Sunday, 27 March 2011

Every Man His Own Fantômas: or, Away With Nostalgia

This piece was first published in Black Lightning #1. I reprint it here to mark ... not the centenary of Fantômas's birth, but a century of his rampages, in which we must join.

Do you know where the masked gaze of the Master of Terror first burned into you? I was in a second-hand bookshop in Balham. His cape swept over the city, and I felt those demonically empty eyes drawing me in. Edward Gorey compared the characters to Looney Tunes cartoons, and The Silent Executioner launched me on a night journey into sheer malicious wonder.

I was entranced.

These evil black pearls were magical and I wanted more. This was my discovery, nobody could ever have heard of Fantômas before, and I soaked up every empty coffin, every rubber-armed disguise, every deadly-perfumed flower. I was frenzied with the poison of these texts, and later with the deadly toxins of Feuillade’s films. I lived the swooning dread of the Unseizable One’s reign.

Along the way I came to realise that not only was I not, in fact, the first to succumb to his malevolent darts, but that many of the people I most admired had also written with similar frenzy of his iron grip. The early Surrealists, contemporaries of the novels and Feuillade’s films, were also swept along on their narcotic clouds. Apollinaire seems to have lifted the title The Poet Assassinated from a customarily vicious episode in a Fantômas novel. (Such a theft is itself worthy of the Genius of Crime).

And of course this was only to be expected. I was responding to the same febrile marvels as the earlier Surrealists had.

But I began to notice another trend, too, as I became more involved with contemporary Surrealism. Liking Fantômas had been sanctioned by our forebears. It was acceptable and appropriate to admit liking Fantômas. How many people borrowed my Feuillade DVDs because they felt they ought to, and then had nothing to say about them afterwards? How many people were prepared to drop the name of Fantômas whilst clearly having no interest in his crimes? Fantômas had simply become canonical.

The canon has a dead hand, but I didn’t love Fantômas because Desnos had written a poem about him, because it was permitted. I loved Desnos’s poem for the same reason I loved Fantômas: I wanted to sweep everyone and everything away in an amoral cataclysm that was not permitted, I wanted to send an actor to the gallows in my stead so that I might achieve my terrible plans. In a world which treats us with callous contempt, Fantômas’ coldly rational and unexplained fury is the doorway to our release.

We will always make lists of things we love. We will always look behind us at doors that have already opened, but their value lies in what is still found behind them, not in who told us they were open, nor in when they were unlocked. This is no nostalgic wallow. Yes Fantômas lives, but so do such convulsive descendants as T-Bag in Prison Break, the Joker, or President Lex Luthor. Only by sending the piteous Gurn summarily to his doom will we also be able to find these new Fantômases here and now, will we be able to open new doors. To break the skeletal grip of the canon we must not admire Fantômas. We must be him.

To the sewers!