Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Death Trap or Escape Route? The Paris Catacombs, Guest Post by Melissa Jarvis

An escape route or tomb for the dead?  The catacombs beneath Paris have been used as both since the eighteenth century and have inspired writers ever since.  Who could forget Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera taking Christine down to his underground lair, housed in the catacombs under the Paris Opera House?  Or Victor Hugo’s John Valjean descending into the sewers and using them to hide with Marius after the failed revolution attempt?  Napoleon also made use of them, as did French Resistance fighters during World War II.  Like those before me, I also incorporated their blend of mystery, death, hope and escape in Past Her Time.  But for those of you who have never explored the dark depths, beware, these aren’t your mother’s Roman catacombs.

Originally built to quarry stone, this maze of tunnels and caverns were largely forgotten until the city of Paris started to stink, literally, from the thousands of dead bodies buried on top of each other in Saint Innocents.  The city’s solution was a macabre yet practical one, to use the catacombs, which up until then had been sort of an “unofficial” sewer system, to house the dead.  From 1786 to 1789, all skeletons were exhumed and transported to three different underground chambers.  The site must have been a strange one; parades of black covered, bone laden wagons followed by chanting priests, and thousands upon thousands of bones being deposited into the catacombs, where skulls were separated into piles and other bones were dispersed by workers.  And then, on July 14, 1789, the French Revolution began with the overthrow of the Bastille prison, and the systematic execution of the nobility and traitors to the new Republic.  But thanks to the widespread use of the guillotine, separating the bones became much easier. (Yes, this is a pun, and a bad one. There’s a reason they say “don’t lose your head!”)

In 1792, victims of the prison riots were also dumped in the catacombs, albeit with much less ceremony than just a few years prior.  For a lucky few, familiar with the layout, they became an escape route for those destined for Madame La Guillotine.  In Past Her Time, I used the catacombs several times to get my heroine out of a sticky situation.  And in one scene, despite the rats and human remains, the catacombs are witness to a tender, bonding moment between my heroine Alex and hero Gabriel.

But it wasn’t until 1810 that the then Inspector of the Quarries decided to turn the mass of bones into something that would outshine any mausoleum.  The inscription above the entry says it all, “Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la Mort” ('Stop, this is the empire of Death'). Beyond are halls and caverns featuring walls of carefully arranged bones. Some of these are almost artistic in nature, such as a heart-shaped outline in one wall formed with skulls embedded in surrounding tibias; another a round room whose central pillar is done in a 'keg' bone arrangement.

To this day, not all of the catacombs have been explored.  Who knows what lies waiting in their twisting, murky depths?  After all, we don’t really know what became of the Phantom.  There might be another story there for the writer brave enough to explore them (and get past the rusted gates that aren’t part of the official tour.)

Past Her Time by Melissa Jarvis:
Agent Alex Raines takes no prisoners, in her job or in her personal life. But all of that changes when the time travel organization The Lineage sends her to 1793 Revolutionary France. Used to a "get in, get out," modus operandi, she finds her heart and will tested by local English nobleman Lord Gabriel Huntington, whose reasons for being there are as deceptive as her own. In the midst of revolution and betrayal, can these two learn to take off the disguises and trust each other? Or will the fate of the world and time travel rest on Alex's ability to betray the one man she has come to love?

Chapter Excerpt from Past Her Time:
Alex paused and stopped as they came to a turn in the alley and a faded sign with only the letters C and G still visible. Keeping her gaze to the ground, she spotted their means of escape.
She knelt down and lifted aside a metal grate set in the stone, the sound louder than the beating of her heart.
“You cannot possibly be serious. That would be suicide. We could be lost for years down there.” Gabriel tried to pull her away from the black opening.
“Only if you do not know the way.” She prayed she did, that this time Banderan’s taunts about her sense of direction would not prove true. The tunnels ran deep underground across the city, and there was a reason they inspired stories and legends. Many who went down never came up. “Do you have a better suggestion?”
Gabriel released her, his eyes wary. “I do not. However, ladies first.”
She nodded and lowered herself through the grate then dropped the few feet to the ground to land in a splash of water. Gabriel followed and vigorously brushed his coat off.
“This should lead us out close to…close to the park where we first met.” She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. “Do you have a match by any chance?”
Gabriel handed her several matches from his coat pocket, obviously missed by the guards when he’d been patted down. What he intended using them for she didn’t know and didn’t ask.
“We’ll save these for where the light does not reach.”
Their progress was slow, owing to Alex’s intense dislike of the myriad of rats that Gabriel was forced to chase away by waving his coat. Moonlight filtered through at various spots, reflected in the water their feet constantly splashed through. The air was stale and sweet and left a musky taste at the back of her throat.
The tunnels twisted and turned, following the streets above, and Alex could feel the incline of the ground under her as they descended deeper. She braced her hands against walls that were damp and rough. The only sounds were the scuttles and skitters of various animals, the plink and rush of water and her own labored breathing.
She stumbled as her foot connected with something in the path. Gabriel grabbed her arm to steady her. “I think we need to light one of those matches.”
She struck one against the box he handed her and gasped at the object that had nearly tripped her. She closed her eyes briefly.
Gabriel looked at the white bones, long picked clean, that gleamed in the light of the match. “It’s just an animal.”
Alex nodded mutely.
“Come on.” Gabriel urged her forward.
“I hate it. All the suffering, all the executions. I’ve always wished I could do something about it.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“So have I.”
Alex looked up at him, at the face that wavered in the red light. “But you are.”
“Yes, but it never seems like it’s enough. No matter how hard I try.”
“Believe me, it is. Especially to the people you save. I know what it’s like to be up there, thinking this is it, there’s no hope. And everyone around you believes the same thing. All you hear are the screams of the crowd and the slice of the blade.” She shuddered.
“It apparently did not bother you too much before.”
She knew he was referring to Auguste and understood the confusion he must be feeling.
“I’m sorry.” She reached out to place a hand on his arm, and thought better of it. He wouldn’t want comfort from her right now.

A mild-mannered Public Relations executive by day, and action-packed writer by night, Melissa Jarvis lives in celebrity-friendly Southern California with her husband and son. For over 14 years, she has worked in the public relations industry, doing press releases, bios, newsletters, media campaigns and more for clients ranging from the Playboy Jazz Festival to the Los Angeles Mission to JVS. And she's survived with most of her mind intact! An active member of RWA, she writes both paranormal romance and urban fantasy, as well as spicy paranormal under the name Melissa L. Robert. She is currently working on the sequal to Past Her TIme, featuring agent Banderan's story. You can find her on Past Her TIme is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BookStrand, and other bookseller sites.


  1. I've never actually studied the history of the catacombs - that sounds like it must have been fascinating research! And a really interesting setting for your novel.

  2. Thanks Juturna! I love research, and first became interested in them after reading Phantom of the Opera. Of course, when I went to Paris a number of years ago, they were at the top of my list to visit! Alas, I only got to see a small part of what was under the Paris Opera House.

  3. GREAT post, and loved the excerpt!

    Wishing you many Sales!

    hugs, Kari Thomas,