The benighted year that is 2020 has given us a great many things, almost all of them bad. But it has also given us not one but two collections-in-translation from the “Belgian Poe” himself, Jean Ray (actually one of the numerous pseudonyms of Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer) courtesy of translator Scott Nicolay, bringing the total of Nicolay’s translations of Ray’s work into English to four volumes, all available from Wakefield Press.
When writing about Cruise of Shadows, the second collection and, to this point, maybe the best, I said that Scott was doing the proverbial Lord’s work, and that remains true. In fact, enough can’t possibly be said about the translation job he does here, which goes far beyond translation and into the realm of annotation, providing extensive translator’s notes that fix historical precedent, explain unusual turns of phrase, and expound upon Ray’s many instances of wordplay and allusion.
The other thing that Scott does is to provide (also extensive) afterwords that help to fix the book in question not merely in history or in the timeline of Ray’s career, but as it relates to the specific field of weird fiction. As Scott rightly points out in the afterword of Circles of Dread, the latest translation and maybe my favorite to date, though we’ll get to that in a minute, the notion of weird fiction as a mode didn’t really exist yet at the time that Ray was writing.
Nevertheless, Scott identifies only two of the stories in Circles of Dread as being capital-W Weird, and, given that he’s the Ray scholar of the two of us, I’m certainly not going to argue with him. Ray’s undisputed masterpieces of the weird fiction mode are the two stories that anchored Cruise of Shadows, “The Gloomy Alley” and “The Mainz Psalter,” but some of his other tales, including “The Marlyweck Cemetery” in Circles of Dread, certainly deserve to rub shoulders with them.
But I said up above that this was maybe my favorite of the four Wakefield Press collections so far released, and that is because – regardless of the number of Weird tales contained herein or not – just about every story in Circles of Dread is a masterpiece of the gothic and macabre, and one that only Ray could have written.
Indeed, tales like “The Moustiers Plate” are so fanciful as to almost rub up against something like magical realism, while others, such as the inspiring “Hand of Gotz von Berlichingen” which opens the collection are nearly traditional ghost stories, but told in the always indirect way in which Ray specialized and which Scott calls “punching around corners” in his afterword.
Writing about Cruise of Shadows, I said that, “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.” That’s true here, as well, and while these stories (“Marlyweck Cemetery” notwithstanding) may be less Weird than those, they’re no less masterful, and I love a good ghost story, gothic tale, or supernatural yarn as much as any Weird fiction.
And these are about as good as they come.
“One can ask only so much of possessed alchemical objects.”