Belgians, on both sides of the lingual divide, are great jokesters and hoaxsters. Fittingly, the founding figure of Francophone Belgian literature was the folkloric prankster Thyl Ulenspiegel, hero of Charles de Coster’s Quixotic epic, itself a willful attempt to synthesize national identity as recently as 1867. Half French, half Flemish (with a touch of Dutch and German); burdened with a divided and embattled sense of self; for centuries the battleground of Europe, suffering successive occupations, its already muddled identity further muddied by the footprints of trampling armies — Belgium responded to issues of identity with fancy and whimsy. Resignation, self-deprecation, and irony, as historian Roel Jacob notes, were survival tactics developed in response to compromise as a fact of life. Belgians have made eccentricity a national trait, at least in Europe. C’est belge, for the French, can mean anything from that’s brainless to that’s bizarre. The Royal Palace in Brussels, open in late July, features a room whose ceiling is entirely paneled in iridescent green Thai jewel beetle carapaces (by artist Jan Fabre), entitled “Heaven of Delight.”
I was seduced by the sinister gentility of Belgian fabulism — a fastidious, almost fussy, always funny insistence on seemliness coupled with a sense of mischief and sometimes dread. Unlike the wilder French, Belgian fabulists prefer to undermine the daily and domestic furtively, favoring a painstaking realism that makes fantastical elements all the more riveting and upsetting. Quite literally the land next door, it decided to subvert its surface of innocuous propriety. With unassuming wit, it devised a national literature of dreams.
Seeming contentment undermined by uncertainty… the Belgian Francophone fantastic is a convivial little country unto itself, whose inhabitants spend their evenings toasting and backslapping one another over rich, elaborate meals in half-timbered taverns where the light wavers in through diamond-paned windows. It is so cohesive because it often seems a pocket literature, kept alive by an academy of the faithful, long-lasting because its responsibilities are to so local a readership: the complacent eternity of a reputation in the provinces, a mutual appreciation society of friends… the very definition of a community.
One thing members of a community do, of course, is tell tall tales about each other. It lends an almost oral unreliability to the straight record. Thomas Owen’s short story “The Bernkastel Cemetery” features his mentor and contemporary Jean Ray as a character. But it’s not Ray the celebrated author of supernatural tales: it’s a Ray who is part Indiana Jones, part Father Damien, and part Robert Langdon, adventurer, exorcist, and esoteric scholar. In one of several tribute essays, Ray turns up as a tarantula tamer. Ray was a popular figure in his friends’ books: from Alice Sauton’s Iblis or the Encounter with the Evil Angel, to adventure writer Henri Vernes’ Spectres of Atlantis and Smugglers of the Caribbean, where Ray has a cameo as the sailor Tiger Jack. The next generation has kept up this tradition: Thomas Owen wanders, a debonair and sinister presence, through stories by Anne Richter and Nadine Monfils that range from off-kilter to bloodcurdling.
Thomas Owen (1910−2002) is the one name regularly cited with Jean Ray as a pillar of Belgian fantastical fiction, and the nom de plume of Gérald Bertot: criminal lawyer, art critic, mystery writer, and career manager of a flour plant. In more than 300 stories over the course of his lifetime, Owen refined the tale of supernatural horror to an almost anachronistic degree of economy and purity. His unsettling work has been compared to that of Poe and Buzzati. A consistency of worldview emanates from Owen’s oeuvre: an existential dread, one that Thomas Ligotti correctly identified (in a blurb where he name-checked Owen) as “the nightmare of being alive.”
As ever with Belgium, surfaces are not what they seem. I’ve called Belgium insular, but perhaps unrightly so; perhaps it is merely the rest of the world that ignores its reach and erudition. In this late piece, Owen proves his familiarity with a vibrant tradition of weird writing roughly contemporaneous to his own, yet with no explicit history of cross-fertilization. But cases of mutual influence and admiration can be proven if only one cares to look. Isn’t it time we continued the conversation — lively, rich, engaging, with the potential for transformation on both sides — between the Francophone and Anglophone fantastic begun earlier this century? And now, without further ado…
by Thomas Owen
What I like least in Lovecraft is his love of cats. What astounds me is his ability to dream, to imagine, to invent, his vision, his premonition of the infinitude of the universe, and his sense of anxiety, terror, and panic before the unfathomable unknown, guessed at, sought for, kept up, always present at the limits of human perception, always slipping away when we draw near, shapeless, gelatinous, terrifying…
What delights me is the magical side of his verbal delirium, rich with words forged from scratch for the beauty of their consonance and the conjuring power of their sonorous architecture. Nyarlathotep, Inquanok, Kadath… Or simultaneously in Babylon, among the Chickasha Indians, and in intersidereal space.
What amuses me is that I met his Randolph Carter in Oklahoma City; I traveled with him all the way to New Orleans. And this Randolph Carter seemed to be but one of those vegetable brains, future inhabitant of a radioactive comet, although his outward appearance was that of a well-to-do farmer, impudently itching his buttocks and longing to see, in the French Quarter on the banks of the Mississippi, the enormous breasts of Rita Alexander, a.k.a. “Champagne Girl,” a.k.a. “Miss Goldfinger”…
“You have a famous name,” I told that simple, unpretentious man whose wife wrote recipes for the Arcadia Post.
“I am that famous man,” he said, chewing his toothpick. “Son of Edmund Carter the warlock — of Salem, of course — ,” he smiled, “and precursor of Pickman Carter who in two hundred years’ll drive back the Mongol hordes of Oceania.”
On hearing such words come out of his rather common mouth, I shivered with astonishment.
“Lovecraft?” I asked him, stricken by the most intense emotion. “Does that mean anything to you?”
The man lowered his gaze and seemed to meditate for a moment, then said in a low voice, “Listen well. He told me (him or Ward Phillips Warren or maybe those two’re both the same, even), this is what he told me: ‘Carter, for the love of God, put that stone back and save yourself if you can! Hurry! Drop everything and make good your escape! It’s your only chance! Do as I say and don’t ask why!’”
That stirred some memory in me; the other man knew it and played on my anxiety and disquiet. At Brennan’s, where we had a “Papa Brûlot” flambéed with the finest rum of St. John the Baptist, he leaned across the table and, clearly articulating each syllable when called for, said distinctly, “Inquisitive! Unreasonable writer! Why try to understand? Why try to stay what was only passing? Howard Phillips died for having drawn near the ultimate void where Azathoth, daemon-sultan, gibbers wrathfully in the dark.”
He gave a wave of impatience and despair, knocking over the glass of ice water that had just been set before him.
“Imbecile!” he cried. “He’s dead!”
He rose and tottered from the room, causing stares of saddened wonder in his wake.
I remained where I was, frozen with impassive dignity.
A black waiter brought another glass of ice water.
first published in Cahiers de l’Herne, No. 12. Issue dedicated to Lovecraft, 1984.