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When Fantômas, the futuristic master criminal and terrorist, first enters the stage of modern mass culture in 1911, he complies with the associations raised by his name and does not really take shape. Phantomlike, he gives evidence of his existence through his actions rather than personal appearances. Like other famous creatures appearing on the mass cultural scene of the day—Dracula comes to mind—Fantômas proceeds through dispersal, diffusion, and distraction, figuring forth a flickering presence, not yet here and already gone. In keeping with this logic, the first Fantômas novel famously opens with a dialogue between unidentified speakers, a conversation that seems to float in space:


“What did you say?”

“I said: Fantômas.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Nothing. . . . Everything!”

“But what is it?”

“Nobody. . . . And yet, yes, it is somebody!”

“And what does the somebody do?”

“Spreads terror!”1

Much has been written about this singular beginning for a pulp novel that would quickly spawn sequels in abundance. By 1913—only two years after the master criminal’s inception—thirty-three Fantômas novels were on the market, and a very successful five-part film serial had been launched. As has been noted, the epigraph exemplifies the series’ strategies of suspense management through indirection and uncertainty, and it illustrates the [End Page 341] narrative’s intrinsic affinities to the avant-garde aesthetics of the day.2 But besides that, I find this forceful beginning intriguing because like a spotlight it captures the very principle of Fantômas’s success story—a principle which strikes me as remarkably unexplored in its implications. After all, the intro communicates an impersonal and unattributed trajectory of transmission, dissemination, and expansion—a chain reaction: somebody does something which then effects shock waves of dispersal and diffusion. “What does this somebody do?” “Spreads terror” (my emphasis). That is, at least, the accentuation in the English translation of 1915. In the French original of 1911, the wording of the last line was different. Here the question of what Fantômas does was still answered with the identification of a concrete agent: “il fait peur.”3

By 1915, Fantômas had left his mark on France and was ready to take on the rest of the world. The master villain’s mode of operation, informed by the dynamics of spread, may well count as the most significant feature of his success story. Spread—in the sense of expansion, takeover, proliferation, and mutation—can for one be made out as the Fantômas narratives’ most prominent theme: the stories, which quickly availed themselves of literary, filmic, graphic, and other carrier media, revolved around the master criminal’s phantomlike quality of being everywhere at once and his penchant for masquerade, identity theft, and ultimately replication, which prompted the impression that “not one, but a dozen Fantômas were at work” (Souvestre and Allain, Fantômas, 236). This logic of dissemination is explicitly ascribed to the workings of a sensational print culture in the very beginning of the novel series, when an indignant commentator attributes the craze around the perpetrator in a metareferential turn to “the state of mind produced in the younger generation by the newspaper press and even by literature. Criminals are given haloes and proclaimed from the house-tops” (9). Fantômas here appears like a creature born in print; later, after exchanging his carrier medium, he will be made out as an integral part of the cinematic apparatus—he is a medial phantasm.

In any case, we never get to see the real, unmasked Fantômas in the novels, and he makes his first indirect appearance in the guise of a nightmare or vision, haunting a boy:

If for an instance he dozed off, the image of Fantômas took shape in his mind, but never twice the same: sometimes he saw a colossal figure with bestial face and muscular shoulders; sometimes a wan, thin creature, with strange and piercing eyes; sometimes a vague form, a phantom — Fantômas!


It is of importance here that this is a dream—Fantômas does not appear on his own but is conjured up by somebody else’s...


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