- Les étranges études du docteur Paukenschläger (The Strange Studies of Dr. Paukenschläger)
- La ruelle ténébreuse (The Tenebrous Alley)
- Le Psautier de Mayence (The Psalter of Mainz)
If one could easily sum up Jean Ray, this "gent sinister," one would say he was a very prolific Belgian writer, who is considered by many the equivalent of Poe and Lovecraft for French language.
But it is not so easy...
"L'archange fantastique" call him Jean Baptiste Baronian and Francoise Levie, in their book with the same title; "l'insaisissable" (the unseizable) calls him his friend Thomas Owen, a Francophone Belgian writer, in one of the articles he wrote about him in the Belgian magazine, Bizarre (1955).
"Jean Ray is a gothic personage," describes him Thomas Owen with admiration. "He takes after the cursed priest and the cathedral gargoyle. There is a part of «stone» in his person. Something of a prison wall which locks sins, regrets, suffering, under the icy indifference of the mortar and the roughstone."
"At Jean Ray, the physical and the invisible are uncessantly intermingled. He's afraid of nothing. It's not as much courage but a total absence of repulsion. He belongs to a world slightly «subterranean». That of centipedes, of reptiles, of caverns, of darkness. In sunlight, his eyes close. He is made for the night, the rain. Not for brightness."
" Darkness is the true world of Jean Ray. That of his life and that of his art, for everything with him is confounded."
Jean Ray is the best-known pseudonym of Raymundus Johannes Maria de Kremer (8 July 1887 - 17 September 1964). He's used others: John Flanders for his writings in Flemish, King Ray, Alix R. Bantam, Sailor John.
He wrote hundreds of novels, novellas, short stories, and tales.
In 1950, he invented an autobiography, which was largely spread and thus contributed greatly to his legend. Even though most of the facts are imagined, they still reflect his true soul.
"... Dès mon enfance j'étais embarqué en plein dans le fantastique, qui ne me répugnait pas et ne m'effrayait pas."
"...Since my childhood, I've been fully embarked in the fantastic, at which I did not feel repugnance and which did not frighten me."
The Strange Studies of Dr. Paukenschläger (1925) is Ray's first science fiction story, and it marks the beginning of a series based on the idea of intercalary universes. These are worlds situated of another plane of existence, tangent to our own world, which they only intersect at some favorable moments or places.
The apparatus built by the psychotic doctor provokes such a point of contact, but terrible forms lurk behind this invisible gate.
The journalist, who becomes entangled against his will in this story, takes frantic notes, which in fact summarize Jean Ray's idea of intercalary worlds. "There exists a neighboring world, invisible, impenetrable for us, for it is situated on another plane. This world is strangely, criminally, says Paukenschläger, linked to ours. There are, however, points on Earth less closed than others."
Ray explores them in this and a few other stories.
The Tenebrous Alley is another place situated "outside of time and space."
We are introduced to it through two stories, from two manuscripts found by the narrator in a shipment of scrap paper on the dock of Rotterdam (the ports, the sea again, Ray's fascination with it). The stories turn out complementary, but we are told about the end before we can find out what caused the beginning, and when we finally do find out, loose ends come together and we can - as much as possible - contemplate the whole.
The key is Sankt-Beregonnengasse.
This "glimpse on the incomprehensible," this "slice of a strange cosmos within ours" is visible and tangible only for Alphonse Archipêtre, a French grammar teacher in the Hamburg of the first half of the 19th century. His ancestry somehow makes this possible and explains it, for he is the grandson of an Amerindian woman, just like Ray pretends to be in his invented autobiography. For years, everyday he observes this mysterious alley, everyday he is tempted by it, but, afraid he might not be able to get back out, he cannot gather the courage to step in its shadows. Until, by chance, he stumbles and falls inside. He returns with a branch of viburnum, the little tree he's been observing for such a long time. "I borrow it," he meditates, "from a plane of existence which is not real except for myself."
The idea of stealing from the enigmatic inhabitants of the alley comes to him, logically, almost naturally, when he becomes in desperate need for money, a lot of money, for the favors of the girl he admires.
But the thefts Archipêtre commits in the inexistent Sankt-Beregonnengasse unleash a series of bizarre disappearances and atrocious crimes. Yet he cannot stop, "monotone soul of whirling dervish", urged by his infatuation for the girl and, in a way, also by the antique dealer Gockel, who, just like Archipêtre, seems to be satisfying a passion - although his is for money.
In the end, seeking revenge for the disappearance of his beloved, which he blames on the beings of fog from the other side, Archipêtre sets the tenebrous alley on fire, and the arson destroys a whole district of the city.
Lockman Gockel, the grandson of the antique dealer who's been buying the objects stolen by Archipêtre, finds an explanation of this in the contraction of space and time.
"Modern science," he says, "has she not been driven back to the Euclidean weakness by the theory of this admirable Einstein, for whom the whole world envies us? And mustn't she, with horror and despair, admit this fantastic law of contraction of Fitzgerald-Lorentz? The contraction, Sir, oh! this word is heavy of meanings!"
If you were to read only one writing by Jean Ray, let it be The Psalter of Mainz.
Ray pretends having written it at sea ("J'ai écrit en mer Le Psautier de Mayence") just as he says he wrote The Tenebrous Alley in Hamburg. In reality, these are two stories he wrote in prison while serving two years of a sentence for embezzlement. What does it matter? The novella is a jewel of a story, a masterpiece.
It is certain that the sea, and the seamen, are among Ray's preferred motifs. He speaks with admiration of seamen, taking pride of their ways, and imagines himself as being one of them. It is by sea, now, that we are transported into another dimension...
The "The Psalter of Mainz" is a schooner, who owes its name to the gratitude the mysterious schoolmaster holds for his late great-uncle. This had left him a trunk full of old books, amongst them a rare incunabulum, known as The Psalter of Mainz.
The story is told mainly by Ballister, who is hired as captain of the schooner. The good pay and the good whisky (his weak point) make him forgo any doubts he might have regarding the destination and his peculiar employer.
They hire a colorful crew and head towards uncharted waters, "damned waters," "a vile place, a downright desert of water strewn with rocky peaks," to wait for the schoolmaster at a pre-established place. Despite the good life they live while waiting, eating and drinking, Ballister and his crew soon start to realize that something is wrong. In the beginning, it's a feeling, more than anything else.
"There is something that's not right around us, and the worst is that none of us can explain it."
The schoolmaster finally joins them, in a violent and strange incident, and they continue their voyage, distancing themselves even more from anything familiar to them. Everyday, weird observations come to strengthen their suspicions.
"The sea had taken an unusual aspect, which, despite my twenty years of navigation, I couldn't remember having seen at any latitude."
"Strange colored streaks crossed it, sudden noisy effervescences agitated it sometimes; unknown noises, laughter-like, started unexpectedly from a sudden swell and made the men turn around with frightened moves."
"There is something around us, worse than anything, worse than death."
One by one, they disappear in mostly violent events. Slowly, painfully they reach the only possible explanation, that "we are on another plane of existence." A terrible science seems to have transported them to an intercalary universe. "Our tri-dimensional world is probably lost for us, ."
In the end, it's up to Ballister, drunk, weak, terrified, to act for the only possible salvation. But does it really come or not?
And who is the mysterious schoolmaster?
What comes out after Ballister in the end is "a sort of clergyman in a black jacket, streaming of sea water, with a small head with eyes of ardent coals." (again the shining eyes, just like the grand woman's in The Tenebrous Alley, Archipêtre's grandmother, who snatches Meta and the narrator into the parallel world, and who seems to be the one buying the stolen objects; just like Ray describes himself, "my eyes shone in the shadows like those of wild beasts.")
Yet, the only remains are a fake costume and a bizarre remark from the witnesses:
"It smells of octopus."
Is the schoolmaster a mad scientist? Or is he a creation of the sea?
For Jean Baptiste Baronian, in "La Belgique fantastique avant et après Jean Ray", the Psalter of Mainz is "without doubt, the most amazing story ever written on the theme of the curses of the sea."
Has Jean Ray thought perhaps of the sea-monk for his schoolmaster, the sea-monster found off the coast of Denmark in 1546 and described in Konrad Gesner's Historia Animalium?
It is not difficult to imagine the existence of a submarine civilization of the sort that is revealed to Ballister: "At an enormous depth, we saw great somber masiffs of unreal shapes; there were manors with immense towers, gigantic domes, horribly straight streets, lined with frenzied buildings. ...it swarmed with an amorphous crowd, beings with undefined contours attending to, I don't know what, feverish infernal needs."
It is certain that the sea has always been and will remain a depository of all mysteries. Maybe, as Jean Ray's characters do at the end of the story, we have to "renounce the understanding."