Monday, February 21, 2011

Malpertuis by Jean Ray

I read Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis (1943) over the course of two evenings, and each night I experienced strange dreams of forgotten identity. (I also became reacquainted with an ancient structure riddled with hidden passageways that has haunted my dreams since childhood.) Characterized by the publisher as a “modern Gothic novel”, this book does indeed reflect the conventions of that genre: a sprawling house exuding evil, a cast of strange characters, a naïve protagonist, and a sense of overpowering malignancy casting its shadow over the proceedings.

The narrative is epistolary, with four or five persons contributing to the arc of the story. A prologue describes the discovery by a thief of a collection of manuscripts hidden away in an ancient Belgian abbey. The proper story begins with a ship seemingly lost at sea, in search of a mysterious Aegean island that appears on no charts. There is a storm worthy of Poe, Coleridge, or Lautremont, and an ancient mariner glimpses, above the rocks of the island, gigantic and repulsive corpses. His ship lost, the mariner in his delirium relates his vision to his rescuers, one of whom, a malignant priest, repays the information the sailor provides by having him strangled and cast into the stormy froth.

We then come to Malpertuis itself, inhabited by a dying magus who holds various relatives and acquaintances in his thrall. He is a repugnant presence, and in his dying days reveals, in the contents of his will, that his unimaginably vast fortune will go to the luxurious maintenance of his heirs (with the balance going to the last survivors) under the stipulation that they must remain in residence in the old man’s sprawling and decrepit house. The house is the namesake of the abode of the evil and perhaps Satanic fox Goupil in the medieval romance of Reynard the Fox. As a primary character itself in the drama, the house is described at length. The overwhelming atmosphere is one of decrepitude and darkness. The grounds are grey and seemingly perpetually stormy, and the house is inadequately lit by meager candlelight.

The inhabitants are a queer and motley lot. The narrator is young Jean-Jacques, and it is his cruel and sensual sister Nancy who largely runs the house. The others are strange and in some cases pathetic “cousins” with various obsessions that run the gamut from an unhealthy interest in taxidermy to an overweening obsession with ensuring that some degree of illumination remains in the house as protection from an ominous dark shadow. There are, in addition, small strange daemonic creatures scuttling about in the attic and currents of sexual desire and meticulously kept antipathies passing among some of the inhabitants.

Along the way, Ray drops enough clues to point the attentive reader towards an assessment of the true nature and identities of the doomed souls occupying Malpertuis. The novel is heavy on atmosphere, a delicious atmosphere that pervades the bulk of the novel. For the thick-witted, each chapter contains a relevant epigraph or two from the likes of Hawthorne (no stranger to tales of doomed houses) and others which light the path towards the ultimate revelations. For me, the narrative begins to fragment towards the end, losing momentum as poor Jean-Jacques has to suffer through a number of swoons as Satanic powers pursue him and the inevitable explanations are painstakingly revealed. But this is a minor complaint. Malpertuis, while it may not be a high water mark in world literature, is original, creepy, and compellingly atmospheric enough, with a peculiar hallucinatory power and sense of melancholy earning it a place of honor as an obvious touchstone of the latter-day gothic romance. I am aware of one recent fantasy novel that exploits Ray’s particular conceit of the existence of the old gods, whose power waxes and wanes in accordance to the degree that mortals believe in them. Were I more conversant with that genre, I could no doubt identify others.

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