No survey of Belgian fiction can fail to mention Jean Ray, born Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer—but where to begin? Any biographical account of the “Belgian Poe” seems to adopt the narrative strategy of one of his most famous stories, “La ruelle ténébreuse” (variously translated as “The Shadowy Street,” “The Street of Shadows,” and “The Tenebrous Alley,” though I prefer “The Shadowy Alley,” for Ray’s voice always lends the sinister a slightly mocking air): what knowledge there is comes to us piecemeal and unverifiable, often in conflicting accounts from scattered sources, such that the only final feeling is one of uncertainty. If his friend and self-professed disciple Thomas Owen is to be believed, Jean Ray was part Indiana Jones, part Father Damien, and part Robert Langdon—adventurer, exorcist, and esoteric scholar, at least in Owen’s short story “The Bernkastel Graveyard.” In fact it pleased this man of many pseudonyms (John Flanders, Kaptain Bill, John Sailor. J.R. Ray) to appear in his friends’ fiction: in Alice Sauton’s Iblis or the Encounter with the Evil Angel, in adventure writer Henri Vernes’ Spectres of Atlantis and Smugglers of the Caribbean, featuring Vernes’ popular hero Bob Morane, where Ray has a cameo as the sailor Tiger Jack. Ray had a particular fondness for nautical skullduggery, and actively encouraged the proliferation of rumors surrounding his person and past.
If his biography is scattered to the winds, so too is his bibliography. Elsewhere online, much has been written, and well, about the extant English translations of Jean Ray, all out of print and dearly priced (anthology appearances, three overlapping collections of short stories spaced decades apart, and Iain White’s translation of Ray’s masterpiece, the novel Malpertuis, for @las Books), especially rbadac at Violet Books, who provides a side-by-side comparison of two translations of “La ruelle ténébreuse” that is illuminating—so to speak—as well as an informed analysis relating Ray to Anglophone writers (the influences of Poe and Hodgson, respectively, are especially clear in Ray’s tales “The Phantom in the Hold” and “The Mainz Psalter”).
Jean Ray is the pivotal figure of the Belgian fantastic, situated squarely at that historical point where the fantastic goes from legitimate literature to bastard genre. He fused the classical supernatural themes of fate, Freud, and fear with the energy of that new narrative form, pulp adventure. Supernatural intrusions into reality never leave Ray’s characters helpless. They push back, push hard, push for answers, even if in the end they must admit defeat before the magnitude of the unknowable. Ray unreels his fantastical tales with alarming matter-of-factness: the conviction he brings to the most outlandish events lends them the heft, presence, and irrefutability of reality.
Among the many explanations regularly put forth for the profusion of Belgian fantastical writing is “cultural hybridity”: Belgium is, as often noted, a divided country, a schizoid culture, a two-tongued land. As I’ve noted elsewhere, many of the most highly admired Belgian fantastical writers were born in Flanders but educated in French, for a long time the language of the ruling classes. Did channeling another language and culture affect their choice of themes and subjects? The Belgian School of the Strange is effectively a Francophone cultural concept in which authors who write in Flemish have never really taken part. Although The Belgian School of the Strange boasts many natively French-speaking writers as well, the question has been justly been raised: what will become of it now that Flanders has effectively declared literary independence? What will happen to it now that half the country no longer contributes?
Ray, a Flanders native who wrote in Flemish and French, presents an interesting case. Under the name John Flanders he produced yarn after yarn of high adventure—but all his fantastical output occurred only in French. Although many of his Flemish works were translated into French, sometimes by Ray himself, never once did Ray translate his French works into Flemish.