Here’s a link to the Nicholson Whaling Collection at the Providence Public Library. It has a huge archive of whaling vessel logbooks full of squirrelly handwriting and cryptic doodles.
I’ve only poked at the thing haphazardly, but one of my favorites is the log of the Levanter out of Boston, MA from 1861. It’s reel #397 if you scroll down. The ship’s master is listed as simply “Clifford”. The picture above comes from that log as do the following doodles, including a ship board obituary:
The files are big and take a while to load. I suggest if you want to peruse them that you view the PDFs at 25% their size. It makes scrolling easier.
This is one of those things I have no idea what use I have for it, but take great joy in knowing exists.
I finished the book two months ago. I finish the posts now.
This has been a crazy book. Dracula’s got nothing on the Monk.
Chapter 10 and we’re back with the dudebros, Lorenzo and the Marquis. They’ve assembled a group of archers and are all set to apprehend the mother superior from the convent of Saint Claire at the big parade. And what a parade it is. Since this is an English man writing about the Spanish, the parade’s a long litany of sumptuousness atop a cake of voluptuousness with a garnish of religiosity because this book’s all about pagan Catholicism. Matthew Lewis (and Frank Miller) are why shit like this exists.
We’re also introduced to Virginia De Villa-Franca, the most beautiful girl in all of Madrid, who’s dressed like Saint Claire herself. If Lorenzo’s heart did not already belong to Antonia, it would belong to Virginia, etc.
The Marquis finally steps in mid-parade and apprehends the prioress and mother St. Ursula. The prioress is like, “Shit, I’m dead” and Ursula is like, “You’re so dead” and proceeds to spill the whole horrible truth about what happened to Agnes as the woman witnessed it. Agnes was poisoned and buried in a crypt below the convent.
Unfortunately, this story gets told in the street in front of spectators, all of whom promptly take hold of the prioress, trample her to death in the street, and then proceed to riot. Our valiant Dudebro duo find themselves helping the nuns against the mob and try to protect the convent, but things don’t go so well, and the building gets set on fire. While searching for people to rescue, Lorenzo discovers Virginia de Villa-Franca down in the basement cowering in her shift alongside a bunch of other girls. They’re hiding out there, and Lorenzo realizes he’s near where his sister is entombed. He finds a secret door and sets off exploring. Down below in the dark, he hears moaning. Who could it be? But some poor starved wretch, half-mad and clutching a worm-infested infant’s corpse to her breast. Why it’s Agnes, his sister, she still lives!
I had to put the book down at this point, because I wasn’t quite prepared for it to get all Lucio Fulci on me like that.
The other folks (Virginia, the Marquis, some archers, etc) show up, and Agnes is reunited with the Marquis. She’s saved. Tears of joy and dead babies all around. But what’s that in the darkness.
Running footsteps and a scream!
Who else could be down here in such a gloomy place?
Chapter 11: The monk wins.
So, throughout this whole book, the monk Ambrosio has been self-righteously on a downsclator towards complete moral degradation. And he has no one to blame but himself. Yeah, Matilda, yadda, yadda. No. This is all Ambrosio’s doing. He’s murdered and conspired to have his way. And so here it is at least. Antonia in a shroud. He goes to where she’s interred and waits for her to wake up. When she does, he ignores her pleas and cries and rapes her there amid the corpses.
Afterward, Antonia tries to escape, but only provokes Ambrosio’s anger. Matilda shows up to warn the monk that soldiers are in the catacombs, and Ambrosio blames Matilda for leading him to this. She’s like, “No way. You did all this yourself. In fact, I want nothing more to do with you.” And while they’re arguing Antonia runs away only to have Ambrosio chase her down and stab her to death. He flees back to the crypt as Lorenzo and the Marquis approach where they find the dying Antonia. They’re able to track Ambrosio to the crypt where they find him and Matilda. The two are arrested and dragged to the Inquisition.
But before that, the stories of Lorenzo, Agnes, and the marquis all get wrapped up. Virginia de Villa-Franca cares for Agnes until she’s well again (and of course she falls in love with Lorenzo), and Agnes tells the story of how she wasn’t poisoned but drugged and then interred alive by the prioress. She and the Marquis marry, and after many months and much urging Lorenzo overcomes his sadness at losing Antonia and marries Virginia.
And so the story ends for our lovers, happily for some people ever after.
Chapter 12: But there’s still the Monk and Matilda to be dealt with. The Inquisition treats them as the Inquisition does and they’re tortured and put to the question. The devil shows up and says “I’ll save you if you sell me your soul.” But the Monk’s like no way. Then he gets tortured some more, and Matilda’s like, Hey, Satan, where do I sign? And so she goes off to become the 18th century Protestant’s idea of what a porn star is like. Ambrosio gets tortured some more, until finally, he tells Satan, “Okay, I’ll sign.”
Satan helps him escape and together they fly off to a bleak and remote desert. And the devil’s like, “Oh yeah, by the way, Elvira was your mom and Antonia your sister.” He then drops Ambrosio from a great height and takes off. And Ambrosio is six days dying while insects drank his blood and eagles tore his flesh and pecked out his eyes.
And so the book ends with the villain screaming blasphemies at the sky before his corpse is washed away by a rain storm.
What a trip.
If you thought things were nutty before now, all I can say is buckle up, because from here on out things only get nuttier.
Chapter 8 returns us to Lorenzo and the Marquis moping around over Agnes’s presumed death. The only one not given over to the mopes is young poet Theodore who decides to don cape and eye patch and go begging at the convent with his guitar. As a dapper young lad he’s quick to work his way into the place and charm the nuns, which he does with a song from Denmark where the people are green and have orange hair.
Much impressed with his singing one of the nuns gives him a basket of food to take away. And of course in the basket is a secret message for the Marquis, telling him to get a warrant for herself and the head nun, and to execute it on Friday during the big parade coming up in Chapter 10.
The Marquis sets about doing this, while Lorenzo goes and serenades Antonia. She’s pleased by this and goes to bed happy.
… and then the bad shit starts.
First off, Ambrosio shows up with his burning myrtle that opens doors and puts people to sleep. He’s using it to creep through the house on up to Antonia’s bedroom, where there’s a long unsettling bit with him hovering over her unconscious body and removing her clothes. Dracula has nothing on Ambrosio. He’s all ready to do the raping, when the door opens and Elvira walks in. She’d already caught him trying to rape her daughter once and forbidden him to return to the house, but now, she’s ready to scream for the authorities. And she almost does, except Ambrosio kills her, by smothering her with her unconscious daughter’s pillow.
An aside… watching old movies in no way prepares you for reading old books. Old movies couldn’t show certain things. Old books could and did, so they’ll hit you with vivid description of some brutality straight out of Goodfellas.
Like here, not only do have Ambrosio killing Elvira next to where her daughter lies unconscious, you also have the description from Ambrosio’s POV of himself kneeling on Elvira’s chest until she can no longer draw breath.
And in true Ambrosio fashion, he reacts with disgust not with himself, but with Antonia, because like what she made him do. So, he flees and we go on to Chapter 9.
Chapter 9 is a cool down chapter Ambrosio once more rationalizes his actions and reinforces his veneer of respectability, putting the blame on Elvira for causing her own death. Matilda once more offers to have Satan help him in exchange for his soul, but Ambrosio reasons like a Catholic and thinks despite everything, as long as he doesn’t sell his soul he’ll at least get sent to Purgatory.
Meanwhile, Antonia finds the body and her life starts falling apart from there. She’s taken ill. Her landlady pays for a simple funeral. The days pass in grief and torment. One night, Antonia wakes up and goes to her mother’s room where she reads a ghost story, and finds herself visited by Elvira’s ghost. The ghost tells her in three days, she too will be dead, and that’s enough to send Antonia into hysterics. The landlady finds out what happened, and she flees the house to find the holiest man she can… Ambrosio.
He goes to the house, checks things out, and calms the “simple” women down. Remember now, Antonia has no idea that Ambrosio tried to rape her twice and killed her mother. She just knows her mother didn’t like him. Ambrosio’s looking after her health, and when he goes back to the abbey, he and Matilda hatch a plan to drug Antonia, so she appears dead, and then in the crypt when she wakes up, he’ll be waiting there. There’s some difficulties from Flora, Elvira’s servant and confidant who knows why Ambrosio can’t be trusted, but in the end he’s able to administer the poison to Antonia. He then commands that her burial should be performed without delay.
And so it is.
Chapters 6 & 7 can pretty much be subtitled “The Making of an Anti-Hero”.
Ambrosio’s not so much the villain as the protagonist of the novel. Unfortunately for everyone, much of his protagging is of the downward spiral type. This fact gets hightlighted in these two chapters as Ambrosio completes his turn away from his ideals and embraces the dark side as introduced to him by Matilda, his demon lover.
When Chapter 6 opens the pair are still abed together, and Ambrosio has some guilt over what he’s done, but those get shunted as he “riots in delights till then unknown to him”. Through all this Matilda’s still poisoned, but she can fix that – all they have to do is meet at midnight and go into the caves under the convent and Matilda can heal herself. They just have to get through the day, which they do. Ambrosio’s pretty good at rationalizing away what he’s done. Night arrives, and they’re off to the caves. Ambrosio’s set on guard, while Matilda goes below to do what needs doing.
You know, black magic stuff.
While Ambrosio’s on guard he can hear the cries of a prisoner in the basement of the convent. Agnes, of course. He’s moved to pity, which is ironic since her suffering is the direct result of his actions. But he stays where he is. Matilda returns and they go back to the monastery for more sex.
There’s then a mini-essay on how Ambrosio had all the qualities of a hero, only they’d been twisted and warped by his time with the priests, and he’s never known the outside world since he was raised entirely within the monastery because he was left on the doorstep while still an infant.
Life resumes. Ambrosio maintains his reputation and keeps drawing the crowds. Only now he’s more superior and cognizant of his power. Then one day at confession he encounters Antonia who wants him to recommend a priest to visit her sick mother. Ambrosio’s instantly infatuated with Antonia and after some pacing and calling Matilda, “Whore”, he decides he’ll go visit Elvira. He does so, and afterwards he finds Antonia and visits with her too. At first Elvira’s glad the monk’s visiting them, but she starts to suspect his reasons aren’t 100% pure.
And in Chapter 7 she’s proven correct. Chapter 7’s where Ambrosio seals the deal, and slides over from being a priest with a demon lover to being a straight up criminal.
It starts with Ambrosio deciding to seduce Antonia, an idea he doesn’t need a demon lover around to come up with for him. And he doesn’t care that it’s criminal. He just “can’t help himself”. So as his desire for Matilda cools, he fixates on Antonia, and the next time he visits, he gets her alone and tries to rape her. Fortunately, Elvira interrupts it, but what can she do? Ambrosio is one of the most respected men in town, while Antonia and she are poor women without connections. Ambrosio is quick to point out that no one will believe her. Still, Elvira kicks him out of the house and tells him to never come back.
Now Ambrosio feels bad, less because he tried to commit rape, than the fact that he failed to commit rape. He goes back to the abbey and starts to mope about how unfair it all is, when Matilda shows up.
She’s okay with him ditching her, and as his friend he’ll help Ambrosio in anyway she can. You know, with demon black magic stuff. Ambrosio despite everything still believes himself blessed by god, because he hasn’t signed anything over to the devil yet. Matilda’s a bit skeptical on that measure, She shows Ambrosio her magic mirror through which she can spy on anyone. So of course, Ambrosio uses it to watch Antonia take a bath. And that’s enough to get him to think there might be something in this black magic stuff.
So, it’s back to the cave under the convent to do some more witchcraft stuff. Matilda summons up Lucifer and gets a talisman from him that will open doors and put Antonia asleep (because Ambrosio doesn’t care if she’s awake or not when he has his way with her).
“Antonia will perceive her dishonor, but be unaware of her ravisher.”
Damn, Gothic novel… that’s f’d up.
But if Ambrosio needs more help after that he better be ready to pay with his soul. Of course, Ambrosio knows it won’t come to that. It’s not like dealing with the Devil ever ends badly for anyone. So as Chapter 7 ends, Ambrosio’s looking forward to midnight when Antonia will be all his.
Do you have a favorite old, weird book?
Recommend it and I’ll probably read it!
But, I’m also looking for books to give the YesterWeird treatment to, like I’m doing with Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.
Old = written before 1930.
Weird = I leave up to you.
My definition of weird includes Fantomas novels, Cavendish’s The Blazing World, Scientific Romances, Dumas and his contemporaries, Gothic and Sensation novels, Apuleius, and P’u Songling… so it’s pretty broad, but limited. I’m not likely to do another Gothic right away. While I do have some Ann Radcliffe on the shelf, I’m not really ready to jump into another foray of English Protestants fetishisiizing southern European Roman Catholics.
Current contenders for getting the YesterWeird treatment are:
Fantomas, the Corpse Who Kills! by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Murder, mayhem, and derangement.
The Flower Beneath The Foot – Being a Record of the Early Life of St. Laura De Nazianzi and the Times in which She Lived by Ronald Firbank. This looks like it might be Game of Thrones as if written by Oscar Wilde in his Importance of Being Earnest style. That sounds like it might be cool, or it might be annoying.
Aphrodite: Ancient Morals by Pierre Louys. A scandalous, historical novel written by a French guy mostly famous for his pornographic poetry. It’s available on Gutenberg.
If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear it.
… and now we return to The Monk, chapter 5 to be exact.
Chapter 5: Raymond finishes telling Lorenzo the sad story of “How I Knocked Up Your Sister”. Lorenzo agrees not to kill him, and both agree that Agnes needs to get out of that convent. Lorenzo then brings up Antonia and her situation.
Part of that story is that Raymond is Antonia’s mom Elvira’s brother-in-law, but he never knew about it because his parents never mentioned it (they thought their son was too good for Elvira) and they lived mostly overseas. Being that his parents are dead, Raymond’s actually happy to learn he has a sister-in-law. So that’s one problem they don’t have to worry about, while they talk to the cardinal and pope about getting Agnes out of her convent. Everyone’s happy. Lorenzo leaves, Raymond gets ready to relax, but when he walks into his relaxing room, he finds Theordore in there sweating and straining.
…and can you guess what the strapping young German lad is doing all alone there in the room?
That’s right, he’s writing poetry.
Four pages of classic verse, or running with the rock opera concept album metaphor, he’s writing a power ballad. I’m pretty sure it’s on Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, the song after “Moonchild”.
Being the full of himself sister-knocker-upper that he is, Raymond swipes the pages, reads, and critiques them. Surprisingly, he’s not a dick about it (well, besides being a total dick about it) and encourages Theodore to keep at it, and, who knows, maybe one day he can be the next Lope De Vega.
We then follow Lorenzo home where he finds a letter from Leonella, Antonia’s servant. She gives him Antonia and Elvira’s address, and Lorenzo heads over there right away.
Elvira is Antonia’s mom and one of the coolest characters in this book. She’s a tragic figure, abandoned by her relations and of delicate health, but strong willed and wise. When Lorenzo meets her, she sees right through his gallant foppish pretenses, and to his credit Lorenzo drops them. He updates her on the situation with Raymond her brother-in-law, and she sees that Lorenzo is in love with her daughter. He leaves telling them that first they need to get Agnes out of the convent, but after that they’ll fix everything for her. Afterward Elvira and Antonia have a mom/daughter talk about getting hopes up and falling in love, and all Elvira’s advice is sad and tragic, because she’s a sad, tragic mom in a Gothic novel.
The next day, Lorenzo goes to the convent to see Agnes.
“No, you can’t see her. She’s sick.”
The next day, Lorenzo goes to the convent to see Agnes.
“No, you can’t see her. She’s sicker than she was yesterday.”
Lorenzo believes none of this, and neither do we because we know Agnes got caught back in chapter 1 and the Mother Superior is a cruel heartless woman. We don’t know what happened to her, but we know it’s not good. Nice tension that.
He heads back to Elvira’s hoping to see Antonia, but instead Elvira sits him down for a talk. She tells him that it’s great that he loves Antonia, but his family won’t approve. He’s of noble birth, and her family are commoners. It’ll be a repeat of her own sad, tragic life for her daughter. So for their own good, she’s going to stop the relationship now, before they get too into each other. Lorenzo denies that his family is like that, and Elvira’s skeptical.
“Look at this,” she says.
“My late husband, Raymond’s brother, wrote it. It’s a poem.”
Yes… to save Lorenzo, and the world, from bad poetry, Lorenzo must stop courting Antonia. It’s the only way. Lorenzo’s shaken. He tells her he’s going to get permission from his uncle. He’ll do better than Raymond’s brother, and maybe he’ll just stick with prose vignettes under 1000 words. Those aren’t poems are they? Elvira says that’s a mystery, but until he gets the okay from his uncle he must stay away and visit no more.
Lorenzo goes home and sees a letter from the pope. It’s good news. The pope’s okay with Agnes leaving the convent. Lorenzo takes the letter and goes straight to Mother Superior. She tells him that Agnes died, and no, he can’t see the body. Lorenzo believes none of this, but he’s up against an evil nun, and so there’s no winning. He goes back to tell Raymond, and Raymond believes none of it. He practically goes mad at the idea and believes Agnes is still alive, locked somewhere in the convent. Lorenzo for his part believes Agnes is dead, but the nuns killed her and They need to find out what happened.
Chapter 6 has us back with Ambrosio, the fallen priest with the demon lover and the titular monk of the novel, who appears to be developing into a full on sex addict.
You know how it goes, he tried it once, and found it all right for kicks, but now he’s found out it’s a habit that sticks…
We return now to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.
The deeper I get into this book, 1) the more I like it, 2) the weirder its fetishisization of Catholicism gets.
In the chapters 3 &4 we leave Ambrosio and Matilda behind and return to Lorenzo and Don Raymond the Marquis de las Cisternas. Lorenzo’s upset because Don Raymond impregnated his sister, Agnes, despite her being a nun, and if Don Raymond doesn’t talk fast, he’s likely to wind-up stabbed in all the worst ways. So Don Raymond tells his story, and it’s not a bad story.
The Tale of Don Raymond’s Gap Year AKA How I Ended Up Schtupping Your Sister AKA Don’t Stab Me, Bro
Don Raymond was on his gap year and traveling around Europe in cognito, because in a book with a lot of names I can’t remember, why not have another? While in Germany, his servants and he get lost in a forest during a snowstorm and think they’re going to die, when their guide tells them he knows a wood-cutter nearby that will put them up. The wood-cutter and his sons are happy to have the guests, but the wood-cutter’s wife is having none of it. She doesn’t want these guys in her house, and Don Raymond’s like, “What a bitch”, but the wife just says, “I made your bed, check out the sheets.” When Don Raymond does he discovers them covered in blood and realizes the wood-cutter and his sons are bandits. Their plan’s to kill Don Raymond and all his servants in the middle of the night. But things get complicated when another traveler arrives at the house, and this one turns out to be the local duchess. She wants to get out of the storm, and the wood-cutter realizes they need to get more bandits, which gives Don Raymond time to escape and get help. There are some chases and fights and daring-do. The duchess is saved, Don Raymond’s servants aren’t, and Don Raymond gets an invitation back to the castle. The wood-cutter’s wife tells her story of how she fell in with the bandits and what brutes they were, and she gets exonerated for her crimes, and Don Raymond hires one of her sons (from an earlier marriage) to replace his dead valet. This kid, Theodore, becomes an important supporting character. Showing up at the castle, Don Raymond meets Agnes, because the Duke and Duchess are her guardians, since her parents are dead and her brother away. Of course Agnes and Don Raymond fall in love, but there’s a complication: the Duchess has also fallen in love with Don Raymond and she’s the insanely jealous type.
Time for a cunning plan!
A cunning plan that involves Theodore kidnapping Agnes’s chaperone and keeping her drunk in a closet, while Agnes impersonates the ghost rumored to haunt the castle (The Bleeding Nun) and Don Raymond waits in a carriage by the castle’s back door.
And the plan works perfectly, except the real Bleeding Nun shows up and Don Raymond runs off with her by accident.
Meanwhile, Agnes gets caught and the Duchess realizes what’s what and they ship her off to the convent ahead of schedule. Back to Don Raymond, he realizes he’s in a carriage with a ghost, there’s a panic, and horse death. He survives the accident but now the Bleeding Nun haunts him, and he pretty much assumes he’s a goner. Theodore learns where he is and tells him about a strange doctor in town that seemed to know all about the case. Don Raymond wants to meet that guy, and when the doctor shows up, he turns out to be a be-turbaned fellow of keen wisdom.
The doctor agrees to treat Don Raymond’s ghost problem, and there’s some midnight magic stuff, where the doctor says, “I’m going to take my turban off,don’t look at me.”
And Don Raymond says, “Okay”, but he totally looks and the sight of the unturbaned doctor fills him with horror and dread.
Turns out the doctor is the Wandering Jew (although I like to imagine that he’s Cain), and he does all he can to help people despite the curse upon him. Don Raymond gets better, returns to the castle, where he retrieves the Bleeding Nun’s bones and takes them back to his family for decent burial the sadder and wiser man. Yeah, she turned out to be a relation. In Madrid, he pines away for Agnes, not realizing how close she is until he sees her at church. They start having illicit meetings in the convent gardens. Don Raymond’s all about getting her out of the convent, but has to write the Pope for the okay. Meanwhile, both being young and having lived through such adventures allow their hormones to get the better of them, and lo and behold there you go Lorenzo: that’s how I impregnated your sister!
To which all agree it’s best to get Agnes the hell out of that convent.
The Monk is a Gothic novel from 1796 written by a 20-year old Matthew Lewis rife with murder, magic, sex, and decadent Catholicism, because if you’re an 18th century English Protestant nothing says sexy decadence sexier than a Spanish Catholic. Set in Madrid the novel depicts the corruption of the monk Ambrosio and his ultimate pact with the devil, as well as tells a gory picaresque as two sets of lovers try to escape the various forces arrayed against them.
If there’s anything The Monk reminds me of it’s a 1970s era heavy metal concept album. But more on that in a bit. For now here’s Michael Gothard from Ken Russell’s The Devil:
In Chapter 1, all Madrid’s come out to see Ambrosio speak because he’s a great holy man and handsome too. The church is packed and people have climbed up onto the statues to get a better view. A young woman and her chaperone arrive late and have a hard time finding seats, but the chaperone’s able to play upon a couple of cavaliers’ sense of gallantry and convince them to give up theirs. At first they’re disappointed, because old lady, but then they espy the young woman’s delicate foot peeking out from beneath her skirt, and nearly slip into raptures. Finally, the young woman unveils and one of the cavaliers instantly falls in love. He gets her name (Antonia) and gives her his (Lorenzo), and there’s talk of another character (the Marquis de las Cisternas) and I’m pretty sure already I’m not going to keep everyone straight in this book.
After Ambrosio’s speech the throng dethrongs and the cavaliers and the ladies split up. Lorenzo stays behind and has a bad acid trip vision of angels and demons fighting for Antonia’s soul. They pretty much tell him “SHE’S GONNA DIE!!!!!”, but he’s not really picking up the cues. Another guy arrives Don Christoval arrives and he’s appy to see Lorenzo since he now has someone to peek at the nuns with. They go hide and watch a stranger eave a letter beneath the foot of a statue. The nuns show up. One of them is Lorenzo’s sister (Agnes), and she’s the one that takes the secret letter, which makes Lorenzo all incensed because virtue and his sister and all that. He hunts down the shadowy letter leaver and there’s going to be a swor fight, but who is it revealed to be, none other than Raymond de las Cisternas, and he has a story to tell…
Which he will tell in a later chapter.
The rest of the chapter has Antonia and her aunt walking home where they meet a gypsy and decide to get their fortunes told. The aunt’s fortune is “You’re old. So old. And ugly.” While Antonia’s fortune is “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!!!!!” and “WATCH OUT FOR DUDES!!!!! ESPECIALLY THE NICE GUYS!!!!” Then the gypsy hightails it out of there, and the ladies go inside.
Chapter 2, Ambrosio sits in his cell doing the 18th century Spanish Catholic monk version of looking at porn, by which I mean staring at his private picture of the Virgin Mary and thinking sentences like, “I am constrained to enter some lovely female, lovely… as you… Madonna…!”
Shit. He ellipsised before his exclamation point.
Well, there’s a knock at the door ending all that and who should be there but the young, handsome, beautiful, but mysterious monk Rosario. He’s stopped by to decorate Ambrosio’s cell with some new flowers, because that’s the type of guy Rosario is. Rosario is completely smitten with Ambrosio, but fears his feelings aren’t returned – but Ambrosio replies that he has feelings for Rosario and before things get much further the bell rings and they have to go to class, which in this case is Vespers. Vespers over, Ambrosio listens to the nuns give their confessions.
Unfortunately, Agnes drops her letter that she received back in Chapter 1, and Ambrosio picks it up and reads it. Turns out she’s pregnant. Ambrosio being the stuck-up prig he is ignores all her pleas for mercy and decides to tell her Mother Superior, who’s straight out of the Confessions of Maria Monk. Agnes get dragged away to be tortured.
Ambrosio, shaken by the ordeal of being a judgmental prick, goes for a walk in the garden, where he finds Rosario sitting alone in a grotto. They read some verses together, and Rosario goes on about his BIG secret. Ambrosio can’t stand it and commands that Rosario spill it, at which point Rosario tells Ambrosio that he’s really a she named Matilda. He does not take this well.
Rosario-Matilda threatens suicide if Ambrosio refuses to let her stay in the monastery, because all she wants to do is be near him, and it’ll be like they’re just friends and stuff. She’s all set to kill herself with a dagger to Ambrosio’s horror, but a pang of mercy and a glimpse of her boob, her left one, and “oh! that was such a breast!” The boob’s magnificence is then described for a half dozen more sentences.
Well, what’s a guy to do after seeing a boob, but give in and do whatever it commands. Ambrosio convinces himself it’d be okay if Ambrosio stays. He’ll even pluck her a rose to prove himself. Only when he does so he’s bitten by a snake, and poisoned, because subtlety is for suckers. For days he lies near death with Rosario-Matilda tending to him, by playing her harp and reading to him from chivalrous romances.
Miraculously, Ambrosio recovers and decides, “Matilda’s trouble and has to go.”
To which Matilda says, “Well, I’ll be dead in three days, because I sucked the poison out of your hand and it’s in me now. Also, I modeled for that picture of the Virgin Mary you keep under your bed, also, also, its better that I die because I totally want to have sex with you.”
To all of which Ambrosio has no idea what to say except, “Huh? Wha?” and then he touches her boob, the left one, and it’s all over for him.
“He remembered nothing but the pleasure and opportunity.”
A woman found brutally murdered in a locked room. A chemically preserved corpse discovered in a steamer trunk. An audacious robbery committed by a masked and tuxedoed thief in a grand Paris hotel. Nothing connects these crimes, only the suspicion that the same perpetrator committed them all. Who? Fantômas!
Written between the years 1911 and 1914 by the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the Fantômas serial ran for a total of thirty-two novels. In that time, the title character eluded the forces of justice and committed increasingly daring crimes to satisfy an urge for “beautiful-compulsive” violence. To read a Fantômas novel is to enter a fast-paced, bewildering world loaded with violent imagery. Where ultimate evil is never defeated, but escapes every time.
Fantômas was the prototypical supervillain. He had no goal beyond the desire to wreak havoc, a hybrid of Edmond Dantès (the Count of Monte Cristo) and the Joker; not so much a character as a phantom, an invoked spirit: the Lord of Terror, the Master of Crime, the Genius of Evil.
From the opening exchange of the first novel, there is no doubt as to his powers:
“What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“But what is it?”
“Nobody…. And yet, yes, it is somebody!”
“And what does the somebody do?”
The novels’ popularity cut through social classes. They were read avidly by the public, as well as championed by the surrealists who saw in the series a predecessor to their own work and a key to the imagination. Raymond Queneau, Blaise Cendrars, Magritte, and Pablo Neruda all admitted to being fans. Guillaume Apollinaire called the series “inestimably rich” and suggested that in order to achieve the full poetic effect the novels should be read straight through as quickly as possible (a habit he also recommended for the works of Dumas and Paul Féval, the originator of the “cloak-and-dagger” genre and the author of a series of vampire novels that predate the works of Bram Stoker). James Joyce described the series simply as, “Enfantômastic!”
However, Allain and Souvestre had not set out to create anything of cultural import when they began the series.
The pair had met while working for the automotive magazine Poids Lourdes (“Heavy Trucks”). They were veterans of Paris’s pulp trade: the cheaply produced and poorly printed paperback novels called feuilletons. Souvestre was impressed by the young Allain’s ability, especially after seeing Allain churn out a seventeen-page article in two hours about a truck he had never seen before. They had no artistic pretensions and were in it entirely to earn their living. The characters are flat, the plots beyond hackneyed, and the dialogue overblown and bombastic. Allain and Souvestre ripped off other novels by the cartload and plagiarized their own works. They came up with the plot one week, wrote the prose over the following week, each one writing an alternate chapter, and then spent a week grooming the manuscript into a cohesive whole. Meanwhile, the marketing department arranged the cover artwork. An assignment handled by the Italian artist Gino Starace, whose lurid covers provided the perfect graphic milieu for the narrative. These presage the grisly aspects of EC comics and artists such as Johnny Craig and Bernie Krigstein.
It was three o’clock when Juve arrived at the rue Lévert, and he found the concierge of number 147 just finishing her coffee.
Amazed at the results achieved by the detective, the details of which she had learned from sensational articles in the daily papers, Mme. Doulenques had conceived a most respectable admiration for the detective of the Criminal Investigation Department.
“That man,” she constantly declared to Mme. Aurore, “hasn’t got eyes in his head, but telescopes, magnifying glasses! He sees everything in a second—even when it isn’t there!”
But why did Fantômas capture the imagination so strongly? The novels are not whodunits, nor even whydunits (as is the work of George Simenon), but howdunits. We know who did it: Fantômas. We know why: Lord of Terror, etc. But it’s the how that hooks us.
How did he get into the Marquise de Langrune’s bedroom after the door was locked?
How did he escape the Paris hotel after the Princess Sonia notified the authorities?
How did he trick Inspector Juve even when the detective practically walked him to the steps of the guillotine?
A recapitulation of the plot is irrelevant. A series of unsolvable crimes are committed. The detective Juve believes they are the work of Fantômas. In his pursuit of the villain he is assisted by Jérôme Fandor, a young man wrongfully accused of one of these crimes. The pair adopt various disguises and track Fantômas, who is also disguised, through the Paris underworld. There are set-piece scenes consisting of deathtraps, criminal locales, and a number of courtroom episodes. Severed heads and hands abound, as do bells dripping blood and disasters such as trainwrecks and shipwrecks. Colorful characters appear for a chapter and then disappear into the background. Identities are mutable, and in any given chapter one or more characters might remove their mask and reveal themselves to be Juve, Fantômas, or Fandor (or, after the eighth novel, Hélène, Fantômas’ opium-smoking, pistol-toting, cross-dressing daughter). This gimmick gets played so often that it goes well beyond the plausible, bypassing absurdity, verging on the pathological. The characters have no identity, and it’s only by wearing masks that they become real.
In this fact one can possibly see why the series appealed to the surrealists. Not only was the plot propelled by the actions of a nihilistic antihero at war with society, but the characters were only “real” when they pretended to be someone else. The results when attached to breakneck plotting and violent imagery approached a sort of pulp delirium that directly affected the imagination.
Fandor saw that Juve was staggering and seemed about to faint. He rushed toward him.
“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.
“It isn’t Gurn who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up—like an actor. Oh, curse him! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas has gotten away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you, Fantômas is alive!”
Pierre Souvestre died of Spanish Influenza in 1914. Allain was sent to the trenches of the First World War, but survived to pen eleven more Fantômas novels (he also wound up marrying Souvestre’s widow). In 1913, Fantômas made the leap to movies in a series of serials directed by the silent-film pioneer Louis Feuillade (best known for his later serials Judex and Les Vampires). A 20-episode American serial followed in 1920; and Fantômas movies, television shows, and radio serials were made well into the 1980s. Later films resembled James Bond-style capers and featured technological gadgets and hidden bases. They also gave Fantômas blue skin.
Around the world Fantômas spawned a variety of supervillains. Throughout the rest of his life, Allain continued to churn out Fantômas-style characters such as Tigris, Fatala, and Miss Teria. The 1960s saw various Italian, French, and Spanish publishers competing with ever-increasing doses of sadism to follow the Fantômas model. The character had sunk so deep into pop culture as to be largely invisible. European comic characters Diabolik, Kriminal, Killing, and Satanik can all trace their heritage back to Fantômas. Other characters, such as Dr. Mabuse and the Joker, owe a fair debt to the Genius of Evil and his love of “beautiful compulsive” violence. In a strange character reversal, Fantômas even went on to become a hero. When the Japanese anime Ogon Bator was syndicated in Brazil the character was renamed Fantômas and protected the earth from alien invaders.
If all this sounds fun, you’re in luck. Tracking down Fantômas novels is fairly easy. The first novel is readily available as a Penguin Classic, and a variety of small presses and print-on-demand publishers produce translated reprints of some of the series in varying quality. There’s also an apocryphal storyline where Fantômas goes to England and fights Sherlock Holmes.
But, what is most intriguing in the Fantômas-myth is the notion that popular fiction can be intoxicating and serve as a catalyst to the imagination. It suggests the possible inspiration residing within soap operas, comic books, and mass-market paperbacks. By their very ubiquity and devotion to the trends of the present these items overcome our judgments and speak to our unconscious.
I believe there’s a charm in the violent popular melodrama of earlier eras. Whether it’s The Monk, Vathek, The Werewolf of Paris, or Flowers in the Attic. This stuff is shocking in wholly unsuspecting ways, and Fantômas is no different. Even all this won’t prepare you for how unstintingly absurd it all is. It needs to be experienced first hand.
* (This essay first appeared in April 2009 on the soon to be shuttered Internet Review of Science Fiction website. It’s been and edited and tidied up some for reprinting here.)
I’m out of the Transfer Towns for better and worse. Better, because after six years dirty ole Pohang has started to feel a bit like home. Worse, because I had a book-reading writing/gaming buddy I could hang out with almost everyday living right up the street. I haven’t had anything like that in years, possibly even decades. It was great!
On to the books…
The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France: Most summers I get this desire to read Arthurian tinged stuff and that led me to reading Jessie Weston and she got me reading Marie de France. Decent editions of both are available at Gutenberg. In France’s lais we’re dipping into the Chivalric tradition centuries before Mallory with stories of knights and their lady loves, magic oaths and spells, even a noble werewolf (BISCLAVRET!!!) Collected together these make for a series of great words and the like a collection of fairy tales you can dip in, read one or two stories, then put the book aside. Although you can certainly read it straight through. One thing that makes France’s handling of the material so enjoyable is how separate it is from the Christian tradition. That tradition is present but it’s not hitting you ever the head like it would by the time Mallory’s recounting the Grail Quest. I might use this for a yesterweird series of posts.
Jhereg by Steven Brust: Suddenly so many of the D&D characters my friends and I rolled up as teens make sense. Wicked Awesome Super Assassin Wizard does wicked awesome super assassin wizard stuff with his wicked awesome super assassin wizard powers and wicked awesome super assassin wizard friends. Yes, I’m mocking this book a bit, but it was a fun romp and I enjoyed its pace and flippant attitude. I know there are a lot more books in the series, but I’m in no real rush to read them. I’d rather save them as treats between other books.
Laura by Vera Caspary: Of all the books I read last month this one had me running around the most and recommending it to friends. Laura is pitched as a Femme Fatale, but really she is a modern professional woman in the world of 1940s advertising, doing her best to be an independent woman. What results because of that is like a Gothic novel set in the hard-boiled worlds of New York cops and savage murderers. Definitely give this a shot if the hard-boiled tradition is at all a thing you enjoy.
A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel: I haven’t read a lot of romance novels, but I’ve been told that there are two kinds: the first kind has the love-struck characters boning in the first twenty pages, and the second kind where there’s pages and pages of angsty, yearning, and flushed groin business before the boning happens somewhere in the 3rd act. This book is the latter type. It’s about a lovable thief and con-artist masquerading as a noblewoman in order to escape her criminal past. Of course she falls in love with the Earl who believes she is his cousin. To Kimmel’s credit, by the time the boning happened I was more interested in all the plot machinations and wished the groining would finish quick so the character could go back to resolving the plot.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson: If you had handed this grim fantasy ballad to the Viking era to 13 year old me, I would have gobbled this up and thought it was the greatest book ever: a dark brooding antihero, a quest to forge a demonic sword, monsters, war, sexy weird elves… the whole book is a witch’s brew of moody heroics that even though I’m less in love with such beverages now I can remember how much I loved the taste of them back then. If you’re a pulp fantasy fan and you’ve never read this, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt: The Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie, work for as hired killers for the Commodore and the Commodore wants them to kill a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm. So begins a picaresque novel as the two set out from Oregon and make their way to the gold fields of California. Along the way they encounter an assortment of odd characters and circumstances, all of it narrated by Eli Sister the more pensive and over-weight of the two brothers. This was a fun if deceptively easy read and with a level of artful construction that I appreciated. If you like atypical westerns this is worth tracking down.
And special mention goes to…
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand: This is a delight of a book, and if you have an afternoon to spend and want to spend it with a wry smile plastered to your face this is the book to do it with. How can you not love a play that gives stage directions such as: “A MUSKETEER, superbly mustached, enters”?