Daniel Haeusser reviews short works of SFT that appear both online and in print. He is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Canisius College, where he teaches microbiology and leads student research projects with bacteria and bacteriophage. He’s also an associate blogger with the American Society for Microbiology’s popular Small Things Considered. Daniel reads broadly in English and French, and his book reviews can be found at Reading1000Lives or Skiffy & Fanty. You can also connect with him on Goodreads or Twitter.
translated by Scott Nicolay
grab a copy here or through your local library or independent bookstore
translated by Scott Nicolay
grab a copy here or through your local library or independent bookstore
“I would like more whiskey, thank you…
And please do not let my glass fall empty from here on out. It gives me the courage I need to tell you what follows.”
Fans of the speculative subgenre eventually known as ‘weird fiction’ typically associate its early development with names like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps even Clark Ashton Smith and M.R. James, or Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson. In the peak of the Haute Weird era in the United States, publications like Weird Tales brought a variety of outré stories, filled with tentacled menaces, to a growing audience. Among the publications in English were some translations of stories originally written in French by an author with the pseudonym Jean Ray.
Born Raymundus Joannes de Kremer in 1887, he published his fantastic tales as Jean Ray, and used numerous other pen names, such as John Flanders, during the prolific periods of his writing. Early reviewers christened Ray the “Belgian Poe” and the “Flemish Jack London”, though a large part of his influence seems to have come from the character types of Dickens.
Up until the meticulous translation and publication of Ray’s work by Scott Nicolay and Wakefield Press, the most likely introduction to Jean Ray in English for modern readers might have been The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Though not as well-known as other members of the Weird crowd, Ray has been an acknowledged early influence on others in the field, including David Hartwell and Stephen King.
A superfan, translator, and writer of weird fiction, Nicolay has taken on the monstrous task of translating the entire corpus of Ray’s short fiction fantastique (and penning superior translations to those previously made.) Wakefield Press has released these in four volumes so far, with a fifth soon to be released. I was fortunate to receive copies of the first two for review here, Whiskey Tales and Cruise of Shadows: Haunted Stories of Land and Sea.
First published as Les contes due whiskey in 1925, the collection brought Ray to international attention and several translated versions of select stories within it soon appeared. Nicolay’s translation provides, for the first time, a complete translation with stories appearing in their original published order: 16 “Whiskey Tales” proper followed by 11 designated “… And a Few More Stories from the Fog”. Previous translations into English (and I believe even republications in the French) omitted or changed text so that multiple versions of some stories exist. Nicolay’s translations strive to be as faithful as possible to the original versions, while noting variations and taking the entirety of Ray’s writing into perspective.
I’ll eventually say things about Ray’s stories, but given this site is SF in Translation I want to really stress the tremendous work that Nicolay brings to these translations: an academic service and a service of entertainment to weird fans, both. I read several of the stories in Whiskey Tales in the original French alongside Nicolay’s translation, and they perfectly capture the atmosphere of the stories, the idiosyncrasy of Ray’s word use, and the general effects of his writing. Further, Nicolay buffers the translation with footnotes that point out variations, difficult translation choices, and cultural references. The latter also falls into a category of what Nicolay dubs ‘Rayisms’ that he also clarifies in the footnotes, such as purposeful anachronism, or affected proper noun choices. I have never enjoyed reading footnotes so much as in these translations of Ray.
Nicolay additionally writes an extensive introduction to Whiskey Tales and afterward to Cruise of Shadows, both of which enrich the reading experience of Ray’s work, and help place the stories and Nicolay’s translation into context. Most significant, in a large chuck of the Whiskey Tales introduction, is a discussion of Ray’s anti-Semitism and when, and how it pervades his writing. Nicolay vehemently argues that one cannot simply excuse Ray as ‘a man of his time’. But, at the same time as academic translator does not want to expunge the dirty text from Ray’s work as some other past translations have done. I am with Nicolay’s opinion on this. I similarly get angry when something like a Looney Tunes short is edited – or simply not shown – due to uncomfortable issues or topics that should be acknowledged and not forgotten.
For those bothered by anti-Semitism so that you wouldn’t want to see it, well you might not want to read Ray then, like many don’t want to read Lovecraft for his racism. However, Nicolay guides readers away the most blatant and frequent instances of anti-Semitism in the collection. Most falls into one or two stories that could be skipped. By the point of Cruise of Shadows, this aspect of Ray’s writing is far less present.
In the afterward to Cruise of Shadows, Nicolay charts the evolution of Ray’s writing from the early flash fiction of Whiskey Tales to the more developed and complex novellas that mark the best of Cruise of Shadows. He also discusses the environment in which Ray lived as he composed the stories that make up that second collection, published in 1932 as La Croisière des ombres. Just one year after the publication of Les contes du whiskey, Jean Ray was charged with embezzlement and sentenced to six years in prison. Though he served only two of those years in a relatively comfortable facility, the imprisonment had influences on his stories and his development as a writer. Nicolay’s discussion of these is placed after the stories proper to avoid any spoilers.
Going back to Whiskey Tales: From the very start Ray establishes some of the central elements to his writing. As the title suggests, whiskey figures as a theme to all the stories here, even if just forced into the story in some instances. Even beyond the theme though, Ray’s characters are the type to tell their tale over a shared bottle of whiskey or some other sort of alcohol.
Similar to other authors of the era, tales are structured around a yarn, in this case of the speculative weird genre, a supernatural yarn. Characters opening the story may be directly involved, or they might just be relating something they heard, building a story within a story. Where a writer like M.R. James uses this format in an academic setting or a gentleman’s club and the introduction of some discovered artifact or manuscript, Ray does the same, but in dingier, lower class settings. Ray’s characters are frequently sailors, smugglers, and riff-raff, telling their tale in a dive bar over those pours of whiskey. Usually, it is they who relate the strange occurrences that happened to the mad scientist, or the businessman, or read of the events that transpired in discovered materials.
Nicolay describes this as part of the mise en scène in Ray’s work, and notes how well the stories could work in the format of a play. Even in the early form of his writing in Whiskey Tales where the stories are just a few pages long, this feature can be seen. It becomes more developed over the years so that a big step occurs by the point of his well-regarded novellas in Cruise of Shadows where there are multiple stories within the story and shifting plot directions.
Also visible from the first pages of Whiskey Tales is Ray’s frequent use of particular words and concepts, particularly the shadowy otherworldly effects of mists and fog. In an early story, he even uses the English term for fog to highlight its foreign nature, and conflates senses so that its menace becomes something audible:
“Walk faster. I feel the fog at our heels because I hear… I can hear they mist! It begins with a distant wailing, the cry of forgotten miseries appealing to millions of ears, and then it washes over you with the leaden clamor of heavy waves, forcing you to listen to hours of tiny voices, delicate and shrill, insulting you from behind closed doors, stifled death rattles arising from gloomy corners, a protracted illness splashing its spectral mendacities across the frosted windows of your office.”
Fascinations with hands also appears, the rough, calloused hands of workers grasping their shot glasses, or attacking from the darkness. An example of this occurs in a brief story of a man who sits alone at night with his drink, who receives a phantasmal midnight visitor. After thinking about the various souls from his miserable life who might return looking for revenge against him the story concludes:
“And from the vast night surrounding me, a hand appeared seizing me by the throat.
It trembled that hand, and it stunk of onions and pipe-smoke.
And I realized with bitterness and anger it was that no-good Bobby Moos who had come to steal my whiskey.”
I just adore that rough voice and the evocative scents of onion and pipe-smoke, the atmosphere of simultaneous chill and humor that the close brings.
The stories of Whiskey Tales are all about atmosphere. Many are snippets that could only loosely be considered to have plots. They elicit discomfort or unease. They often feature the supernatural, but might not yet truly be considered ‘weird’ in the way the genre ultimately became identified. They excel at creating atmosphere with their style and voice as the passages above. However, this also makes them somewhat repetitive to read all at once. They are good, even great. But simple enough that once you’ve enjoyed that mood a bit, you really start craving for a story that goes beyond just establishing mood and showing eccentric characters in dim-lit alley bars.
That is not to say that this is all that Whiskey Tales has to offer. Glimpses of what Ray’s work becomes can be seen in later selections in the collection that begin to take on more complex plots building from the atmosphere he had mastered. One of the most well received stories in this first collection seems to be “The Strange Studies of Dr. Paukenschläger”. It’s the first story by Ray that clearly falls into the ‘Weird’ category and features a very Lovecraftian plot. I actually didn’t care for it as much as many of the other stories, but then again, I don’t really like what I’ve read of Lovecraft and easily tire of horror inspired by his themes.
Readers that want to discover Ray from the start, or who love short atmospheric horror will benefit from picking up from the very beginning with Whiskey Tales. Those who want to avoid the blatant anti-Semitism or who might want to start out with a more fully-formed Ray who might be considered at the height of his craft in writing a Weird tale, might want to start with the second volume, Cruise of Shadows.
With seven stories, Cruise of Shadows has a big drop in story quantity compared to Ray’s first collection, but that becomes far exceeded by quality. The first five are well developed short stories, with the final of those considered by many to be masterpiece. The two novellas that follow are likewise considered among the best work that Ray composed. I still have much to read by Ray, but I can certainly agree that these here are all excellent.
Most reviewers have commented on the second of these novellas, “The Mainz Psalter”. Considering this has been frequently anthologized (though with portions omitted) and that it bears resemblance to a story by Lovecraft makes this understandable. (Apparently the similarities to “The Call of Cthulhu” must be coincidental, as the timing of its availability to Ray does not coincide with Ray’s composition of this.)
I found the first novella, “The Gloomy Alley”, to be more interesting. (Again, less Lovecraftian, which maybe made me enjoy it more). It serves as a prime example of Ray’s story-within-story structure as a man discovers two journals while going through waste material by the docks. One journal is written in German, and the other in French. We are then given the translations of these texts, separate – but connected – weird tales of people disappearing, monsters, and odd shifts in space/time. The story also features a defining element of Ray’s writing that I haven’t yet touched upon: code-switching.
Ray writes fairly conversationally, so the voice has alterations in word usage between classes. But he also fills the words of his characters and their narration with pervasive name-dropping, both real and invented. Characters refer to people who otherwise don’t appear in a story, but who – like that no-good Bobby Moos above – pop up as characters in other stories. They speak of cities, streets, shops, etc., and in a cosmopolitan, European manner that switches frequently between languages. This portion of “The Gloomy Alley” illustrates this switch in languages (while also introducing the street that seems to only exist in space for the narrator:
“I received directions to the city’s oldest coachman, in the smoky kneipe where he drinks Octoberfest beer, heady and fragrant.
I offered him drinks, then some saffron tobacco and a Dutch daalder; he swore that I was a prince. “Most certainly a prince,” he shouted. “What could be more noble than a prince? Bring them on, all those who disagree: I will bind them with the business end of my whip!”
I pointed to his droschke, as large as a small waiting room.
“Take me now to the blind alley Sainte-Bérégonne.”
He regarded me at first with a look of powerful bewilderment, then erupted into a hearty laugh.
“Oh, you are a fine one! A Fine Fellow!”
“Why do you say that?”
“You’re putting me to the test. I know every street in this city. Did I say street? … Nay, the very cobbles! There is no street Sainte-Béré… what was it again?”
“Bérégonne. Tell me, is it not beside the Mühlenstrassse?”
“No,” he said in a tone of finality, “such a street no more exists here than Vesuvius in St. Petersburg.”
No one knew more about the city in its most tortuous recesses than this magnificent drinker of beer.
A Student who was writing a love letter at a nearby table and overheard us, interjected:
“There is no saint by that name either.”
And the owner’s wife added angrily:
“One cannot simply manufacture the names of saints like Jewish sausages.”
I calmed everyone with wine and new beer and a great joy dwelt in my heart.”
And, of course, Ray has not lost his inclusion of alcoholic beverage to accompany the tale. I found it difficult to not read Whiskey Tales or Cruise of Shadows without having a sifter beside me to sip along with these haunted tales. I’m looking forward to getting the later volumes of Nicolay’s translation of Ray’s work from Wakefield Press, and I hope that you find at least one of these volumes worth giving a try as well, if you have not yet. Once I read the next volumes I hope to have reviews here as well, perhaps this time going more into the specific stories now that the general has been covered.