Ghosts, Fear, and Parallel Worlds: The Supernatural Fiction of Jean Ray

An Introduction to the Great Belgian Weird Writer

WFR Editors’ Note: A version of this essay was first given as a talk by António Monteiro at a meeting in Rochester, England, October 30/31, 1999, and subsequently published as the introduction to The Horrifying Presence and Other Tales, published by Ex Occidente Press. We are pleased to present a version modified from both the speech and the published version.  Many thanks to Monteiro for allowing us to present this material, which gives a general overview of Ray’s life and work, touching on many specific points about his fiction while also providing quotes from the work itself. Currently, only Malpertuis is in print in English, from Atlas Press.

***

 [“– Did you hear anything, Blomme ?

—  To tell the truth, I hear nothing, Sir, but…

—  I do not hear anything either, but…

[…]

—  Something is going on, Blomme…

—  The whole house is afraid !”] – from Maison à Vendre
“The true fear is the fear of being afraid.” – Jean Ray

 

The Man and His Career

Who was Jean Ray?

It is certainly easy, but clearly limiting, to sum up a man’s life with a few numbers and dry biographical facts:

At about eight o’clock, in the morning of the 8th of July, 1887, at the city of Ghent, Marie-Thérèse Anseele, wife of Joseph Edmond De Kremer, gave birth to the couple’s second child, a boy, Jean-Raymond-Marie De Kremer. He would eventually become known under the names of Jean Ray, John Flanders and others, as the author of more than 1500 short stories and novels, plus at least another 5000 texts and chronicles published in a large number of newspapers and magazines. His long literary career came to an end on the seventeenth of September 1964: aged 77, Jean Ray died peacefully, a little before eight o’clock. During the last months of his life, he confessed to his friends that he was so afraid of dying that he did not dare to fall asleep, for fear of not waking up.

Such biographical details obviously do not bring us much closer to knowing Jean Ray, the writer, much less Jean Ray, the man, who would have us believe that he had roamed the four corners of the Earth, been a smuggler of weapons, pearls, ivory and liquor (during the American Prohibition era), chased wild animals in distant jungles, been an executioner in Venice, a pirate in the Atlantic Ocean, a gangster in Chicago… Truth, however, is rather more prosaic: whereas his grandfather had been a baker at Anvers and had quite prosaically married a girl from Limbourg, he would state that his grandmother was a member of the Sioux tribe! His other grandmother, on his mother’s side, had not been, as he occasionally pretended, a revolutionary at the Paris barricades in 1848; in fact, she worked with her husband in the honourable trade of shoe making.

Jean-Raymond-Marie’s mother, a teacher, was the sister of Edouard Anseele, who was to become a political leader in his country. His father worked for many years in the maritime har­bour of Gand. The family lived in an old house, in a perfectly typical narrow street called Ham. This street and this house would remain profoundly engraved in the memory of Jean Ray, who mentioned them, more or less clearly, in several of his tales, as he mentioned the family’s old servant Elodie, who became one of the characters of his famous novel Malpertuis.

At the age of 14, the young man was sent to a French-speak­ing boarding school at Pecq and in 1903 he entered the École Normale Royale. But he did not complete his studies, much against his parents’ wishes that he should pursue a teaching career. His first texts, including a couple of poems, appeared in 1904, in a students’ paper entitled De Goedendag. In 1910 he took a job as a public servant, in his native city of Ghent, but that line of work did not appeal to him in the least and he found or made up every possible excuse to be absent. His writing career was already under way and a career in journalism would replace any further occupation from 1919 on.

On the seventeenth of February 1912, Jean Ray married Virginie Bal, a music-hall actress known under the artistic name of Nini Balta. A year later, their only child Lucienne Marie Thérèse Edmond De Kremer, known as Lulu, was born in Ghent.

In 1925, having already published hundreds of texts in several newspapers and magazines, Jean Ray’s first book, Les Contes du Whisky, was published in Brussels by La Renaissance du Livre and was welcomed by extremely favourable reviews from all but the most conservative quarters. The influence of British writers such as Charles Dickens (whom Jean Ray greatly admired, an admiration he frequently voiced through his characters) or Arthur Conan Doyle is clear, particularly in the choice of atmosphere and characters, but the themes that our author would develop throughout his literary career are already present, with a special emphasis on hybrid and aquatic monsters and the living dead. His narratives are set near ports and in bars, sur­rounded by fog that permeates their ancient and decrepit neighbourhoods, a world that neatly mirrors his home town of Ghent.

In 1926, a ruinous management of the literary magazine L’Ami du Livre, of which Jean Ray was held responsible, brought upon him several accusations, among which were those of defalcation and the smuggling of alcoholic beverages to the United States of America. It is in fact doubtful that he has been implicated in the illegal trade of alcohol but he was extremely proud to join this “heroic” (?) fact to the other mythic parts of his biography.

A character from Les Derniers Contes de Canterbury, whose identification with the author himself is not to be doubted, tells us:

“Do you know the Rum-Row? The Rum Boulevard? Outside the American territorial waters, schooners full of whisky, cargoes heavy with rum, waited for the right moment to […] deliver their liquid wares. Ah, Gentlemen, it was the most beautiful adventure since the centuries of the great buccaneers.” (Les Derniers Contes de Canterbury)

Guilty or not of those charges, Jean-Raymond-Marie De Kremer was condemned to six and a half years of imprisonment, a sentence he served for only two years, being released in 1929. Interestingly enough, he wrote some of his best works in prison, including his acknowledged masterpiece, La Ruelle Ténébreuse. The scandal surrounding his arrest militated against the use of the pseudonym “Jean Ray” in the texts he kept writing for different newspapers, and the pen-name “John Flanders” was used instead.

In 1929, Jean Ray had been hired by the Belgian publisher Hip Janssens to translate from the Dutch a series of crime thrillers, originally presented as apocryphal adventures of Sherlock Holmes – until the copyright owners for the works of Conan Doyle objected to the use of the name of the famous detective from Baker Street; the name was then changed to Harry Taxon and, in the Flemish and Dutch editions, to Harry Dickson, surnamed “the American Sherlock Holmes”. As it turned out, the original texts he was supposed to translate were of such poor quality that Jean Ray decided to replace them with new ones of his own; the publisher agreed to it, provided that the colour illustrations already available for the covers of the fascicles could still be used and so it was that Jean Ray created no less than 106 of the 178 adventures of Harry Dickson.

Only in 1931 did the name “Jean Ray” appear again authori­ng a new anthology, La Croisière des Ombres. This new book was a total flop, meeting with nothing but a general indifference and being practically overlooked by the critics. This failure only served to multiply the efforts of John Flanders, who wrote endlessly for a growing number of publications, thanks to the wide range of subjects he could tackle. And while Jean Ray was virtually unknown abroad, John Flanders rose to some notoriety, to the point of having at least four tales published by the well known American magazine Weird Tales.

In 1940, the German invasion of Belgium stopped the publication of most magazines, but, at the same time, the Belgian publishers Les Auteurs Associés, from Brussels, having a large stock of paper available, decide to print a number of works in French, signed Jean Ray: Le Grand Nocturne, Les Cercles de l’Épouvante, La Cité de l’Indicible Peur, Les Derniers Contes de Canterbury and Malpertuis. After the end of the war, Jean Ray, now in his sixties, carried on with his voluminous output, and again hundreds of texts from his pen are published in an al­ways-increasing variety of newspapers and magazines, meant for a wide range of publics. In 1961, the Belgian publisher Gérard, from Verviers, published in his collection Marabout an anthology entitled Les 25 Meilleures Histoires Noires et Fantastiques. This volume met with a huge success, which prompted Gérard to publish several others, together with sixteen volumes of the adventures of Harry Dickson. The work of Jean Ray, or at least the part of it that had been written in French, was finally made available to a large audience, winning the author ample recognition: he won the Prix des Bouquinistes, a prestigious literary prize, and during the last four years of his life he was repeatedly inter­viewed and appeared in several television shows.

In 1964, he died peacefully, in his daughter’s house, which was also his house since 1954. His wife had already passed away nine years earlier.

Nowadays, his reputation is firmly established and kept well alive by a dedicated group of collectors and admirers, who have formed L’Amicale Jean Ray. Two large exhibitions dedicated to his life and work have been organized, one in the Bibliothèque Royale, in Brussels, in 1981, and another in the Musée Vanderhaeghen, in Gand, in 1990.


Jean Ray and the Belgian Tradition

The work of Jean Ray must be examined against the literary background of the acknowledged Belgian school of the fan­tastic – quite distinguishable within the larger universe of the weird tale of French expression – where quite often the fantastic is not reached through the intervention of the supernatural, but merely through the observation of the most prosaic things, a sort of fantastic that derives from everyday experiences (called by some “réalisme fantastique”). The contrast between what is palpable and what is ethereal, between what is commonplace and what is totally fantastic, between the roughness of a wall, the carnal pleasures of eating and drinking and the subtlety of the supernatural, is repeatedly used to keep the reader on edge. Nothing is what it looks like. Behind the most banal appearances, the most respectable households, the most familiar settings, what unknown worlds, what strange mysteries may lie? That charming old lady can be a monster, our best friend is perhaps a ghost and the bogeyman does not merely exist: in fact, he is our next door neighbour. Théodule Notte (in Le Grand Nocturne) is the Devil himself, Eisengott (in Malpertuis) is the Greek god Zeus, Florence Honnybingle (in La Cité de l’Indicible Peur) is a murderess described as a “monstre assoiffé de sang” (“a blood thirsty monster”).

Daily order is disturbed by a host of entities that erupt into our well-balanced world, unprepared that it is to understand the alien logic of ghosts, revenants, monsters and beasts of all kinds. That this eruption of the uncanny can appear to be possible and even inevitable is what gives strength and coherence to the writings of Jean Ray. Every door may lead into the unknown world of alien dimensions, every street turn may (and quite often does) depart from the safety of everyday reality and plunge into darkness. A good portion of what is not meant for human beings to understand is also not safe to know. And because the starting point is so close to us, it is not only the characters that are bound to fall into such traps. As our heart beats just a bit faster, we follow them, without really being able to guarantee even our own safe return.

It would certainly be difficult to evaluate Ray’s fantastic writ­ings as a whole, because of the extremely large variety of his subjects: from classical ghost stories to tales more akin to science fiction and including vampires, werewolves, bizarre metamorphoses, animated portraits, living severed hands, phantom ships, in fact every classic myth within the genre is successfully if only occasionally used. But the truly recurrent themes are those of death, the devil, parallel worlds and above all fear, the fear that builds up inside a small child alone in a dark empty house, when every shadow takes on an ominous meaning, when every creaking of the floor elicits a formidable interpretation. The author uses a very vivid and straightforward form of expression, frequently resorting to the use of rather uncommon words, including archaisms, anglicisms, belgicisms and acade­mic or technical terms. Structurally, many of his tales are quite elaborate, with alternating, intertwined narration, the use of multiple narrators and of more than one subjective narrative time.

Jean Ray did possess a peculiar aptitude in crafting the most appropriate phrases, to turn even the commonest notions into dark and ominous descriptions of impending doom. With a few apt sentences, sometimes in just a few chosen words, he makes us feel the same kind of disquiet that his characters so often feel. He wants his reader to feel the dampness of an old house, to be soaked by a merciless cold rain, to hear the rats scurrying in the attic and a distant scream in the howling of the wind. The world of Jean Ray is in itself an outdated one, free from most modern technology, such as telephones, radio, and even electric light.

A single example will stress this point:

“Le rose n’est pas une couleur, c’est le bâtard du rouge triomphant et de la lumière coupable; né d’un incest où l’enfer comme le ciel ont joué un rôle, il est resté la teinte de la honte. […] Fleur sanglante des poumons phtisiques, mousse aux lèvres des hommes qui meurent […], tissue visqueux  des fœtus, […] compagnon des sanies et de toutes les purulences , il a fallu l’innocence et l’admiration des enfants et des jeunes filles pour l’entourer de désirs et de préférences,  et cela même démontre sa malice et sa ténébreuse essence.”

“Pink is not a colour, it is the bastard of triumphant red and guilty light; born of incest where hell and heaven have played their parts, it has remained the colour of shame. […] Bleeding flower of phthisical lungs, froth on the lips of dying men […], viscous tissues of the foetus, […] companion of pus and of every purulence, it took the innocence and the admiration of children and young girls to surround it with desires and preferences, which in itself demonstrates its malice and tenebrous essence.”  (La Terreur Rose)

From the point of view of their structure, it would also be interesting to analyse the series of the adventures of Harry Dickson. These stories, half way between the thriller and the fantastic tale, are clearly indebted to the Gothic style (as indeed is La Cité de l’Indicible Peur), with their array of illusions, of trickery, of traps and tunnels and secret chambers, and of secret societies. Their titles alone convey the overall atmosphere: Les Feux Follets du Marais Rouge [The Will-o’-the-Wisps of the Red Marsh], La Bande de l’Araignée [The Gang of the Spider], Le Vampire Qui Chante [The Singing Vampire], etc. Such Gothic influences, including a certain concern in explaining the super ­natural, eventually dismissing it as a dream, are to be expected, since it seems clear that Jean Ray knew his classics well enough, having read Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, Le Fanu, Hoffmann, Poe, etc.

 
A Literature of Disquieting Fear

The fantastic fiction of Jean Ray is a literature of fear, more than a literature of the supernatural, even though many tales are decidedly supernatural in both content and structure; and rather than merely describing his horrors for us, Jean Ray forces us to guess them, to feel them, to replace them with our own irrational dreads. Fear quickly turns into an almost palpable thing, a dark mantle that descends ponderously upon the shoul­ders of humans imprisoned in the labyrinths of ancient houses.

“J’en suis venu à croire que “l’homme au foulard rouge” [] introduit le levain de la peur  dans la pâte plastique don’t j’essaye  de tirer des formes et des personages.”

“I believe that ‘the man in the red neckerchief ’ brings the leaven to the plastic dough from which I try to extract forms and characters.” (Preface to Le Livre des Fantômes)

“Je ne sais pas si j’ai eu peur, je ne crois pas, mais je suis certain que j’ai voulu montrer que je n’avais pas peur”

“I do not know whether I was afraid, I do not think so, but I am sure that I wanted to show that I was not afraid.” (Mon Fantôme à Moi [L’Homme au Foulard Rouge])
 
“Il y a, mademoiselle… […] Je ne sais pas l’exprimer comme je le voudrais… mais il y a une grande peur dans ma chambre.”

“There is, Miss… […] I cannot say it as well as I would like to… but there is a great fear in my room.” (La Ruelle Ténébreuse)

When dealing with the supernatural, when describing his ghosts and other preternatural beings, that the writings of Jean Ray come closest to the traditional English ghost story, so brilliantly cultivated by M. R. James and others. Restraint, surgical precision, a careful choice of words, all join up to shock the reader, whose spirits are already unsettled by a careful building of a powerfully dark atmosphere. And such Jamesian characteristics are easily found scattered throughout his many tales, as a few examples can easily demonstrate:

“En deux endroits, le tapis était brûlé de part en part, par les traces de deux pieds nus d’une repoussante maigreur; de vrais pieds de squelette !”

“In two places, the carpet was burnt through by traces of two naked feet, of a repugnant thinness; the feet of a true skeleton.” (Maison à Vendre)

“J’emprisonne dans cette chambre de malheur et d’affreuse injustice une chose plus forte que la mort.
[…] Je conjure les hommes qui viendront sous ce toit de ne jamais lui rendre la liberté.”

“I imprison in this room of disgrace and dreadful injustice something stronger than death. […] I conjure the men that will come under its ceiling not to render it its freedom.” (L’Auberge des Spectres)

“[…] J’eus de la peine á retenir un cri d’effroi  à la vue du spectre qui poussa ma porte.  Hilmacher était devant moi, lui ou peut-être son ombre remontée de l’enfer.”

“[…] I could hardly suppress a cry of fear in view of the spectre that pushed my door. Hilmacher was before me. Himself or his soul risen from Hell.” (L’Homme Qui Osa)

“C’était […] une énorme main brune terminée  par des griffes horribles… La matière en était gélatineuse et peu consistante; elle se décomposa, au bout de quelques heures, en un liquide rose et gluant, d’une odeur insupportable.”

“It was a huge brown hand that ended  in horrible claws… Its matter was gelatinous and not very consistent; it decomposed, after a few hours, in a pink and sticky liquid, with an unbearable odour.” (Dans les Marais du Fenn)


Food and Drink in Jean Ray’s Work

In spite of their avowed fears, Jean Ray’s characters are not fragile creatures, scared of their own shadows. Quite on the contrary, they tend to be rather ordinary people, often with some kind of commercial activity; some are sailors, some obscure public servants; some are thieves, some are usurers. They all are the kind of people one would easily find in Ghent and in many other European cities, in bars and harbours, everywhere. They are genuine people, they have feelings, they are often insecure, they fall in love; they enjoy a good pipe of aromatic tobacco, as well as good food and drink – being particularly partial to several forms of spiced grog and to a honourable whisky. Obviously, the more the author succeeds in building a cosy atmosphere, a sentiment of normalcy, the more the sudden intrusion of the fantastic is bound to shock both the reader and the characters. So, apparently as a means to convey a strong idea of reality, in quite a few of his stories Jean Ray seems to take pleasure in describing food and drink in some detail, usually in a typical Flemish or vaguely British atmosphere.

 “Fraù Pilz […] nous avait fait un souper  fameux entre tous, des truites grillées au feu clair  et un pâté de pintade. Lotte avait opéré une veritable  fouille dans la cave pour en remonter une bouteille  d’eau-de-vie du Cap qui y vieillissait depuis plus de vingt ans.”

“Fraù Pilz […] had prepared for us a famous dinner, trout grilled on a light fire and a pâté of Guinea-fowl. Lotte had made a true search in the basement to bring back a bottle of brandy from the Cape that had been ageing there for more than twenty years.” (La Ruelle Ténébreuse)

“Qu’avez-vous fait servir là ? Des huîtres, des tranches de fromage de Hollande, larges et saumonées, des filets de kippers et des pickles? Excellent homme, vous me traitez comme un roi !”

“What have you ordered? Oysters, good large and salmon-flavoured slices of Dutch cheese, kipper fillets and pickles? My excellent man, you treat me like a king!” (Irish Whisky)

“Vous servirez des biscuits de Savoie
[…] , une livre de couque de Hollande au miel et aux épices, …] un pot de jam aux abricots et une coupe de marmelade d’oranges au sucre candi. Vous poserez sur la table le carafon de brandy aux cerises et la bouteille d’élixir à la menthe. […] Il y a un gigot froid, une salade de hareng et des laitances à la moutarde, du fromage d’Écosse et du pain mollet […]”

“You will serve Savoie biscuits […], one pound of Holland cakes with honey and spices, […] a pot of apricot jam and a bowl of orange marmalade with sugar-candy. You will place on the table the bottle of cherry brandy and the bottle of menthol elixir. […] There is cold lamb and laitances [spermatophores of fishes], Scottish cheese and soft bread […]” (La Cité de l’Indicible Peur)

This concern with food and drink (whisky, frothy ale, toddy, hot wine with cinnamon, arak, kummel, rum, punch, all are mentioned, ordered and drunk over and over), is not surprising, once we find out that Jean Ray himself was a true gourmand and in particular had, as is commonly said, a sweet tooth; but there is much more in his references to eating and drinking than a mere autobiographical feature. As a matter of fact, Ray’s descriptions of food are used as a means to describe the profile of certain characters, as an element of the plot itself – all the way to the perversion of cannibalism – and, no less important, as a narrative device that helps to establish a certain rhythm. (Still another aspect of the style of Jean Ray that deserves to be mentioned is humour and many of his homodiegetic nar­rators, as well as the author himself as a heterodiegetic narrator, will occasionally use irony to stress a point or merely to better describe a special behaviour or a particular state of mind.)

Houses, Ghent, Malpertius, and Lovecraft

Houses also play an important role in the fiction of Jean Ray, as they supply shelter from outward darkness, from creatures that roam the night, even from tempest and flood; but no matter how familiar to their lodgers, houses always manage to preserve their most intimate secrets, hidden in dark corners and expressed through some invisible but suffocating presence.

The influence of the city of Ghent, which Jean Ray knew so well, is obvious in many references scattered throughout his tales. Even when no geographical details are given (or when they point to somewhere else), we may be sure that its old dark streets and narrow alleys are always a suitable source for the author’s sombre imagination. The ancient city – any ancient city – is in itself a place of mystery. The fantastic lurks in every corner and each mute house front encapsulates a new secret. What goes on behind its old respectable walls? This is a question that our author repeatedly asks and the answer is often disquieting, often bizarre, and the rain beaten cobbled streets abound with poorly illuminated little shops of a bygone age, where insignificant but frequently menacing owners offer for sale the most unusual range of goods, from dangerous chemicals to magical herbs, to exotic groceries.

Of course one cannot speak of the role of houses without a special reference to Malpertuis, a novel thought by many of those who have written about the work of Jean Ray to be one of his greatest achievements, his masterpiece even. It is certainly a narrative tour de force, with multiple narrators and multiple layers of description, brought together by the author, who writes as a sort of unifying homodiegetic narrator. Owned by Cassave, an old wizard, Malpertuis is a huge house, where most of the action takes place. Malpertuis is apparently the name of a fox’s lair in a popular tale, but can also point to the devil’s house, if we use a more symbolic approach. It is described as a dark, labyrinthine and apparently endless structure full of secrets permanently hidden away behind heavy closed doors.

Malpertius is not easy to describe in a few words, involving ancient Greek gods, magic and different levels of existence. The plot is a powerful and rather original one, full of ambiguity and in which most, if not all, of Jean Ray’s favourite subjects and techniques have been cleverly woven into one another. It is considerably intricate, so that the behaviour of the characters cannot be clearly understood before its internal explanation, which would indeed be hard to anticipate. Harry Kuemel, who, in 1972, directed the movie of the same title, starring Orson Welles, Mathieu Carrière and Susan Hampshire, nicely captured this wonderful and ominous atmosphere.

In Jean Ray’s stories, humans are often caught in a complex web, woven by some unknown superior entity, of which they understand little. A few enlightened characters, whose relation to the mysterious and the occult is not altogether understood, at least not by the common human characters, seem to know much about what is really going on – more indeed than the reader – and this only adds to the anxiety of the characters, caught in the perplexity of their own ignorance.

How anyone should be able to accede to superior know ledge is not entirely clear, but many ways are hinted for such a journey. Priests and monks probably will know something and they play their parts, for instance in Malpertuis and Saint-Judas-de-la-Nuit. Ancient tomes will probably disclose other keys and it must be stressed that Jean Ray is the son of an austere, fervent, even superstitious Catholic Flemish society. But each missal, breviary, bible and holy manuscript is op posed by an esoteric treatise, a forbidden volume dealing with the black arts, and (in tales such as Le Grand Nocturne, Ronde de Nuit at Koenigstein, La Main de Goetz von Berlichingen and others) we find references to “Le Grand Albert”, “L’Heptameron Magique”, “Les Clavicules de Salomon”, the fictitious “Grimoire Stein”, etc.

To bear witness of their hidden pursuit of a global know­ledge, some of the more enlightened initiates who used to delve into such arcana are called to our presence and, among the most prominent, we meet John Dee (Le Miroir Magique, Maison à Vendre) and Zacharias Zentl (Saint-Judas-de-la-Nuit). Refer­ences to old and forbidden volumes and to black magicians striving to achieve and perpetuate occult knowledge is of course a major asset in creating a feeling of cosmic dread, as was well understood by Lovecraft who excelled in such artifices.

There is apparently nothing to prove (or to disprove) that Jean Ray was acquainted with Lovecraft’s work, despite the fact that they were contemporaries. But, coincidental as they probably are — in a few instances, just looking at the dates of publication confirms it — some similarities can be found. For instance, both authors seem to have been impressed by Einstein’s theories that gave way to the consideration of parallel worlds (Ray’s “La Ruelle Ténébreuse”, Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” are two fine examples) and certainly the name of the strange giant terrifying Uhu (“Les Derniers Contes de Canterbury”) can make us think of that of Lovecraft’s most famous deity. Despite such similarities, there are vast conceptual differences between the works of both writers, which it would be inappropriate to develop here.

Jean Ray skilfully integrated the concept of ghosts and other supernatural entities into the broader idea of parallel worlds that is so clear and important in many of his tales. In the Preface to Le Livre des Fantômes, he makes the connection quite clear: “One would think that ghost stories, which one imagines one has invented […]can contain a reality, and those who write have been given a mission by a hidden world that tries to reveal itself to us […]” (From the preface to Le Livre des Fantômes) At the same time, his ghosts, quite concrete as they may be, are often connected to the idea of revenge or of supernatural retribution. Thus, in “Maison à Vendre” [“House for Sale”], a house is haunted by the soul of the cruel judge Larrivier, condemned by one of his victims, Flavien Merrick, who knows black magic, to spend a certain time in Hell. In this tale, Hell is a very real place, corresponding to the popular imagery of eternal burning flames that can be seen and smell of sulphur, the ghost itself being quite real too: “a terrible human form, lean as a mummy.” In “La Nuit de Pentonville” [“The Night at Pentonville”], the ghosts of the many prisoners executed in Pentonville jail return to prevent the execution of a young man and carry away with them the cruel guards and a judge. In “La vérité sur l’oncle Timotheus” [“The Truth About Uncle Timotheus”], the narrator comes to realize that his uncle is Death itself, whose reality as something rather physical is not to be doubted and even has “a personality.”

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This is the world of Jean Ray. A very material world, in which people exactly like us, with the same tastes, the same problems, the same fears and the same beliefs, are constantly faced with something from beyond, from another dimension, that they perceive either as a parallel universe or as a supernatural realm. The ability that goes into putting the pieces together, the elegance and fluidity of his writings, his vibrant lexicon, his dark settings, his fine irony, all contribute to make the work of the acclaimed Belgian author stand out as an important component of European supernatural literature.

The author of this essay, António Monteiro, was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1951, and is currently married, with two daughters and three grandsons. He teaches Mathematics at a university in his hometown. Monteiro is almost compulsive collector (stamps, Bank notes, picture postcards, frog figurines, antique belt buckles, Moorcroft pottery, etc.), but his main efforts in that regard have gone into seashell collecting; in the area of Malacology Monteiro is the author or co-author of several books and numerous articles, and the editor of the electronic bulletin The Cone Collector. In the field of supernatural literature – of which he has always been an avid reader – Monteiro belongs to several clubs and groups, but has also published a number of short stories in magazines such as Crime, All Hallows, Ghosts & Scholars, Supernatural Tales e The Silent Companion. Monteiro currently serves as the Fiction Editor for The Silent Companion, a magazine published by the group “A Ghostly Company.”

10 replies to “Ghosts, Fear, and Parallel Worlds: The Supernatural Fiction of Jean Ray

  1. Fascinating stuff! Now will someone do some investigating and tell us why Ray isn’t more widely available in English?

  2. Bravo! How wonderful it was to read such a fine article on one of most talented weirdists of all. Interesting to see that Ray was afraid to fall asleep because he thought he might die. Who among us has not had the same fear of facing the beyond? Interesting also that the same everyday fears appear again and again in Jean Ray’s characters—no doubt part of the reason why so many people can identify with them.

  3. I nearly threw Clute and Grant’s “Encycopedia of Fantasy” across the room after I looked up “Jean Ray” and there wasn’t an entry about him. I’m really glad that someone is bent on making her better known in the English-speaking world. The same could be applied to another of my faves, Claude Seignolle.

  4. Good day universe. I DEMAND that Jean Ray’s works be fully realized into English forthwith. Other languages may also find favour. Now, without fail. Malpertuis alone is insufficient. And Universe, i will not pay the prices for the inert old books anthologizing his words. May they be rendered for the reading public, however small and damaged they may be. Good day.

  5. Its was good to read such a good article on one of most talented weirdists of all.I like this article very much and plase update me all about it.

  6. Pingback: Holmes vs. Dracula! Sort of… | Multo (Ghost)

  7. “The Devil himself” is actually Hippolyte Baes, the old time friend of Theodule Notte.

  8. I was familiar with the Marabout / Gérard collections in the fifties and remember reading a few Jean Ray books in that collection at that time.