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What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

For everywhere folk have again taken out the Christ they’ve kept hidden since Catholic days. Now, in every village and hamlet, you can see braided garlic and the holy images repugnant to the monster of Ropraz hanging from the window frames and catches, from lintels, balconies, railings, even from secret doorways and in cellars. Crosses are erected again in this Protestant countryside where none have been seen for four centuries. On hills, beside country roads, the object dominated since Reformation days is erected again. The vampire fears the symbol of Christ? “There, that’ll make him think twice! And the dog is loose.”

History is peppered with tragic accounts of rampant superstition in small communities leading to fevered accusations of witchcraft, vampirism and demonic possession against people whose lives were then destroyed by the enflamed mob. I once had an English teacher who claimed that women accused of being witches were in fact proto-feminists. I find that doubtful. To my mind those accused by the community were most likely already isolated from the other folk in the area, nevermind what they thought, or believed in. Victims of history if you like, our knowledge of the past passed down to us from the dominant narratives of those who dominate.

Jacques Chessex here presents a semi-fictionalised account of actual events. The town of Ropraz in Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century was gripped by tremendous fear after the body of a young woman, the daughter of a local justice of the peace who had passed away from meningitis, is discovered to have been disinterred and interfered with in the graveyard itself. The young Rosa Gilliéron mutilated corpse was found by her own father only two days after she was buried. Ropraz itself having already been moved to great despair by the tragic death of the beautiful girl is incensed at the monstrousness of the crime. The body has been sexually molested, chewed on and even had organs cut away by a sharp blade. Only a fiend could be capable of such a horrific crime. The people take to their homes, arm themselves and whisper to one another at night of the Vampire of Ropraz.

After shock comes anger and a desperate need for swift justice. Accusations are thrown against innocents, family feuds are reignited, suspicion falls on medical students, butchers and well-known criminals. The police are unable to find the culprit and then as the winter snows melt further outrages are committed against two more girls, thought safely resting in their graves. The vampire seems to be on the move, striking out to find more amenable hunting grounds in neighbouring towns. Word of the crimes reach newspaper readers across Europe, Catholic superstitions return to Protestant Switzerland and no one can tell where the fiend will strike next.

Then a man known as Charles-Augustin Fevez, a drunk with an exaggerated gait due to a dislocated shoulder, is identified as the culprit. Found molesting a cow in a stable, the leap from bestiality to bestial savagery is an easy one to make in the eyes of the public. The vampire of Ropraz has been found and the people want revenge.

What follows is a fascinating account of mob-justice and early psychiatry. The descriptions by Chessex may take artistic licence with certain details, certainly this is a more lyrical record than usually found in history books, but he shows a keenly felt personal interest in the scapegoating of Fevez by the community that never wanted him. Not that any argument protesting his innocence is made – this book is more interested in how a human can be made into a monster to excuse the crimes of the people around him. The small towns in Switzerland are in this period crippled by poverty and misery, with alcoholism, incest and mental illness found everywhere:

They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam

There can be no justice, only the exacting of a brief vengeance before life trundles on.

Where before Fevez was an anonymous stable-hand, he is become a celebrity of sorts. A lady in white bribes a warden to be allowed to spend time with Fevez in his cell on several occasions. In a strange inversion, Fevez becomes alike to the virginal innocents he is supposed to have ravished. Chessex ends his tale with the troubled man from Ropraz gaining immortality from an unexpected source.

A very curious record of a grotesque and bizarre historical event.  

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