Continuing with the Underwood-Miller collection Chateau d’If and Other Stories, we take a look at the title story, a novella originally published as “New Bodies For Old” in 1950, in the serial Thrilling Wonder Stories. As with many other Vance pieces, “Chateau d’If” is available under various collections, including Son of the Tree and Other Stories of the Vance Integral Edition (VIE).
The VIE is thought to be the authoritative version of Vance’s work, undoing–as much as possible–the interference of various editors over the years. It appears that the in-print Spatterlight Press edition is based off of the VIE, and would be worth purchasing. The contents of the Spatterlight volume Chateau d’If and Other Stories includes several “gadget” stories that I reviewed earlier: “Crusade to Maxus,” “Shape-Up,” “The Man from Zodiac” and “The Augmented Agent.”
The real Château d’If is a fortress built in the 1500s on an island in the Bay of Marseilles of southern France, and used to house prisoners over the years. Religious minorities (Huguenots) and enemies of the state (Communists) were imprisoned there, in isolation from the public. Wealthy prisoners were given cells in the upper floors, with windows and better food, while the poor where housed in the dungeons. It is also where the main character of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo was confined after being framed for a crime.
No doubt a full reading of Dumas’ classic would enrich my understanding of the construction of Vance’s story, but a quick review of the plot tells of imprisonment, adoption of different personas and revenge. These themes are present not only in “Chateau d’If” but many other Vance titles.*
Five young professional men, having achieved some measure of success but not affluence, are sitting around on the Oxinian Terrace, “a pleasant area of quiet in the heart of the city.” From the protagonist’s viewpoint, they’re all getting rather bored with their routine.
Roland Mario sat in complete relaxation, half-slumped, head back, feet propped on the spun-air and glass table–in the same posture as his four companions. Watching them under half-closed lids, Mario pondered the ancient mystery of human personality. How could men be identical and yet each completely unique?
After internally describing his companions, Mario considers a related question:
And Mario himself, how did they see him? He considered. Probably a different picture in each of their minds, although there were pretensions or striking features to his exterior. . . . He knew he was well-liked, so far as the the word had meaning among the five; they had been thrown together not so much by congeniality as by the handball court and a common bachelorhood.
This appears to be a standard way to introduce the cast of characters in a pulp SF story, but contains an essential question of identity. If there is nothing special about the culture Mario belongs to, or the social group that he’s in, what defines his inner essence?
After a banal conversation about how drinking fills the time, one of the group mentions a business called The Chateau d’If that has been advertising a vague promise of “ADVENTURE.” Some believe it to be merely the latest nightclub trying to entice customers, but there have been rumors about it being something else. These rumors are also vague, but enticing enough for them to send one from their number, pooling their money to cover the entrance fee.
The money is an important aspect: admission into The Chateau d’If costs 10,000 dollars for a risky, unpredictable experience, and ten million for a predetermined outcome. The four older friends pool together $8000 to finance the youngest, Zaer, who rolled lowest in a game of dice. Apprehensive but willing, Zaer promises to meet them afterward.
A couple of weeks go by with no sign of Zaer, until one of the group locates him in a the lobby of a posh hotel. They go there to confront him, but only after taking in the lobby’s atmosphere of high society:
Another entire wall was a single glass panel, the side of the hotel’s main swimming pool. Underwater shone blue-green, and there was the splash, the shining wet gold of swimming bodies. The furniture of the lobby was in shades of the same blue-green and gold, with intimacy provided by screens of vines covered in red, black and white blossoms. A golden light suffused the air, heightened the illusion of an enchanted world where people moved in a high-keyed milieu of expensive clothes, fabulous jewelry, elegant wit, careful lovemaking.
The draw of affluence is certainly felt. When they meet Zaer, sitting with a “dark-haired woman the sheath of emerald silk,” he claims no memory of them, or the Oxinian Terrace. They ask about their $8000, which he promptly withdraws from his pocket and pays them.
The mystery and possibility of wealth entices further investigation, and next it’s Mario who pays for an adventure in The Chateau d’If. While negotiating his price to $8000, he becomes familiar with the management. The owner-operator, Merwyn Allen, is an impossibly-handsome young man, and his assistant a beautiful but icily distant young woman. Mario is initially interested in the woman, who keeps him at arm’s length, but his off-hand observations about Allen are telling:
“It had better be good,” said Mario, “after all the buildup.” And he thought he saw a flicker of humor in Allen’s eyes.
“It’s cheap at ten million.”
“And quite dear at ten thousand?” suggested Mario.
Allen leaned back in his chair, and his beautiful face was cold as a marble mask. Mario suddenly thought of the girl in the front office. The same expression of untouchable distance and height.
Mario also learns in this chapter of Allen’s project to build an epic tower in the suburbs, fueled by the proceeds of The Chateau d’If. This skyscraper comes to symbolize the corruption of an affluent society in a less bizarre but comparably dramatic manner to what we saw in “Abercrombie Station.” Once his “adventure” starts, Mario finds out just where the money comes from in brutal fashion.
It was a sharp clean-cut awakening, not the slow wading through a morass of drug.
He sat on a bench in Tanagra Square, under a big mimosa, and the copper peacocks were pecking at bread he held out to them.
He looked at his hand. It was a fat pudgy hand. The arm was encased in hard gray fiber. No suit he owned was gray. The arm was short. His legs were short. His belly was large. He licked his lips. They were pulpy, thick.
He was Roland Mario inside the brain, the body was somebody else. He sat quite still.
Mario quickly learns that his body was swapped with that of a wealthy manufacturer named Ralston Ebery, who raided his business funds to finance the ten million required by The Chateau d’If. Little wonder why Allen was willing to accept Mario’s eight thousand. Having inherited Ebery’s poor health, reputation as a controlling boss, and marital problems, Mario sets about trying to get his body back. He does so with the resourcefulness and stoicism that we have come to expect in a typical Vancean hero.
The theme of characters using a persona–the Greek word for a theatrical mask–to adapt an inner essence to exterior influences (culture) is discussed with much detail and sophistication by Paul Rhoads in the Vance-focused newsletter Extant. Obviously, Mario has the persona of Ebery imposed on him. He learns that he has a limited time to enact his plan of escape, as the persona of Ebery will eventually take over his true personality. He rapidly changes his relationships with his subordinates, swaps his role of CEO for a hands-on architect, and cuts loose his wife with a divorce. In effect, he attempts to turn Ebery into Mario before Mario turns into Ebery.
“Chateau d’If” compresses a lot of plot and characters into its pages, and would have been a richer experience as a full-length novel. Certainly, the personalities of Roland’s friends, both in their original form and within the bodies of their aged buyers, could have been explored in greater detail. The central mystery of who among the group was their recruiter–although Vance did provide hints–could have been fleshed out to build a more suspenseful reveal. As it is, the story is an interesting indication of the futures Vance had yet to describe, where resourceful individuals could conceal themselves in plain sight, and almost anything could be bought or sold.
* I’ve actually been wondering about Vance’s primary influences, and it appears Dumas should be added to my speculative list of Dana, Melville and Cabell.