“What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“But what is it?”
“Nobody….and yet, yes, it is somebody!”
“And what does the somebody do?”
A century ago, these words unleashed reign of terror upon the literary world which continues to this day. It was in February of 1911 that Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre published the first of several novels featuring a mysterious criminal mastermind whose exploits swiftly became an international sensation. If you’ve never heard of Fantômas, you’re not alone. A few years back, London’s Daily Telegraph featured a list of the 50 greatest villains in literature, and yet the greatest villain of all is nowhere to be seen. Coincidence? Hardly: Fantômas is a known master of disguise, and would never be caught in the open so easily. Combining the anarchic savagery of Edward Hyde, the criminal genius of Professor Moriarty, the irrestistable hypnotic power of Svengali, the audacity of Richard III, and the bloodthirsty panache of Dracula, Fantômas stands unrivalled among supervillains for sheer dastardliness.
Fantômas was beloved of Dadaists and surrealists, who were inspired by his motiveless nihilistic glee, and by his ingenious inventive variations on perfidy. The definitive anti-hero and ultimate mischief maker, he’s the sort of devil who will derail a train full of people to cover his tracks (or just for the fun of it), and loves nothing more than to frame innocent bystanders, sending them to gallows and guillotine for his crimes while he looks on. The dogged Inspector Juve and his journalist friend Fandor are ever in hot pursuit and often seem to have the Lord of Terror right within their grasp, only to be outfoxed by their mercurial prey, who doffs personae like hats. Meanwhile, the rich Lady Beltham remains in his thrall, despite the fact that he kills her husband in the first book. Once you get into the maniacal spirit of the thing, his exploits can be addictive: last week I chain-watched the recently released collection of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas films of 1913 and 1914, beautifully restored with a perfectly ominous soundtrack; now am reading the first novel. Only seven of the 32 original Fantômas novels were ever translated from their original French into English, but five of these are available for free download from Project Gutenberg.
So, who is Fantômas? As his laughter trails away down the gaslit alleyways of Paris, we realize that we can never know, for the essence of Fantômas is mystery.
Stretching his immense shadow
Across the world and across Paris,
What is this gray-eyed specter
Rising out of the silence?
Fantômas might it be you
Lurking on the rooftoops?
~ Robert Desnos, “Complaint of Fantômas.”