Home Books Circles of Dread: by Jean Ray

Circles of Dread: by Jean Ray

Jean Ray (1887-1964) was just one of the pseudonyms used by Belgian writer Raymundus Joannes de Kremer. If his pen name simplifies his calling card, his stories are anything but simple. The pieces in Ray’s short story collection Circle of Dread, first published in 1943, are odd enough on their own. But together, they form a big picture that’s haunting and heartbreaking.

The book is framed by two brief stories dedicated to Lulu, the nickname for his “little daughter.” In “Opening: The Circles,” Ray watches Lulu at play, drawing chalk circles and “imprisoning” toys inside them: Missi, a toy kitten, is kept in such a circle, and the doting father watches as the figure is magically transformed into a trapped animal trying in vain to escape. “He can’t get out!” the girl tells daddy, who asks, “What then?” “He will die of hunger and thirst!” Lulu releases the kitten by erasing the circle, but the tone of cruelty and confinement is set. Yet this isn’t a tale of the child persecuting the father; the context makes it even more moving. The story, first published in a Belgian Catholic journal in 1929, when the real Lulu was 16, dates to a time when Ray was in a real life prison, serving two years for an embezzlement charge that by all accounts was a frame-up. “Opening” ends with the father drawing his own circles, each of them framing “a face contorted by the anguish of the unknown.”

These tortured circles give shape to a sprawling imagination, and together give the body of the work the impression of tales passed down as parental wisdom. What does Dad have to tell his little girl about the world? That it’s full of horror and mystery – things truly unexplainable. Nothing is stable in the world; place names are approximate (Ray is known for inventing impossible geography) and even solid ground threatens to appear and disappear arbitrarily, as in “The Marlyweck Cemetery,” centered on an elusive graveyard, the road to which is paved with “curious mirages”: the narrator imagines he’s seeing Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin’s brooding canvas “Isle of the Dead,” but in fact has simply been taken in by “flaking plaster…and the work of slugs.”

Ray is a prominent figure in what is known as the Belgian School of the Weird. Although the author’s world is indeed unsettling, there’s a poignant method to his madness. Ray was Catholic, and although his faith isn’t always explicitly referenced in his stories, the doomed scenarios he creates seem like laments for a fallen world. It’s a world populated by monsters, such as the creature in “The Story of the Wûlkh,” but the real monster is, of course, man. Despite the cynical outlook of this story, it’s source reveals Ray’s wry sense of humor. This was one of many stories he adapted based on pulp detective Harry Dickson, known as an American Sherlock Holmes. Charged with translating Dickson stories, Ray was so put off by the material that, based on the illustrations that accompanied the original stories, he’d end up just making something up in a burst of automatic writing.

“End: Beyond the Circles” closes the collection with another missive to Lulu, this one from beyond the grave; they’re both dead, reunited forever. It’s an ending that suggests defeat, but if that’s how Ray ultimately felt about the world, he kept fighting anyway: he wrote some 6,500 texts in his life, and his own biography is littered with as much fantasy as his fiction. By his own account, Ray was a sometime booze smuggler, gangster and hunter. If his real main gig was more deskbound, it still provided worlds of adventure: he was the editor of a literary magazine. Circles of Dread is just one of several Ray collections published by Wakefield Press and translated by Scott Nicolay. These unsettling adventures will whet your appetite for still more journeys to the uncanny.

These spooky short stories form a big picture that’s even more haunting than the eerie puzzle pieces.
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Weird Tales

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