The Fire Spirits by Paul Busson
During the course of four of my recent reviews here on FanLit – for Walter S. Masterman’s The Yellow Mistletoe (1930), Mark Hansom’s The Shadow on the House (1934), R. R. Ryan’s Echo of a Curse (1939) and H. B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary (1940) – I had cause to refer to editor/author Karl Edward Wagner’s highly regarded list of 39 of his favorite horror books, which list did include those four titles. The Wagner 39 List, as it is known today, originally appeared in the June and August 1983 issues of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, and divided its selections into three categories: 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels, 13 Best Nonsupernatural Horror Novels, and 13 Best Science Fictional Horror Novels. These 39 selections included some very familiar titles, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), but also some that KEW felt had been unjustly neglected and were in need of reintroduction. And now, this reader is here to tell you of one of the most obscure titles of those 39, the one that I have recently experienced; namely, Paul Busson’s The Fire Spirits.
The Fire Spirits was originally released in a German-language edition in 1923, bearing the title Die Feuerbutze. It was not until six years later that the London-based publisher Heinemann came out with an English-language hardcover of the book, and then, sadly enough, Busson’s novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 86 years, till the fine folks at Ramble House, spurred on by Wagner’s suggestion, revived it for a new generation to appreciate. And so, this erstwhile extremely scarce item – indeed, one of the hardest books to lay hold of from that KEW list – has now become a breeze to purchase and dive into. And a most fortunate thing that is, too, as the book turns out to be one that any fan of well-written chills will certainly appreciate.
Before going on with a look at the manifold marvels to be had here, a quick word on the author himself. Paul Busson was born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1873. A journalist for most of his career, he is best remembered today for the two novels that he wrote – 1921’s The Man Who Was Born Again (released under the title Die Wiedergeburt des Melchior Dronte) and his second effort, The Fire Spirits – as well as a handful of short stories. Busson passed away in 1924, just four days short of his 51st birthday. But other than these few scant facts, little else can be dredged up concerning the author’s life, as far as I can make out.
Now, as to The Fire Spirits itself: The book is set during a period of history that I (and, I’m guessing, many others) was completely unfamiliar with … the Tyrolean Rebellion of 1809. During this time, the Napoleonic Wars were in full terrible swing, and France had, in 1806, wrested the Tyrol away from the Catholic Emperor Francis I in Vienna and given it to the Protestant King Maximilian of Bavaria, inflaming the passions of the Tyrolean peasants. Against this turbulent backdrop, the reader is introduced to a young man named Peter Storck, a Bavarian by descent who had been brought up in the Viennese capital and who has become accustomed to its cosmopolitan glamour. Peter’s parents are now deceased, and when his Uncle Martin – who Storck hasn’t seen since he was an infant – goes missing and is presumed dead, Peter is summoned to the small village of Sankt Marein, near Innsbruck, to take possession of Martin’s house and belongings. And the roughly six months that the young man spends there, in his new home in the mountains, prove to be a most event-filled time, indeed. Peter quickly falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious woman named Julia, who lives with the brutish blacksmith Gervas Fentor. He befriends the local innkeeper, Christian Lergetpohrer, and accepts the services of the innkeeper’s sister, Notburga (no, not Nutburger … Notburga), as his housekeeper … a woman whom he unfortunately impregnates. He gets to know many of the oddball locals, including Sylvana, the 15-year-old floozy daughter of the local charcoal burner, and is intrigued by an old man called the Rover, whom nobody seems to know anything about. He also becomes fast friends with a turbercular ex-student and hunter named Serafin Federspiel, who is currently unpopular because of his insistence that the planned peasant uprising is wrong, and doomed to failure. And it is from Christian and Serafin that Peter first hears of the Fire Spirits.
Twice a year, on the equinoxes, it seems, their flaming figures can be observed descending from the top of one of the lofty peaks that surround the valley. The peasants claim that on these two days of the year, the spirits in Hell are allowed to emerge and cool their flaming bodies on the glacial heights. Christian firmly avers that this is so, whereas Federspiel pooh-poohs the idea, declaring that the figures must be smugglers, or something equally mundane. Peter does get to witness the fiery forms himself on the night of the vernal equinox, but soon has other things to worry about. When the rebellion begins, Peter initially resists getting drawn into the conflict, feeling that it really isn’t his fight, but ultimately he and Federspiel are compelled to enter the field of battle, and so witness all the horrors of war firsthand. As Peter reflects at one point:
…His life had become curiously complicated in this remote village, where he had expected nothing but quietness, one day like another. Not only had he found himself in the midst of a bloody insurrection, but riddle upon riddle, whole swarms of dark mysteries had beset him, and transformed his life into a series of adventurous experiences…
Upon returning to Sankt Marein, the two decide to get to the bottom of those Fire Spirits, Peter now being convinced that they have something to do with his Uncle Martin’s disappearance. Thus, on the night of the autumnal equinox, the two young men do indeed go up to where the Fire Spirits are wont to emerge, only to discover things that will shock them to the core…
Similar to another historical chiller that I recently experienced, J. W. Brodie-Innes’ The Devil’s Mistress (1915), which was set in 17th century Scotland, The Fire Spirits will most likely demand a bit of work on the reader’s part for a full appreciation. So yes, you will probably need a map of Europe, a dictionary, and your Google machine to help you over some of the sections, and it might be a good idea to do a cursory brushup on the history of the Tyrolean Rebellion in particular before venturing in. As always, a little work in this regard will reward your reading experience immeasurably. Busson’s novel, though, even without the benefit of preliminary research, will provide a good lesson on this little-discussed chapter of history, and its incorporation of real-life players as characters (such as Andreas Hofer, the rebellion’s leader) only adds to the verisimilitude. Busson’s book takes its time in setting out Peter’s exact situation, and its leisurely pace allows us to get to know the various Sankt Marein peasants, explore the beautiful Alpine setting, and learn about the ongoing war, both firsthand and as wildfire rumors. By the end of the novel, the reader will surely come away feeling like he/she has spent a good amount of time in the area and has a firm understanding of the vicinity.
The Fire Spirits is often beautifully written (and, in this case, has been impressively translated by one J. Eglington, back in 1929) and highly atmospheric, with a terrific sense of place. It has been well researched by an author who not only knew the locale intimately, but who clearly absorbed its history from an early age. His book features any number of well-crafted sequences, including Peter’s first sighting of the Fire Spirits, via telescope from his uncle’s study; an exploration of the nearby mountain peaks that Peter engages in with Federspiel; the lengthy segment during which Peter is forced to kill his Bavarian brethren during battle … one of the most touchingly well-done and affecting depictions of men in war that I’ve come across in a long while; Peter and Federspiel’s discovery of ancient Roman ruins in the nearby mountains; the wondrous sequence in which they discover the startling secret of the Fire Spirits; and the moving final coda, involving Federspiel and a French captain. Masterfully done set pieces, one and all!
Busson’s book is most assuredly a horror novel, although I feel that it would be something of a spoiler if I were to reveal on which of those three KEW lists it appears. I will thus leave it up to you to discover if the book’s flaming entities are of the supernatural ilk or not, although John Pelan, in his otherwise wonderful introduction to this Ramble House edition, does give the answer away. (Granted, it has been fairly common knowledge since the Wagner 39 List first appeared, but I’m still going to stay mum on the subject.) But the horrors in Busson’s book are not only confined to those Fire Spirits. Also on display here are demonic possession (the very first thing that Peter sees as he gets close to Sankt Marein is a young nun in the throes of Satanic possession), starvation, tales of dark superstition, mental breakdown (poor Christian, after shooting a young Bavarian drummer boy in battle, becomes completely schizophrenic with guilt), attempted murder, suicide, sickness, ghastly injuries, witch suspicions, peasant uprisings, and – surely the worst – endless war. Busson also throws in odd little touches here and there to augment his atmosphere of dread, including that possessed nun being exorcised; the message that Peter finds in his window, written in a language he has never seen before; the skeleton fifer that Uncle Martin has had attached at the side of his home’s front door; the finding of Uncle Martin’s ancient book of alchemical recipes; Julia’s naked paganlike dance, which Peter observes while hidden in a forest glade; and the finding of an exotic tropical flower, that by rights should not be found anywhere near this Alpine valley.
Busson’s novel, despite its horror elements, is never what this reader would term especially “scary,” although it is consistently tense, mysterious, shocking, depressing and exciting, by turns. I can honestly say that I had no idea where the author was going with his story, or what would transpire next, from start to finish. It is a book of constant invention and surprise, and all of its characters are well-drawn, seemingly real people, down to the smallest bit players. Most readers, I have a feeling, will come away with a sense of amazement after realizing that this fine novel – something of a masterwork, really – was allowed to languish in oblivion for 86 years.
I really have very little to complain about regarding the author’s sophomore effort here. Yes, some of the descriptions of the mountain terrain are a tad difficult to visualize at times, and yes, the relationship between Peter and Julia … well, the less said, the better, I suppose. Let’s just hope the two never have children together. But perhaps I’ve already said too much. Further good news regarding The Fire Spirits is that this Ramble House edition is not as plagued by typos as many of the publisher’s other books have been (Pelan’s introduction excepted, which is, sadly, something of a mess), a fact that only enhances the reading experience.
I now would most surely be interested in reading Paul Busson’s first novel, The Man Who Was Born Again, which I see is available from Dover Books in an English translation. It’s not nearly as fine a work as The Fire Spirits, according to both Wagner and Pelan, but then again, very few books are! More than highly recommended!