A Fold In Space: Jean Ray’s Malpertuis

Robert Davidson looks back at the strange career of the writer dubbed "the Belgian Edgar Allan Poe"

Thus the story of Malpertuis, which could as like as not have ended in total mystery, is continued and to some extent – small enough, alas! – freed from the veils of obscurity that clung about it

– Jean Ray, Malpertuis

Twentieth-century writer Jean Ray, dubbed “The Belgian Edgar Allan Poe” during his lifetime, was no stranger to crimes. He spent six years in prison for embezzlement, his name routinely orbits the theft of ‘The Righteous Judges’, a panel from The Adoration of The Mystic Lamb, the most infamous art theft in history, and in his incredible autobiographical writings Ray implicates himself in a whole manner of illegal activities, most notably running alcohol from Europe to Rum Row during Prohibition-era America. Despite this, the greatest crime attached to Ray is his lack of recognition in the literary world. Even in Ghent, Belgium, the port city he lived the entirety of his life in, his name is as obscure as his fiction.

Having said that, Ray’s anonymity feels apt. His inimitable blend of fantasique is often fixated with the alternate dimensions hiding beneath surface level. The fourth dimension in particular is a ubiquitous presence in the 6,500-odd texts Ray authored during his life.

In his gloomy tales, predominantly written in French, journalists disappear while hunting for esoteric secrets, ships sailing to mythic islands get lost in unreal waters, protagonists track down occult artefacts such as Dr Dee’s black spirit mirror, and the living wander down alleyways that lead to the hereafter. These are all unfaithfully retold in Ray’s uniquely arcane, often kaleidoscopic prose.

For just under a century, nearly all of Ray’s strange tales have remained untranslated recherché texts. What little morsels out there in English have been gobbled up and lauded by preeminent writers of horror and the weird such as Stephen King, Michael Cisco, and Jeff VanderMeer. The obscurity coupled with the acclaim has created a curious vacuum, that feels, to borrow the eponymous adjective of translator Scott Nicolay, Rayen. Like Philip K. Dick, Ray’s life and legacy largely resemble one of his own plots.

However, this is beginning to change as American independent publisher Wakefield Press has taken it upon themselves to resurrect Ray’s vast output, translating many of Ray’s books from French into English for the first time. Working through Ray’s volumes chronologically, Wakefield Press has already published Ray’s first four works in English, the short-story collections Whiskey Tales, The Cruise of Shadows, The Great Nocturnal, and Circles of Dread.

To read through the collections is to uncover a missing link within the weird. A writer whose deep and cryptic narrative spaces seemingly binds the past of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Hope Hodgson, with his contemporaries such as Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft, and the future of Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, China Miéville, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman.

Story by story, Ray builds a towering taxonomy of terror that is multi-faceted, duplicitous, and richly literate. That sprinkles elements of the gothic, the romantic, the modern, and a precocious flirtation with the post-modern. Standouts such as ‘The Great Nocturnal’, ‘The Gloomy Alleyway’, and ‘The Mainz Psalter’ litter his oeuvre, with the imaginal territory they cover swollen like an occult Mercator map. These are tales that treat stories like realities and realities like dreams.

However, it’s the appearance of the fifth Ray book published by Wakefield Press that has been most anticipated. Widely regarded as Ray’s magnum opus and one of the key texts in the development of the weird, Malpertuis has been difficult to find in English since its limited run in 1998.

Published during the German-occupation of Belgium in 1943, the principal plot is simple enough. An ailing and wealthy relative, the occult scientist Uncle Cassave, sets out a will for his family members that stipulates that they must live in his haughty stone mansion, the eponymous Malpertuis, in order to inherit his fortune. At haste, a motley crew of eccentric family members abandon their old homes and enter the endless corridors of Malpertuis, where one by one “the formidable will of Malpertuis manifests itself to its prisoners”.

While the plot is simple, the re-telling is anything but. The re-charting of sinister events that transpired in that house is laid out by four different narrators from manuscripts discovered deep in a monastery many years after the event. The shifting, occasionally overlapping, narratives conspire to fulfil the book’s demented destiny, which is stated in the opening pages as seeking to secure “Malpertuise a place in the history of human terror.”

Beneath the hood, Ray uses every device at his disposal to sow the seeds of suspicion that propel the narrative forward, including unreliable narrators, meta-narrative, and a liberal use of spurious literary quotations that open each chapter. This tour de force of intercalary incantations imbues the book with a deep and mocking personality that is brilliantly Borgesian.

The principal occupation of Malpertuis’ prisoners, when not cowered by the manor’s oppressive opulence, is to try “to tear off the mask of Malpertuis” to decipher the emanations of its “undulatory phenomenon”. With delirious minds, some conjecture it to be “the house of the Devil”, while others believe it “a fold in space … a juxtaposition of two worlds … an abominable point of contact”. All the while, the hallucinatory intensity of the novel only grows as the paranoia thickens. Faceless persons, mounting body counts, out-of-body experiences, meetings with gods, and shadowy doctors are all par for the Malpertuis course.

It’s a folie à deux shared with the reader who wades through Ray’s wasteland of saturated sentences that conjure scores upon scores of crepuscular scenes. Each line in Malpertuis is wrung of all its worth, with most sentences carrying a literal, metaphorical, allegorical, and mystical weight.

In the novel’s stacked opacity, the most one can do is try to make sense of a myriad of characters who may or may not be in the grips of insanity, and try to keep pace with Ray’s encyclopedic obsession with the recondite that fizzes through almost every passage – whether it’s allusions to Greek mythology, European folklore, occult grimoires, Christian esotericism, architectural details, fabled lands, or nods to the great literature of his time.

When the clouds of unknowing eventually clear at the end of the novel and Malpertuis’ raison d’être is unveiled, the dénouement is nothing short of majestic. A stunning resolution that absorbs all that comes before and leaves a crater in its wake that you feel many writers are still digging their way out of. A crater that says defiantly, Jean Ray got here first. Its climax unifies the reader and those who managed to escape the stone mansion, blasting them both with the gnosis that, “you will leave Malpertuis, but Malpertuis will follow you through your life”.

In Malpertuis’ timely re-publication, you have to ask, has some other forces elsewhere been stirred? Is Jean Ray set to awake from his own “strange sleep”? Is he too being thought back into existence? Dear reader, only time will tell.

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