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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.  

You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.

When Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize it raised quite a few eye-brows. Not least because apparently there was a suspicious flurry of betting on the title before the announcement was made. As I had never read anything by Mantel before, I thought I would check out what all the fuss was about. Following this novel about death, palmistry and the tricks of memory, I am fairly confident Wolf Hall is not another bodice-ripper. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Alison Hart is a palm reader and fortune teller who appears to have a genuine ability to speak to the dead. Overweight and matronly in appearance, with bangles and jewellery for effect, pretending to an Irish ancestry for performance purposes, she expertly juggles the sympathy of her audience, with her gift for insight into their lives. Initially suspicious, Colette becomes convinced of Ali’s gift for speaking with individuals who have passed over ‘spiritside’.

When we first meet Colette she has become an assistant and recorder of Ali’s experiences as a medium. Having escaped a cold marriage to the shallow Gavin, and a career dependent on upskilling her knowledge of office software packages, she embarks on unravelling the mysterious past of her ‘partner’. She discovers that Ali is accompanied by not only an initially mischievous spirit guide named Morris, but the souls of several other increasingly threatening men. All of them figured prominently in her childhood, trapped in a house sitting on a barren English wasteland, where her mother entertained groups of men at a time. Ali never came to know her father and her mother’s grip on sanity began to wither while she was still quite young. When she began to see and hear the dead, she suspected she too was losing her mind.

As Colette spends more time with the bewildering older woman, she begins to wonder if perhaps she has. We follow the developing relationship between the two women during major events such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 tragedy. Ali and her community of fellow psychics respond in a very peculiar way to these occurrences, with Di in particular mocked mercilessly by the aging coven of women. Just as Ali’s mother sold her body to an endless number of servicemen, she finds herself selling her body and sanity for the use of irascible spirits haunting their descendents.

At times this book reminded me of Will Self’s How The Dead Live (itself a parody of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). It lacks the scatological humour of these two books, instead mining a quiet form of personal tragedy. Colette is at a remove from her guru into the ways of the dead courtesy of more than her psychic abilities. She understands divination and palmistry only as a money-making opportunity (which earns the respect of her feckless husband Gavin). To her Ali’s distressing past is only content for a future book on the subject of a genuine psychic, who happens to also be quite the entertainer. Occasionally we are privy to the discussions between Morris and fellow souls spiritside, who linger on the border of this world, waiting for the likes of Ali to give them access to the physical world. They cannot acknowledge that time has marched on and their memories of their lives bear no relationship to the spectacle of psychics on cable television and phone sex lines.

Mantel plays with how we divorce ourselves from being with others by relating only to voices, either the table-tapping of the paranormal set, or a breathy voice echoing out of a phone handset. This is a quiet and unsettling novel about modern lives stranded by a fear of the future and a refusal to acknowledge the past.

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