Thursday, February 10, 2011

100 Years of Fantômas: The Early Novels

Uncredited cover art for FANTOMAS LE NUOVE AVVENTURE,
a recent Italian publication.
One hundred years ago today, the criminal genius known as Fantômas was first released into the world in the form of a fat paperback novel printed on uncut pulp paper. Written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, it sent shock waves throughout popular culture which resonated in literature (with numerous knock-offs), silent films (the Feuillade serial adaptations, but also notably F.W. Murnau's FAUST, which quoted Gino Starace's striking cover painting), and which still resonate today. One of these still-rumbling shock waves we now know as the Anti-Hero.

To acknowledge this important date, I decided to reprint here my essay on the original Souvestre-Allain novel, which first appeared in HORROR: ANOTHER 100 BEST BOOKS (Running Press, 2005), edited by Stephen Jones & Kim Newman. I have done this, but further browsing through my computer files unearthed a forgotten folder containing notes from my readings of the second and fourth novels of the long-running series in English translation, which I began compiling for some forgotten and unfulfilled purpose back in 2001. So I have also included these, with my apologies for overlooking the third, LE MORT QUI TUE (US: MESSENGERS OF EVIL), which was actually my favorite of those first four -- and my heartiest centenary wishes for the Lord of Terror.

FANTOMAS (February 1911)

FANTOMAS exploded in the heart of pre-WWI France like a bomb flung from an opera gloved hand. It was the first of 32 novels of terror written by Souvestre and Allain, all paperback originals published monthly between February 1911 and September 1913. Each volume carried the distinctive "Fantômas" logo and a chilling cover painting by Gino Starace─a severed hand clutching a roulette wheel, a nurse screaming in a room splashed with blood, a man disposing of someone's head from a hatbox─establishing their paternal ties to the American crime pulps of the 1930s and '40s. Unlike the 80-page "novels" promised on the covers of The Shadow, each new Fantômas novel was as thick as cake─actually Dickensian in its accumulation
of character and incident─and the French public reached for their pocket knives to cut its signatures with ravenous appetite.

For some reason, the Fantômas novels have been absorbed into the genre of mystery and detection, rather than into the horror genre where they truly belong. As Geoffrey O'Brien observed, "Fantômas is not a puzzle, but an intoxicant." The Starace painting on the cover of Fantômas shows the title character─"The Genius of Crime" (a phrase which Sax Rohmer would appropriate for his Dr. Fu Manchu)─in tie and tails with a black mask and glinting dagger, straddling the whole of Paris. Larger than life, he is seemingly beyond arrest, a Reign of Terror incarnate, but Inspector Juve refuses to accept this. Fantômas may seem a fantastic enlargement of earlier French literary figures such as Rocambôle and Arsène Lupin─those archetypes of "the gentleman thief"─yet the book's true villain of the piece turns out to be a very clever and tangible murderer named Gurn, whom Juve merely suspects of being Fantômas.

What elevates Fantômas to greatness, in my estimation, is that nowhere do Souvestre and Allain explicitly confirm or deny Juve's suspicions.

As the book opens, Juve summons Fantômas into being by speaking his name aloud:

"What did you say?"
"I said: Fantômas!"
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing... everything!"
"But what is it?"
"No one... and yet, yes, it is someone!"
"And what does this someone do?"
"Spreads terror!"
Did Fantômas exist before this moment?

Remarkably, everything that we learn about this arch-criminal originates with Juve, who holds Fantômas personally accountable for all that thwarts or vexes him. If crime lends meaning to the life of a policeman, might Fantômas be the inverse projection of a detective with a gargantuan ego? Lending credence to this interpretation is that Juve's own colleagues scoff at his belief in
this mythical Fantômas. However, as the book continues, as we repeatedly encounter characters on both sides inhabiting different disguises, Juve's paranoia slowly infects us. The more colorfully a new incidental character is described, the more heavily the stage make-up is trowelled-on, so to speak, the more we delight in sussing out whether they are in fact Fantômas, Juve, or the very person they claim to be.

Throughout the novel, one encounters characters on both sides inhabiting different guises, their ages ranging anywhere from the thirtyish Gurn to M. Etienne Rambert, who is described as twice as old. To Juve, they are all potentially Fantômas. His viewpoint slowly infects the reader, whose appetite is whetted for fantastic intrigue; the more colorfully a new incidental character is described by the authors, as they trowel on the makeup so to speak, the more the reader delights in anticipating whether they will turn out to be Juve, Fantômas, or perhaps merely the person they appear to be, as occurs with one of the book's most outlandish figures, the waggish vagrant Bouzille.

As the mystery deepens, one begins to suspect that Juve himself is Fantômas. In the course of his quixotic investigation, Juve shows himself an equal master of disguise, and when he aids and abets Charles Rambert─a young man wanted for the murder of the novel's first victim─Juve reveals himself as someone who places his personal needs and instincts above the requirements of law. Sensing a kindred spirit in this innocent fugitive, he bestows on him the new identity of "Jérôme Fandor," an alias chosen because it "sounds something like Fantômas." Thus, Juve unwittingly confesses a sense of enchantment with his foe, a dichotomy reflected elsewhere in the character of Lady Beltham, the lover and chief accomplice of Fantômas who is also the widow of a man he murdered.

In the next book JUVE CONTRE FANTOMAS, the authors persist in teasing us with the question of whether Fantômas truly exists─until the final chapter. In a perfunctory finale (at least as represented by the English translation), a figure in black is explicitly identified as Fantômas. The mystery comes to an end, but what arises in its place is one of the most seminal characters in the annals of horror fiction, comparable to Bram Stoker's Dracula in the sheer number and variety of its offspring. Notable examples include Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, Angela & Luciana Giussani's Diabolik, Grant Morrison's Fantomex, and that quirky Australian imitation of Clarence W. Martin, Ubique─The Scientific Bushranger.

The end of the first Fantômas cycle coincided with the onset of World War I. Pierre Souvestre─the series' prime mover─died in 1914 at the age of 40, less than one year into his military service. Marcel Allain revived the character in 1925 with a series of 34 sixteen-page magazine stories, later collected in five additional books. (A few more followed.) Though Allain's works aren't the equal of those he wrote with Souvestre, all five were translated for the English market─which can be said of only a paltry seven titles from the classic run. Of those seven, Book Three, LE MORT QUI TUE (US/UK: MESSENGERS OF EVIL, 1917), is outstanding, with Fantômas committing murders while wearing the skin of a dead man's hands for gloves, and L'AGENT SECRET (US/UK: A NEST OF SPIES, 1917), the fourth, is arguably the smoking gun behind Fritz Lang's SPIONE (US: SPIES, 1928), James Bond, and all the spy entertainment we enjoy to this day.

FANTOMAS exists in a few different English translations. The earliest, published in 1915 and credited to Jules Verne's translator Cranstoun Metcalfe, is the preferred and most complete text. The uncredited William Morrow translation (1986) is expurgated and rather too modernistic in flavor. There also exists a Mayflower Dell (UK) paperback original, published in 1966 under the bizarre title A MAD WOMAN'S PLOT. This lively, somewhat condensed translation was the work of Raymond Rudorff, who also translated Ornella Volta's novel THE VAMPIRE (1970) and whose own books include STUDIES IN FEROCITY: A BOOK OF HUMAN MONSTERS (1969) and THE DRACULA LEGEND (1972).

A shorter but more focused and energetic book than the first, JUVE CONTRE FANTOMAS finds Souvestre & Allain defining their niche,while at the same time conforming somewhat to popular expectations.
While the first novel was more rambling and picaresque─even padded with character and incident, to an extent─the second is more streamlined, introducing fewer diversions from its central narrative. It is possible that the cinema was an influence; though Louis Feuillade was still a couple of years away from adapting FANTOMAS for the screen, the second novel contains an amusing episode in which Fantômas manipulates Juve into disrupting the filming of a scene for a silent movie and actually grappling with, and shooting, the hapless actor whom he believes to be his arch-nemesis. Also, the first novel had been a cause célèbre, and the authors certainly heard from their public what they liked most about it, and what they would like to see happen in future installments, much as happened to Charles Dickens before them.

Though the publications of the first two novels were separated by only one month, the events of THE EXPLOITS OF JUVE take place three years after the those of the first volume -- at least they do in this English translation, which did follow the first translated novel at a comparable distance.

Perhaps the most surprising episode of THE EXPLOITS OF JUVE reveals it to be a possible inspiration for one of the great future classics of mystery fiction and film. In Chapter XXIX, "Through the Window," Juve poses as a wheelchair-bound paraplegic and takes an apartment adjacent to that of Josephine, keeping an eye on her activities by using a special pair of binoculars that allow him to see what is happening at an angle opposite the direction in which he appears to be looking. One night, he spies on her and sees her reacting in horror to an unseen intruder. Looking on in horror, torn between his desire to see what will happen and not wishing to destroy his cover by racing to her aid past the concièrge downstairs, Juve waits too long and stands helpless as Josephine is flung from her window. Awakening to his greater responsibility, he races to her side, but it is too late to save her. The parallels to Cornell Woolrich's REAR WINDOW, and more particularly Alfred Hitchcock's film of it, are impossible to overlook.

Another influential touch is the rather daring conceit, for its time, of having Lady Beltham pose as the Mother Superior of the Convent at Nogent. As the novel series continued, one of the most famous Starace covers (for LE CERCUILE VIDE) depicted Juve and Fantômas, both garbed as nuns and firing pistols at one another! When Georges Franju directed a sound remake of Louis Feuillade's JUDEX in 1963, he included an hommage to JUVE CONTRE FANTOMAS by having the villainous Diana Monti (Francine Bergé) disguise herself as a nun, who is shown performing devilish acts of kidnapping and murder in her sacred habit before peeling it away from a sinful-
looking, skin-tight, danceskin prior to making an escape by water. (In the original silent Judex serial, which was Feuillade's circumspect apology for the glamorized villainy of his Fantômas chapterplays, Monti─played by Musidora─posed as a schoolteacher rather than as a nun.)

In this book, Souvestre and Allain continue to tease the reader with the question of whether or not Fantômas exists until the final chapter. It is here, in a short and somewhat perfunctory finale, that someone─a figure in a black mask and cape─is specifically addressed in the third person as Fantômas for the first time. The revelation has the distinct feel of a curiously abrupt change of plan. Just a few chapters before this, when Gurn appears before Lady Beltham in his guise as Dr. Chaleck, the villain responds coyly to her point-blank question, "Tell me, are you not, yourself─Fantômas?"

Chaleck freed himself gently, for Lady Beltham had wound her arms around his neck.
"I know nothing. I am merely the lover who loves you." (p. 263)
And later, after speaking of their future plans, Lady Beltham asks her beloved:

"And Fantômas? What will become of him? Of you?"
"Have I told you that I was Fantômas?"
(p. 264)

Two chapters later, Lady Beltham─in her guise as the Mother Superior at the Convent at Nogent─hears a voice summon her by name:

At the sound of this voice, Lady Beltham fancied she recognized her lover.
"What do you want? What are you doing? It is madness!"
"Nothing is madness in Fantômas!"
(pp. 283-4)

The voice compels her to leave by order of Fantômas, and when she balks at this command, it reminds her, "Were you not ready to leave everything, Lady Beltham, to make a new life for yourself with... him you love?"
The careful phrasing, and the absence of a visual image, create a most ephemeral impression; it might be Gurn, but if it were Gurn, why does he not show himself? The answer might be that Gurn has recognized that Lady Beltham is not so much in love with him as in love with the possibility that he may be the larger-than-life Fantômas. He teases and lures her with the possibility into doing as he wishes, always suggesting the possibility of an alter ego, but never confessing. Considering the myriad disguises and ruses employed by Juve throughout the two novels, one may susceptibly interpret this caginess as a police trick to ensnare Lady Beltham, but as the book hastens to its cliffhanger finale, the ambiguity so key to the initial charm of the series is sacrificed.
The paginations cited here reflect the 1916 edition. THE SILENT EXECUTIONER, the later translation published by William Morrow, is a streamlined affair that removes a good deal of the Dickensian detail that set the atmosphere of these books in an effort to introduce them to a new and younger audience.

L'AGENT SECRET ("The Secret Agent," 1911)

A young woman known as Bobinette is conducting an affair with one Colonel Blocq, but unknown to him, is in the service of spies. On the pretext of repossessing some love letters left carelessly in a drawer, she steals an important government document in the Colonel's possession which explains the manufacture of a new military firing device. Before she is long out the door, the Colonel realizes what has happened and pursues her... but is shot dead in his taxi by a silent weapon that fires a small pin into his heart. Juve deduces that such a weapon could only be employed by one so fiendish as Fantômas, but Jérôme Fandor─who is aging into a more practical and pragmatic journalist─disagrees, arguing that the true world of wartime espionage is quite fiendish enough.

Fandor is drawn in deeper when he is approached by a young officer, Corporal Vinson, who confesses that he is a traitor to his country and intends to commit suicide, after baring his breast to the journalist. Vinson explains that he has been insidiously lured into the spy game and is in too far to withdraw. Fandor sends Vinson away for an undetermined period while, following a period of second-hand military training, he dons his uniform to see how the spy ring functions at first hand. He gets away with it for a time, but is eventually caught and imprisoned, accused of the murder of Colonel Brocq on the basis of some banknotes of the Colonel's which Fantômas cleverly arranged to have pass through his hands.

At Fandor's trial, he is acquitted on the strength of the surprise testimony of Bobinette─whom Juve has fortuitously saved from a van in which Fantômas had enclosed her with a hungry bear!─who concludes her admissions by swallowing a phial of poison. She is taken to the prison infirmary, but the novel, hastening to its final chapter after this, passes over including any definitive account of her fate. Likewise, the character of Wilhelmina─certainly the daughter of Lady Beltham (and kept in ignorance of her survival), and arguably the true daughter of Fantômas, in whose care she lives as the daughter of Baron de Naarvobeck─is abandoned on the occasion of the cotillion where she is to announce her forthcoming marriage.

The trap used by Juve to finally defeat Fantômas at Wilhelmina's cotillion involves the surprise participation of the King of Weimar, whose help Juve enlists by eminding him of the time he came to his assistance where Fantômas was concerned. This adventure, strangely enough, was not yet published but would form the next book in the series, UN ROI PRISONNIEREDE FANTOMAS (June 1911; US: A ROYAL PRISONER, 1918)─which leads one to presume that the two books were written simultaneously, and that the industrious co-authors lost track of their narrative chronology.

Due to its subject matter, A NEST OF SPIES is a more sober affair than its predecessors, with few of the flights of macabre fantasy or ingenious structural experiments that animated MESSENGERS OF EVIL, the English translation of LE MORT QUI TUE. On the other hand, it is arguably the seminal work behind the entirety of espionage entertainment, which seemingly first went global with the release of Fritz Lang's SPIONE in 1927.
One closing note on the English translations of these books. As noted earlier, the William Morrow translations published in the 1980s were streamlined, even modernized in terms of their language, but even the earliest English translations were not invulnerable to editorial interference. Of these, only the first four books and one later one -- the impressively dense THE LONG ARM OF FANTOMAS (based on the sixth entry of July 1911, LE POLICIER APACHE) -- appear complete or near-complete, with A ROYAL PRISONER cutting out roughly two-thirds of the original text!
For more information about Fantômas in fiction and film, visit The Fantomas Website.


  1. Anonymous1:27 PM

    I have a complete set (all 32) of the original Fantomas pulps....all 1st prints. How difficult are these to get today? Any idea what kind of dollar value these would have today, although, I am not interested in selling. Thanks.


  2. Well, eBay makes them a bit easier to snag today but they are still quite valuable -- if you think about it, these things are not only quite old and first printings, but they survived two World Wars! Their value is entirely dependent on condition and how much they would tempt a buyer, but you can check the value of individual copies by searching for the titles at or completed eBay listings.

  3. Just a head's up and or reminder that in San Francisco this Wednesday (April 6, 2011) starts the 100 years of Fantomas celebration.

  4. Hey, nice site you have here! Keep up the excellent work!

  5. Wonderful to see this! I had the pleasure of translating Vol. 8, "The Daughter of Fantomas", which will pass it's 100th year since publication in September. We're planning a special celebration of that, with more details at:

    A simplified version of that novel is slated to be Act II of the musical I'm working on. A video is under production, and the complete sound track is slated for release in 2013, in time for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Fueillade movie in Paris.


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