Paul Féval’s La Ville Vampire

Posted by Glennis Byron on October 18, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , , , ,

Vampire City Black Coat Press edition

I just finished Vampire City last night, Brian Stableford’s translation/adaptation(?) of Paul Féval’s La Ville Vampire. It’s the first book by Féval  I’ve read, and I was prompted to buy it after learning that the heroine of this tale is Ann Radcliffe herself: the book is at least a vague precursor of the literary monster mash-ups of today: Ann Radcliffe, Vampire Hunter.

Féval, a French novelist, and considered one of the fathers of modern crime fiction, wrote three vampire novels, all available in translations by Stableford. (I am a touch puzzled about the status of these translations, since my copy of Vampire City says, on the front cover ‘adapted by Brian Stableford’, although the word ‘translated’ is used inside.)

The Vampire Countess Black Coat Press edition

La Vampire (The Vampire Countess), the first, focuses on the Countess Addhema who, rather than drinking the blood of her victims, apparently renews her youth by ripping off their scalps and wearing their hair.  Sounds promising. This was published in 1865, but Stableford believes it was written and probably serialised ten years earlier.

Knightshade Black Coat Press edition

The second, Le Chevalier Ténèbre (Knightshade) 1860, focuses on the mystery of the Tenebre Brothers; according to legend, their 400-year old graves in the Great Hungarian Plain periodically open to unleash upon the world the undead: Jean the ghoul and Ange the vampire. The story is told to a group of fashionable Parisians at a charity event, and the narrator, it eventually emerges, may be Jean himself.

The third, La Ville Vampire (1875), begins with a rant against British literary piracy: Féval was distinctly annoyed by the publication of G.M.R. Reynolds’ Mysteries of London as he had already serialised his own Les Mystères de Londres – itself written, of course, in an attempt to capitalise upon Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris. His revenge against such piracy is La Ville Vampire, a parody of the classic Gothic novel (primarily Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho but there are clearly references to other Gothic fictions) which nevertheless combines with its humour some genuinely grisly moments and some very disturbing inventions.

Sarob Press edition

Ann Radcliffe (here called Anne or Anna Ward/Radcliffe) leads her band of vampire hunters in the quest to save her friend Cornelia from the designs of the evil vampire Monsieur Goetzi. Anne does no staking but when Goetzi has his heart cut out, it is duly noted that she takes up ‘a position from which she could see more clearly’ (137) and subsequently examines the heart curiously – ‘She never neglected an opportunity to further her education’ (138). In terms of the gothic heroine, the book make for an interesting comparison with Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Cornelia is threatened not just by the vampiric thirsts of Goetzi but also by the more economically driven interests of Count Tiberio, and his paramour, Letizia Pallanti. Letizia is Cornelia’s Italian tutor, given to reclining plumply in the Oriental fashion upon piles of cushions. Tiberio and Letizia, who in the end reveals herself to be Tiberio’s niece, have abducted Cornelia and keep her prisoner in the highest tower of the Castle Montefalcone. Cornelia, whom the story identifies as the model for Radcliffe’s Emily, can here walk the battlements, allowing the ‘vast panorama of nature’ to elevate her soul while’ nourishing her melancholy’ (167). They plan to deliver her to Goetzi to ‘drink her like a glass of lemonade’ (171).

I found two points of particular interest in the novel. The first is the Vampire City itself, a genuinely wonderful invention. Called Selene by the people who live around it, it is referred to by the vampires themselves by the names of the Sepulchre and the College. Normally invisible to mortals, to the eyes of those who do glimpse it, it always presents a different image:

Some tell of a great city of black jasper which has streets and buildings lie any other city but is eternally in mourning, enveloped by perpetual gloom. Others have caught sight of immense amphitheatres capped with domes like mosques…Yet others … a triple rank of white marble cloisters lit by a lunar twilight that never gives way to day or night’ (120).

Here the vampires have their sepulchral dwellings. As one approaches, all vegetation disappears and the sky is veiled with grey, a heavy weight oppresses all travellers as they move into ‘utter, impenetrable darkness’.  Anne and her vampire hunters are able to enter and see the city because they are accompanied by the transgendered vampire Polly in a lead coffin (more on Polly in a moment). The necropolis is ‘redolent with death … soundless, motionless, and breathless’ and ‘twilight as cold and clear as the face of the moon’ strikes the monuments (132). The central edifice is a huge tower constructed in pale porphyry and tinted green and decorated with such delights as crouching tigers clawing the hearts out of supine young women – figures that later come to life. The description is so well done that it is rather a shame to have the narrative move back to a comic mode with the discovery that, in comparison with his neighbours, Goetzi – an indication of his lower middle class status – has a rather ‘shabby’ tomb, ‘only a little grander than St. Paul’s in London’ (135).

The other point of particular interest in the novel is the vampires themselves. These are, of course, pre-Stoker vampires, and are quite different from those that established the line of tradition with which we are most familiar. They can have full lives as ordinary beings, but when they relax entirely into their vampire selves they glow bright green. They have doubles, which allow them freedom of movement (and someone to chat to when alone): their first victim becomes their double. Actually, each vampire is a ‘collective’ (66). All victims of the vampire become accomplices or accessories to their master, incorporated within him, and yet capable of independent manifestation, and also of doubling. Vampires and their accessories can travel by water: they all pile into the master, he lies down on the water and ‘sails across feet-forward like a plank’ (82). Whenever you ‘discover a person crossing the river in this feet-forward fashion’, the narrator warns, ‘take every possible precaution’ (82).

Goetzi’s double is his first victim, the village girl Polly Bird, who is then incorporated into him and manifests as his double – looking exactly like Goetzi. Once Goetzi’s heart is cut out, Polly appears to side with the vampire hunters, but they are duped. Polly/Goetzi, ‘lost by virtue of her close acquaintance with a monster’ (172), in fact plans to marry Cornelia her/himself in order to possess the inheritance of Montefalcone. The crowning touch to this gender confusion comes when Anne, by now imprisoned within a frightful dungeon with a ring of iron around her neck, is saved by a ghostly ‘pale lady’, the Countess Elvina de Montefalcone. Goetzi, as the Countess reveals, was in fact originally ‘the infamous Gertrude de Pfafferchoffen’, her rival …

It may not be surprising that the novel is brought to a relatively quick conclusion with a move towards Radcliffe’s explained supernatural.

Maria – Is this the cover of the Greek translation you refer to in your comment below? My Greek is a touch rusty.

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