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Night Life of the Odd: Jean Ray’s Whisky Tales

Jean Ray, Jean Flanders, Raymundus Joannes de Kremer and sometime Harry Dickson – all subsumed under the name Jean Ray, embezzler and premiere avant pulp novelist of Belgium; author of Malpertuis which was made into a film starring Orson Welles; admired by Queneau and Resnais; friend of Ghelderode; pulp machine and comic book scenarist on the skids; ‘a man sinister… nothing… not even a minister’ as he styled himself up in his epitaph – is finally getting his English due thanks to an affordable edition of his first book, Whisky Tales. Previous bulk translations of his seashod horrors were mostly expensive small print-run affairs, so Wakefield Press’ new series of chronological reprints saves the wallet of the weird aficionado from deluxe fetish products or a dog-eared Berkeley paperback at $100. These skyrocketing prices might be the revenge of despised dime dreadfuls on the dreary middle brow, but the old pulp time-killer is now dependent on Amazon to valorize it. When it is recognized, pulp ceases to be pulp. And when it recognizes itself as ‘pulp’, it becomes a million tentacles of Tarantino working big-budget bourgeois brut. The solitary trash collector just can’t win.

Ray is a weird case among the weirds: more than half hack, some part artist, and more parts scam artist. His partly deranged Verne riff, The Mainz Psalter, is probably the only real successor to Poe’s Pym and has wormed its way, buried treasure-like, into several pb horror collections over the years (it does not appear here). Whisky Tales, expertly translated by sage Scott Nicolay and bound in a suitable formaldehyde and psychedelic wrap, places Ray in several trashy genres without forcing him into the Manson-Barker-Ligotti line of contemp nouvelle bizarre. For one thing, his cheap misanthropy is far more ropey EC than hip Augustinianism, and his bitchy Jew-baiting reveals a suburban racism less psychotic than Céline’s but nastier than Archie Bunker’s. It corrupts the quick disposal chute of several of his better three-to-five page cracks with a laser-like hatred too surgical for the goofy guignol and chipboard medievalism of proper contes cruels. There is no hint that Ray ever followed any of his race hate seriously – he joined no party or clique and he seems to have never expressed any public admiration for homegrown fascists like Degrelle. The rest of his output is apparently devoid of it; when American pulp purveyor Weird Tales published a couple of his more venomous tales in ‘30s, they simply edited a few slurs out of the text and it read fine. The excellent translator’s forward rightfully refuses to let him off the hook though, and the inference here is obvious and worser: Ray’s tirades are comparatively slight, which only shows the unexceptional nature of anti-Semitism in Belgium (the same could be said about all of West Europe). Judging from the kind of Jud Süß parades that still go on in Aalst – not to mention cheerful attacks on other ‘orientals’ such as Muslim immigrants – the Flem spirit is still very willing. And in Europe no one mentions King Leopold in same breath as the Austrian Housepainter, a fact that secretly rehabilitates both. “In the past they escaped in large numbers to the French territory, but many were prevented by force from doing this, and numbers were shot in the attempt” — this is Casement on the Congolese, but it might as well have been Jews, communists, gypsies. And of course, it was.

Whisky Taleswas published in 1925 and first revised right after the war. Subsequent editions have subtracted and added contents and occasionally excised the gross anti-Semitism; it remains here, which is the mark of a fan’s editorial honesty. The set-up is usually a man in a bar who offers the narrator a drink, then relates some horrible implausible tale from his past. The stories themselves, frequently second-or third-hand, might also be the hallucinations of a besotted mind or an angle for mugging (the cutesy term for this today is ‘unreliable narrator’, which is the Formalism of fools). There are psychopaths who see men in the forms of fish, moneylenders transformed into spiders, voodoo curses, rape and vengeance, murder by mistaken identity, dockside slags and sentimental thugs, traitors and sea urchins who share a Sea Wolf view of the world as seen from its other side. Puritan moralizing in horror stories is all for parody, invoking the same kind of giggling bloodlust kids feel when a stern teacher lectures them on the terrible processes of VD, disrespecting Old Glory, or making heroes out of serial killers. Or it is used to mask pornographic or political thrills (Ilsa, de Sade, Russ Meyer) in mocking tones of condemnation that everyone knows is an excuse for provocation or box office returns. This stark insincerity is a reflex for those whose curved presence alone absolves them from truth, a passing smile of the perennial loiterer who hears an explosion and immediately calls it ‘friend’.

At the end of the war, Jean Ray was jobbing it in superheroes and detectives illustrated. No one accused him of collaboration, but his old jail time for fraud followed him so doggedly he added it to his resume. The Congo Free State had produced most of the uranium used to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki (cost: some 15 million dead Africans; 225,000+ Japs in the prefectures), and the unholy Hebrew pawnbrokers conspicuous in several of his tales had been whisked off to the crematoria (cost: 5-6 million). The snarky sub-basement Balzac of these early stories evaporated to reveal dark city mansions out of a mulled-over childhood, multi-dimensional alleys and other tricks of black light in the fairytale lands of civic borders (the last piece in this book has a narcotic dreaminess about it and dispenses with the typical Biblical retribution – a phantasmal ‘realism’ replacing Punch irony and caricature). Maybe the world where the crooked figure of Jean Ray wandered held too many ghostless dead after two wars – and more than two, he did not see Brazzaville? – filling up 3 dimensions with a pedestrian wholesale slaughter that stunk even over in the fourth. So people looked at themselves and discovered other dreams and another kind of dreaminess which had no place for the old nightmares without gaming those nightmares. Une farce publique?

Personal fragments of the elusive Monsieur Ray seem to show a good-natured, grinny con-man who must have been delighted with the periodic fads in the modernist worship of inspired trash. Even in 1943’s novel Malpertuis he was aping Delvaux and Brecht a little, jamming in leftovers from Melville and Stevenson, and anticipating Last Year in Marienbad, Pandora & the Flying Dutchman and even the grisly comedies of George Romero. This arty trick produced the best but also the most mannered things he ever wrote, which is maybe why today’s sourpusses are so intrigued by him, hoping they’ve found another driven primitive in the grue circuit now that HP Lovecraft has sadly gotten his stars. These stories are less clever, more freight-commercial and show a locomotive hack at work – sometimes in peculiar ways – as if the author were paid by raw volume, rather than potlatching his own crafty obsessions. Maybe they are the same mercenary techniques he used efficiently when he ran illegal hooch or cranked out some 106 ‘translations’ featuring a flimsy American Holmes clone from the Pinkertons. His wildest stuff shines with an italicized lend-lease fog, false bottoms and timely rip-offs, lies hung in theater rope rather than any serious madness. His pirates, gnomes and bitter suckers beg incessantly for pity while they keep trying to underbid Judas. All cardboard-shadow flies, no incarnate Devil.

As an old man, Ray was more popular than ever before, constantly feted on TV, with a true mass audience composed of bright adolescent pulp fans, bored commuters and elder-state Avant Gardists. I hope his 1964 collection, Dark Tales of Golf, will soon find its way into English, guided by Scott Nicolay’s expert hand. The title seems to promise Preston Sturges critique packaged in fish and chip paper, a logical variation on what makes the best of these whisky tales so good at conniving time.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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