Born in the town of Ghent in the Flemish region of Belgium in 1887, the author best-known as Jean Ray was initially christened Raymundus Joannes de Kremer by his parents, a port official and the director of a school for girls. The world would come to know Raymundus by many other names, however, as he wrote prodigiously—and almost always pseudonymously—under a bewildering array of pen names, including Alix R. Bantam, John Flanders, and Jean Ray.
His own life was often as mysterious as his tales. Though his real existence seems to have been fairly pedestrian—aside from a two-year stint in prison for embezzlement—his fictional biographies are as varied as his many pseudonyms, as he made numerous claims throughout his life to being all sorts of things, including a smuggler. Not long before his death, in 1964, he even wrote his own mock epitaph, which shows much of his acerbic and often gallows humor: “Here lies Jean Ray / A man sinister / who was nothing / not even a minister.”
By far his most famous work was his 1943 novel Malpertuis, which was, for many years, also one of the few Jean Ray books to be widely available in English. Later filmed by Belgian director Harry Kumel in 1971, featuring none other than Orson Welles in a central performance, Malpertuis tells the story of the eponymous house, which is home to a strange family and the very gods and demigods of Olympus themselves, trapped inside the bodies of ordinary people. It is also one of the few acknowledge classics of the weird tale in novel length.
Related: Tales of the Weird
While Malpertuis may have been many an Anglophone reader’s only entry point into the weird tales of Jean Ray, however, it was far from the only one he wrote. Indeed, Jean Ray wrote countless short stories in the European tradition known as fantastique—which, here in the States, we would call the weird tale, though the two are also not exactly synonymous—many of which became classics in their own right.
Indeed, though only two collections of Jean Ray’s short stories had received English translation at the time, and one of those was available only in a limited run, no less than two of his best-known tales found their way into Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s doorstopper survey of the field, The Weird in 2010.
Fortunately, for those of us who can’t read French, Wakefield Press and translator Scott Nicolay (himself a World Fantasy Award winner and paragon of contemporary weird fiction) have been hard at work, releasing heavily-annotated new translations of all the work that Raymundus Joannes de Kremer released under the name Jean Ray, many of them available in English for the first time ever.
First published in French in 1925, Les Contes du Whiskey, or Whiskey Tales, catapulted Jean Ray to immediate stardom in his home country. Though it was his first book, it wasn’t his literary debut—he had already written numerous short stories and journalistic articles. Blending an almost theatrical approach to staging and dialogue with a burgeoning sense of the macabre and what would become “cosmic horror” or the weird tale (not to mention more than a little of that aforementioned pitch-dark humor), Whiskey Tales was an immediate success in its own time. It led Jean Ray to be dubbed the “Belgian Poe,” a moniker that still sticks today. Just be aware there is some very distasteful antisemitism in some of the stories, which, to his great credit, translator Scott Nicolay contextualizes but never excuses.
Cruise of Shadows
The first book Jean Ray published after his release from prison, Cruise of Shadows contributed the two stories that—aside from Malpertuis—have probably been most central to his Anglophone reputation, even if his criminal record meant that the collection didn’t perform particularly well in his native country at the time of its release. Nevertheless, it would be a notable book if all it contained were the two stories that were reprinted in The Weird: “The Mainz Psalter” and “The Shadowy Street,” here translated instead as “The Gloomy Alley.” Both are masterpieces of the weird and macabre and, fortunately, they’re surrounded by a number of other spectacular weird tales in this landmark volume.
The Great Nocturnal
By the time Jean Ray published The Great Nocturnal, fully a decade after his last work under the name Jean Ray, his fortunes had begun to turn around once again. In the intervening years, he had written countless Harry Dickson adventures, and his work had begun to appear in translation in American pulp magazines. As such, in its original French edition, The Great Nocturnal reprinted some of the best tales from Cruise of Shadows. In the Wakefield Press edition, however, those stories have been replaced in their original volume, meaning that The Great Nocturnal is shorter than the other books in this series, though no less filled with potent writing and extensive annotations.
Circles of Dread
Originally published in 1943, just a year after The Great Nocturnal, Circles of Dread helps to showcase how prolific Ray’s writing was after his release from prison. It’s also a personal favorite from among those volumes thus far translated into English, replete with classic macabre, ghostly, and gothic tales—and at least one story, “The Marlyweck Cemetery,” that deserves to be thought of in the same breath as Ray’s best. Notably, it also came out the same year as Ray’s best-known work, at least to Anglophone audiences, the classic novel Malpertuis.
As one of the few complete works by Jean Ray to have received an English-language translation, Malpertuis, as it is re-released by Wakefield Press, is also the first of these books not translated by Scott Nicolay. Instead, the book relies on the previous translation by Iain White, which also means that the book is absent Nicolay’s extensive annotations. It is not, however, entirely devoid of his voice or his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Ray and his work. An afterword helps to do what Nicolay’s translator’s notes have done in previous volumes, and fix this landmark novel—undeniably one of the classics of the field—in its proper context, both historically and within the genre.
Though these five books are the only ones that Wakefield Press has put out so far, they are far from the end of Jean Ray’s prolific output. Indeed, more than a half-dozen additional collections await translation, and we can only hope that Nicolay and Wakefield release every one of them sooner rather than later…