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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Thousand and One Ghosts

Alexandre Dumas

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To purchase The Thousand and One Ghosts

Title: The Thousand and One Ghosts
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1849 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 209 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Thousand and One Ghosts - US
The Thousand and One Ghosts - UK
The Thousand and One Ghosts - Canada
Les mille et un fantômes - Canada
Les mille et un fantômes - France
Tausend und ein Gespenst - Deutschland
I mille e un fantasma - Italia
Los mil y un fantasmas - España
  • French title: Les mille et un fantômes
  • This translation originally published (2004) as One Thousand and One Ghosts
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Andrew Brown

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly loose collection, but some fine bits to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 28/11/2004 Laurence Phelan
The Times . 13/11/2004 Chris Power
TLS . 19/11/2004 Robin Buss

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dumas' stories are skeletal -- his plots barely fleshed out with atmosphere or characterisation -- and so his ghosts have lost the power to scare contemporary readers properly. But he makes the implacable bloodlust and revolutionary fervour of his times seem terrifying." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "(A)n entertaining if minor example of late-Gothic." - Chris Power, The Times

  • "It deserves to have been disinterred and brought back to haunt us, as one of this fine and varied series of translation." - Robin Buss, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Thousand and One Ghosts is presented as a novel, but it's basically a collection of (variations of ghost-)stories. The framing device has narrator Dumas (introducing himself as: "playwright, age twenty-seven; I live in Paris, at 21 rue de l'Université") invited on a hunting trip. Bored by what turns out to be not much of a hunt, especially compared to those he's used to, he wanders off and is immediately rewarded by encountering a man walking down the street who is: "pale, his hair sticking up, his eyes popping out, his clothes in disarray and his hands spattered with blood". Better yet, when he follows the man -- who makes his way to the local mayor's house -- the man reveals he has just murdered his wife.
       Dumas joins the mayor and a few others when they head back to the man's house, to check out what happened, and they do indeed find a headless corpse. Finding that the crime did in fact take place, and the man is willing -- indeed eager -- to confess to the deed, they take his statement, with Dumas acting as one of the witnesses. The story of the killing is a strange one, as the man insists his wife's head, after he lopped it off, bit him -- and spoke to him.
       Dumas finds himself invited to have lunch at Monsieur Ledru's -- the mayor -- and conversation there is unsurprisingly focused on the murderer's claim: can a disembodied head still feel and speak ? The stories that are then related are examples of similar experiences that those assembled are familiar with.
       Dumas nicely sets the scene by having M. Ledru first give him a tour of his house -- which includes his collection of relics: "not of saints, but of kings". It's such a complete collection that:

Each king had provided a specimen, and from all of these bones it would have been possible to reconstruct pretty much an entire skeleton that would have been a perfect representation of the skeletal remains of the French monarchy, which has long been lacking in backbone.
       Set in the fall of 1831, not long after the 1830 July Revolution (which Dumas participated in), The Thousand and One Ghosts repeatedly addresses the French monarchy and its fate, especially in recent decades; among the most striking of the tales that are related describes the events of: "1794, when the tombs were profaned", the then-director of the Museum of French Monuments describing how the revolutionaries went on a frenzy and: "destroyed fifty-one tombs -- twelve centuries' worth of history".
       The group Dumas finds himself joining for lunch is nicely summed up:
     Like everything else in M.Ledru's house, this table was full of character.
       And, in this case, characters -- even if it's just half a dozen that sit at the horseshoe-shaped table at which there is room for twenty.
       The six debate the possibility and explanations for signs of life after death -- especially heads talking even after they have been removed from their bodies, but also other variations of posthumous presence.
       The mayor's own tale, the first, is the most powerful, as he recounts his experiences from the Revolution. He was present at Charlotte Corday's execution -- an experience which led to his obsession with the question whether or not life remained in the decapitated head, an obsession that would eventually hit too close to home. He took to experimenting on the executed -- with no shortage of specimens, as, back then:
they were guillotining thirty or forty people per day, and such a huge amount of blood was flowing on the Place de la Révolution that they had been obliged to dig a ditch three feet deep around the scaffold.
       The mayor's story is, however, also a love-story. He rescued a damsel in distress from a patrol of over-eager sansculottes -- she didn't have her citizen's card, proving she is not a member of the aristocracy (because in fact she was a member of the despised class) -- and fell in love with her. He helped her father escape Paris, but she remained and they continued their affair; unsurprisingly, however, there was no happy end to it. As Dumas sums up when the story has been told: "The effect produced by M.Ledru's tale was dreadful".
       In its depiction of the blood-thirsty frenzy of the Revolution, this is a wonderful episode, with the appropriate grisly and tragic resolution. There's even a (somewhat gratuitous) cameo by no one less than Danton -- whom the mayor was friends with, just as he also knew Marat.
       The next tale also involves an executed man -- who curses the judge who sentenced him to death, and then, very effectively, haunts him. It's a decent enough ghost-story, but lacks the power of the mayor's tale -- not least because it is told second-hand: the doctor recounting it heard it from another doctor, who had once accompanied Walter Scott (yet more gratuitous namedropping ...) to France.
       The more personal experiences, such as another set during the time of Revolutionary madness, are then somewhat more effective. So also the one from the person present whom M.Ledru had described to Dumas as: "a character from [E.T.A.] Hoffmann" (and someone who knew Cagliostro), Monsieur Alliette, who eventually reveals to the assembled group that: "there are certain bodies that do not die, and mine is one of them". (Yes, he is convinced he's experienced it -- the (impermanent) death of his body -- four or five times, so he's pretty sure of himself ...). A final story takes them far abroad, but still offers scenes such as one where: "One last inhuman cry passed through the air", as Dumas manages to offer a quite creative range of variations of his basic supernatural premise.
       It's reasonably well done, with some debate along the way as to other plausible explanations for some of the super-natural experiences that have been recounted that makes for a nice attempted rational (counter-)balance to the very un-natural goings on that are related. Still, overall it's a somewhat loose and forced collection, Dumas stuffing an assortment of ghost(ly) tales into one larger work. From the somewhat clumsy starting point -- the hunting trip -- to the conclusion, which has Dumas reflecting on that one day from eighteen years afterward (sure, it understandably made: "such a deep and lasting impression on my life", but why all of a sudden bring it up ? why not at least add some triggering event to explain why he is sharing it now ?) it is a bit crudely assembled.
       There is enough stand-out material here -- specifically some scenes from the Revolution -- and the characters are fun (if a bit think sketched) to make for an enjoyable read, but a more tightly focused work probably would have packed considerably more of a punch.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 June 2020

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The Thousand and One Ghosts: Reviews: Alexandre Dumas: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular French author Alexandre Dumas lived 1802 to 1870.

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