Sunday, December 02, 2012

Classic Literature: The Vampire of the Val-De-Grace

A friend bought me, a couple of years ago, Le Vampire Du Val-De-Grace as that print of the novel by Leon Gozlan was listed, on Amazon, as being in English. It wasn’t… So I was most excited when the wonderful Blackcoat Press announced an English translation by Brian Stableford.

I think it is worth taking time to reproduce the blurb, though there are some dating issues within:

“I wasn’t able to steal her away while alive: “I’ll come and steal her away when I’m dead!”

In 1849, the mysterious Doctor Salomon Kanali and his family arrive in a Paris ravaged by a cholera epidemic. But is this Kanali the same embalmer who claimed to have the power to resurrect the dead? And why does his wife fear that her daughter Marthe is being wooed by the same vampire who once destroyed her mother.

The Vampire of Val-de-Grace (1862*) is a horror story, a love story, a mystery, a comedy and, marginally, a scientific romance; unique in its excess and its bizarre absurdity, it has a certain precious verve and a capacity to make the jaw drop. It belongs to the cynical and tongue-in-cheek tradition of Ponson du Terrail’s The Vampire and the Devil’s Son (1853*) and Paul Féval’s Knightshade (1860), which teasingly refuse explicitly to confirm or deny the existence of vampires, but play extravagantly with the idea, while merrily exploiting its sinister fascination.

Concerning dates, I have marked two in the blurb. With regards the date of this novel, whilst the blurb suggests 1862, Stableford’s introduction states the first appearance in book form was 1861. Stableford puts forward the idea that it was originally printed piecemeal within a periodical but, if it was, the evidence of that is now vanished. I also marked the date of Terrail’s novel as the volume I have suggests a date of 1852, though that volume says it was when it was ‘written’ and it could have been published a year later.

The blurb plays with us somewhat, whilst Kanali (the son-in-law of the famous man mentioned) has inherited some advanced embalming techniques he is known as a doctor and his father-in-law searched for a method to resurrect the dead but did not find it.

The story follows the family as Marthe is romantically pursued (with her own encouragement) by César Caseneuve, a young doctor whom the mother and father disapprove of for different reasons. For the father it is the fact that he sees him as a man without courage (though truthfully it is because his nervousness had wrecked an experiment by the good doctor). The mother thinks him a vampire.

Interestingly, whilst the blurb mentions the vampire who pursued her mother, she too believes she was pursued by the same vampire and that this is the third generation of women he has fixated upon. The form, it seems, changes, but there is a tell-tale sign of his vampiric nature and – in this case – it is because he shares a mark (like a spot of blood at the corner of the mouth) that another vampiric suitor also sported.

We hear of the first vampire, the Graf von Markfeld, whom the first generation of haunted women was to marry – though she would be his third wife. The first two had died, two years into their marriages, of languor. The Graf seemed no older than he did when he first married, carried the red mark (mentioned above) in the corner of his mouth and never offered anyone his right hand. Just as they were to be married she grasped his right hand and found it to be as called as ice as a warning shout rang out ”Beware, mademoiselle; you are about to marry a brucolaque, you are about to marry a dead man; you are about to marry the vampire Ben Strombold.” The wedding ceremony ended and the church had to be purified for 40 days as it had hosted a vampire.

The brucolaque would appear to be a variant of the Brucolaco, which according to Bane’s Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology is “Strictly from the lore of the Epirus and Thessaly regions of Greece, this vampire would seem to answer the age- old question of “Can a werewolf be a vampire?”” It is a variant of the vorvolaka which is central to the film Isle of the Dead.

Whilst it would seem that Gozlan simply used the name brucolaque, rather than ascribing any distinctive lore to it, he does also make a distinction when mentioning Hungary as the fatherland of ”redivivi, brucolaque and vampires.”. Redivivi is the plural of redivivo and is Italian for 'restored to life' and is used to describe someone who is the living image of a dead person.

As for Strombold he was killed in a duel but they failed to stake him through the stomach. He came back and preyed on several families. The woman married Salomon Kanali and had a daughter (Marthe’s mother) before she died. This daughter (who later married Marthe’s father, who in turn took his wife’s surname) fell in love with a Hermann von Rosanthal who died during a hunt.

She went into a decline, described as a “rapid consumption” (as we know consumption, or TB, was often blamed on vampirism and, past the date of this novel, suspected vampires were still unearthed and 'dealt with' to try and save the consumption victim. The practice was not restricted to Europe and occurred in the USA. Whether she had the disease is not mentioned.). She described to her father Hermann coming to her in her dreams, his cold lips kissing her and the sound of her blood leaving her (note that no mention was made of teeth and this would almost be an osmotic version of suckosity).

Her father was persuaded to try and resurrect the corpse and went to the crypt during the night, the corpse was gone. Thinking her father was making an excuse not to experiment on the corpse she went during the day and found the corpse intact and present. Both father and daughter then returned at night and, of course, the corpse was gone again. They relocated to Italy but somehow the woman decided to associate Hermann with Ben Strombold and decided they were one and the same.

Which takes us to the book’s present day and Madame Karnali’s decision that César Caseneuve is Strombold, making an attempt on the third generation of women. There are other bits of lore mentioned, whilst a stake through the stomach has already been mentioned, a stake through the heart is suggested as a means of destroying a vampire, as is cremation. The, at the time (Edit - see comments), semi-mythical tome Magia Posthuma is cited, as is the song Le Morte Vivant by Béranger.

I rather enjoyed this volume. I agree it was probably first published piecemeal, the structure and some inconsistencies lend it that appearance, but more importantly it is another pre-Stoker source that shows how vivid and varied the vampire genre was in nineteenth century France.

The Book’s page at Blackcoat Press is here


Vladkergan said...

As a french reader, I would like to know if the first version you friend bought you was in french langage, and by which publisher ?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Valdkergan, yes it was French and it was this edition:

Anthony Hogg said...

Magia posthuma, semi-mythical? Back then, sure! But not anymore...

I've got a copy, too. :D

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I hadn't realised it had been refound - has Neils translated it yet, is he looking to publish?