me, ladies. In these days we have been distressed by a steady access of criminality, and among the assets we shall henceforth have to count a mysterious and most dangerous creature, to whom the baffled authorities and public rumour generally have for some time now given the name of Fantômas. It is impossible to say exactly or to know precisely who Fantômas is. He often assumes the form and personality of some definite and even well-known individual; sometimes he assumes the forms of two human beings at one and the same time. Sometimes he works alone, sometimes with accomplices; sometimes he can be identified as such and such a person, but no one has ever yet arrived at knowing Fantômas himself. That he is a living person is certain and undeniable, yet he is impossible to catch or to identify. He is nowhere and everywhere at once, his shadow hovers above the strangest mysteries, and his traces are found near the most inexplicable crimes, and yet——"
The Marquise urges the two young people to go play a new game that is in the library, after which, the
conversation is continued. It seems that yet another person has mysteriously disappeared—the English Lord Beltham, reported by his young wife, Lady Beltham,
known for her Christian compassion and charitable works. Hmm . . . . We'll see about that, too.
Eventually the Marquise tells Thérèse it is time for her to go to bed. But Charles sticks around, and seems very excited about Fantômas, to the point of seeming to praise him.
The president's manner grew steadily more chilly as the boy's curiosity waxed more enthusiastic, and he interrupted curtly.
"I fail to understand your attitude, young man. You appear to be hypnotised, fascinated. You speak of Fantômas as if he were something interesting. It is out of place, to put it mildly," and he turned to the Abbé Sicot. "There, sir, that is the result of this modern education and the state of mind produced in the younger generation by the newspaper press and even by literature. Criminals are given haloes and proclaimed from the housetops. It is astounding!"
But Charles Rambert was not the least impressed.
"But it is life, sir; it is history, it is the real thing!" he insisted. "Why, you yourself, in just a few words, have thrown an atmosphere round this Fantômas which makes him absolutely fascinating! I would give anything to have known Vidocq and Cartouche and Rocambole, and to have seen them at close quarters. Those were men!"
In any case, Charles requests that Thérèse accompany him to the railway station early the next morning, so the Marquise gives orders to have a carriage ready. I will skip some material here, which concerns Etienne boarding the slow train rather than the express, which later becomes an important point. Charles, by the way, had a restless night, and at one point remembers hearing something and even feeling something breathe on him. Anyways the two young friends decide to walk instead of taking the carriage, which will come along later. Etienne arrives, but the carriage doesn't, so the three walk back to the château. When they arrive, they learn that something terrible has happened overnight. The Marquise has been murdered—hacked to death in the most odious manner. That last sentence is probably redundant. Being hacked to death is always odious.
Of course the investigation begins and at that point, no one in the household is a suspect, yet it seems impossible that someone had been able to get into the château. The gendarmes bring in two tramps, one, a quiet, shady-looking fellow, and the other, a well-known and harmless local named Bouzille. Here's a bit of a spoiler—the first tramp is Juve in disguise, who, of course, is released, along with Bouzille. He, in fact, did steal a rabbit from someone else, but he's used to jail and likes the new one because it's much more comfortable. He also provides much of the comic relief throughout the story.
But it is later on that Etienne confronts his son, blaming him for the murder. Charles is speechless! Nevertheless, Etienne reminds him that his mother has mental problems, and he might have committed the crime without even realizing it. Thérèse overhears it (as she was meant to), and Charles becomes the main suspect (to all but Juve). Then father and son suddenly disappear.
Well, if that's not enough to get you inspired to read this book, then gosh, you probably won't! But I highly recommend you do, especially since you can read it for free! Whether you get goosebumps or chuckle over it, it is well worth reading!
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