Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Vampire of Ropraz

I get a special kick out of that authorial magic that updates an old genre while remaining chillingly true to its time-honored form. In Jacques Chessex's The Vampire of Ropraz, nominally a crime novel, since it is published by Bitter Lemon Press, the genre is horror.

Chessex's (and translator W. Donald Wilson's) little feat of alchemy is to be just a bit more explicit – all right, sometimes more than a bit – about hidden horrors and forbidden appetites than, say, Bram Stoker, while preserving the same sense of foreboding and isolation:

"Ropraz in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century. ... Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. ... You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the thief. ... In the remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy ... Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. ... But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. ... "
During the harsh winter of 1903, three women in the Swiss village of Ropraz are dug up from their graves, sexually assaulted, and horribly mutilated, and the search for suspects, narrated in spare prose, turns up fresh secrets and perversions. A suspect is arrested, released, then jailed again. In prison he receives visits from a mysterious woman in white, who bribes the suspect's jailers and slips in for assignations far more explicit that Victorian horror writing would have allowed. The man may or may not be the dreaded Vampire of Ropraz, but the visits trigger new violence on his part.

His ultimate fate, after he escapes, joins the French Foreign Legion, and dies amid the mud and rain of trench warfare, is a grimly humorous comment on the notion of buried secrets.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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31 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Darn it, Peter, quit adding books to my reading list! I'm drowning here!

November 30, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

I second the motion, or at least would if I had any sense at all. Instead, I'll say that this reminds me of a book I enjoyed called The Secret Life of Laszlo Count Dracula by Roderick Anscombe. It's not a mystery even to the extent that this one appears to be, but a pyschological novel using the vampire story to its own ends.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Just doing my patriotic duty to boost the struggling retail sector.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This one is a crime novel; Chessex does sketch out an investigation, noting suspects and the reason for their detention, but all is in the interest of setting the scene. I suppose this makes the book social as much as or more than psychological.

Vampire of Ropraz is said to be based on a true story, by the way. The author says in a short preface that he had visited the site of the first victim's grave. I also read a reference to another part of the story's being true, but I didn't want to take the time to verify sources.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I know they're supposed to be tough guys but I can only think of the French Foreign Legion in terms of Laurel and Hardy and Carry On Follow that Camel.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read just four Swiss crime novelists, but the French Foreign Legion figures in the work of two of them. What this means, I don't know.

Wikipedia has an entry for films featuring the French Foreign Legion. Two of the first three movies on the list are "Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion" and "Arabian Tights," so there is apparently a rich tradition of poking fun at the solemn, romantic idea of the legion.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

To what do you attribute the recent upswing in the popularity of vampires?

November 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know, but the publicity material for The Vampire of Ropraz certainly cites that upswing.

I'm no expert in horror and its public reception, but it would be easy to guess that such fiction might thrive amid introspection brought on by uncertain times.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Like Gladiators, Nazis and Pirates, Vampires will always be a popular subject for books and films.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nazis and vampires are old perennials, all right, incarnations of our worst nightmares. I'm not sure pirates are quite in that league. But this vampire thing -- the publicist's letter invoked some recent vampires, which got me wondering whether their popularity rises during troubled times. In any case, I should be safe because I eat lots of garlic.

I saw a graph that correlated zombie movies with periods of social tension, and I asked a leading horror and zombie writer if he thought the correlation accurate. Without a doubt, he said. Perhaps the same is true of vampires.

November 30, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

As Adrian said (more or less), vampires we will have always with us. But it still doesn't quite explain the current spike. My brother-in-law's sister, not a kid, said to me this Thanksgiving, I don't know why I'm suddenly so into vampires. And she is a buyer for a big home furnishing store, so I expect she is more than usually attuned to the Zeitgeist. Even I, not much of a horror movie type, went and saw Let the Right One In, the melancholic Swedish vampire movie.

What I would say is the common theme, not based on a whole lot, is that the new wave of vampires has something to do with psychologically identifying with them, rather than simply abhorring them. There's the sexuality of vampires, always implicit but steadily more explicit, and there is also the newly acquired sense of empathy with their plight, which is to be a creature that harms out of necessity and without having fully or even ever chosen the role. Anyway, it's fascinating that a mythical/archetypal figure continues to evolve in our consciousness in this way.

v word=cherch, which would seem to be a little off point when it comes to a discussion of vampires...

December 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, that was just an uneducated guess on my part. I don't enough about horror fiction or its history to able to offer anything but the most commonplace guesses: fascination with dark things, forbidden sex, and so on. I certainly don't know enough to guess how current vampire stories differ from their predecessors and how they're similar. Jacques Chessex's book does imply that vampires may be a kind of screen on which we project our own obsessions and pathologies, but again, this does not explain the current wave.

Empathy with the outsider does play into The Vampire of Ropraz. Chessex's central character, Fevez, is pretty far outside -- though the point of the novel is more the village's fear of a vampire than it is a portrait of a vampire.

If you pick up the book now, you'll be ready to post a reply before you go to bed. It's short, barely a hundred pages, and there are aspects I would love to discuss but would hesitate to do so with anyone who has not read the book.

"My brother-in-law's sister, not a kid, said to me this Thanksgiving, I don't know why I'm suddenly so into vampires. "

Have you checked her neck for recent puncture wounds?

December 01, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Have you checked her neck for recent puncture wounds?

No, but it's all now so obvious, once you put it that way...

I could read V of R before I hit the sack if I had it here, but it will have to wait, I'm afraid. I'm guessing we won't have it at the store, either. But I'm quite interested in reading it, so will check into ordering it tomorrow.

December 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure what the book's U.S. release date is. The Bitter Lemon Press Web site says April 2009, though I did receive my copy from a U.S. publicist, so who knows?

December 01, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Yeah, it looks like it won't be easily available here until April 2009, but I did talk to the sales rep for Bitter Lemon, and she promises to get me a copy if and when she can lay her hands on one, which might be a little sooner than the release date. So we shall see.

December 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have been surprised occasionally by how far in advance some publicists and publishers send out review copies. I wonder if this is a recent phenomenon, an effort, perhaps, to get a jump on the competition in a tight publishing and reviewing market.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

Vampires are big in the teen/tween demographic (witness the popularity of the Twilight series), so this author has a primed pump of up and coming readers.

I wouldn't want to give up ideas entirely, though I could dump the dead weight of tradition. But leave me my modern hygiene, please.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, it appears that the reference to modern hygiene's absence struck a chord. Author and translator would no doubt be pleased to hear this.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

My sales rep was so kind as to send a copy of this last week, and as you said, it was a quick read. I think it is very good, but some of the horrific details of sexual depravity were a bit hard for me to take. I expect that I would have to read another novel or novella of Chessex's to really understand what he is trying to do here. It is very cleanly written, but the crimes coupled with the ironic detachment of the prose didn't all together work for me.

February 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if horror is your cup of tea, but perhaps Chessex is deliberately trying to recreate the horror and revulsion that, say, "Dracula" may have elicited from readers when it first appeared. I think Werner Herzog does something similar through different means in "Nosferatu."

February 02, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, I am not really drawn to horror, but I do think Dracula is wonderful, creepy though it is. Revulsion is an excellent word here, and the idea of Chessex deliberately trying to shock us as earlier readers might have been shocked is interesting to me. But I've never been all that interested in reading about sex 'monsters' or how they came to be such. I don't think it's a Puritanical impulse in me so much as that it all seems so appallingly sad.

It's interesting that in this day and age, we really don't have a huge problem with the needs of 'vampires', but are entirely unable to tranfer that sense of compassion for compulsion to the needs of sexual predators, when in fact, they may actually be quite similar.

Just thinking aloud here.

February 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Without knowing anything about Jacques Chessex beyond the book you have just read, I suspect he might be sympathetic to your thoughts. He managed to convey the sense of sadness and loneliness without descending into monsters-are-people-too sentimentality.

February 03, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I see your point, but would still have to read more of Chessex to really get him, I think. Especially in translation, it's hard for me to get a feel for him.

Although, this may be an excess of Believer links for you, I was struck at the end of Vampire of Ropraz by a reference to Blaise Cendrars and Moravagine. The only other thing I've ever read about Cendrars is an introduction to Moravagine that was published in the Believer here.It may throw some more light on Chessex's story, I'm not sure,as it's been awhile since I read it.

February 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the link. I'm certainly no expert on Chessex or horror, so I'm not really trying to talk you into anything. I don't even know how typical this book is of his work, I'm just guessing at what the author may have used as a hook.

February 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might want to have a look at this post.

February 04, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks for the link to Martin's post. It echoed some of my own feelings about the book.

February 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. The two of you seemed to be thinking along similar lines. I think one of you suggested that the book seemed like a bit of a literary exercise. I could go along with that, for reasons I suggested in my earlier comments: deliberate effort to revisit the monster tradition, and so on.

Speaking of Victorian monsters, Alan Moore once said he had a special fondness for Edward Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I share that affection. Moore's Mr. Hyde is one engaging monster.

February 04, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I have yet to read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Obviously, I must correct that.

February 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's an adventure story, but it, er, transcents its genre.

February 05, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Now, see, this is where a copyeditor would really come in handy. Because I don't know if you meant 'transcends' or whether there is really some kind of pun revolving around the idea of 'transcents'. I'm guessing the first, but you never know.

February 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sloppy typing is to blame. I intended no pun.

February 05, 2009  

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