AFTER THE PUBLICATION of Whiskey Tales in 1925, things were looking up for Jean Ray. This debut collection earned him recognition from, among others, Maurice Renard, who called Ray “the Belgian Poe.” Sadly, Ray’s bright literary future darkened all too soon: on March 8, 1926, he was arrested and incarcerated. [1] Contrary to the legend, which Ray himself helped perpetuate, he was charged not with smuggling alcohol but “misappropriation of funds” concerning his literary journal. His publisher promptly cut Les Contes du whisky from its catalog and canceled two subsequent collections. Ray, aged 38, found himself in a cell in Ghent’s De Nieuwe Wandeling prison, where he would spend three years.

De Nieuwe Wandeling (“The New Promenade”), which first housed inmates in 1862, was inspired by the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s design for the most efficient institutional building. A rotunda with an observation post at its center, Bentham christened his ingeniously baleful brainchild “the panopticon” (from the Greek word for “all seeing”). The devilishly clever detail is that the central observation post is installed with blinds, preventing the prisoners in the surrounding cells from knowing when (or if) they are being observed. As Bentham puts it in Panopticon, or the Inspection-House (1791), inmates constantly face “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector […] combined with the extreme facility of his real presence.

Bentham’s italicized phrases help bring into focus the eerie atmosphere of the tales in Ray’s second collection, Cruise of Shadows: Haunted Stories of Land and Sea (1931) — all written during his incarceration. In almost every story, a narrator finds himself confronted by an “apparent omnipresence” of malevolent intent — sometimes from physical objects themselves — only to discover a real (if inscrutable) “presence” that means him no good. It is as though Ray channeled into his fiction the isolation, gloom, and, most of all, the unobservable presence of watchful eyes he endured within the quaintly named “New Promenade” panopticon. Imprisonment even marked Ray’s language: as translator Scott Nicolay points out, the three most frequently used words in the book are tumulte, clameur, and gifle ­— the last rendered as “smack” or “slap,” the sound of a bare foot hitting the cold stone floor of a cell. In the opening story, “The Horrifying Presence,” the unfortunate gold prospector, distinguished (to borrow Nabokov’s phrase) by being “ideally bald,” thus describes first hearing the “presence” outside his hut: “Footsteps on the ground outside, quite clear, like sharp little smacks [gifles].” He calls the invisible stalking entity simply “the thing.” Here, the bald prospector is — like many of Ray’s characters — telling others about his fearful encounter with the Unknown [l’Inconnu].

The Unknown, however, pervades Ray’s work not only because it is (or can be) terrifying, but also because it acts as shorthand for the way the stories repeatedly stage his characters’ groping for the words needed to capture what cannot be firmly grasped: the mystery shaping what is said. In “Dürer, the Idiot,” the narrator, another unfortunate soul who has had to confront the incomprehensible, reflects: “Our intellect demands a prelude for every event. It has a horror of the instantaneous and expends three quarters of its power in an effort to anticipate. It wants to come at all things by a gentle slope.”

This kind of ruminative aside, in the face of that which does not abide rumination, is typical of Ray’s style. During their walk along “a narrow street of the old town, a street of dark gables,” the narrator sees his companion, Dürer, suddenly make “the most peculiar gesture, as if he meant to grab my arm,” and then dash through the open door of a “little pink and green house” — never to be heard from again. This little house magnetizes the narrator, causing him to dream strange dreams. Toward the end of the story, when he watches a door open on its own inside the selfsame house, his intellect is floundering: “I turned my eyes once more to that straw of common sense adrift upon the lonely ocean of my terror.” This response is understandable, given that even the furniture prompted him earlier to say: “I stared with suspicion at lifeless objects like armoires and chairs[.] […] Has it ever struck you, the hostile attitude of some piece of furniture, familiar and inert among the others?”

The Unknown is crucial to weird fiction, so it’s no surprise that it features so prominently in Ray’s stories. What matters is its particular form of expression — the way that, being ineffable and unsighted, it is nonetheless somehow glimpsed. “The Gloomy Alley” — a personal favorite and recognized as among Ray’s greatest works — is another story about the Unknown making itself uncannily close. Like Ray’s Gothic novel Malpertuis (1943), it is a matryoshka doll of several narratives, two of which relate the violent events leading up to the Great Fire of Hamburg. One of the narrators is Alphonse Archiprêtre, a scholar who discovers a narrow street visible only to himself. Sainte-Bérégonne Alley does not appear on any map of Hamburg, and its physical location is impossible, overlaying as it does extant city streets. (China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & the City charts a similar spatial anomaly.) He discovers, too, that three identical houses with yellow doors keep repeating themselves around every bend progressing up this Escheresque alley. Eventually, he breaks into one of them and begins stealing the everyday objects he finds inside ­— a tray, a candlestick. And, desiring to buy love with gold, he finds a buyer for these objects that do not belong to our world. Indeed, these objects are truly invaluable, in that they add, in his own words, “to the otherwise inalterable patrimony of the Earth” — one object retrieved from this space-outside-ordinary-space adds to the sum total of objects. Just who resides in these interdimensional houses, and who buys back their stolen property, are mysteries best left for the story to disclose.

The Unknown, despite or perhaps because it disturbs everyday reality, is fascinating: Ray’s protagonists creep toward it, curious nocturnal critters whiskering after an alluring scent, despite the traps set for them. [2] Alphonse is thus able to overcome his fear and break into one of the yellow-doored houses because his curiosity restrains his animal impulse to flee. Similarly, the narrator in “Dürer, the Idiot” is fascinated by the disappearance of Dürer inside the outré house in which he, too, will have a close brush with “[an] unspeakable thing.” In other stories, that which is most intimately familiar becomes most deeply disturbing. In “Mondschein-Dampfer,” the eyes “crazed with phosphorous” glaring at the narrator out of his lover’s face belong to some-“Thing” else. The stars seen in the night sky by the doomed sailors in “The Mainz Psalter” do not belong to any known constellation; the known sky, so homely to a sailor, has become unrecognizable — unhomely. The familiar can all too soon become the terrifying, and fascination with the unfamiliar, Ray’s characters learn too late, often leads to sanity-curdling horror.

Of course, the word “unhomely” comes freighted with Sigmund Freud’s analysis of it in his classic essay “The Uncanny” (1919). I do not wish to rehash its premises and examples (they remain illuminating, although the same cannot be said for Freud’s conclusions, which try and fail to tame the mystery his own discourse sighted) but to quote a particular sentence that is often overlooked. “We adapt our judgment,” Freud writes, “to the conditions of the writer’s fictional reality[.]” The “conditions” of a writer’s fictional reality are established by language and style: the verbal means with which fiction conjures a world. When it comes to literary language (the kind of language that dances around clichés), conjuring is precisely what language is doing. And when it comes to weird fiction, as written by such a consummate stylist as Jean Ray, this act of conjuring is brought about, in large measure, by his unexpected — and often very weird — metaphorical imagery:

Like a cruel child who lays waste to a rose garden just to torment a ladybug, [the storm] whips our shack with the wings of a gigantic ray. (“The Horrifying Presence”)

In front of us stood a little house, neat and pink, with its green shutters open, and within its clear front window we saw the tiny figure of an old man wrinkled as a dishwasher’s fist, reading a book with crusty pages. (“Dürer, the Idiot”)

Some currents still surged with surreptitious rage, but we detected them by their green backs, undulating like sections of crippled crocodiles. (“The Mainz Psalter”)

In selecting which examples to give, I find myself wanting to add more and more, so startlingly strange (and yet so accurate) are Ray’s images.

Here all credit goes to Scott Nicolay for his exact translation of Ray’s voice, preserving its verbal eccentricities, notably the archaisms that pepper his prose with the flavors and sights of the forgotten experiences of his day (the taste of “oily schnittchen,” the jovial riverside establishments called guinguettes, a Scottish sailing boat called a “yole”). Anglophone readers will most likely have encountered Ray’s stories in Lowell Blair’s 1965 translation, notably “The Gloomy Alley” (which Blair translated as “The Shadowy Street”) and “The Mainz Psalter,” both included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent compendium The Weird (2012). While Blair’s translation reads fluently, it is not always faithful to its parent text. To gauge the difference, here is a side by side comparison of a fairly straightforward passage from “The Gloomy Alley”/ “La Ruelle ténébreuse”:

Je vole éternellement dans une même maison, dans les mêmes circonstances, les mêmes objets. Je me demande, si ce n’est pas là une première vengeance de cet inconnu sans mystère? N’est-ce pas une première ronde de damné que j’accomplis?

La damnation ne serait-elle pas la répétition sempiternelle du péché, pour l’éternité des temps?

Blair translates this passage as:

Over and over again, I stole the same objects from the same house under the same circumstances. I wondered whether this might not be the first vengeance of that unknown without mystery. Might not damnation be the unvarying repetition of sin for all eternity?

And this is Nicolay’s version:

I am forever robbing the same objects from the same house, under the same circumstances. I wonder if this is not the first revenge of an enigma without mystery? Isn’t this the first circle of damnation that I have opened? Would not damnation be the eternal repetition of sin for an eternity of time?

What stands out in Blair, besides the missing third sentence, is the change in tense. Transposing the passage into the past tense, Blair’s version lessens the immediacy of Alphonse’s plight. Nicolay’s translation, on the other hand, preserves the original’s sense of inescapable ongoingness, the ceaseless and deeply unsettling repetition of finding oneself compelled to steal identical objects from the same house, over and over again. [3] Nicolay’s rendition of the concluding phrase “pour l’éternité des temps” as “for an eternity of time” is also more precise than Blair’s more conventional expression, “for all eternity.”

Ray’s work has found a kindred spirit in Nicolay (himself a notable practitioner of the Weird tale), and Anglophone readers will be glad to know of a forthcoming translation of Ray’s third collection, The Grand Nocturnal (Le Grand Nocturne), due to be published by Wakefield Press in May 2020. [4] Cruise of Shadows includes Nicolay’s afterword, in which he offers illuminating suggestions about the literary lineage of Ray’s stories. I am convinced, for instance, that the entity from Guy de Maupassant’s late masterpiece “The Horla” (1887) gave Ray inspiration for the ghostly “they” who terrorize the denizens of Hamburg. Nicolay also points to the distinct influence of William Hope Hodgson’s novel The Ghost Pirates (1909) — serialized in La Revue Belge between 1927–’28 — on “The Mainz Psalter.” There is, too, the long-debated question concerning the influence of H. P. Lovecraft: which of Lovecraft’s stories did Ray, in all probability, read, and vice versa? And, finally, why do fearsome hands appear so often in his writing? The afterword offers fascinating answers to these questions, the latter leading down the footnote trail to a very strange story about Maupassant’s real-life encounter with a severed hand, in the home — of all people — of the English poet Algernon Swinburne.

In 1932, two years after his release from prison, Jean Ray proposed an article entitled, “Une heure avec moi-même” (“An hour with myself”) to the French periodical Les Débats. Forgotten by the literary world, he would have to resort to talking with someone who knew best about his work and habits — himself. The nom de plume “Jean Ray” would not make a comeback for a while; in the meantime, like his contemporary, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, Raymundus de Kremer (Ray’s birth name), concealed by enforced anonymity, kept sprouting pseudonyms like mushrooms in a dank cellar (Huftier counts 166). Not unlike a character in one of his own stories, he was becoming “an accomplice to the phantoms” — phantoms of his own imagination, as he would write tall tales about meeting Jack London, seeing the ghost of a white parrot who caused the suicide of a fellow inmate (!), and conducting that “self-interview” in front of a mirror, a bottle of whiskey at hand. What saved Ray from self-pity (and its cognate, self-obsession), is that he did not gaze too long at his own reflection. In the world of Jean Ray, in Huftier’s apt phrase, “the reverse side is the place.” The Unknown beckoned from the other side of the looking glass, and, distracted from himself, he followed after its call like few ever managed. And, by doing so, he said all that he needed to say about himself.

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Leonid Bilmes is a researcher and writer currently living in Moscow.

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[1] For all publication dates and biographical details, I am indebted to the Ray scholar Arnaud Huftier’s notes in the French edition, and to Scott Nicolay’s equally informative annotations.

[2] I highly recommend, to readers unfamiliar with it, Mark Fisher’s short yet piercing book The Weird and the Eerie, where Fisher makes a comparable observation about fascination with the unknown in Lovecraft’s fiction.

[3] Alphonse’s plight echoes the following anecdote, which some readers may recognize. A man is holidaying in a small Italian town. One hot afternoon, while strolling around the town piazza, he decides to have a wander around a quarter he’s not been to before. Having turned a few corners, he finds himself on a narrow shadowy street. Suddenly, this smartly dressed, spectacled man with graying beard is made uneasy. Garishly made-up women glare at him from close windows, and he realizes that he has found himself in an area, as he puts it, “about whose character I could not long remain in doubt.” He tries to retrace his steps and find his way back to the piazza, but, having wandered for some time, finds himself back in the same street, confronted by the same glares from the same gaudy women. He tries once again to go find a way out, this time by a different route — and he is back there again! His presence is attracting attention, and he begins to panic. On his third attempt, he finally succeeds. Breathing in the open air of the piazza, he decides to refrain “from any further voyages of discovery.” This is of course Sigmund Freud, who, in his quest to understand the uncanniness of repetition, would surely have found Ray’s story instructive.

[4] Nicolay won the 2015 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, and his debut collection of novellas and short stories (with an introduction by Laird Barron) is available here: https://www.fedoganandbremer.com/products/ana-kai-tangata