book reviews by Althea

Thirty Hours with a Corpse: and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol – Maurice Level ***

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Thirty Hours with a Corpse: and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol
Thirty Hours with a Corpse: and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol by Maurice Level

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very interesting anthology of short stories by this prolific and largely overlooked French author. These are probably best read in small doses, rather than one after the other in large chunks, due to a certain similarity in structure that becomes obvious after a while (the horrific ‘twist’!) – but they’re definitely enjoyable as entertainment, as well as being a fascinating glimpse into the concerns and attitudes of the average French citizen of the times.

The Debt Collector • (1920) • (trans. of L’encaisseur 1910)
Ten years at a bank have established our protagonist as a model employee. So he counts on getting a light sentence after turning himself in for having ‘lost’ the funds entrusted to him. He’s got a scheme… but not all works out quite as planned.

The Kennel • (1920)
A jealous husband is ruthless when the body of a neighbor is found in his unloving wife’s bedroom. (Note to self: regard anyone who keeps vicious animals with suspicious caution.)

Who? • (1920)
It’s passing strange that a chance-met stranger resembles the face a doctor has imagined as that of the skull that adorns his study. But it may be more than mere coincidence.

Illusion • (1920) • (trans. of Illusion… 1910)
A destitute beggar encounters one even more unfortunate than himself: a beggar who is blind. Moved by the blind man’s plight, and unseen, for one evening he poses as a wealthy benefactor. Although it has its touch of horror, overall this is a touching and meaningful story about the good in humanity, rather than the evil.

In the Light of the Red Lamp • (1909) • (trans. of Sous la lumière rouge 1906)
Fragile with grief, a widower asks his friend to accompany him while he develops the last, postmortem photograph of his deceased wife. In the darkroom, he discovers something terrible.

A Mistake • (1920)
Should a doctor be held responsible for decisions resulting from a faulty diagnosis? One patient thinks so! (But the decisions were really, really horrible.)

Extenuating Circumstances • (1920) • (trans. of Circonstances atténuantes 1910)
I still fail to understand why people ‘stick by’ family members who have committed the most horrible crimes. But they still do, just as the mother in this story stands by her son.

The Confession • (1920)
On his deathbed, a prosecutor confesses that for years, he’s been convinced that the man he sent to the gallows was actually innocent. He’s been weltering in guilt. But, as in most of these short stories, there’s a twist at the end.

The Test • (1920)
Will being confronted with a corpse cause a suspect who loudly proclaims his innocence to change his tune?

Poussette • (1920)
Religious fervor and a horror of the more carnal aspects of life have often been connected. However, one elderly, solitary woman extends her expectations of chastity to her pet cat – and she is doomed to be sorely disappointed.

The Father • (1920) • (trans. of Le père 1910)
Almost a precursor to the daytime talk show here… On her deathbed, a mother leaves her son a letter in which is contained a startling revelation. It’s up to him what he chooses to do with the information.

“For Nothing” • (1920)
After growing up in a single-parent household, and enduring the shame and deprivation of poverty, a man finally, as a last resort, appeals to his wealthy father. The man has never acknowledged him, and he doesn’t really expect him to. He makes a rash decision based on that expectation – which turns out to be a terrible mistake.

In the Wheat • (1920)
Malicious gossip sparks a peasant farmer’s suspicions regarding the behavior of his wife toward their landlord – with drastic results.

The Beggar • (1920) • (trans. of Le mendiant 1910)
Cautionary tale: when a family turned away and threatened the beggar who roused them from sleep; little did they know that he bore an urgent appeal for help from their son. If only they had listened…

Under Chloroform • (1920)
Would you rather put your life in the hands of someone who knows and loves you? Or in the hands of a cool and professional stranger?

The Man Who Lay Asleep • (1920)
Fresh from jail, a career criminal is eager to resume his life of mayhem and violence. Sneaking into a random family’s home with a knife at the ready, he’s got murder on his mind. But little does he know whose house he’s broken into…

Fascination • (1920) • (trans. of Fascination 1910)
Arguably over-dramatic, this short tale is a very remarkably accurate elucidation of the horror of that strange human urge to do the most drastic and irrevocable things we can imagine – even if we have no particular desire to do them.

The Bastard • (1920)
When a father becomes convinced that his beloved small son is not actually his child, he loses his mind – and tragedy results.

That Scoundrel Miron • (1920)
After falling into debt, an artist flees and creates a new identity in order to escape the arm of the law. Many years later, when he believes his old identity must be long-forgotten, he ventures back into art, using a new name. But the first gallery owner he encounters remembers the vanished Miron – and compares his new work favorably. Upon which, Miron freaks out. I found this one unconvincing, psychologically.

The Taint • (1920)
Huh. Who knew that something like epilepsy used to be considered such a shameful thing, on a level with how mental illness was viewed?

The Kiss • (1920) • (trans. of Le baiser 1910)
Dying of a self-inflicted wound, a lovelorn young man makes a sentimental final connection with the nun tending to his bedside.

A Maniac • (1920) • (trans. of Un maniaque 1910)
Night after night, a bloodthirsty spectator attends a daredevil show, hoping to see the performer have a terrible accident. The performer might just assume he has a devoted fan…

The 10:50 Express • (1920) • (trans. of Le rapide de 10 h. 50 1910)
The trauma of a train conductor who was on duty during a terrible accident.

Blue Eyes • (1919) • (trans. of ” Mes yeux ” 1904)
Barely recovered from a long illness, a young woman convinces the doctor to release her from hospital so that she can commemorate the anniversary of her lover’s death. But all is not as sweet as it seems: her lover was executed for the crime of murder. Still, the penniless, ailing woman is willing to do just about anything to be able to buy flowers to place on his grave.

The Empty House • (1920) • (trans. of La maison vide 1910)
A nervous burglar has an unexpected encounter within the house he’s ransacking. The story has a certain weakness I’ve encountered in other writing from around this time period: (view spoiler)

The Last Kiss • (1920)
Why would a man who’d been horribly disfigured with acid by his own wife, go to court and plead for her acquittal? His only request is that, when released, she come to visit him, alone. And then, we discover his reason.

Under Ether • (1918)
During WWI, a doctor is bound to treat any injured person – even an enemy soldier. From opposite sides of the conflict, the two men profess respect for one another. But on the operating table, a contradictory truth may be revealed.

The Spirit of Alsace • (1918)
A small village sends all of its able-bodied men off to fight in WWI. Practically as soon as they leave, the invaders march in, demanding supplies – and information. An elderly shopkeeper turns ‘traitor’ – or does he?

At the Movies • (1918)
Since her husband went ‘missing’ at the front, a woman has presumed herself to be a widow. After all, what other explanation could there be for having no word for over two years? She regales her small son with tales of his absent hero father. But when they go to see a documentary newsreel about life on the battlefield, an unpleasant revelation is discovered.

The Little Soldier • (1918)
On a date, a soldier recuperating from a wound tells his admirer war stories and behaves with gallantry. But although he’s survived the battlefield, he’s not out of danger yet. Very sentimental.

The Great Scene • (1918)
A playwright is frustrated that his star actor simply refuses to play a dramatic scene with the passion he intended. But real life tragedy doesn’t always result in histrionics.

After the War • (1918)
Playing up to anti-German sentiment, for sure… but a wonderfully cynical look at the limits of good intentions. The German officer billeted in the homes of French citizens states loudly that he only believes in doing what War makes necessary, and in not causing any more difficulty for civilians than in unavoidable. But will he make sure that what he preaches is practiced?

The Appalling Gift • (1923)
Ah-hah-hah-hah! This one is hilarious! And somehow, not ‘dated’ at all. Some things never change… An elderly relative gifts a couple who pride themselves on their impeccable taste with an enormous and hideous decorative vase. Their efforts to avoid insulting the giver gradually increase…

Night and Silence • (1922)
A trio of disabled siblings, hampered by their problems, come to grief. This grotesque tale puts the issues faced by the blind men and the elephant to shame!

The Cripple • (1933)
How cruel must a man be to only begrudgingly pay a farmhand the settlement granted him by the courts, when, after a terrible on-the-job accident, he’s lost the use of his hands? How dare he doubt the man’s disability and suffering? How terrible must it be to be crippled, unable to even help those around you in an emergency? Well… here’s a cynical answer.

The Look • (1933) • (trans. of Le Regard 1906)
Having developed a secret passion for another man’s wife, a doctor has found himself in the odd position of having become a close associate of the husband. He’s there when a terrible accident happens one day, and finds himself in the position of having his rival’s life in his hands.

The Horror on the Night Express • (1934)
In a train compartment, strangers often get to talking to one another during a long journey. One young woman is full of gossip about the latest outrage to hit the tabloids: the unsolved murder of a woman. Her husband is strangely loath to talk about the news. But by chance, one of the other men on the train was actually an investigator assigned to the case… and the information he reveals will lead to a dramatic act.

Thirty Hours with a Corpse • (1934)
A farcical tragedy. Two young men are in their rented apartment with the body of a recently-killed young woman. Together, they plan to escape and leave town before the death is discovered. But events conspire to stop them: first they’re not allowed to vacate the premises because they’re behind on their rent, then the boyfriend of the dead woman shows up looking for… one thing after another. Will they make their getaway? And why did she end up dead, after all? A bit more in-depth and developed than most of the short tales in this volume.

She Thought of Everything • (1935)
No longer in love with her husband, and eager to be with her secret lover, a wife carefully plots to kill her husband. But will ‘thinking of everything’ mean that her scheme will proceed as planned?

Many thanks to NetGalley and Dover for the opportunity to read this collection. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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