An England Of The Imagination: The Small Town Weirdness Of Jean Ray

Jean Ray never visited the UK, but the stories he set there, like *The City of Unspeakable Fear*, offer up an eerie glimpse of its future, finds Robert Davidson

In Iain Sinclair’s 1994 novel Radon Daughters, a rag-tag band of vagabonds, led by the x-ray addicted writer Sileen, go in search of the manuscript of the supposed sequel to The House on The Borderland, a slim psychically charged novella that felt more like a visitation than a book when it was published in 1908.

Sinclair charts the scattered mythos of its author, William Hope Hodgson, who met his end like so many men in the stodge of Flanders Field in 1918 at the age of 40. In his novel, Sinclair pens a curt obituary to the writer, “blown to pieces at the Forward Observation Post in Ploegsteert. Lights out, he became light”.

Like the titular supernatural building in the House on The Borderland, in Sinclair’s poetic reconstruction Hope Hodgson’s body ceases to exist in one dimension and seeps into a myriad of others – boarding one of his own interdimensional ghost ships that sails through what Sinclair calls “universal water” where “death is the passport”.

Sileen would ultimately come to grasp the sought manuscript for a tantalisingly brief moment before it’s summarily lost again. But before it disappears a stray epiphany permeates Sileen’s radiation-fried mind; what if the manuscript isn’t a sequel but a prequel? The manuscript could be its own sort of map, cartographic prose that leads to the house that slipped into light. One could go further still and wonder if it wasn’t simply a map – but a blueprint.

Twenty-five years after Hope Hodgson’s death in 1943, twentieth-century Belgian fantastique writer Jean Ray published Malpertuis; a dark, dense, and defective novel. Its parallels with House on the Borderland are immediate, with its plot centred on its own supernatural house. In this instance, a stately Flemish manor house left behind by an avuncular occult scientist to his unsuspecting family. A wretched building only lifted from darkness when celestial spirits happen to express their thoughts in light. A house that could be seen to be in close communication with Hope Hodgson’s construction.

The complex and self-mythologising Ray, dubbed the ‘Belgian Edgar Allen Poe’ in his day, lived almost his entire life in the medieval port city of Ghent. He was raised in a district next to a haven called the Ham, a crumbling corner of the city that strikes a resemblance to Ratcliffe in the Docklands. Despite this, his influences were predominantly British, with Ray’s stories routinely set in England, in particular London. His multi-dimensional stories feature allusions to Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, and of course Hope Hodgson, and his knowledge of British history, geography, and occult fascinations appears, at times, to be on a par with Sinclair himself. Most impressively this all seems to have been achieved without ever visiting England, with no documentation existing that he crossed the North Sea. Ray’s England is one strictly of the imagination.

This makes the appearance of his second novel The City of Unspeakable Fear, set in provincial England, all the more intriguing. Its publication by American independent Wakefield Press marks the first time it has been translated into English since its publication ninety years ago, dutifully translated from the original French by long-time Jean Ray translator Scott Nicolay.

Originally released only eight days after Malpertuis in 1943, the basic plot of The City of Unspeakable Fear, like most of Ray’s writings, is deceptively simple. Sidney Terence Trigger (or Triggs as he’s mostly called), a former Scotland Yard officer who’s less interested in crime and more interested in calligraphy, retires to Ingersham, a quaint fictional town somewhere in Southeast England. Bequeathed a home by a former boss, Triggs seeks to settle into Ingersham’s “beautiful tranquillity” but is instead quickly sucked into a town-wide mystery.

The sheltered townspeople of Ingersham, who have “not seen London, nor care for Paris”, await a “great fear” to strike the town, a fear foretold by their parents and grandparents. As a flurry of apparitions, deaths, and suicides plague the close-knit community, the populace devolves into a hotbed of confusion and terror as apocalyptical storms turn dykes into rivers and cast the market square into unerring darkness. Subsumed by the madness of the town, Triggs is forced to take on a detective role he feels ill-suited for – with his presence sensed by some as the catalyst for the malady that has struck the community.

However, beyond the growing body count and the hunt for its perpetrator, the continued tension of this book is the overlap between folkloric fear and modern paranoia. Ingersham stands on the precipice of being unable to comprehend the “silent assault of the invisible” that has befallen it. A town of candles in a world of electricity. A town where as Ray puts it, “tradition is the basis of eternal laws”. Befuddled by replicas, fakes, and counterfeit operations that run concurrently to the impending “great fear”, Ingersham is lost in a sea of threats and symbols that it cannot contend.

Ingersham’s ostentatious mayor Mr. Chadburn, in a moment of frustration at his limited powers to gain assistance, laments the town’s “stupid aversion to modernism … we have neither telephones nor rapid transport here”. Mr. Chadburn’s eyes then immediately glimpse a pentagram that had been sketched into the belly of the town hall to ward off a ghost that supposedly haunts it.

This pervasive intermingling of the primitive and the advanced establishes the fault-line in the town’s soul that remains opaque to the reader, feeling different if one reads the novel in sunlight or in twilight. Even the book’s composition, which appropriates Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales frame narrative, feels ill-equipped to keep track of the rapidly advancing invasion abducting the town’s psyche.

The destruction of a town and its traditions by an unknowable wave of modernity, however, mirrors Ray’s own existence in Ghent at the time of the book’s publication. In 1943, Belgium was still under Nazi occupation and Ray was made to work directly with the occupiers, with his job to find accommodation for visiting German officers. The quotidian blurring of reality and pretence would have been its own balancing act with the potential to corrode any distinction one might recognise between what was real and what was fake, what was wrong and what was survival.

The people of Ingersham, like the people of Ghent would have been in the middle of a triangulation that brought together science, superstition, and the supernatural in an unholy trinity. Therefore it feels like no accident that Ray snuck the name of his own Ham into the final syllable of the fictional English town.

This fascination with the competing forces behind consensus war-time reality would occupy many American post-war writers, eventually culminating in Thomas Pynchon’s twisted 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow. Joseph Heller’s infamous line in Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you”, feels like it resonates with a fearful Ingersham townswoman when she blusters to Triggs that “just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist”.

In the recognition that the bumps and ghostly visions that we associate with the domestic night, could too be played out en masse in society’s light, Ray perhaps did craft something of the sequel that Sileen in Sinclair’s Radon Daughters sought. The residential blueprint that became an entire development. An inter-dimensional house that became an inter-dimensional town – soon perhaps to become an inter-dimensional world. A capturing of the moment when the invisibility and replicability of the modern abducted our understanding of the present – or better yet how the logic of the ghost became the soul of the modern.

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