Tangled Web UK Review October 2008
The Vampire of Ropraz by
pbk out October 08
(Bitter Lemon Press)
In France, Chessex is best known for his novel LíOgre which won the Prix Goncourt in 1973. In his native Switzerland, he is a controversial figure, his depictions of Swiss society provoking scandal and hostility. Here, he concentrates on a strange and remote area of the Jura Mountains.
It is 1903, and the Jura is far from any modern amenities. Beams in barns are ideal for suicides hanging themselves, and guns figure large in the farms of the region. Calvinism has held sway for centuries, but inhabitants of the area still cross themselves at a fleeting glimpse of monsters in the dark. Sexual privation is commonplace, and resorting to potions and magic still prevalent. But when the pretty 20 year-old Rosa dies of meningitis, it still shocks the community when her grave is found opened up, the body violated and parts eaten. Soon the epithet of the Vampire of Ropraz is coined.
Many men are questioned by the police including two mad brothers, a butcher, a medical student and later, when other violations occur, a schoolmaster. This man has written strange love letters to women, and has now turned novelist. But this makes him too oddball to be even considered. Finally, a young farm-hand is discovered having carnal relations with farm beasts. He fits the bill, and Favez is condemned on circumstantial evidence and incarcerated. Dr Mahaim, a psychiatrist, deems him innocent of the violation of dead bodies, but while he is imprisoned a mysterious woman visits him. She is apparently drawn to him sexually by the connotations of his notoriety. When he is released, she has changed his nature, and it leads to his downfall.
The story is based on a genuine case of grave-defiling and necrophilia, and Chessex gives barely more than the facts of the matter. However, the sparse, bare prose that builds on the facts conjures a world of repression, suspicion and dark fears. This is the sort of startlingly simple prose that the French (or in this case the Swiss) excel at. Chessex offers no more than is needed to fill the reader with horror in what is no more than a short story. But itís a short story of epic proportions, dealing with deep and dark humans passions. It can be read in forty minutes, but it will leave a lasting impression.
Author of Falconer books and short listed for 1999 Ellis Peters Historical Crime Dagger)
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