“The Vampire Countess”
by Paul Féval c. 1855
Translation by Brian Stableford, c. 2003
Early in 1804, the salons and dram houses of Paris teem with conspirators against Napoleon Bonaparte—some desiring revenge, some hoping to prevent him from becoming emperor. Against this backdrop, an unusual vampiress hatches a plot of her own. There's unusually good fishing along the Quai de Bethune in Paris—because the fish have been feeding on all the bodies that someone has been dumping there.
While the novel is unnecessarily complicated with political details from the Napoleonic Era (and the later era of Napoleon II, but in disguise), the story is quite interesting. I would suggest modern readers skip over the overly long and irrelevant Forward and jump right into the story. In fact, you might want to skim much of the first chapter.
Things pick up when we are introduced to the hero, Sévérin. OK, we're not actually given his name for a few chapters, but he's still the man to watch. He's watching an unnamed girl, Angela, who is watching an unnamed man, René. Did Féval think going chapters without naming his characters was clever? Yeah, apparently.
But seriously, once the characters get their names, the story becomes much more interesting and even engrossing.
The nominal hero or at least the love interest, is René de Kervoz of Hungary. The problem is, he loves both Angela and Lila (the evil Countess in disguise). He's much like Stoker's Jonathan Harker—a bit dim-witted and obtuse, attracted to vampire women despite having a lovely fiance at home, yet willing to strike at the vampiric threat at the end. Like Lucy Westenra, the Countess Marian Gregoryi is engaged to three men at one point.
Actually, there's more similarity between this novel and Le Fanu's Carmilla (1871). Addhema, like Mircalla, insists that her victims must first love her. Like Mircalla, Addhema, appears to be the victim—enslaved by a mysterious master or entity, maybe even a curse. They both take fake identities. And, it would seem, both vampire women have a taste for... chocolate??
Near the middle, there are a series of scenes with the pompous M. Berthellemot that are, although filled with extraneous references to incidents in French history, truly comical. And frightening in their implications.
Perhaps the most striking imagery occurs in the final chapter, in which all the heroes are left behind and it is the vampiress Addhema who steals the show.
“The Vampire Countess” is clearly the work of a hack writer, paid by the word to fill a the pages of a serial, but Féval was an inspired hack. It's filled with intrigue, adventure, action, tragedy, lots of comedy, and not much horror. But none of these things are developed as well as they could be. The story has more plot holes and incomplete threads than several seasons of television dramas.
Yet, for its comedic bits, and for a truly unique form of vampire, it's a book well worth reading. Some of the writing is very evocative. Vampire completists must not miss it.