Characterized by gratuitous acts of brutality and surprise endings, these tales of obsession and violence are the creations of a twentieth-century French writer whose works were staged by the legendary Théâtre du Grand-Guignol of Paris. The precursors of modern thrillers and slasher films, these stories have been specially selected by horror specialist S.T. Joshi.
Going into this I wasn’t at all familiar with Maurice Level. In the introduction, Joshi refers to him as “the forgotten man of French literature.” There are a few real gems in here that still resonate, but for the most part, Thirty Hours With a Corpse and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol doesn’t have much by way of timeless appeal. While the “gratuitous acts of brutality” may have been shocking for the time they were first published (the first quarter of the 20th century), they’re fairly tame by today’s standards. The “obsession and violence” aspect works much better, but repetition reduces the effectiveness.
In “A Mistake,” a misdiagnosis leads a man to suspicion, murder and the self-imposed punishment of remaining alive himself after his loved ones are gone.
In “Extenuating Circumstances,” a mother’s love shines after her son is accused of robbery and murder, and her disbelief turns to realization.
In “The Test,” a man suspected of murder stands before the victim one last time, his reaction proving definitively his guilt or innocence.
In “Poussette,” a chaste and church-going woman begins to abuse her cat upon learning of its newfound virility. The cat does not take kindly to this.
In the uncharacteristically poignant “The Father,” a grieving father and son are left to face the world on their own. When the son learns a secret his mother had kept her whole life, he’s forced to make a most difficult decision.
In “For Nothing,” a man stands accused of a murder apparently lacking in any motive whatsoever. This proves to be far from the case.
Learning of his wife’s brazen indiscretion, a spurned farmhand cuts a bloody path to revenge in “In the Wheat.”
In “Under Chloroform,” an operation goes awry in a rather untypical way. As a well-kept secret is about to be exposed by the woman on the table, the emotionally distressed surgeon tries to balance the repercussion with his duty as a man of medicine.
“Fascination” is the confession of a man whose obsessive attraction to risk and danger ends with him up close and personal with the barrel of a gun.
What if you one day realized the child you raised was not your own, but one born out of an affair? “The Bastard” asks this question and, in keeping with the tone of the collection, the answer is a depraved one.
In “The Kiss,” a dying young man and his night nurse, one recalling his past and the other forgetting her place, share a fleeting but intense moment of connection.
In “Blue Eyes,” a gravely ill call girl turns one last trick to buy some flowers for her dead lover’s grave. She should have paid more attention, though, to the identity of her final client.
In “The Little Soldier,” a young man who has seen firsthand the horrors of war is undone in the end, not by violence but by chivalry.
In “The Horror On the Night Express,” four passengers on a train pass the time chatting about a recent unsolved murder. As the train approaches a tunnel, the passengers approach the truth.
There are many more stories here, nearly all of them a few pages long. It becomes obvious after reading the first quarter or so of the collection that many of the stories are going to resemble others in both theme and plot, with some slight variation. Given how short each one is, and the twist ending each invariably has, this isn’t the type of book you’ll want to sit and read for very long. It’ll work well enough as a quick distraction while in the waiting room, on the bus or train, or any other time you need a quick fix of fiction. The price is more than fair for a trade paperback, so for those moments Thirty Hours With a Corpse comes with a tentative recommendation.