Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guest essay from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: Coming Up to the Terror

Almost exactly a year ago, I interviewed Chelsea Quinn Yarbro about the 24th entry in her St.-Germain cycle, An Embarrassment of Riches, set in 13th-century Bohemia.  I'm happy to welcome her back to the blog today to discuss the historical backdrop to her most recent novel. 

With Commedia della Morte (Tor, March 2012), she presents a new angle on a well-known historical event: the French Revolution.  I hope you'll enjoy her essay about late 18th-century French theatre, especially its life outside Paris, and how traveling performers were affected by the era's traumatic political events.

Also of note: Tor is currently holding a giveaway on Goodreads for 25 copies of Commedia della Morte, to mark its status as the 25th book in her series.  US readers can enter the contest here.


Coming Up to the Terror
by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Approaching the history in historical fiction can often become a kind of intellectual juggling act, finding ways to keep the story and history in dynamic balance, and never more so than when dealing with such major events as the French Revolution. It is not just a matter of sorting out the layers of incidents that brought it about in the first place; it requires a careful examination of all the factions, persons, and various groups that contributed to the Revolution, its high ideals and its turn toward the excesses of the Terror.

As a novelist, I find myself drawn to what I call the tweensie periods, those transitional phases of social changes that alter the character of the society that has gone before, which made 1792 irresistible for my twenty-third Saint-Germain novel (there are also two collections of short fiction), Commedia della Morte, when the forces of reform became increasingly extreme in their positions. The book began, as such works often begin, with what I call chasing the wild footnote: I was reading an extensive work on the French Revolution, looking for a time of modulation, when purpose and common goals diverge and politics become more intense. Within that crucial period, I try to find an event or series of events on which to hang my story; during that search, I came upon a footnote on the proliferation of street theatre throughout France during the Revolution. That was an angle that appealed to me, and I started hunting down as many sources on those street theatres as I could. What really hooked me was an article written some forty years ago on some of the touring companies in France at the time, some of which did not originate in France. Even better, I thought. Outsiders are always useful characters in dealing with social upheaval in fiction.

Like the rest of French society, in 1792 the nature of theatre was undergoing a redefinition: noble patrons had vanished (if they knew what was good for them) leaving their troupes to find other means of survival; the troupes changed their repertoire from classic French theatre to broad farce and broader satire. Public trials and executions were on the increase but did not provide the kind of entertainment many people craved, and so the actors who had performed for the aristocrats now took their talents to the common people, their new material and audiences pushing the troupes to extend the limits of their themes and styles well beyond what they had done for their high-born patrons. While Commedia del’Arte was largely on the way out by the mid-seventeen hundreds, the tradition was not entirely gone. The habits of touring players returned, performing plays and scenes adapted to the times and circumstances of the people who were their primary audiences. Some of these troupes proved to be highly successful, gaining enthusiastic followers. Among such feted troupes, occasional dramatic missteps or blunders gained far more attention than those made by lesser companies, and what was an artistic fumble for minor groups became a political disaster for major ones; those unlucky enough to have such a mishap could find themselves in tumbrels along with other unfortunates, meeting the same end that many of their patrons had met.

Being traveling players, the troupe, calling itself and its dramatic material Commedia della Morte, unlike many novels constructed around the French Revolution, the action takes place outside of Paris, in Avignon and Lyon for the most part, emphasizing the increasing executions and the growing political rancor among those forming the new bureaucracy. The shenanigans of local politicians jockeying for power plays a part in the successes of the troupe, often for reasons that have nothing to do with their scenarios or their popularity, but serve to provide leverage to local authorities in their maneuvering for personal advantage. Although most of these characters are fictional composites of authorities during that pivotal year, their various views, ambitions, and degree of ulterior motivation reflects the nature of the time.

By telling the story around this particular troupe, one that had had high-ranking patronage until the Revolution, and had fled France to the university city of Padova in Italy after the Revolution began, the return of the performers to France at the behest of Ragoczy Saint-Germain, the long-lived hero of the series, not only puts the story in motion, it provides a perspective on the Revolution seen through the troupe’s eyes; having survived the initial purges of aristocratic privilege, the members of the company know they are in dangerous territory, not just for the nature of their performances, but due to the shifting political sands which they must accommodate. As their fame increases, the troupe’s position becomes increasingly perilous, revealing how the turn to extremism was expressed in places outside of Paris.

From the first I have called these books historical horror novels, meaning that the history is horrifying, and that has never been more true than in Commedia della Morte.

About Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is the first woman to be named a Living Legend by the International Horror Guild and is one of only two women ever to be named as Grand Master of the World Horror Convention (2003). In 1995, Yarbro was the only novelist guest of the Romanian government for the First World Dracula Congress, sponsored by the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, the Romanian Bureau of Tourism and the Romanian Ministry of Culture.

Yarbro is best known as the creator of the heroic vampire, the Count Saint-Germain. With her creation of Saint-Germain in Hotel Transylvania (St. Martin's Press, 1978), she delved into history and vampiric literature and subverted the standard myth to invent the first vampire who was more honorable, humane, and heroic than most of the humans around him. The 25th volume of the Saint-Germain Cycle, Commedia della Morte, was published by Tor in March 2012. The first three books, Hotel Transylvania, The Palace and Blood Games, are all available as e-books from

A professional writer since 1968, Yarbro has worked in a wide variety of genres, from science fiction to westerns, from young adult adventure to historical horror.

For more information on Yarbro’s many books and interests, check out her website at


  1. Many thanks to Chelsea (and Sarah) for an interesting post. I've GOT to start reading this series!

    And—finally! A book whose setting (French Revolution) & storyline (vampire protagonist) make the cover image of a faceless neck above a bodice entirely appropriate!

  2. I haven't read this specific one yet, but based on my reading of the last, the majority of the volumes can stand alone. And I really like seeing a different point of view on the French Revolution. Yarbro writes about settings few if any other novelists have.

    Good point about the cover! I've seen another featuring a headless Anne Boleyn that's all too apropos...