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.
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