HORROR AT FONTENAY
Here is a wonderful discovery; a novel by the great Alexandre Dumas père, never before translated into English. We owe this to that distinguished author and critic Mr. Alan Hull Walton. In a brief preface he describes how he came across a copy of the book while staying with a friend in Paris and found it to be a most intriguing story of the occult.
Mr. Hull Walton not only translated it but, while retaining Dumas’s vivid scenes, cut out all the redundant matter. And no one could have done a better job of reconstruction from the French than the translator of Baudelaire, J. K. Huysmans and the Marquis de Sade.
The story opens with a quarrier who has just cut off his wife’s head surrendering himself as a murderer to the Mayor of Fontenay. The man swears that the head of his wife spoke to him after he had cut it off.
This leads to a horrifying episode in the Revolution during its darkest days of the Terror, when even colleagues of Robespierre feared that at any moment they might be arrested and before nightfall their bloody heads would be in the basket of the guillotine. The fascinating question arises, was Dr. Guillotine really right in his contention that his invention provided a more painless form of execution than hanging?
In the old days, when condemned criminals were simply hung by a noose of rope from a gallows or the stout branch of a tree – instead of the later method in which they were dropped through a trap and a wooden chock under the chin broke their necks – they undoubtedly continued to live for quite a while after their apparent execution. In many cases relatives or friends bribed the hangman to leave the spot immediately he had done his job then cut the victim down and resuscitated him.
Here we read of a hangman who returned to the gallows by night to rob a man he had hanged. How awful must have been his horror when, having eased up what he believed to be a corpse, it turned upon him and put the rope round his own neck.
We read, too, of the judge cursed by a man he condemned to death and haunted with ever increasing horrors until, unable to bear it longer, his fears led to his death.
And what a graphic picture we are given of another episode in the Revolution. Not content with murdering their King and Queen, the besotted mob dragged from their tombs in the royal mausoleum at St. Denis the bodies of their former sovereigns and threw them into a pit with quick lime. One fiendish sans-culotte pulled the beard from the skeleton face of the most beloved of all French monarchs, King Henry IV of France and Navarre. For that act of sacrilege the villain was most appropriately dealt with in a manner he could least have expected.
The story carries us then to a castle deep in the forests of Central Europe. A beautiful young girl, who is a guest there, becomes the passionately beloved of two half-brothers. One is good and chivalrous, the other evil and demoniac. A vampire enters on the scene. He sucks the girl’s blood while she sleeps until she is near dead from the loss of it. Tradition tells us that once a vampire has successfully attacked a victim, the victim, upon apparent death, also becomes a vampire. Can this lovely girl be saved from such a terrible fate?
In my view Dumas père is by far the greatest historical novelist who ever lived. When young I read every book by him I could get hold of. Later I became the happy possessor of one of the de luxe editions, limited to 50 sets, consisting of 60 volumes of his best known works. Never can one forget his Three Musketeers and its sequels; his books about Henry of Navarre, of the marvellous series in which he carries us from the days of Madame du Barry and Louis XV through the scandal of “the Queen’s Necklace” and the Revolution, to the ultimate horror of the execution of the beautiful Marie Antoinette.
How very fortunate I am to have the honour to present to the British public a Dumas – with all the Master’s wonderful capacity for story telling – that has never before been translated.