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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Le Vampire de Ropraz

Le Vampire de Ropraz - Jacques Chessex A few years ago, I attended a wedding. We had known Mary (not her real name) and her family since she was a small girl; they had lived a few doors away from us at the time, and Mary had played with our kids. They were very fond of each other. The family was deeply Christian in that old-fashioned way which prioritises loving God and your neighbor, rather than, for example, campaigning to prevent third world aid that involves distribution of contraceptives. Not that there's anything wrong with that either, I hasten to add; I'd hate to appear prejudiced. To each his own. At any rate, Mary had grown up to be a beautiful young woman, and now she was getting married and leaving home.

We'd heard that Mary's fiancé was a soldier who had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we'd never met him. On entering the church, it was obvious at a glance which side was the bride's, and which the groom's. On the left, we had the mild-mannered parishioners of St. Matthew's Church. On the right, and again I'd hate to appear prejudiced, there was a collection of seriously dangerous-looking men in their mid 20s. My first thought was that, if I'd seen one of them coming towards me on a dark night, I would instinctively have crossed the road and hoped he hadn't noticed me. A few seconds later, it occurred to me than several of them, maybe even many of them, had probably killed people in the line of duty. I found myself wondering which ones.

The start of the wedding was delayed by about a quarter of an hour. Mary had entered the hall, looking very lovely in her bridal gown, and then dissolved in tears before she got as far as the aisle. We were sitting near the back, and we could see her bridesmaids trying to comfort her. I have never found out why she was crying. Finally, she calmed down, and the ceremony got under way. There was another memorable incident. Shortly after the vicar had married Mary to her new husband, he gave an address where he told a bizarre joke. A young Welsh woman, who was about to be married, was asking her grandfather if he'd ever considered divorcing his wife. "I never once thought of divorcing her!" said the grandfather. "Murdering her... frequently!" It seemed in singularly poor taste. Perhaps the vicar's subconscious was trying to get out a warning. If so, its timing was less than perfect.

I thought of Mary's wedding when I read Le Vampire de Ropraz, a short, elegantly written Swiss French novel based on historical events. In January 1903, a beautiful 20 year old girl named Rosa Gilliéron, living in the village of Ropraz, near Lausanne, suddenly contracted meningitis and died. She was buried in the churchyard, and many people came to the funeral; she had been widely loved and admired, and it was generally felt to be a great tragedy. The next morning, a woodcutter was walking near her grave, when he saw that it had been forced open, and that there were traces of blood in the snow nearby. He summoned help, and the horrified villagers found that someone had unscrewed the lid of the coffin, removed Rosa's corpse, sexually abused it, and then cut off parts of her flesh and eaten them. It was one of the most shocking crimes of its day, and people began to talk of "The Vampire of Ropraz". Later, two other freshly dead corpses were abused in similar fashion in nearby churchyards. All three victims had been attractive, slightly built brunettes.

Suspicion quickly fastened on a young man, Charles-Augustin Favez, who had been arrested on charges of bestiality. As a child, Favez had been the victim of horrific abuse, first at the hands of his natural parents and then of his foster-parents, and as a result was more or less deranged sexually. He was an ideal scapegoat, not least because his powerful physique, long canines and permanently reddened eyes matched well the standard image of a vampire. Favez was held in custody, suspected of violating the three dead women. But the concrete evidence against him was thin, and the consulting psychiatrist had serious doubts that he was the culprit. While in prison, he was visited several times by a mysterious veiled woman, who bribed the jailer to let her see Favez alone. It is uncertain what happened while they were together, but everything suggested that they had some kind of sexual relationship.

Favez was released after four months due to lack of evidence; the public, however, was convinced that he was the vampire, and he was forced to go into hiding. The balance of his mind, already seriously disturbed, can hardly have been improved by this. Several weeks later, he was apprehended a second time, when he tried to rape a widow who apparently had flirted with him on a few occasions. This time, there was no chance of his being released. The trial only took five days, and ended with him being given a life sentence. The psychiatrist persuaded the court that it could be served at his hospital.

Favez stayed there for fifteen years, until he finally escaped one day, and headed over the French border. The First World War was in full swing, and he had no trouble enlisting with the Foreign Legion. He served with them for a few months, became friendly with his commanding officer, and told him his story. Shortly after, the Germans launched a major offensive on that part of the front. During the fighting, the officer was seriously wounded, and Favez was killed. His body was left lying on the field of battle, and never recovered.

But... modern science added a postscript. For reasons best known to themselves, people with access to DNA testing equipment decided to try and determine who the Unknown Soldier really was. They searched their gene databases, and, as you no doubt guessed, came to a surprising conclusion. The Unknown Soldier was none other than Favez, the Vampire of Ropraz.

I'm not sure how much of this is true; clearly not all of it. Snow, blood, sex, violence, insanity, the soldier's art. It's a powerful story. It probably shouldn't have reminded me of Mary's wedding, but it did. As far as I know, she's still happily married.