More Than the Belgian Poe: The Overdue Return of Jean Ray’s “Whiskey Tales”
By Leonid BilmesMarch 2, 2019
Whiskey Tales by Jean Ray
Jean Ray is the pen name of Raymond Jean Marie de Kremer (1887–1964), among the preeminent, and sadly long overlooked, writers of the fantastique. This story collection, first published in 1925 as Les Contes du whisky, is the first of many in Ray’s oeuvre, and it is a 2019 translation of a 2016 unexpurgated edition of Ray’s work, published by Alma Editeur in France and edited by the leading Ray scholar, Arnaud Huftier. Scott Nicolay has done an excellent job in conveying Ray’s conversational and highly idiomatic style into English.
An early reviewer described Ray as “the Belgian Poe,” a nickname picked up by Maurice Renard, and the epithet has stuck. He might equally be called “the Flemish Lovecraft.” Indeed, some of his stories appeared in the Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s under the pseudonym John Flanders, and readers of weird fiction will recognize the Hall of Famers published in its pages: H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. I first discovered Ray’s work in the doorstopper of terrific stories (often in both senses), The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (2011), edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, a worthy attempt at delineating a hinterland of speculative fiction that actively resists delineation. This compendium includes his recognized short story masterpieces “The Mainz Psalter” (1930) and “The Shadowy Street” (1931), both of which were written during his two-year imprisonment for defalcation and alleged alcohol smuggling to the United States.  The latter story in particular comes to haunt one’s mind, like an equivocal, disturbing dream that keeps recurring as an enigma that titillates with mystery. The story is narrated by a man who comes across two bound manuscripts, one in German and another in French, concerning the same inexplicable events that befell a backwater German town, and this conceit of the found manuscript informs some of Ray’s best fiction.
The modern gothic Malpertuis (1943) is perhaps Ray’s chef d’oeuvre, a matryoshka doll of manuscripts and their voices, whose formal complexity led Raymond Queneau to hail it as a proto-postmodernist novel. Malpertuis is about the house which bears this name, a house that belongs to the sinister Uncle Cassave, who invites his relatives to his deathbed for the reading of his will. This group of unsympathetic relations are informed that they must reside in Malpertuis for their remaining days, otherwise they forfeit their share of Cassave’s fortune. The fantastical events that befall these grotesque personages and the sprawling, shadowy realm of the eldritch mansion merit comparison with the world of Mervyn Peake. This novel is currently available in the single English edition by Atlas Press, in a fine translation by Iain White. It was also adapted into a wonder of a film by Harry Kümel in 1971, with Orson Welles playing the moribund Cassave.
The world of Whiskey Tales, while certainly living up to “the Belgian Poe” epithet, also exceeds it, insofar as the stories making up the collection come in three kinds. The first kind is the supernatural tale proper, and here Ray’s work might be thought of alongside both Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft. “Vengeance” (1919) is clearly a homage to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), except the murder of an old man in Ray is motivated not by madness but greed. A middle-aged son murders his miserly, dying father, so that he can spend the money that the old man had been hoarding over four decades. He then buries the corpse under the floorboards of the old man’s room, and, over time, begins to hear the sound of a finger insistently tapping the floorboards. The murdered father has his vengeance by means of vermin, and the story’s final line lodges in memory: “And just like the hidden waters of some silty loam, blood began to well from a thousand tiny wounds in his bitten flesh.”
“The Strange Studies of Dr. Paukenschläger” (1923) is a story closer to Lovecraft’s world of malevolent entities shadowing our reality: in the narrator’s words, “there exists a neighboring world, invisible, impenetrable for us because it exists on another plane [but] there are places on this Earth where that seal is less hermetic than others.” These words are written in a novice reporter’s notebook discovered in the woods following the reporter’s disappearance. Dr. Paukenschläger, like the scientist in Lovecraft’s classic tale “From Beyond” (written 1920, published 1934), devises a machine that allows him to open a portal to another world, and mayhem ensues in an eerie clearing of a pine forest, which brings to mind the forest scenes from the final season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (Ray’s story also features a sinister “tramp” figure emerging out of the woods). We are never told what these alien beings look like, only that they are “figures of nightmare,” their presence suddenly becoming perceptible, as though watermarks of H. R. Giger’s art seeping through the white sheet of mundane reality. At the end of the tale, a medium channels the young reporter’s ghost, and he yells: “I am not dead … it’s worse … terrible … they are watching you!” This is a pulpy ending for Ray’s otherwise restrained style (his writing, especially in these early stories, is tonally reminiscent of Georges Simenon’s surgical, caustic concision), and the other tales about the supernatural (including a gruesome metamorphosis into an arachnid, a siren in the Hebrides, a vampire preying on cemetery watchmen, and a white beast that haunts a gold mine below an icy mountain) are surprisingly fresh, despite rehashing genre staples.
The second kind of story is about the down-and-outs and their drunken, painful reveries. These terse tales are mere sketches, mise-en-scènes of misery and loneliness, and one finds it difficult not to associate them with biographical experience. Stories like “A Hand…” and “At Midnight” (both 1924) recall the ham-on-rye world of Charles Bukowski and evoke a kind of numb empathy for those on skid row. Certain images and settings tie these stories together; for instance, Ray’s narrators tend to obsess over hands: hands that hold knives; handle money; pour drinks; and hands that write, sometimes against their writer’s own will. In “A Hand…,” a loner sits in his shabby room, next to a dying fire, when a hand holding a knife suddenly intrudes through the open window:
This hand […] is a sad hand […] Look at those nails that were once pearly and shiny: the entire spectrum of despair lies in their faded hues. They bear the distress of pink pearls from the epaulets that shone on royal shoulders and are dead, dead, dead, like the tiny teeth of a sick child […]
It is true, said my fire, and its gaze left the knife to show the quivering hand.
Something sang then deep in my heart. The tune came from far, far off, from the depths of the past, in I know not what mysterious and divine way.
I placed my full glass of whiskey near the pitiful hand.
It suddenly becomes difficult to swallow, I find, while reading some of Ray’s barfly blues.
The third type of tale is “the madman’s notebook,” such as we find, again, in Poe, but also in Nikolai Gogol. Ray’s mad monologues, like Gogol’s, are invariably comical, albeit in a morbid fashion. “The Monsters in the Window” (1925), for instance, begins in a direct address to the reader, the narrator desiring to speak to us about his neighbor. He is convinced that this neighbor is a sorcerer, for every time he sees said neighbor through his window, the man keeps transforming into hideous shapes and monstrosities. Eventually the neighbor dies, and, having been invited to the wake, the narrator is surprised to find his neighbor’s body and home to be perfectly normal; however, he then glances out of the neighbor’s window at his own house, and cries out in terror, seeing it “contorted in a mask of agony, its windows and cornices all crumpled into a rubble of impossible angles!” The story concludes with Gogolian pathos (I’m thinking of the comparable “Memoirs of a Madman” ), as the narrator insists that he is presently residing not in an asylum but merely in “a house without windows.” And he ends by cautioning his would-be visitors never to wear glasses: “Your eyes would fill my very soul with terror […] Say, would you like to read my book on the necessity of destroying all glass? It is a masterpiece…”
Each of these tales is told by a verisimilar narrative voice, one freighted with the prejudices and mores of its time. We hear pawnbrokers, sailors, police detectives, innkeepers, and the lonely and dejected of all kinds speaking to us across the years and across the permeable seal separating fiction from reality. Ray excels most of all in conversational speech and in creating, via the idiosyncratic idiom of a particular place and time (and with just a few perfectly aimed words), an unsettling mood. As Lovecraft put it, in weird fiction, “[a]tmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.” Ray’s finesse in conjuring a sensation of dread and unease is evident in the following, typically outstanding, depiction of the urban-weird, from the opening story, “Irish Whiskey” (1925), set in early 20th-century London:
Walk faster. I feel the fog at our heels because I hear […] I can hear the mist. It begins with a distant wailing, the cry of forgotten miseries appealing to millions of ears, and then it washes over you with the leaden clamor of heavy waves, forcing you to listen to hours of tiny voices, delicate and shrill, insulting you from behind closed doors, stifled death rattles arising from gloomy corners, a protracted illness splashing its spectral mendacities across the frosted windows of your office.
This description is eerie and elusive, just like the fog it conjures. We are made to “see” the atmosphere being conveyed, but by listening, hearing sounds of urban misery conveyed to our ears through visceral images. In French, there is an alliterative association in brouillard (fog) and bourlingueur (vagabond, rover), and the world of the rover, Ray’s ideal character, is indeed a world of fog: fog-enshrouded stations, misty docks, smoky alleys and pubs, and most of all the mental obscurity of fatigue and drink.
Stylistically, Ray eschews omniscience — one seldom encounters a Flaubertian observer floating above the fictional world in his stories; instead, one is always listening to an eccentric individual recounting the strange and the dreadful. Ray is canny in his writing of the uncanny — he is aware of the pitfalls of the genre, and almost always manages to avoid hyperbolic verbosity (in which Lovecraft, despite his imaginative brilliance, excelled). The Bulgarian-French literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov has said that “[t]he fantastic […] leads a life full of dangers, and may evaporate at any moment,” and Ray’s stories ensure that their fantastic lingers just long enough. Like a whiskey which bears a grudge against its container, the fantastic in Ray is keen to evaporate off the page and into the ether of a sympathetic reader’s imagination — where weird things tend to congeal in corners, “like fantastic livid tumors,” to borrow a phrase from the darkly funny “One Night in Camberwell” (1923).
Wakefield Press deserves high praise for republishing several unpardonably overlooked writers, notably Marcel Schwob (whose erudite historical fables influenced André Gide, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roberto Bolaño), Louis Levy (whose crazed pulp novel Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah  was admired by Walter Benjamin), Jean Ferry (whose bizarre, entrancing petites histoires [little stories] spawned from a lifelong ingestion of Raymond Roussel, Franz Kafka, and the surrealists), and, not least, the enigmatic and continually surprising Jean Ray. Look out for Wakefield Press’s forthcoming Ray title, Cruise of Shadows: Haunted Stories of Land and Sea.
Leonid Bilmes is a researcher and writer living in London.
 See António Monteiro, “Ghosts, Fear, and Parallel Worlds: The Supernatural Fiction of Jean Ray” in WeirdFictionReview.com. This is among the best introductions to Ray’s life and fiction currently available in English. http://weirdfictionreview.com/2011/11/ghosts-fear-and-parallel-worlds-the-supernatural-fiction-of-jean-ray/
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