#909: The Mask of the Vampire (2014) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2022]

Mask of the Vampire

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For someone who wishes there was more ambition displayed in the modern impossible crime novel, I prove hard to please when Gallic maestro of the impossible Paul Halter stretches his wings into his more enterprising undertakings. I can’t shake the feeling that I rated The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999, tr. 2018) a little too harshly, and maybe in a couple of years I’ll feel that The Mask of the Vampire (2014, tr. 2022) deserves more than the three stars I’m giving it. Because, see, there is a lot of ambition here, and I want to celebrate the complexity of Halter’s intentions and achievements…but, I dunno, something just holds me back.

The novel finds us in 1901, in the town of Cleverley, where the mysterious Count Radovic — frequently absent from home — has become the object of the townsfolk’s ire. Not only did his two previous wives die in unusual circumstances, but a series of worrying attacks on local children perpetrated by one of the women have left the denizens of this otherwise-peaceful place up in arms and ready to believe anything. Add in rumours of the Count failing to appear in mirrors, and of a bat trying to force its way into someone’s room, and before you can say “Dracula was published four years ago” you have what appear to be some well-founded suspicions of, er, well, a creature of the night on the prowl. And that is only the beginning…

I have had a reasonable amount of time to think about this book, and I still don’t know where to begin in summarising it…and that, in part, is what makes me suspect that I might be selling it a little short. It seems to writhe like an eel every time I try to come to some opinion on it, since there are so many factors at play, and it’s difficult to keep them all straight in my head. At his best, as in The Madman’s Room (1990, tr. 2007) or The Phantom Passage (2005, tr. 2015), Halter’s scheme’s can be condensed to a simple line or two, their essence distilled so that the new reader gets some idea of what they’re taking on. Here, plots seem to bristle at every corner, so that the headline problem of vampirism probably isn’t even the main mystery of the piece…or maybe it is, because could a mysteriously-preserved corpse, plus the experiences of Ann Sheridan as she visits her friend Elena, the Count’s new wife, be the result of said vampirism? And what about the spiritualist church Life Beyond the Stars?

And all that has to fall into place alongside the locked room murder of Violet Starling, in which an overturned spinning wheel features significantly — just as it will in the vanishing of our suspected vampire from another locked room murder — or the murder, if murder it is, of John McCarthy, who had terrible things to confess before he died. Translator John Pugmire has already divulged that he cut about 50 pages from this novel in translating it, and it’s to be wondered whether doing so condensed things into something approaching a manageable shape or if, perhaps, it removed events which, in framing the puzzles which remain, provided a little more structure to the sprawling, fascinating mess that we have before us. Perhaps I’m going to have to learn French after all, just to find out.

Halter, however, is clearly having a blast, and why not? You don’t weave this sort of demented tapestry without throwing your whole heart into it, and I won’t deny that the eventual pattern which emerges is something close to magnificent in its design. The accusation could be levelled at Halter that he sometimes includes flourishes for the sake of flourishing — c.f. The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005) — and as such can under-develop certain ideas, and full credit is deserved here for how each piece actually plays a crucial part in the villainous plan in motion. You’ll struggle to keep it all in your head, though, and so the fact that Halter not only conceived of it but also managed to get it on the page might be more impressive than we realise.

Plus, any time spent with Owen Burns and his long-suffering Watson, Achilles Stock, is always a pleasure. I think I prefer the functional simplicity of his other series sleuth, Dr. Alan Twist, but Burns’ conceit is difficult not to enjoy…

“It’s well known that two heads are better than one, even if there is an enormous difference between the two intellects.”

…and the sections narrated by Stock contain some fabulous imagery (“His good hand was trembling so much that he almost set his moustache on fire as he tried to light yet another cigarette.”) and very neatly-parsed turns of phrase (“Like little Alice going through the looking glass, we had entered a place where the Cartesian logic of the police no longer applied.”). Plus, our author is clearly enjoying leaning once again into a classic novel by his most telling influence, extending his glee to some character names that drop as Easter eggs into the appropriately meta side of the narrative…though points off for a sentence “hissed” that I’m pretty sure contains no sibilants even in its original rendering (“But why did he do it?”).

Is Halter overreaching himself by promising “a locked room crime of the very first order” early on? Well…that depends. I loved the workings of most of these — the vampire turning into smoke and vanishing up a chimney is a beautifully clever piece of thinking, as is the simplicity behind both the scheme and the realisation of our malefactor being unreflected in mirrors — but, honestly, I’m going to need to reread this at least once to get a handle on what really happens, since there’s so much hearsay and contradiction that at times the only option seems, perhaps appropriately, that you give in and let the madness carry you. A wild, delirious time awaits you between these covers, and it’s a novel with oodles of ambition to spare…but once you’re done, it takes on a dreamlike quality that renders its events impossible to relate to another person. Although, since this means that others would have to read it themselves so that they can understand, maybe that’s deliberate.

Bravo, M. Halter; I shall be mulling this one over for a long, long time!

~

Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated

Featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst:

The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999]
Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Madman’s Room (1990) [trans. 2017]
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
The Demon of Dartmoor (1993) [trans. 2012]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]
Penelope’s Web (2001) [trans. 2021]

Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock:

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]
The Mask of the Vampire (2014) [trans. 2022]
The Gold Watch (2019) [trans. 2019]

Standalones:

The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]

Collected short stories:

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Adey]

Individual short stories [* = collected in the anthology The Helm of Hades (2019)]:

‘Nausicaa’s Ball’ (2004) [trans. 2008 w’ Adey]*
‘The Robber’s Grave’ (2007) [trans. 2007 w’ Adey]*
‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010) [trans. 2010]*
‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011) [trans. 2012]*
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2014) [trans. 2014]*
‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ (2014) [trans. 2015]*
‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ (2015) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) [trans. 2017]*
‘The Helm of Hades’ (2019) [trans. 2019]*

34 thoughts on “#909: The Mask of the Vampire (2014) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2022]

  1. Interesting to hear about the cut 50 pages. That’s disappointing to hear to be honest – as with reprints, I’d like translations to be as close to possible to the originals. I know there are times when the author themselves cuts their own book – The Nine Wrong Answers for example – but is it common practice for a translator to do so? I presume he had Halter’s blessing to do so.

    One reason that’s a shame is that the general story was more engaging to me than the mystery itself – the locked room element is far too technical for my tastes – but the imagery, the homage to Stoker and Le Fanu… the overall vampire story, those were the bits that really hooked me in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s already a long book, and I suppose John’s intention was to ensure the narrative didn’t drag…but, yeah, I’m with you in wondering what structural ties might have been removed, and the shape they may have given what remains. The story’s great, with a lot more detail put into individuals than has been evinced in most of the Halter translations to date, and I actually wouldn’t have minded a little more time in this universe, especially if it filled out more around the central sense of unease and distrust.

      Oh, well, Slooooooowly Learning French Again here I come…

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    • John Pugmire’s translations are never very faithful to the originals . He edits the novel before translating. I once pointed it out to him but he told me to mind my own business, since he was the publisher !

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      • I know John has said that he’s not able to change certain details — character names, say (although there’s one book where he must have or else the problem wouldn’t work…) — but it never occurred to me that other edits would creep in. I suppose it is his call as the one putting in all the effort to bring these book to those of us unintelligent enough to learn a second language…but, man, doesn’t the mind ever itch to know what’s different.

        Dammit, I’m going to have to learn French, aren’t I? And just as I’ve started forgetting some bits of English, too…

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  2. This is already by far the longest Halter we’ve been given to date . . . and now you tell me it’s missing fifty pages? You do indeed have to learn French – OR you need to ask Mr. P. what we’re missing. This would add an additional 15 – 20% to the novel. Is it character development? Even more “atmosphere?” Or is it something so, er, French that Mr. P. felt nous le comprends pas? God help us if it were more in the way of incident because this novel is jam-packed!

    I suspect the editing hurt the novel somewhat because, despite its length and some excellent atmosphere, it did feel choppy to me. I’m used to Halter cramming a huge amount of stuff into a relatively short space; I wonder what it would have felt like to read the whole thing and see if he had given all these murders and myths more room to breathe.

    Could someone cable Xavier Lechard? Inquiring minds want to know . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • It would be fascinating to know what got taken out — I can’t believe it was more incident, like another locked room murder, and I can’t shake the feeling that if there was a little more space around the edge of this one it would hold together more in my mind. At present it’s some tantalising ideas interrupted by a bit of a confusing structure with a genius pattern at the end of it. Another 50 pages to wallow in the absurdity of the whole thing might have been its saving grace.

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  3. I strongly suspect John Pugmire excised those fifty pages in order to make the book similar in tone to the rest of LRI’s Halter output . The two novels released after this one are a clear example of both Paul and John wanting to return to the slimmer and frantic books of the late 80’s, early 90’s.
    I haven’t read this one, but generally there are three things you might cut from his later novels : adventure bits unrelated to the main plot, mythological exposition and interpersonal drama.
    I like those longer novels, but some might find them a bit dense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I very much appreciate this information, Andres! Not sure whether these longer novels would be “not my cup of tea” or if they would increase my respect for Halter! Sometimes I find him “overstuffed,” but then he turns out something like The Gold Watch which is really brilliant.

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      • Given that “overstuffed” means “too many things in not enough space”, another 20-odd pages on this might actually thin this out enough for it to be precisely what you want from Halter. Sacre bleu!!.

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    • Oh, I completely believe that the intent was to streamline this one — there’s already a lot going on, and it would be difficult to condense too greatly. It would also just be marvellous to see the whole thing, y’know? Warts and all!

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  4. Credit where it is certainly due, Halter knows how to let his imagination run wild with a scenario. It seems like “what if there were vampires” is a question a lot of mystery writers ask themselves and the results so often turn out the same way. Halter at least seems to be broadening out that question with his usual quirks and enough ideas for at least two other books that don’t feature everyone’s favorite creatures of the night. As a writer, it certainly gives me the confidence to pursue complex situations in my own stories. And speaking of which, I really ought to get working on expanding out that outline I have been neglecting for too long…

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    • This is in part why I feel a little bad for not rating this more favourably — Halter’s willingness to take on the more inventive end of the impossible spectrum is wonderful to behold. Everyone who devises a locked room in which the victim is shot outside and then locks themself in the room to hide from the killer before dying needs to take note.

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      • Actually no, I hate that kind of chopping. Halter was presumably convinced that it was necessary but can’t have been happy to see such a substantial truncation? Used to do it a lot in Italy and it was years before I knew. Usually just cut for length. Not a good reason “in my book” (sic)

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  5. Can’t wait to find out the missing 50 pages is all just gothic make-out sessions

    But yeah, I dunno, I like this one. Penelope’s Web was very forgettable for me and I kinda hated the White Lady, so maybe it’s just me being like “Ah! There we go!” But the atmosphere was good and the narrative, I think, is one of his most well put-together. I wasn’t too interested in the impossibilities, though. Two of them felt kinda of too far on the side for me to care about. The main one was solid in principle, even if the whole setup behind it was a bit silly for me.

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  6. If 50 extra pages helped flesh out the characters, and make their ready acceptance of the supernatural plausible, then I would be all for it.

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  7. JJ, you know I once myself translated Penelope’s Web just for fun. When later I compared my translation with that of Pugmire, I found differences at several places. On checking, I found that while I was faithful to the original, John had edited it before translation.

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    • Out of interest, can you remember what was changed? Is it a similar case of slimming down the original book for English publication?

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      • There were several instances of omissions/alterations. For example a big emotional outburst by the pastor at the funeral was completely cut. If you wish, I can send you my translation so that you can compare.
        From my email to John Pugmire regarding Penelope’s Web translation:
        “I find that you have taken some liberties with the original text.”
        From his reply:
        “I am authorised to publish a translation and you are not.”

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  8. Here is an example of alteration in Penelope’s Web. (second last para of chapter 2):
    “James started to explain how he had vanquished a number of head hunters”
    The original text reads : “James s’agrippa à un pan de sa veste et le somma de raconter sur-le-champ comment il avait élimine un à un ces méchants coupeurs de tete”
    I can give many such examples.

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  9. (continued) The original text actually means: “James grabbed a portion of the professor’s coat and commanded him to tell right away how he had eliminated one by one those wicked head choppers”

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