Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jay M. Smith's "Monsters of the Gévaudan"

Jay M. Smith is John Van Seters Distinguished Term Professor at the University of North Carolina.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, and reported the following:
I felt relief and a spine-tingling thrill—hey, maybe there’s something to this!—when I flipped though my book and arrived at page 99. The following excerpt from that page describes an event from February of 1765. Thousands of residents of the remote French region of the Gévaudan had gathered in pursuit of a mysterious creature that had killed dozens of women and children across two provinces:
The events of the weekend ranked among the most horrible and deflating in all of the Gévaudan’s long experience with its affliction. On Saturday afternoon near the village of Mialanette, within the parish of Malzieu and only about half a league from the Morangiès chateau in Saint-Alban, the beast struck again. A ‘young and pretty girl of fourteen or fifteen years’ was killed and decapitated, probably as she led livestock to or from a nearby pasture. A peasant in the village noticed the beast carrying away what looked like a human head as it made its way toward the woods. He and several companions set off after the beast, which fled on their arrival. A ghastly sight greeted the villagers. The girl’s head had been gnawed almost beyond recognition, though her eyes, seemingly ‘untouched,’ stared out in blank horror.

Morangiès and Duhamel both came running when they heard the news, no doubt stunned that the violence had occurred directly under the nose of a mobilized populace. The shaken Morangiès delivered a sympathetic but bracing speech to the grieving peasants who had assembled in a great crowd over the body of the victim. ‘My children,’ he is reported to have said, ‘today you are spectators; on another day you yourself may serve as the spectacle. Join me tomorrow so that we may prevent that misfortune.’
Another fair, young girl had been ravaged and dismembered—this time in the shadows of a large, organized hunt involving as many as 20,000 men, dozens of local lords, and deputies of the king. No event from the long and bloody episode of the “beast of the Gévaudan” conveys more clearly the frustrations that gripped those who searched for the notorious monster. And no other killing—more than a hundred victims would die between 1764 and 1767—could be more representative of this protracted rural tragedy. The beast took the lives of simple peasants, almost all of them assaulted in village pastures while guarding their flocks and herds. The demographic profile of the victim from Mialanette also fit a well-established pattern. Two-thirds of the fatalities in the Gévaudan and its environs were female; 66 of the 77 victims with verifiable ages were twenty-years-old or younger. The narrative related on page 99 captures much: the shocking violence central to the whole experience, the terrified vulnerability of adolescents and women, the desperation of the men charged with ending the carnage.

What’s missing, alas, is the essence of the book’s argument. On pages 1-98 and 100-282 I highlight the many contemporary forces—intellectual, religious, scientific, commercial, political, folkloric—that combined to turn the vicious killer of the Gévaudan (a wolf, almost certainly) into a fantastic creature of hideous character and grotesque dimensions. That is, the imagined beast of the Gévaudan, as opposed to the very real beast and the awful damage it inflicted, has no more than a spectral presence on page 99, though it dominates most others. Which is why, I suppose, books are best read cover to cover.
Learn more about  Monsters of the Gévaudan at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue