Home » OldThings » BSFA » A Trilogy of Vampire Books by Paul Féval

A Trilogy of Vampire Books by Paul Féval

Adapted by Brian Stableford, Black Coat Press.

The Vampire Countess ISBN 0-9740711-5-3 pp351

Knightshade (Le Chevalier Ténèbre) ISBN 0-9740711-4-5 pp176

Vampire City ISBN 0-9740711-6-1 pp200

The Vampire genre has long been established in folklore, literature and cinema and these days its conventions are almost rigidly defined. The vampire is a bloodsucker, active by night only and has aversions to stakes, garlic and crucifixes. But these conventions have largely been defined by the “mother” of all vampire novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and enhanced by his plethora of cinematic incarnations. Indeed nowadays these conventions are implicit for most vampire books/films, unless the author goes to tremendous lengths to dispel the myths. So then, it comes as a refreshing change to be able to read stories about vampires before they were famous. Hair transplants, bandits, multiplicity, scalpings, an opulent city of mausolea, animal vampires, hallucinations, avarice and love are amongst the many themes and ideas used within Paul Féval’s trilogy of vampire tomes. Writing in mid Nineteenth Century France, Féval was not specifically a genre writer, but he was prolific – his output was enormous, and many of his works fall into the “penny dreadful” mould or were published as partworks. Although neglected compared to, say, Dumas he is still read and his works (most notably Le Bosu) have been adapted for cinema. These books do not merely contain horrors, they are also tales of adventure, crime and comedy – a melange of styles, flitting from one to another.

Seduction, conspiracy, and betrayal are the key themes of The Vampire Countess. Set against a seedy Paris backdrop, the young René de Kervoz rejects the love of his life, Angela, seduced by a beautiful woman. It’s not really his fault however, as this woman just happens to be Madam La Comtess Marcian Gregoryi, a notorious vampire whose life is extended by scalps, ripped from her victims, her hair acquiring the colour of the poor unfortunate’s very own tresses. Such a tragic fate befell young René’s true love, Angela. Moreover the fiendish countess also gets him hooked on opium and tricks René into betraying his uncle for the dual purposes of revenge and greed. Féval uses real historical personages along with his fictional characters to produce a ripping, if slightly confusing, yarn. Reminiscent of Erzsebet Bathory, who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth, La Comtess is truly terrible, her powers of seduction magnificent – once trapped, poor René doesn’t have a hope – he is kept under a spell, a slave to her whims.

Knightshade is a tale of phantoms and brigands, admittedly with more brigands and less vampirism than expected. Events take place at one of Archbishop de Quelen’s soirées. His distinguished guests are amongst Paris’s most eminent citizens and they demand a story. Amongst these Parisian partygoers lurks Monsignor von Altenheimer who has quite a tale to tell… of the notorious Brothers Ténèbre, “two of the dead”, one an oupire, the other a vampire. Their graves had been opened many times over the course of 400 years; sometimes there were bodies inside, one large, one small, and at other times the graves were found to be empty. This notorious pair were villains in every sense of the word, outlaws and thieves who terrorised most of Europe. But the hero in this tale is an unlikely one and may be just as supernatural as the villains. The structure unfolds tales within tales and several plot twists, as all good pulp should.

Now Vampire City’s story is a quest as young Anna (a heroine based on popular Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe), runs to the aid of her childhood friends, who have fallen foul of notorious vampire Monsieur Goetzi. Along with her faithful servants she pursues the errant fiend across Europe and catches up with him inside Selene, the magnificent and malevolent Vampire City, an architectural wonder full of mausolea, temples and sarcophagi; all utterly awe-inspiring but devoid of life… until the vampires awaken. Féval really lets his imagination run riot in this book – anything is possible. M. Goetzi’s vampirism involves hair transplantation and the ability to reproduce by turning his victims into exact copies of himself. Anna is a feisty heroine, although she doesn’t get too heavily involved with the physical side of vampire slaying, she leads the party of vampire hunters and makes all the decisions concerning how to thwart Goetzi’s insidious plans.

Although cracking yarns, these books are not the easiest of reads as the plot structures and extensive list of characters demand a good deal of the reader’s attention if progression is to be made with any sense of coherence. Much of Féval’s work was serialised and this is often reflected in the narratives – a chapter may end on a shocking revelation, then the next few chapters go back in time to explain events before the story gathers pace again. Additionally there are many references to contemporary people and events, but fear not, each book bears a handy set of endnotes that provides much needed background material. Particularly praiseworthy is the fact that the forewords serve as in introduction to Féval himself, his oeuvre, his contemporaries and literary movements of the time, while the afterwords discuss the themes and ideas within the story. The foreword for the Vampire Countess is particularly helpful as it provides a lot of historical information, essential to understanding the underlying events of the narrative. This use of notes is a great move, and means you can read the book from start to finish without running the risk of ruining any surprises, as effectively there are no spoilers. The books are exciting and inventive, as all good popular fiction should be, but they are also rewarding, fascinating and delightfully translated. A great twist on the vampire genre and welcome revival of an author who has been overlooked in favour of his contemporaries.