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Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz: La Grande Peur dans la montagne (Terror on the Mountain)

The book opens with a meeting of the Council of a Swiss alpine pastoral community called Sasseneire. The recently elected chair, a younger man, is calling for some pasture land, high in the hills, to be reopened. It had been closed some twenty years ago because something happened. Neither we nor, indeed, they are entirely sure exactly what did happen but we and they know that it was distinctly unpleasant. The younger generation, who do not remember it, are all for going back to this rich grazing land, which will be of considerable benefit to the community. The older generation, who do remember it, are totally opposed to it. However, on a vote, the younger generation win. The official leasing agent is very enthusiastic, not least because he has little work.

An exploratory journey is made and then the chalet is repaired and a survey reveals the richness of the grazing land. Initially, there are no volunteers to accompany the herd for three months during the summer. The chair is somewhat disappointed that the only volunteer is Clou (it means nail), something of vagabond. However, he needs the money to marry Victorine. Gradually he gets the six more he needs, who are, inevitably a motley bunch. One of them is Barthélemy, who was one of the seven twenty years previously. He is not worried as he has the protection of Saint Maurice, in the form of a special piece of paper. However, when they get there, he tells them what happened last time, which resulted in two deaths and the rest abandoning the place.

Ramuz cleverly builds up the fear factor. The first night, the nearby glacier looks menacing as it gets dark. Strange noises are heard. Young Ernest is petrified. Is there something on the roof, as Barthélemy had told them there was last time? Munier, a local man, is hunting in the woods, when suddenly he sees Ernest blundering down the hill, in a state of complete terror. He takes him home but his terror remains and his mother is very concerned. However, one of the other seven also comes back – Romain – actually to do a bit of illegal hunting and he says that the boy just got the jitters and there is nothing to worry about.

But things get worse. When Romain returns, he sees his comrades huddled over a few cattle. They tell him to keep away and to go and fetch Pont, the local vet. It soon becomes clear that the cattle have got the disease, which seems to be foot and mouth diseases. Pont is surprised by this, as none of the cattle in the valley have it. The chair offers to resign but his resignation is rejected. He caused the problem and now he must deal with it.

Inevitably, more problems occur. Ramuz’s skill is not to show any horrors. There are no fearsome monsters apart, of course, from the foot and mouth disease but there are shadows, noises and, inevitably, the fertile imaginations of the seven men up on the mountain. Those down below do not escape, either. As Ramuz concludes, the mountain has its own ideas and it has its own will.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1926 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation by Harcourt, Brace and World in 1967
Translated by Milton Stansbury