In English for the first time, the collection that launched Jean Ray’s reputation as the Belgian master of the weird tale
After the commercial failure of his 1931 collection of fantastical stories Cruise of Shadows, Jean Ray spent the next decade writing and publishing under other names in the stifling atmosphere of Ghent. Only in the midst of the darkest years of the Nazi Occupation of Belgium would he suddenly publish a spate of books under his earlier nom de plume. The first of these volumes was The Great Nocturnal.
Published in 1942, the collection, as its subtitle indicates, consists of tales of fear and dread, but a dread evoked not by the standard tropes of horror but what had by now evolved into Ray’s personal brand of fear, drawn from a specifically Belgian notion of the fantastic that lies alongside the banality of everyday life. An aging haberdasher’s monotonous life opens up to a spiritual fourth dimension (and serial murder); an inebriated young man in a tavern draws cryptic symbols and mutters statements that evoke an inexplicable terror among some sailors, and, as he sobers up, himself; three students drink Finnish Kümmel and keep watch over a deceased woman’s apartment, awaiting a horrific transmutation. Yet these tales are laced with a certain mordant humor that bears as much allegiance with Ambrose Bierce as Edgar Allan Poe, and toy as much with the reader’s expectations as they do with their characters.
Jean Ray (1887–1964) is the best known of the multiple pseudonyms of Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer. Alternately referred to as the “Belgian Poe” and the “Flemish Jack London,” Ray authored some 6,500 texts in his lifetime, not including his own biography, which remains shrouded in legend and fiction, much of it of his own making. His alleged lives as an alcohol smuggler on Rum Row in the Prohibition Era, an executioner in Venice, a Chicago gangster, and hunter in remote jungles in fact covered over a more prosaic, albeit ruinous, existence as a manager of a literary magazine that led to a prison sentence.