“#5 The Fire-Spirits. A strange tale of a young man’s involvement with a bewitching peasant child, mountain legends, and the quest for German unification. The English translation is said to be heavily expurgated, but I haven’t read the German to compare.”
-“13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels”, by Karl Edward Wagner (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
One of the delights in reading through the KEW list is finding a real gem, a book I never would have encountered had it not been for his comments. The Fire-Spirits is such an example. Here is a book I’ve longed to read for the past twenty-five plus years. It proved to be worth the wait. I would go so far to say this novel is one of the best I’ve read in the past year. And it’s good to the last page. Hopefully, someone will bring out a new translation (the copy I borrowed was printed in 1929).
I’ve not been able to find much about Paul Busson, other than he was an Austrian writer and journalist who lived from 1873-1924. There’s not much on him in German; he’s considered and obscure writer of fantastic fiction. I know The Man Who Was Born Again, another one of his novels is available in an English.
The Fire-Spirits is a novel about Peter Storck, a young man who has traveled to the Tyrolean mountain area, now part of Switzerland and Italy. He’s trying to find out what happened to his Uncle Martin, who disappeared from his house near the village of Sankt Marein. It’s 1809 and the area is in the midst of the violence brought about by the Napoleonic wars. The Tyrolean region has been forsaken by it’s traditional protector, the emperor of Austria, and handed over to the king of Bavaria. Furthermore, the Tyroleans are catholic, the Bavarians protestant. Which is why the mountain people have no love for the Bavarian militarists and are planning a revolt.
At the village, Peter meets a number of colorful characters. The hunter Serafin Federspiel, a former university student who saw his family massacred by the french. He’s the lone dissenter (“Germans shouldn’t be fighting Germans!) in the village when everyone wants to take up arms against Bavaria . There’s the innkeeper Christian Lergetpohrer and his niece Notburga, who ends up being Peter’s housekeeper. And there is the local parish priest Father Archangelus, who urges the local populace to fight for the true faith against the foreign invaders. Early in the novel, Peter falls in love with the mysterious Julia, a woman held in awe by most of the village. To list all the interesting figures in this novel would take a score card, it’s best for the reader to discover them on their own.
Peter Storck takes up residence in his Uncle Martin’s house which is filled with curiosities in the study and guns in the basement. Martin Storck had been an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army before he resigned after he struck a french nobleman. Disgraced, Uncle Martin cursed the emperor and retired to the mountains. Peter soon learns that the local people believe the old officer perished when he tried to spy on the “fire-spirits”, mysterious lights which appear in the mountains during the equinoxes. Legend has it the lights are condemned souls who are released twice a year from hell to cool themselves in the glacier. If anyone encounters them, the interloper will be dashed on the rocks below. Peter is shown the strange lights descending the mountains through the safe distance of a telescope.
Soon, Peter becomes involved with the hunter Serafin in a plan to discover the true nature of the lights. Are they smugglers sneaking down the mountains? Actual demonic creatures? Or something else? Survival of an ancient pagan cult is hinted at throughout the novel, but only resolved in the final chapters.
The theme of possession occurs through the book. The innkeeper Christian shoots a Bavarian drummer boy in an initial skirmish with royal troops and begins seeing the victim in his sleep. Peter steps off the carriage as he arrives in the village to see a priest trying to exorcise a nun. It’s a theme which never is fully resolved.
The description of mountain warfare is grim. Peter and the rest of the villagers end up in an ambush on a Bavarian-French campaign which is described in gruesome detail. The sack of Innsbruck by the rebels also features prominently.
The Fire-Spirits is a forgotten masterpiece of literature. Ramble House brought it back into print recently.
( 9/13/10, modified since then.)