This year, the centenary of Thomas Owen’s birth, was marked in Belgium by a series of readings, lectures, and events under the general heading “100 Years of Disquiet”—a tribute to the author regularly cited, along with Jean Ray and Franz Hellens, as a pillar of Belgian fantastical fiction. Owen (1910-2002) is such a monument in Belgium it’s hard to believe that in the English-speaking world he is an exceedingly well-kept secret, known only on the basis of a single book to a handful of dedicated horror fans.
The story goes like this: there once was a lawyer named Gérald Bertot, who worked all his life in the management of the same flour-milling factory. He held a doctorate in criminology, and a side career in art criticism under the pseudonym Stéphane Rey. Spared service in World War II, he turned to writing mysteries for money, with the encouragement of Stanislas-André Steeman, a celebrated craftsman of Belgian noir. In Tonight at Eight (1941), he introduced the police commissioner Thomas Owen—a character whose name he liked so much he later took it as his own when he embarked on what he has called his true calling, his career as a fantasist.
If Ray is the “Belgian Poe,” what writer, then, to pick for Owen, most commonly considered his closest spiritual son? Machen? Blackwood? Lovecraft? Campbell? In fact there is no one in English quite like him, no one who has devoted himself so completely and single-mindedly to pursuing and refining what we might in English call the tale of supernatural horror to an almost anachronistic degree of classical purity.
As an undergrad in ENG 455: Contemporary American Lit shortly after Altman’s Short Cuts came out, it seemed the takeaway for Raymond Carver wasn’t any one story—though many were individually admirable and rewarded study—but the sourceless underlying feeling of menace that emanated from them: a mean, precarious menace. It was partly socioeconomic: menace as felt by the lower middle class from years of conservative economics, whose fallout we’re still experiencing. Menace was the buzzword; menace meant Carver.
A similar consistency of worldview, of the world presented, emanates from Owen’s oeuvre of several hundred stories: an existential dread, one that Thomas Ligotti correctly identified (in a blurb where he name-checked Owen) as “the nightmare of being alive.” The best word for Owen’s fiction is unsettling. The feeling lingers long after its source is pinpointed in each story, and remains dominant, ambient, on closing a collection. If Owen’s tales sometimes read like throwbacks now, it should be noted that they read like throwbacks even in their day: that his project was to make them so, to strip them of time and place until they addressed some essential, eternal condition. The situations, when paraphrased, are banal and somewhat anonymous, though it is a sign of his talent that he can animate the hoariest clichés: the hitchhiker, the stormy night, the creaking step, the hostile tavern in the countryside, the fleeting glimpse of something half-intuited that scares, scars, and stays with us. What I find rewarding is not his inexhaustible imagination, nor the variety of marvels he conjures, but his unflagging precision. He is capable of creating a maximum of dread with a minimum of props. Perhaps it is that in the atmosphere of exceeding economy that is his trademark, each scenic element is charged with purpose, even necessity. Each has some essential role, and is therefore rescued from being hackneyed, given new and spooky life.
Iain White, who so meticulously translated Jean Ray’s Malpertuis and a collection of Marcel Schwob’s stories, gave the English-speaking world a taste of these masterpieces of the macabre. His 1984 volume The Desolate Presence from the horror series of the now defunct publisher William Kimber draws from six of Owen’s seven major collections and includes among its 22 tales some of my favorites, such as “The Sow” and “Portrait of an Unknown Man.”