When I discussed Jean Ray’s ‘The Mainz Psalter’, I commented on the ‘lack of certainty which lends this particular tale its weirdness’ and how a ‘story that could have been quite conventionally handled is twisted around because of the perspective from which it is told’. To some extent, the same could be said of this second story by Ray, but these qualities are pushed to a far greater extremity than in ‘The Mainz Psalter’.Once again, the story is constructed as a series of first-person narratives. About the first narrator, we learn very little. Male, most likely, given the speaker’s presence on the docks when the story begins, the possession of a cane noted a few sentences later, and probably not working-class from the style of the language, not to mention that cane. A reader, then, drawn to the bursting open of a bale of old paper as it is unloaded.
There is an ineffable sense of melancholia as the speaker describes the ‘rustling mass’ of paper, imbuing it with a mysterious sense of life. But what kind of life? For the children who ‘gleaned in the eternal autumn of the waterfront’, it brings joy as a colourful spectacle and temporary plaything. Oddly poetic, too, those child workers severed from the country setting where gleaning would normally occur in the harvest fields. What are they gathering? We might suspect our narrator of possessing a hopelessly romantic view. And if we did, he will confirm this when he describes ‘pitiful books whose pages were still joined like desperate hands (206)’. Praying hands, the reader might think, juxtaposed with the odd brutality of ‘beautiful Pearsons engravings, cut in half by order of Customs (206)’. And then back to the melancholic stirring of the cane’s tip through ‘the vast residue of thought (206)’. Our narrator, perhaps, relishes the idea of all those unregarded words, with him standing over them, aware of them, unable to engage with them all.
This moment is important though because it is here that the narrator finds the two manuscripts. There is some ambiguity about this incident Two manuscripts, one written in French, one in German, the writers unaware of one another yet their stories, according to the narrator, complementing one another. Their presentation is unclear: are they slipped within the pages of a magazine? Or bound together by someone. ‘The cover bore the name Alphonse Archipetre’: what cover is that? There is a sense of over-determined coincidence about this. Has Ray fallen victim to over-contrivance or does the story itself generate such peculiarities.
The first manuscript, the ‘German manuscript’, is an account of a series of mysterious events, written for ‘Hermann’, who is absent. The writer describes it as ‘the best proof of my affection that I can give him, because it takes real courage for a woman to keep a journal in such hours of madness’ (206). More so for a woman than a man, the sceptical feminist might ask, pondering the tantalising implications of such a comment, but here’s a thing: what is particularly striking about this first embedded narrative is that it is peopled almost entirely by women. We have the unnamed female narrator, who has moved in with the three Rückhardt sisters after the death of her aunt, taking with her maid, Frida. Also present are the cook, Frau Pilz, and one man, the elderly Councillor Hühnebein, who lives on the ground floor of the house, among his many treasures.
There is a striking sense of regularity about this house of women, a steady rhythm of life, what the narrator calls ‘calm’, as they eat, drink, embroider. Exquisite food, beautiful drink in crystal glasses, scented candles: such a perfection so often invites a fictional intrusion of the irrational. The weather is bad: heavy rain, a cascading gutter. Lotte, one of the sisters, suddenly says ‘I’ve never seen it so dark before’ (207). How dark is normal dark, one might ask. She goes on: ‘I feel as though the darkness of the street would follow me, along with the wind and the rain’ (207). And suddenly, this darkness is more than a natural occurrence; it has life, agency, and the atmosphere in the room changes. In which case it is perhaps less of a surprise than it might be when Frida, the maid, staggers into the room, clearly in distress, and says ‘There is a great fear in my room’ (207). Like the dark, the fear seems to have a life of its own, an existence external to personal experience. Frida’s response is visceral, instinctive: she will not go back in there, but Eleonore, already dismissive of Lotte’s experience, determines to go into the room.
What happens when Eleonore goes into the room remains unclear. There is oppressive silence, followed by ‘a loud laugh, so horrible I would rather die than hear it again’ (208), then Meta’s claim to see a face, and finally, the complete absence of Eleonore: ‘The candlestick [carried by Eleonore] was standing on the floor and its candles were still burning peacefully with their delicate pink flames’ (208). Shades of the abandoned Mary Celeste, one might think. Eleonore is not the only person to have vanished, it turns out; eighty people have vanished inexplicably. According to the narrator: ‘The world of ordinary conjectures was closed to us; only supernatural apprehensions remained’ (208). The reader is thus not encouraged to even think about the possibility of rational explanation. Indeed, the narrator screws the story right down to focus on what happens in the house, a classic trope for stories of psychological terror. All too quickly, we lose sight of what is happening in the rest of the town as, one by one, the inhabitants of the house vanish, leaving only the narrator and Meta, who appears to be going mad as she patrols the house with her father’s rapier, listening intently to voices only she can hear. Once, before she vanishes, Frida goes to Meta’s aid when she is fighting an otherwise invisible creature, and the reader is led to believe that something physically present is injured in the fight. When questioned about her intervention, like Meta she claims to have seen a face, while also associating the incident with the original ‘great fear’.
Things become ever stranger; the narrator becomes aware of an invisible presence, one that laps milk like a cat, a ‘suffering invisible monster’. The dynamic of the story shifts as the narrator and this invisible creature develop a highly charged, almost erotic relationship. By this time, Meta has ‘barricaded the doors and windows in a way that seemed designed more to prevent an escape than an intrusion’ (210), and the narrator describes her life as having become ‘a fearful solitude’. At the same time, there is fresh milk, so someone is coming to or leaving the house. Should the reader be tempted into supposing that the narrator imagines the existence of the presence, and what of Meta’s relationship with the narrator, her transformation into the ‘man of the house’. Ray seems to hint at some strange sexual dynamics here but they are as fleeting as the touch of the invisible presence. There is no causality, no correlation of events, just an assemblage of occurrences that the reader is presented with, through which she might search rather as the framing narrator stirs his cane-tip in the residue of thought on the docks. We might reasonably expect Meta to realise what is happening and to attack the narrator and the invisible creature. But what are we to make of the sudden appearance of ‘an immensely tall old woman’ with ‘terrible green eyes glowing in her unimaginable face’. Is the narrator hallucinating on the point of death? We suppose that she has in some way survived the events of that point, but there are no answers. We leave the narrator in ‘a strange little house’ (212) surrounded by the invisible. It is perhaps instructive that the framing narrator describes the manuscript ending ‘as though cut off with a knife’.
One narrative convention – and here I would argue for a rhetoric of the weird as not-weird – suggests that the second manuscript, the French manuscript, will explain the occurrences of the German manuscript. But Ray, as ‘The Mainz Psalter’ has already demonstrated, is quite prepared to take the much riskier path of continuing to lay out odd events and to eschew a comfortable rhetoric of even delayed causality. Instead, the second manuscript initially appears to be completely unrelated to the first. The reader has only the narrator’s word for it that they might be related. Instead, the French narrator, male, a school teacher as it turns out, is obsessed with St Beregonne’s Lane, which it seems only he can see. To him it is situated between a distillery and a seed merchant’s shop; for everyone else there is no space between the two. His explanation is oddly hazy. He knows it takes him two or three seconds to pass from one establishment to the other; other people ‘went immediately from the distillery to the shop, without visibly crossing the entrance of Saint Beregonne’s Lane’ (213).
How, you might ask, does that work? It is difficult to imagine and suggests that the narrator is not to be relied upon simply because his imagination does appear to be so baroque. One similarly pauses at a sentence like:
I knew that mysterious street for several years without ever venturing into it, and I think that even a more courageous man would have hesitated. What laws governed that unknown space? Once it had drawn me into its mystery, would it ever return me to my own world? (213)
One might argue that this is a perfectly reasonable view, and it is in fact the world of fiction that encourages such unwise behaviour as setting off along a mysterious lane that no one else can see. On the other hand, this is not how stories are made, and ‘several years’ suggests an abnormal level of caution, particularly when this is pushed to the point where ‘my curiosity surrendered to my fear’ (213), despite the fact that all the narrator can see is ‘so ordinary, so commonplace’. There is clearly something unusual about this narrator, a lack of focus, maybe, an odd quirk in his thinking, a resistance to the demands of fiction even. Why, for example, do his thoughts leap from the strange lane to his grandmother: ‘a tall, somber woman’ whose ‘big green eyes seemed to be following the happenings of another life on the wall in front of her’ (213).
Given what we already know, we might suppose that the green-eyed woman is the key to this mystery and, conveniently, we learn a little more about her obscure origins and her words to her grandson before her death: ‘Maybe he’ll go where I wasn’t bale to return. …’ (213) And yet the narrator backs away constantly from his ostensible story. First his grandmother and now Anita, the girl to whom he is attracted, divert his attention, almost as though he can’t bear to take up the story, or is he being deliberately diverted from paying attention. Anita, the daughter of the mysterious dream ships that found their way out of the Mediterranean and into the North Sea: dreamlike itself the story has drifted away from Saint Beregonne’s Lane to the writer’s infatuation with a woman whose attention can only be bought with gold.
It is a chance even that reveals to the writer that he can enter Saint Beregonne’s Lane and return safely, and bring things with him, in this instance a sprig of a plant. But what is crucial for the narrator is that ‘no one could contest my ownership of it’ (214), such an odd thing to worry about. It is only later that we realise he is driven by his need to find money to pay for his interest in Anita, and that his exploration of Saint Beregonne’s Lane is prompted purely by the intention to steal.
Which is what the narrator does, over and over again, day after day, finding the things he has stolen being replaced overnight. Is it that Saint Beregonne’s Lane is like some sort of tabula rasa, starting afresh each day? The narrator has no idea but he keeps stealing, Gockel the antique dealer, who has somehow found a buyer, keeps buying and selling.
One has the sense that the narrator has not strayed into an actual other place so much as a territory of the mind, with the endless repetitions, of theft, of houses in threes, and oddly truncated houses at that, which make one think of the French narrator’s comment at the end of her account, and also of Hühnebein’s boarding up of parts of his house when the disappearances begin. Over everything is the sense of disappointment and disillusion, as though this is not the great adventure he might once have anticipated.
It is the narrator’s further exploration of the street, when the mood changes, when he hears music, that is so strange: the same three houses, repeated, but a ‘wind of song’, then a ‘furious clamour of wails and hatred’ (218). It is after this incursion into the deeper reaches of the street that the disappearances begin, or rather that the reader realises that the two towns in the two accounts are one and the same. Might we infer that the German narrator’s adventure has precipitated the disappearances in some way? He, knowing about the invisible lane, can theorise that they have vanished ‘into an unknown plane’ but at the same time, how to explain the murders, particularly their brutality? Is it, as the narrator surmises, that ‘Saint Beregonne’s Lane and its little houses were only a mask concealing some sort of horrible face’ (219). And if so, what kind of horrible face are we talking about.
In the midst of all this, the narrator has lost Anita, though whether she was taken, as he supposes, or whether she knew something, as the reader is invited to believe, remains unclear. The narrator’s supreme act of vengeance, so it seems to him and perhaps also to the uneasy Gockel, is the burning of the quarter of the town which contains Saint Beregonne’s Lane, in the hope this will bring to an end the disappearances, the murders. It is as he sets the last fire that the narrator finds the sheets of paper which we must presume form the German manuscript.
It is left to the frame narrator to stumble across an ending to the story, if indeed there can be a proper ending. By another of those inevitable quirks, the narrator finds his way to the establishment of one Gockel, the grandson of the Gockel in the story, and someone who knows the story. Yet, instead of tying it off, the whole thing becomes increasingly nonsensical. Gockel’s account of events struggles to account for an oddness he can barely articulate: the compressing of time as well as space, the accounting of events. More bizarre even is the identity of the purchaser of the gold: ‘A tall old woman, an immense old woman with fishy eyes in an incredible face. She brought bags of gold so heavy …’ (222).
>According to the narrator, Gockel tells him more or less what he wants to hear, but for the reader … it is as though at the end we have the pieces of a puzzle but still no real way of putting them together. Some bits might fit but there is no assurance that they do, and that there is a solution. All we are left with is an assertion that the beings, whatever they are, if indeed they exist, ever existed, are still there. ‘They’ll always come back, as long as we exist, and as long as this wretched earth endures’ (222).
The story is not nonsensical; it is possible to derive a kind of linear telling from it, yet at the same time none of it ever quite makes sense. At every turn it undermines itself and even after several readings meaning remains elusive. The reader is left with the sense of something palpable yet invisible, violent yet capable of gentleness, something that is simply inexplicable.