29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.

The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.

Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Jacques Chessex’s The Vampire of Ropraz, a curious little book from one of Switzerland’s most revered authors.

Here’s the opening of the review:

If it weren’t for Michael Orthofer of Complete Review, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up this slender book. I don’t mind my vampires on TV (True Blood is a pretty decent show), but I tend to avoid them in literature. (No, I haven’t read Twilight and probably never will.)

But this isn’t a vampire book. Sure, it’s got the spooky cover and the sadistic crimes, but this novel isn’t about anyone sucking anyone’s blood. It’s about society and fear, and finding a way to explain and cope with things that are beyond normal comprehension.

The novel is set in Ropraz—“a land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport”—where a young girl is dug up from her grave and mutilated. Newspapers seize on the sensational story, labeling the criminal who did this as the “Vampire of Ropraz,” and setting off a series of “sightings” and a hell of a lot of fear:

And click here for the full write up.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If it weren’t for Michael Orthofer of Complete Review, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up this slender book. I don’t mind my vampires on TV (True Blood is a pretty decent show), but I tend to avoid them in literature. (No, I haven’t read Twilight and probably never will.)

But this isn’t a vampire book. Sure, it’s got the spooky cover and the sadistic crimes, but this novel isn’t about anyone sucking anyone’s blood. It’s about society and fear, and finding a way to explain and cope with things that are beyond normal comprehension.

The novel is set in Ropraz—“a land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport”—where a young girl is dug up from her grave and mutilated. Newspapers seize on the sensational story, labeling the criminal who did this as the “Vampire of Ropraz,” and setting off a series of “sightings” and a hell of a lot of fear:

In the meantime, the Vampire is on the loose. He is reported in Vucherens, Ferlens and Montpreveyres, always appearing at night, evading the watch and the dogs, climbing on each occasion to the upper floor, where the daughter of the house or the maid sleeps.

“Look at the broken pane, that’s where he rested the ladder . . .”

“But he didn’t harm your daughter.”

“She woke up in time. She was dreaming, poor thing, and suddenly she started to scream. We barely had time to grab an axe and run upstairs.”

But the citizens aren’t just paranoid—more corpses are dug up and defiled. And the authorities have to find someone to pin all of these crimes on . . . And along comes Charles-Augustin Favez, suspicious enough, and recently caught “having relations” with a cow.

Chessex’s novel is based on a real-life story, which is why his sparse, direct, almost questioning prose style works so well, relating the fragments of what is known in a way that pits doubts about Favez’s guilt against the townspeople’s need for a criminal to be named.

Favez is released though—at least at first:

Favez is set free on Thursday the 9th of July. His release from prison provokes outrage. The Vampire of Ropraz is free! In vain the justice authorities defend themselves, citing the psychiatrist’s report, the expert witnesses from Basle and Zurich, the complete lack of proof regarding the three graveyard crimes and, above all, the decisive factor in the eyes of justice, the manifest inability of Favez to cut up or dissect any kind of flesh—animal flesh during the tests to which he had been subjected, or human flesh in the worst of cases. A vast, angry murmur sweeps through the countryside, and there are fears for the safety of the wrongly accused, considered a vampire by the public, fears of a lynching or a kidnapping followed by extreme abuse.

Aside from the mesmerizing way that Chessex lays out this little tale, it’s the final, speculative, surprising chapter that makes this novel worth reading. On one hand, where he leaves Favez is a bit over-the-top, but for whatever reason, it all sort of fits with this creepy sketch of a story. Worth checking out, and it will only take you about as long to read this as it would to watch an episode of Buffy.

....
Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .

Read More >

The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >