Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wasn’t the first book to remix classic literature with horror. Way back in 1867 came this totally bonkers French novel which imagines Ann Radcliffe as a vampire hunter. The young novelist, along with several ragtag companions, scout across Europe to root out blood suckers and save Ann’s sister before the upcoming double wedding. Along the way, Radcliffe’s macabre adventures inspire her to write her masterpiece, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
If the plot sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to be. Féval, who was quite popular in his day, tells his tale with all the self-aware hilarity one might expect from a skilled satirist. The tone is meant to be zany, and zany it is. I wouldn’t call it a fine novel by any stretch of the imagination. That said, according to Goodreads, I highlighted over 200 sentences. It’s rare for a book to have me so glued that I’m highlighting on every page.
Much of my scrutinized reading focuses on Féval’s “rules” for vampires. Published a full 30 years before Dracula, this novel offers a unique glimpse into what someone might believe vampires were capable of before Bram Stoker changed everything. Here vampires do all kinds of crazy things, including go out in the daylight, glow green constantly, shapeshift, body snatch, pluck hair, and live in their very own city. About the only recognizable thing they do is drink blood and detest religious symbols.
I’m sure some of these “rules” are the creative imaginings of a spoof writer, but the scholarly afterward points out that vampires were little more than a vague idea before Stoker. There were some common beliefs about them, and some of those are indeed in this book, but without real life experiences and no masterpiece like Dracula to inform the public, anything was possible.
Also of interest is the presence of Ann Radcliffe. I’m a Radcliffe super fan, so of course it’s interesting when she becomes fictionalized and battles vampires. There’s a lot of fun lines where Féval talks about Sir Walter Scott’s relentless praise of her writing, and how her genius is so mystifying that it boggles the mind. The justification of Vampire City seems to be that no ordinary person could write something as brilliant as Udolpho without supernatural experiences.
Given how little attention The Mysteries of Udolpho receives today, it’s nice to read a French novel, published some 70 years after Udolpho, that is still as enamored by Radcliffe as were frenzied readers back in the 1790s. A lot of the Radcliffe jokes even assume the reader is fully aware of everything about her, including her biography, which shows just how much staying power her literary output had.
As for my recommendation, I think it’s fair to say that only hardcore vampire nerds, Gothic literature scholars, and Ann Radcliffe superfans will enjoy this. The translation is brilliant and the thrills are admittedly plentiful, but the off-the-wall story is likely too bizarre for anyone who isn’t able to laugh at the Radcliffe jokes scattered throughout. If you are one of those people, however, the experience is a wild ride that you will enjoy immensely. Keep the highlighter handy!
Our bookish social media…