The following story appears in the collection Spells by Michel de Ghelderode, out this year from Wakefield Press. It is translated from French by George MacLennan. Michel de Ghelderode (1898−1962) was a Belgian author of drama, poetry, and short stories. Born to a royal archivist father and devoutly religious mother, the author began writing plays in 1916. His work, preoccupied with cruelty and the grotesque, has been praised by the likes of Jean Cocteau and analyzed in relation to authors like Antonin Artaud and Alfred Jarry. After becoming ill in the 1930s, his activity in the world of theater saw a significant reduction, and the short story collection Spells comprises what he hoped could be a fresh start for his creative output. The recently released edition from Wakefield Press combines the contents of the 1941 and 1947 versions in a new translation by George Maclennan.
To the Master Engraver Jules de Bruyker
It had been raining since dawn. Damp had made my room as foul-smelling as a cave and its light was really that of a crypt where I was moldering, looking at tears streaming down the window and feeling that I was gradually swelling up with water absorbed through my pores. It seemed that this rain would last forever. I was surrounded by a pervasive odor of old scrapheaps and, since everything smelled, my body emitted the smell that tramps carry in their rags. My thoughts, like a bottle imp, slowly sank under the pressure of the opaque sky. And this inexorable descent into the void constituted a palpable but unspeakably horrible torture. Is it conceivable that a man in a room, unmoving and apparently impassive, could stand to feel his soul smothered without groaning, writhing, or praying?
As the day flowed by I sank lower and lower, my thoughts pulsing more and more feebly, but without obliterating themselves as I wished they would. And I was gripped by a premonition that this afternoon the world would come to an end, that the world could end in no other way. Our world wouldn’t explode in a glorious detonation; it was becoming a ball of mud, peeling, rotting, hydropic, destroyed by water, a miserable humanity returning to its primordial marshlands where elementary life fermented, filthy living debris, deaf and blind . . . Such were my thoughts, creeping like long worms, until the moment when my consciousness was sucked down into a muddy sleep.
Emerging from that low stupor, it seemed to me I was climbing back up toward the mouth of a pit. The rain had stopped. And my window allowed a singularly strong and heavy light to unfurl in the interior, one whose brutal, almost material flow pushed everything aside. That intense luminosity astonished me. It was no longer day, but night could not have fallen yet, and the sunset sky, a shattered mirror, had to exist somewhere behind the fissured wall of the rain. This light seemed truly liquid, lacking vibrancy and as though everything it touched was left coated with glycerine. Worried by that shaft of light, I got up from my damp couch, managing my limbs with difficulty. I staggered, trying to gain my balance, and the fear of no longer finding anything solid in the three dimensions of my room redoubled my disquiet. Was the cave now transforming itself into an aquarium, and was I going to find myself incapable of useful action, deprived of part of my weight? This fear of being stripped of my humanity revived my instincts and I threw myself toward the door with the movements of a swimmer. I felt somewhat reassured on running down the stairs but only recovered adequate confidence when I made contact with the street pavement, with the terrestrial globe that my fantasy had imagined lost. And I moved forward along the walls in search of the city and those who lived in it.
Scarcely any living beings to be seen; the city still existed, a charcoal mass, all outcrops and passages, still streaming with water and drifting in the ashen atmosphere without a guiding light, like a piece of flotsam. It beggared belief that no one was doing anything to fight the encroaching darkness, that not one lamp had been lit, that not one window glowed anywhere . . . Thankfully the air was breathable and not chilly, though autumn was advancing; old heat still lingered, discharged from the ground. My body had been rescued and it wasn’t long before I discovered what was pressing down on my soul. Coming out onto the level area that surrounds the church of St. Nicholas, where a hundred passageways and blind alleys come to discharge themselves as though into a vat, I surprised the secret of the deathly torpor, the lethargy that still suffused the city, similar in every respect to what I had suffered; just then the sky appeared to me, unexpectedly, like the sea discovered at the summit of a ramp; a bizarre, sunken sky, out of a prehistoric fantasia and made up of an accumulation of gaseous grottos. And these cloudy pockets seethed with light, a cold and slobbering light that you could have cut with a knife; a poisonously tinted light, slowly ejaculated . . . It looked to me like the invention of a possessed or mad painter. The discovery of this catastrophic sky awakened my sense of oppression and, simultaneously, my feeling that the Earth and the species pullulating on its crusts were threatened by an imminent calamity. I couldn’t accept that I was witnessing a twilight at its moment of crisis, a luminous orgasm. My mind as much as my eyes questioned this impossible sky, because it was an inverted echo of the entrails and abominable fluxes of the globe, and also because this meteorological phenomenon seemed to me, if I dare write this, a monstrous error of nature . . . And I hid my inflamed eyes.
Freeing them after they had been rested, I saw that the aerial grottos had vanished and that the pallid twilit screen displayed a scene that was no less delirious; the clouds were outlined in relief and, in a sculpted frieze, depicted a pitiless scramble of cattle, ochre-, brown-, and blue-colored, a silent charge toward the gates of sunset. But everywhere the herds were surrounded by the darkness that had provoked the disaster, the panicked outlines drowned in black ink. Was I alone in contemplating these visions? Living souls sheltering in their dwellings obstinately persisted in leaving their lamps unlit. Did they reckon that the night wasn’t yet at its darkest? The taverns that usually yawned open like so many outlets of hell round the grounds of the church, even they didn’t send out their red glow! Nevertheless the city wasn’t dead; it was in a deep sleep and would awaken late. The few shadows that stole by in the distance couldn’t be those of passersby, rather of sleepers in search of matches. Was I going to remain petrified in the middle of this square where pools of mud surrounded me? The mud came out of the paving stones or else flowed like fetid lava from the hundred passageways, hypocritically filling the vat of St. Nicholas. And the danger posed by my solitude was heightened by banks of fog hovering as high as a man, where there was nothing to hold onto should the ground shift even more. A place of immediate refuge offered itself: the church, just like in the fearful days of wrath when people believed that the end of the world was nigh.
This decrepit church, so old and so shaken by the winds, was well qualified to awaken the idea of peril. Good people said that it constituted a perpetual miracle and a proof of Providence in action inasmuch as it never crumbled away, as in all logic it ought to have done on every day granted by God. Constructed in a quagmire, mistreated and set on fire a score of times, it persisted like an aged, decalcified body, all wounds and excrescences, standing thanks only to the crutches of its buttresses. Eroded by bad weather and dislocated by the water that swelled its porous walls, it endured only by the rights granted to phantoms, a shadow of a church that no archaeologist would have dared to touch for fear of seeing it collapse into debris. Nevertheless it regained its resilience and its primitive prestige in the darkness, and with its sheer walls and fortress-like central tower it appeared imperishable. I reached its porch, pushing at creaking partitions, stumbling on broken steps, believing myself descending, and descending in fact, for over the course of the ages the church had seen the ground rise around its walls, unless it happened to have sunk on its foundations. And I had the feeling of having fallen into a trap. I was in a grotto that was almost dark, but one where threatening, phosphorescent statues lay in ambush at various levels, where flights of columns formed frightening labyrinths. My eyes begged in vain for the illumination of a candle. From whence did all this fluorescence seep if not the stone itself? Or was it nothing but the glow emanating from the innumerable dead buried in the naves? I went down the axis of the chancel, advancing with outstretched arms, hypnotized by a distant tongue of purple fire licking at the void. The memorial slabs shifted under my feet. I breathed in funereal smells too, a latent decay added to which were rank odors, rancid incense. The mud of the city was no longer a threat, but didn’t the flagstones of this religious charnel house themselves constitute a trap that was no less dreadful? Ah! If I were to sink down into the muck from which these enormous cryptogamous pillars had grown! . . . Who then would stretch out a hand to save me? There was no one in this church, and I repeated in a loud voice and without awakening any echo, “Is there nobody here? . . .”
There was someone, against whom I had just stumbled: a Christ collapsed against a column and regally offended under his crown of thorns; he confronted me with the horrifying face of a torture victim, his grimace intolerable, the contorted mouth of a man strangled with a garrote. I was truly in despair at having to disappear without remission for my sins, and, my voice failing me, only my lips continued to murmur their plea: “Miserere!” No, there was no one in this gigantic cavern, under these crumbling vaults; no one to bear witness to the despairing death that would be mine. At first I’d pretended to feel nothing, but the evidence was clear; the church was inexorably foundering and I was sinking down with it, sucked down by the depth, in an abyss of foul mud; the vessel was going down, broken apart, and even if my reason refused to admit it my feet and legs knew it. Had I cried too loudly to heaven that I was abandoned? God abruptly manifested Himself to reply to me that He was still there even if no one else was, infallibly above and beyond disasters; He threw me a lifeline . . . By a miracle I was able to seize a rope. It was salvation, or death postponed. I must have arrived under the central tower. With this cable I could reach the vault, the roofs of that crenellated tower where the errant bells were sleeping; with them I would be able to sound the alarm, but at what cost, of such a climb. Besides, I needed to awaken them to save myself and, at the same time, rouse the town from its torpor by means of this tocsin that hadn’t sounded since the wars. How vigorously I grasped the rope, bending my knees like a gymnast, the better to jump. But at that moment a second miracle occurred: a golden tone broke out, solemnly, a voice of pure metal releasing a loud cry that spread out, undulating in the silence. That happened angelically, without my intervention. A gong sounded the hour of a mystery. Only a supernatural fist could have struck the golden hour over the abyss of Time . . . At this signal, the chancel filled up with an amber vapor, the pillars regained solidity and the naves unfolded harmoniously. The dislocated church remade itself geometrically, under the orders of an invisible architect that was nothing but light. Candles lit up like stars. The mortuary slabs once more steadied themselves. And with the advent of priests resembling bronzed birds, and who sought to exorcise the darkness with their gestures, I felt a fierce gratitude toward the magical Consciousness that prevented the world from perishing on this day of deluge. Everywhere human forms arose and went forward, like resurrected beings emerging from the walls and the pavements. These shades, were they singing, and were the organs expelling the opaque air of their lungs? This collective song might have been thought the voice of a crowd processing in the open air around the church; the song had barbaric overtones, though its inspiration seemed to be sacred. This vocal drone that I wasn’t able to identify didn’t fail to comfort me, just as the renewal of light had done, and it was without fear that I undertook to exit the church, climbing back up to the surface of the city without further difficulty.
Night had fallen, completely. Countless streetlights blazed, the façades wore their familiar faces. Living beings moved about in the reconsolidated city. And the precincts of St. Nicholas were swarming as in times of fairs and cavalcades. The church was encircled by herds. The cattle arrived in abundance, crossing the city from one end to the other, through the old passageways, with St. Nicholas as the cauldron that provided the terminus. It was the night of their holocaust. Their bellows fluctuated, melting together and making a deep pedal note that was counterpointed by sharp bleats and joyful barks. And the majestic cohorts were whipped on by mighty curses. I moved forward, squeezed between the oxen, lost in that flood of rumps and muzzles. The world hadn’t come to an end; the world smelled carnally after the deluge. And, under the lunar searchlights, I went with the musical and so fatally beautiful herds, deported to the cruel abattoirs where the beasts are sacrificed, their blood flowing in torrents in order to appease, who knows which, the wrath of the gods or the hunger of men . . .