Nightmares & Enigmas
Scott Nicolay is doing the proverbial lord’s work in translating the weird, short fiction of prolific Belgian author Jean Ray (not getting into his many pseudonyms, of which this is actually one) into English.
In this game, we talk a lot about H.P. Lovecraft and less than we should about folks like William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and the like. But even they get more attention in the anglophone weird fiction community than Ray, whose work deserves every bit as much good press as any of their number, in my humble estimation.
My introduction to Jean Ray may well have been the two stories that wrap up Cruise of Shadows, Ray’s second collection to receive English-language translation by Nicolay. These stories, “The Gloomy Alley” (under its alternate English translation “The Shadowy Street”) and “The Mainz Psalter” were previously reprinted in English in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird.
From there, I read everything I could conveniently get my hands on in translation, which mostly amounted to the old paperback of Ghouls in My Grave (pretty much the only Ray collection available in English for a long time) and Ray’s brilliant weird novel Malpertuis, one of those extremely rare long-form masterpieces of the capital-W Weird.
In fact, I even tracked down the (weird, indeed, but also more than a little disappointing) 1971 film version of Malpertuis, featuring an aging Orson Welles.
From that minuscule aperture into his oeuvre, I could tell that Jean Ray was a classic Weird writer quite unlike any other I had ever read. I was hooked and had to have more, but, being relatively poor and unable to read French, my options were limited. That is, until Wakefield Press began putting out this indispensable series of Jean Ray collections, in new translations by Scott Nicolay.
The previous volume, Whiskey Tales, was a rare jewel for someone like me, who was already thirsty for more Jean Ray stories. But, though it made Ray’s reputation in his native language – a reputation that was shortly ruined when he went to prison – it has less to offer those who are not already aficionados of the weird and macabre or fans of “the Belgian Poe,” as Ray was sometimes called.
There are classic stories of the weird and ghostly in Whiskey Tales, to be sure, including one which had appeared in Ghouls in My Grave under the title “The Cemetery Watchman,” which Nicolay’s translation renders as “The Cemetery Guard,” but many of the stories are little more than vignettes, and while all share the unmistakable absurdity and melancholy of Ray’s voice, several lack any overt supernatural element.
In his translator’s afterword, Nicolay makes the argument that Cruise of Shadows may be Ray’s masterwork of the Weird, and I would not be disinclined to agree. All of the stories in Cruise are longer, more refined, and more overtly supernatural than many of those in Whiskey Tales. The virulent antisemitism that marred those earlier stories is here also at least deflated somewhat, if not gone completely.
The joy of reading Ray is, in no small part, the joy that he takes in language, and Nicolay retains that joy in his translations. Even the three stories in this latest volume that I had read before felt fresh and new here, not least because, in “The Mainz Psalter” – possibly Ray ‘s most famous short – there is an entire section that is newly reinstated that was not present in the previous translation.
Accompanying each of the stories are extensive translator’s notes that help to explain the idiosyncrasies of the language and to supply context for the tales. For all their many allusions to things of the day, their intentional archaisms, and so on, these tales feel vital and fresh and modern in ways that make Ray’s contemporaries – including Lovecraft, to whose writing I mean no slight here – feel old-fashioned and straightforward by comparison.
Ray’s writing is conversational. These are – often literally – tales told in bars, spoken by tongues loosened by drink. They take circuitous routes, become infected by the obsessions, the whims, the tics, and the cul-de-sacs of their narrators. In many ways, this very circumlocution grants the stories much of their weird power.
The majesty of Ray’s prose is in its ability to conjure – not a clear image of a thing, but a clear feeling of it. An atmosphere – oppressive, claustrophobic, inescapably strange – that is called forth like a poet, out of a handful of allusions and carefully-chosen words.
All of the stories in Cruise of Shadows demonstrate Ray’s mastery of that ineffably weird, almost absurd atmosphere that is, at every moment, teetering on the brink of tipping over into comedy, which makes its icy fingers all the more chilling.
The famous diptych that closes out the collection – “The Gloomy Alley” and “The Mainz Psalter” – may be Ray at his best, but my favorite among the new-to-me stories in this volume was probably “Mondschein-Dampfer,” which Scott Nicolay also singled out as his favorite of the bunch.
The “deal with the devil” motif is a favorite of mine, and the mephistophelean moment of that deal in this story is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever read. Others offer similarly uncanny moments, including the delightfully spooky “The Last Guest,” which was previously translated as “The Last Traveler” in Ghouls in My Grave, and “Durer, the Idiot,” which, along with “The Gloomy Alley,” seems to prefigure some of what Ray would later get up to in Malpertuis.
For fans of Weird fiction or “the Belgian Poe,” both of these volumes (and all others that are forthcoming) are must-haves. For those whose affections toward the genre are more diffident or who are simply new to the works of Jean Ray, I would recommend starting with Cruise of Shadows. Then, once you’re hooked, you won’t be able to get enough.