Thirty Hours With a Corpse and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol
Maurice Level (Edited by S.T. Joshi)
March 29, 2016
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi
Maurice Level (1875-1926) was a French writer — now largely forgotten — whose work was associated with the Grand Guignol Theatre, where several of his plays sometimes originally written as short stories) were performed. The atmospheres of his stories range from psychological suspense to terror, from graphic horror to the macabre.
This volume from Dover Publications collects virtually all of Level’s short stories translated in English, for a total of 39 tales. Most of them are very short (no more than three or four printed pages in length); some are no more than mere vignettes. However, even in the less accomplished pieces where plot and characters are simply sketched in a few words with no possibility of further elaborating or developing the material in a more complex tableau, the ability of the author to elicit feelings of disquiet and dread are fully evident.
The most famous tale (and certainly one of the best) is “The Last Kiss,” a strong, unsettling story about a terrible act of vengeance, adapted as a Grand Guignol play entitled “Le Baiser dans la nuit.” It premiered in 1912 and was performed as late as 1938.
The title story, “Thirty Hours with a Corpse,” is a very entertaining, macabre tale where two friends try to conceal a murder by hiding the body in a trunk, their plan of escape being continuously impeded by a number of unforeseen mishaps.
Other notable stories are “The Kennel,” a true conte cruel depicting the events of a gloomy night, and featuring a jealous husband and an unfaithful wife; “A Mistake,” a grim piece revolving around a fatal medical misdiagnosis; “The Wheat,” a gruesome tale of cheating and revenge, and “A Confession,” portraying an aged prosecutor on his deathbed regretting an unfortunate professional error (but the truth is much more appalling).
Among my personal favorite I’d like to mention “Blue Eyes,” a bitter story about a young woman whose desire to put flowers on the tomb of her former lover brings about tragic consequences, and “Under Ether,” a vivid piece where a French military surgeon has to operate a German prisoner whose real character is revealed by the anesthetic.
Thirty Hours With a Corpse and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol provides a very pleasant reading, and an enjoyable picture of a long gone era where horror and darkness took occasionally different shapes compared to our present times.