REIGN IN BLOOD
The secret mark that French pulp villain Fantômas left on the 20th Century
By Erik Morse
Early in 1911 popular French publishing house Fayard released the first of 32 monthly serial novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas. Subtitled ‘A Shadow on the Guillotine,’ this ultra-violent pulp tale recounted the exploits of the eponymous master villain as he reined blood and magick upon the boulevards of Paris. Pursued by police inspector, Juve, and his journalist sidekick, Jerome Fandor, Fantômas slaughters members of French high-society indiscriminately before stealing away with their wealth and, often, their very identities—in his travels between the Dordogne and Paris, Fantômas dispatches the Marquise de Langrune, her steward Dollon, Lord Beltham, Princess Sonia Danidoff, the famed actor Valgrand and a passenger liner full of travelers en route to South America. When Fantômas, alias Etienne Rambert, alias Gurn, is apprehended by Juve at Lady Beltham’s villa, he is brought to trial at the Palais de Justice, found guilty of murder and condemned to the guillotine. However with the aid of his mistress, Fantômas steals away from his Santé prison cell and fills the vacancy with an unsuspecting look-a-like who is left to the blade. When Juve discovers the ruse, he proclaims, “Curses! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas is free! He had an innocent man executed in his place! Fantômas! I tell you, Fantômas is alive.”
Within months of its February debut, the Fantômas serial became a pop smash with the reading public, profiting no doubt from the French public’s unquenchable thirst for violence, mayhem and pulp. At 65 centimes a copy, sales for each volume reached easily into the hundreds of thousands. American poet and Fantômas enthusiast John Ashbery contends that the real success of the serial was its transcendence of class, education and sex, from “Countesses and concierges; poets and proletarians; Cubists, nascent Dadaists, soon-to-be-Surrealists. Everyone who could read, and even those who could not, shivered at posters of a masked man in impeccable evening clothes, dagger in hand, looming over Paris like a somber Gulliver, contemplating hideous misdeeds from which no citizen was safe.” Such was the popular reaction to the Fayard publication, Marcel Allain would later recall, with some hyperbole, “The adventures of Fantômas have surpassed those of the Bible.”
Nearly a hundred years later, we can see the frightening metastasis of the master of crime’s “brand”—from his beginnings amongst the Right Bank sophisticates who released him upon the world, to the marauding gangs plundering and murdering in his name, to the sacrificial cults who would congregate at the witching hour to reenact his sins. His transgressions—bold, fiendish and inexplicable—were the narratives of nightmares. Fantômas captured the imagination of his admirers and extended his influence through the artistic genealogies of Europe, leaving a catechism of excess, debauchery and violence to a brood as varied as Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Georges Bataille, Alain Robbe-Grillet, James Joyce, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, Jean Marais, Alain Resnais, René Magritte, Francois Truffaut and the Mike Patton-Buzz Osbourne-Trevor Dunn-Dave Lombardo art-rock superband of the same name. In their major contributions to the century, the words and deeds of France’s supreme villain pullulate still more revolutionary achievements and still darker crimes.
Here, in this extended fait-diver, is the unedited, uncensored and untold history of the criminal of the century…
This article continues, for 9,500 more words, in Arthur No. 28 (March 2008)