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Retro Review: French Writer Maurice Renard’s Campy, Derivative B-Novel Is Hilarious And Horrifying

Review by: KEN KORCZAK

I’m not giving anything away by telling you that the premise of this book centers around a mad scientist who is slicing open the skulls of people and animals so he can interchange their brains. The subsequent results are macabre and horrifying.

Original of New Bodies for Old: Le Docteur Lerne (1908)

But the real news flash is that this author has produced his own kind of horrific miracle. He manages to slice open the plot of an A-List classic novel and implant it with his own B-List pulp yarn. The result is an unholy, hybrid specimen of literature.

French writer MAURICE RENARD makes no bones about this being a derivative work inspired by his slavish – almost slobbering – admiration of H.G. Wells. New Bodies for Old is a kind of homage to the great British author’s 1896 masterpiece, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Renard includes a dedication in which he speaks directly to Wells. He offers up his book to him like a ghoulish sacrifice from a man who eagerly wants to be his No. 1 toady.

Okay! So, Monsieur Renard is an unapologetic fanboy! There’s nothing wrong with that. His hero is the great H.G. Wells, after all. It’s also something of a miracle that a Frenchman can display humble admiration for an Englishman. If we had more of that in the 14th Century, maybe the 100 Years’ War could have been avoided.

Anyway …

Maurice Renard (1875-1939)

I don’t mind reading an unabashed B-Novel if the author can pull it off with decent-enough writing, some of his own innovation, a few clever twists of plot – and whatever else he can bring to the game.

I’m happy to report that M. Renard was equal to the challenge. This is a surprisingly entertaining piece of second-tier literature. It overcomes a fundamental lack of originality with a snappy narrative laid out in clever fashion through the eyes of its viewpoint character, a young Frenchman by the name of Nicolas Vermont.

From the very start, Renard keeps us off balance with an unrelenting series of oddities.

For example, the book begins with a group of young Parisian rakes attending a “house unwarming” party. On a whim, they decide to hold a séance using what was a popular occult fad in early 20th Century Europe – table tipping. This is a method in which hands are placed around a small table to invoke a spirit of the undead. The deceased then taps out messages based on verbally called-out letters of the alphabet.

That’s how this tale came to be written. It was dictated by a member of the undead.

And so …

Nicolas Vermont receives a mysterious invitation to visit his uncle. He lives several hours outside of Paris in a secluded chateau nestled against a narrow alcove naturally carved out from a rocky mountainside. The surrounding area is wild and wooded. Vermont spent his childhood there but has not been back for years. His uncle is a renowned physiologist and surgeon – Dr. Frédéric Lerne — who gained wide fame as a life-saving doctor.

But now Dr. Lerne has retreated to the remote chateau which is called Fonval. Here the doctor no longer receives patients. Rather, he’s involved in some manner of super-secret medical research. Vermont has not seen his uncle in years. When he arrives at the chateau, he finds a drastically changed man, far different from the graceful and brilliant professor of physiology Vermont once knew.

Dr. Lerne is now a dangerous weirdo. He’s overtly cruel, paranoid and neurotic. Bizarrely, he speaks French with a heavy German accent. He seems caught off guard by his nephew’s visit, even though he had issued him an invitation. Whatever the doctor is working on, it’s obviously pure evil. But what is it? The plot plays out with the attempts of Nicolas Vermont to discover the dark and sinister machinations lurking behind the many locked doors of the sprawling Fonval complex.

Despite the fact that Maurice Renard leans on scenes of gratuitous gore and regales us with fantastically absurd spectacle – such as when a man’s brain is transplanted into a cow – I give him great credit for springing upon the reader some marvelously clever twists of plot. I didn’t see them coming. I bet you won’t either.

NEW BODIES FOR OLD Was originally published in 1908 with the title, Le Docteur Lerne – Sous-Dieu. (Dr. Lerne – Undergod). I read the English translation published in 1923. Translator unknown.

Edgar Allan Poe

I’ve probably given the impression that Maurice Renard was a pulp artist who cranked out florid prose for fast bucks and cheap thrills. However, and to be fair, one must consider that the translation I read was extremely poorly handled.

Thus, I hasten to add that, in his day, Renard was highly admired and respected, even within elite literary circles. He is sometimes compared to Edgar Allen Poe. Renard himself was a devoted fan of the American genius of Gothic horror. It was reading Poe that inspired Renard to take up a career in writing.

In his Encylopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires, et de la science fiction, French critic Pierre Versins called Renard, “the best French science fiction writer of the years 1900-1930.” And Jean-Jacques Bridenne called the short stories of Renard, “the most gripping in French literature.”

Furthermore, Maurice Renard, who died in 1939, left a significant legacy of lasting influence. Just one example is the fact that his 1920 novel, The Hands of Orloc, has been adapted to film three times. A 1935 version starred the great Peter Lorre. A 1960 British adaptation of The Hands of Orlac is a cult classic and stars Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee.

Another of his works, A Man Amongst the Microbes: Scherzo, (1928) inspired Richard Matheson’s novel, The Shrinking Man. This, in turn, led to the SF classic film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Maurice Renard is also credited with innovating one of the most intriguing SF concepts of all time – “slow glass.” This was a type of glass that absorbed light in such a way as to condense time. Bob Shaw wrote a groundbreaking short story based on the slow glass concept. This was the Hugo-nominated Light of Other Days. He later reworked the story into the novel, Other Days, Other Eyes. (1972)

The slow glass conception is becoming a reality today. In 2005, IBM introduced a chip, called the photonic silicon waveguide, which can slow down the speed of light.

You can download a free e-book copy of New Bodies For Old at Project Gutenberg HERE.


PHARAOH By Boleslaw Prus

SAURUS By Eden Phillpotts


Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS