by Maurice Limat
Black Coat Press
Warning: Some spoilers.
I believe Maurice Limat wrote over 500 novellas. And, so far, this omnibus edition is the only one that I can find in an English translation. Limat wrote thirteen Mephista novellas starting in 1969 and this edition, put together by the always wonderful Black Coat Press, collects together the first three of these, each novella coming in at around 80 pages each (fourteen novellas if you count the last one he wrote, sold to a different publisher, where the names of the characters were hastily changed once the well had dried up).
I wanted to read the Mephista stories because... well, that wonderfully devilish name coupled with that new cover, which depicts her as a Barbara Steele type character (in fact, Limat name checks Steele and a few other femme fatale actresses over the course of these books) is obviously too tempting for most men to resist. Actually though, I suspect one of the central characters who is a semi regular in the novels, that of the horror film and TV actress Edwige Hossegor, is quite possibly based on popular giallo and sex comedy actress Edwige Feneche, although I can find absolutely no evidence to support my theory... asides from the fact that, far from the Steele like creature depicted on the cover of this edition, I think the portrayal of both her and Olga Mervil (a character who is a younger look alike and who is introduced as the latest incarnation of Mephista from the second novel onwards) on the original French editions of these novels do bear a certain resemblance to Feneche. Or maybe I’m just imagining it?
Either way, as I started reading I found out that these are also a series of spin offs of another Maurice Limat character who he had been writing on and off called Teddy Verano. Starting off in more or less straight detective stories, Verano eventually became known (by reputation to the other characters in the various books) as the ‘ghost detective’ because he began to specialise in cases which involved the supernatural... of which, of course, the Mephista stories are a prime example of.
The first of the books, Mephista, deals with a demonic entity murdering admirers of Edwige Hossegor whenever she goes into a coma. It’s probably the best of the three and is quite intriguing although, the ‘solution’ to the mystery is a little over the top, as is the case in the other novellas. The revelation in this case being where it’s discovered by Teddy that an evil mastermind has invented a mental photomachine which can find anyone on the planet wherever they are, borrow their soul (Edwige’s on-screen character Mephista) while sending them into a temporary coma and imbuing a large clay figure with an obedient variant of that soul so it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing. That thing being the demonic spirit of Mephista. Since the villain is obsessed with the actress but in no way enamoured or in love with her, I couldn’t quite picture the motivation of why the character was doing all this but, by the end of the novel, he is put in a mental asylum and Edwige returns to her film set.
The second novella reprinted here, Mephista VS Mephista, deals with Hossegor’s replacement when the psychic sensitivity of the actress means she needs to take a break from filming horror films. Enter Olga Mervil, an aspiring and starving actress who signs a pact with Satan to become ‘the new Mephista’ and, in real life, that’s exactly what she becomes, the living spirit of Mephista, getting ready to seal the deal on her new found fame and celebrity by sacrificing her innocent, virginal best friend in a blood sacrifice ritual. A ritual which Teddy stops but with an uncertain ending where it’s not known if Olga burned up in the fire which engulfed the secret ceremony... or escaped.
In the third novella, Mephista And The Scarlet Clown, it becomes clear she did indeed escape but has joined a travelling carnival of sideshow freaks, her hideously burned face kept hidden behind a mask in her new guise as she, like the rest of the deadly circus, await the scarlet clown’s promise that his photographs of the faces of fresh corpses, if taken at the right time, will mean his living flesh masks of the dying can re-transform the troupe into ‘beautiful people’ once more.
Yeah, okay, so the stories aren’t all that far fetched when compared to quite a lot of pulps but the mixture of grim detective, ultra modern movie and TV studio technology coupled with some big leaps into the realm of supernatural, do give them a vaguely ridiculous feel. Also, though, a very entertaining feel too and, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed these and would dearly like to read the others in the series.
That being said, they do have their problems in terms of the English translation aspect. I don’t know who Michael Shreve is but I’m guessing that English is not his first language. Asides from words being missed out of sentences fairly often, he sometimes uses completely wrong words on occasion. For example, when a man’s flat is burnt up by the clay robot version of Mephista self destructing in order to escape capture, he more than once says the tenant can no longer stay in the house because the fire rendered it inhabitable. I think he must mean uninhabitable, right? Another bizarre error is when he translates one of the popular actresses of the day as being Rachel Welch. Yeah, I think you mean Raquel sir?
In spite of this, the Mephista collection is a really nice, pulpy read and I just wish I could read the rest of them in English. I’m guessing, though, that’s not on the cards because one of the supplemental sections of the book actually gives short summaries of the events of the other 10/11 stories in the series so, yeah, it’s a shame that Black Coat don’t seem to be in a hurry to put out any more of them, to be honest. I would dearly love to read both those and various other Teddy Verano adventures so, well... who knows? Maybe some other enterprising publisher will release English translations of these some day.