Book Extracts
The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex


Ropraz, in the Haut-Jorat, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, 1903. A land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport, two hours from Lausanne, perched on a high hillside above the road to Berne, bordered by dense forests of fir. Dwellings often scattered over wastelands hemmed in by dark trees, cramped villages with squat houses. Ideas have no currency, tradition is a dead weight, and modern hygiene is unknown. Avarice, cruelty, superstition – we are not far from the border with Fribourg, where witchcraft is rampant. They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam.

A loaded weapon is kept in the stable or cellar. With hunting or poaching as a justification, they cherish powder, shot, great traps with metal teeth, and blades sharpened on the whetstone. Fear lurks. At night prayers of conjuration or exorcism are said. They are severely Protestant, but cross themselves when monsters loom in the fog. Along with the snow, the wolf returns. It is not so long since the last one was killed, in 1881; its stuffed hide is gathering dust seven miles away, behind glass in the Vieux-Moudon museum. And then the fearsome bear that came from the Jura. It disembowelled some heifers not forty years ago, in the gorges of the Mérine. The old folk remember it; there’s no joking in Ropraz or Ussières. In Voltaire’s day, when he lived in the château down in the hamlet of Ussières, brigands would “wait” on the main road – the one leading to Berne and the German lands – and, later, soldiers returning from Napoleon’s wars would hold honest folk to ransom. You have to take care when employing a vagabond for the harvest, or to dig potatoes. He is the outsider, the snoop, the thief. A ring in his ear, a crafty look, a knife in his boot.

Here there are no large shops, factories or plants; people have only what they win from the soil – in other words nothing. It is no kind of life. People are so poor that our cattle are sold to city butchers for meat. We make do with pig, and so much of it is consumed in every shape and form – smoked, rind removed, minced or salted – that we end up looking like it, with pink faces and ruddy jowls, far from the world, in dark coombs and woods.

In this remote countryside a young girl is a lodestar for lunacy. For incest and brooding in unwed gloom on flesh for ever desired and for ever forbidden.

Sexual privation, as it will come to be called, is added to skulking fear and evil fancies. In solitude, by night, the amorous romps of a few fortunate individuals and their moaning accomplices, satanic titillations, a guilt entwined into four centuries of imposed Calvinism. Endlessly construing the threat from deep within and from without, from the forest, from the cracking of the roof, from the wailing of the wind, from the beyond, from above, from beneath, from below: the threat from elsewhere. You bar yourself inside your skull, your sleep, your heart, your senses; you bolt yourself inside your farmhouse, gun at the ready, with a haunted, hungry soul. Winter stirs this violence beneath the lasting snow, a friend to the demented, the ruddy and bistre skies between daybreak and night-time deprivation, the cold and the gloom that strains and wastes the nerves. But I was forgetting the astounding beauty of the place. And the full moon. And the nights when the moon is full, the prayers and rituals, the bacon rind rubbed on warts and wounds, the black potions against pregnancy, the rituals with crudely fashioned wooden dolls stuck with pins and martyrized, the spells cast by charlatans, the prayers to cure spots on the eye. Even today in sheds and attics you still find books of magic and recipes for brews of menstrual blood, vomit, toad spittle and powdered viper.

When the moon shines too bright, beware bric, beware brac. When the moon rises rathe, shut up serpent in sack. Hysteria swells. And fear. Who slipped into the loft? Who walked on the roof? Look to pitchfork and powder, before secrets of the abyss!

The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex


It was evening when his torment began.

At first he felt strangely alone seated before the dinner that he had just ordered in the bar of the Hôtel d’Angleterre. At the other tables people were laughing; radiant, tanned women spoke to handsome men. Young couples held hands. Tense, gloomy, Jean Calmet carefully shifted three fillets of perch in his plate; once again he sprinkled them with lemon, then his fork pushed one little fish, drolly lining it up ironically against the two others; but he could not make up his mind to bring it to his mouth. The wine in his glass grew lukewarm. For an hour he had been persecuted by an image. Jean Calmet hesitated to look at it; he pushed it away, he buried it in the opaque layers of his memory; because he knew that he was going to suffer the moment he allowed it to come into focus. But the blurred image surfaced again, it persisted, and now Jean Calmet could no longer ignore it, against the background of shadows that made it even clearer. Suddenly his loneliness became unbearable and the whole picture emerged.

It was a very old scene, one that had taken place thousands of times when he lived with his family in Lutry, beside the lake, in a house shattered by angry shouts, in the lee of the poplars and firs. They were seated for the evening meal. The father, immense, presided at the head of the table. The light of the setting sun reddened his shining, gilded forehead; his thick arms also shone with orange light; his innate strength was apparent: the muscles and solid flesh of his chest stretched the shirt, exposing a forest of grey hair between the nipples that made two points under the cotton. Around him, the room seemed plunged in darkness. But in front of the shadows, which rose from the floor and from the farthest corners of the big room, there was that compact, illuminated mass, that other sun, infallible and detestable, which turned red, which shone, which irradi-ated itself with all its power.

Seated at the other end of the table, Jean Calmet listened with repugnance to the mouth noises of his father, who was busy eating. Those hissing, sucking sounds disgusted him like a vile confession. Little was said; the brothers and sisters observed one another; the mother ate very quickly, getting up continually, scurrying from the kitchen to the dining room, a frightened grey mouse. Martha, the German-Swiss housekeeper, stared at her plate with a reproachful look. The doctor chewed and swallowed without stopping, but his implacable gaze fell on each member of his family; it ran up and down over the diners, and Jean Calmet grew desperate at the thought of being transfixed once more by those all-powerful eyes which searched him and guessed everything. Under their blue fire he became livid; suddenly he would feel transparent, completely disarmed, unable to conceal anything at all from those terrible pupils. The doctor knew everything about him; the doctor read him like a book, because he was the master, and the master was thick, massive, impenetrable in his strength, compact and florid in the evening sun.

Shame and despair stabbed Jean Calmet’s heart. His father knew his larval desires. He knew where the gluey handker-chiefs were hidden. He saw everything at a single glance. Jean Calmet lowered his eyes over his plate without being able to escape the inquisitor. Sadness gripped his throat and he felt like throwing his arms around the old man’s neck, crying out all the tears in his body on that broad and sonorous chest. For Jean Calmet loved his father. He loved him, he loved that massive, watchful strength. He despised and envied that appetite, he loved that domineering voice at the same time as he feared it. A rather cowardly fear prevented him from running to the doctor, from snuggling into his arms. This cowardice shamed him like a betrayal.

Supper long over, the doctor drank his coffee noisily without anyone daring to get up. The maid busied herself on tiptoe. Finally, they lit the lamps: that was the signal. After a quick goodnight, everyone went rushing out of the dining room and fled to hide in their rooms as in a secret burrow. But Jean Calmet did not recover from the ordeal. He had the impression that the eyes of his judge followed him, scrutinized him through the walls. Late in the even-ing, he would still be looking for a refuge or distraction in his books. He went to bed. If he yielded to his desires, his every fibre grew tense at the thought that his father was going to surprise him – even worse, that he had seen him, that he was observing him.

He was fifteen. At that time, he committed little thefts to try to diminish the power of that gaze. To strengthen himself with a secret. He would go into a bookshop; he would browse with a wise, casual look. All of a sudden he would pocket the collection of poetry or the magazine, and he would be out on the street again with a feeling of weight, of solidity, that protected him from his father. At last he had somewhere of his own; a place removed, a place hidden from the censor. But Jean Calmet loved his father. Why had he not told him so? Tears filled the eyes of Jean Calmet, whose mind was blank for a moment. Then he began to eat his cold fish and did his best to get hold of himself by taking his bearings. I’m thirty-eight years old, he said to himself. I’m a schoolmaster at the Gymnase. Sixty rascals think through me. But remembering those teenagers did not cheer him up; on the contrary, he felt too lonely, too strangely afflicted to pretend to give them the least example, to recommend anything whatsoever to them. The wine did not cheer him either. He paid his bill and left to shut himself up at home.

He went to bed but could not fall asleep. That morning’s ceremony came back to him. The sense of deliverance that he had felt at the crematorium tortured him like remorse. Following the advice he had read in magazines, he worked hard at letting his body and limbs go limp, abandoning any control by his will; he was about to give himself up to the first sensation of peace when he thought: I’m playing dead. All at once, his pain was revived. He saw again the cemetery of the Bois-de-Vaux, the straight lanes, the thousands of graves. At the bottom of each pit lay a skeleton, a body in a state of decomposition, rudimentarily preserved, the shape of the man it had been. The “last sleep” retained the familiarity of good and simple habit by which one perceived, ridiculously, death’s meagre power. There was something reassuring about it, something seen before, which pierced Jean Calmet’s heart. The grave was like a daily bed. Those bones endured. The skull, the teeth, the fractures, the size of the body were perfectly recognizable; dentist’s fillings, rings, shreds of clothing could be identified. This kind of purely physical survival suddenly seemed to Jean Calmet as precious as eternity. And he, what had he done with his father? What had his brothers and sisters decided? What had they made him agree to? To hear them, there was nothing so filthy as that corpse rotting under a few inches of earth. They had to think of Mother. The image of the doctor in decomposition would pursue her without respite. And what of public health? They were having a particularly warm autumn. An added reason. In this kind of weather the dead rot faster. With relief, Jean Calmet approved. The doctor would be reduced to ashes. He could not be allowed any chance of keeping his exasperating, scandalous vigour in the fertile earth. That strength, those muscles, had to be destroyed, right down to those eyes, the thick red lids of which had been shut uselessly for a few hours. Destroy his father. Make a little heap of ashes of him, ashes at the bottom of an urn. Like sand. Anonymous, mute dust. Blind sand.

And now Jean Calmet was torn at the thought of that urn. Where would it be kept? It was possible that his mother might want to keep it near her. The mortuary representative had ceremoniously warned them, him and his brothers: the widow might demand to keep the ashes in her garden, in her living room, or even at her bedside, so as not to be separated from her beloved. At the time, Jean Calmet had smiled inwardly, touched by such superstitious loyalty. Now that he was living in the moist darkness, tired out by his heavy sheets, the memory of the mortician’s words began to trouble him, obsess him: did the naive wish of these women stem from a deep, magical intuition, one which conferred on the recipient and its meagre contents the terrifying quality of human presence? Thus, through the simplicity of doting old ladies, the remains – which he had believed so totally devoid of power – took on evil importance again. No, it was better to convince himself that this miserable handful of cinders was harmless. Sweep-ings. Jean Calmet took pleasure in calling to mind the modesty with which some of the sages had asked to have their dust scattered in a forest, in a field, or sprinkled in a fine, silvery rain into the course of a river. He imagined the lightness of ashes sown on the water, their swift course between shadowy banks; quickly they mingled with the water, became rushing water themselves long before disap-pearing into the sea or evaporating. Jean Calmet clearly saw this dead man’s soul, serene in the clouds, assured of the fulfilment of his earthly destiny. He envied that dead man and that soul.

He tossed, turned; he strove to calm himself, repeating to himself that at this time his father’s ashes were still at the crematorium in the padlocked, numbered aluminium box in which the mortician had placed them this very morning. When he finally had to fall asleep, he dreamt that he was clutching at black grass trying to reach the top of a hill. When he was halfway up, an enormous bull loomed suddenly against the night sky above him. The monster charged at him and crushed him. Later he often remembered this nightmare.

The Gymnase had granted him two days’ leave for the cer-emony. Today, Jean Calmet was still free. He began to think about the evening’s gathering. It was set for eight o’clock in Lutry. They would gather around the dining-room table before the doctor’s ghost at the head of the table. They would turn the pages of a catalogue: on the left-hand page, carefully reproduced in small black frames, there would be photos of the urns immediately available at the factory; on the right-hand page, their dimensions, their selling points, and a retail price sometimes corrected with a ballpoint pen. Jean Calmet was amazed at his new and deep interest in the most varied types of funeral equipment. A week earlier, he had known nothing about running a funeral notice in the papers or choosing a coffin, or about the calling cards of urn manufacturers and stonecutters. He had even been ignorant about the geography of the cemetery, despite the fact that he had driven along its interminable flank each time he had gone down to the edge of the lake. Early that morning, it seemed to him that an immense, subdivided domain had suddenly been thrown open to him, and that he rode around in it, marvelling at its diversity and hier-archies. Towards noon, as if he had not meant to, Jean Calmet walked down to the cemetery, admiring the number of mortuary establishments, sculptors, carvers, mosaicists whose workshops and storefronts were jammed together in the immediate vicinity. He had never noticed them before.

That morning, preoccupied by all that funereal variety, he forgot the real purpose of his visit. Then he remembered his father and grew gloomy. He entered the café where, yesterday morning at exactly the same time, tea had been served when they left the crematorium. This café bore a beautiful name: Le Reposoir. The waiters did not recognize him, but at the far end of the room – in a niche reserved for the doctor’s family yesterday – another group was seated at the table in front of the same bottles, the same cups of tea, the same cakes; and this spectacle heartened Jean Calmet. Nothing mattered, since the same scenes could be enacted day after day without the owner or the waiters of the establishment noticing anything but a family in black, always the same, gathered three or four times a day at the back of the room to mark the passage of death.

Jean Calmet regained his self-control by an almost ab-normal effort of will. As soon as his body felt the shadowy coolness of the café, his mind was enchanted by its solitude. Thank God, the doctor was nothing but a thin layer of ash at the bottom of a locked box. Branded on the box was a registry number which Jean Calmet had carefully entered in his notebook. This notebook was in his pocket. He felt for the slim pad through the corduroy of his jacket, over his heart, which was again beating regularly. Everything was all right.

Outside, the sun beat down on dazzling houses. With ir-ritation, Jean Calmet thought of that evening’s gathering. They were going to talk about the doctor again. The ghost of the enormous ruddy face would chortle at the head of the table. The five children would lower their voices to go into the details of the death and the inheritance. Their mother would cross the room without a word, she would disappear, she would return on tiptoe, a coffee pot in her hand; she would serve each of them in silence. The details of the death… Aghast, Jean Calmet realized that he knew nothing of his father’s death. They had phoned the Gymnase to tell him the news; he had not received the call himself, and the sense of relief which he had felt like a delicious convalescence had prevented him from imagining his father’s last moments at the time and had obliterated his curiosity later on, when he found himself in the company of the physician who had attended him up to the end. Then, it would have been an easy matter to find out (and even quite discreetly) about the way in which the doctor had met his end. But he hadn’t questioned the physician. He had avoided his company. For just a moment, he had been next to him when they were entering the café, but the very fragmentary conversation had not gone beyond the banali-ties of the occasion. “It was terrible,” repeated the mother, but that was the only word that fitted the Ogre, and, in any case, the commonplace vocable said nothing specific about the latest tragedy. It serves him right, thought Jean Calmet. I don’t see why I should suffer while having them recount his end in detail. It was his turn to go, all right. There’s some justice in the world. And he filled himself with this idea while savouring the regularity of his own pulse, which beat distinctly in his wrist, and the breath of air that inflated his lungs twelve times every sixty seconds. Air taken in and driven out. Throbbing of blood. If I played at choking, Jean Calmet said to himself, if I kept myself from breathing as in the past, everything would go black, I would see brownish circles whirling before my eyes, I would feel myself swelling, then bursting, I would hear the same church bells tolling wildly inside my skull… He was back on a plot of grass at the back of the garden in Lutry, he was seven years old, he was lying on the ground, and the stems of the new-mown grass pricked his shoulder blades through his thin shirt. All at once he had to die in order to be as valiant as the heroes and knights in the history books. He remembered Joan of Arc roasting in the flames, and Roland, mortally wounded, sounding the horn under the mountains, his lungs bursting into a shower of blood at the bottom of his throat. The little boy spread his arms like a condemned prisoner, took a huge gulp of air; suddenly he stopped his breath, and his martyrdom began: the brownish spots, the pinpoints burning like fireworks, the carillons in his ears… I’m suffering, Jean Calmet repeated to himself with pleas-ure, and something inundated his blood with a black fire that he would never forget. I have been chosen to suffer. I must resist fear, I must love this suffering. Vertigo seized him. A merry drunkenness of initiate and victim. Then he surrendered to panic, the air came back into him noisily, the sky regained its blue transparency where doves and gulls fled like trout.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex


 When this story begins, in April 1942, in a Europe cast into fire and bloodshed by Adolf Hitler's War, Payerne, a fair-sized market town on the edge of the La Broye plain, not far from the border with Fribourg, is beset by dark influences. It had once been the capital of Queen Berthe, widow of Rodolphe II, King of Burgundy, who in the tenth century endowed it with an abbey church. Rural, well-to-do, the bourgeois town prefers to turn a blind eye to the recent decline of its industries and the people thereby reduced to poverty: five hundred unemployed to haunt it out of five thousand inhabitants born and bred.
 The cattle and tobacco trades are the source of the town's visible wealth. But pork-butchery most of all. The pig in every shape and form: bacon, ham, trotters, hocks, sausage, sausage with cabbage and liver, head cheese, smoked chops, pâtés, ears, minced liver. The emblem of the pig dominates the town, lending it an amiable, contented air. With rustic irony the inhabitants of Payerne are called "red pigs". But dark currents flow unseen beneath the assurance and business bustle. Complexions are rosy or ruddy, the soil is rich, but covert dangers lurk.

 The War is far off: such is the general view in Payerne. It concerns others. And in any case the Swiss Army ensures our safety with its invincible battle plan. Our elite Swiss infantry, our mighty artillery, our air force as effective as the Luftwaffe, and above all our impressive anti-aircraft defence with its 20-mm Oerlikon and 7.5-cm flak guns. Fortifications all across the difficult terrain, heavily armed strongholds, toblerone anti-tank lines and, if things should go wrong, our impregnable "national redoubt" in the mountains of the Vieux-Pays. It would take some cunning to catch us out.

 And then, when evening falls, the blackout. Drawn curtains, closed shutters, every source of light obscured. But what is obscured, and by whom? What is there to hide? Payerne breathes and sweats in its bacon fat, tobacco and milk, the meat of its herds, the money in the Cantonal Bank, and the town's wine that must be fetched from Lutry on the shores of distant Lake Geneva, just as in the days of the abbey monks - the same wine that for almost a thousand years has brought solar inebriation to a capital set in its vanity and its lard.

 In spring, when this story begins, all around is lovely, with an almost supernatural intensity that contrasts with the heinous events in the town. Remote countrysides, misty forests at dawn, smelling of chill wild creatures, game-rich valleys already filled with fog, the strum of the warm breeze on great oak trees. To the east the hills close in around the outlying houses; the rolling landscape unfolds in the green light, while on plantations, stretching as far as the eye can see, tobacco is springing up in the wind from the plain. And the beech woods, open woodlands, pine groves, thick hedges and bright coppices that crown the Grandcour hills.

 But evil is astir. A powerful poison is seeping in. O Germany, the abominable Hitler's Reich! O Nibelungen, Wotan, Valkyries brilliant, headstrong Siegfried; I wonder what fury can be instilling these vengeful spirits from the Black Forest into the gentle woodlands of Payerne: the aberrant dream of some absurd Teutonic knights assailing the air of La Broye one spring morning in 1942, as God and a gang of demented locals are taken in, once again, by a brown-shirted Satan.