First of all, it is the story of a stolen manuscript containing the testimonies of various people who had dealings with Malpertuis. A burglar, whose name we do not know, confides in the opening of the book that he stole a series of documents in a convent, and then rearranged them to offer us the succession of chapters of this book. From the outset, the novel instills doubt in the narrator’s head and disrupts the limits and laws of the genre.
This burglar emits philological, graphological comments, while preparing us to face the rest of the reading: “Four hands quivering with fever, if not five, collaborated in the writing of this memoir of mystery and horror.» Manuscripts dating probably late 19th century. Twenty-year-old Jean-Jacques Grandsire is the main witness-narrator, accompanied by stories from the monks, Abbots Doucedame-le-Vieil, Doucedame-le-Jeune and Dom Misseron. The stories intertwine, the narration becomes more complex and the references, often opaque, multiply.
But we quickly understand that a heavy secret weighs on the walls and the inhabitants. The Griboin spouses, janitors, are silent, evasive and maintain a strange “faceless” creature that polishes the floors. Lampernisse, another inhabitant, is also in charge of the maintenance, and especially of maintaining the light in these dark corridors. He is regularly called upon to rekindle the flames and continually fights against “a thing-that-blows-out-the-lamps”.
“Suddenly, a worried attention strains all the faces, that of Euryale except. Very heavy footsteps make the slabs of the vestibule ring, as if they were hollow ; then the door slams open on its hinges. – I wonder where the one who puts out the lamps hides ! came a plaintive voice. (…) he blew it. – Who ? implores Aunt Dideloo. – Who knows ? I never tried to see it, because I sense it black and terrible. He extinguishes all the lamps, he blows them out or pinches their flame to death “replies Lampernisse.»
The members of the family adapt as best they can to this atmosphere. The episodes of terror follow more or less long moments of routine. Doctor Sambucque, a family doctor who also appears in the will, is a friend of cousin Philarète, a taxidermist who has moved in with his workshop. Father Doucedame-le-Jeune and Father Eisengott, friends of the family, often visited them. Uncle and aunt Dideloo, cousins Éléonore, Rosalie, Euryale, Alice (the latter two having a soft spot for Jean-Jacques and trying to seduce him), spend identical days, punctuated by their usual occupations.
Élodie is in charge of stewardship. She prepares meals which are shared in the evening, followed by games of board games and other distractions. With Mr. Krook and Lampernisse, Nancy, Jean-Jacques’ sister, takes care of the “color shop”, located in the annex of the house and about which we know little. Is it a paint store? Decoration? Why is it so inaccessible and protected like a sanctuary? Jean-Jacques asks himself all these questions, while the enigmatic speeches of certain inhabitants continually arouse his incomprehension.
Flower of my dreams, replies the old doctor (to Nancy), are you talking to Escualpe or Térésias? ? To the healer or the star watcher ?
My name is Lampernisse and I enjoyed the colors. Now I have been put in the dark.
Father Doucedame sometimes took on a mysterious air when replying: Colors… ah my dear, remember the magnificent studies of Doctor Misès. Colors… words of the angels… Uncle Cassave wanted to steal something from our celestial friends, but shh ! » (…) Malpertuis is a « fold in space ” (…) a “ abominable place of contact “.
Euryalus: “When everyone here is dead, except us two, you will marry me… »
Philaret:I made a new mousetrap. (…) You who know the house, cousin, you should install it for me in the right place, in the attics for example. (…) The world of these old attics is very strange.»
All use mythological metaphors, obsolete and hermetic expressions, implausible stories. Sometimes names and address formulas change. Uncle Dideloo calls Alice: Alecta. Other times, Dr. Sambucque calls Nancy: Goddess… When Jean-Jacques thinks he has captured a mouse thanks to the trap placed in a hatch in the attic, Lampernisse warns him: “Don’t say anything more… and above all don’t open the hatch! They would spread throughout the house!Reckless, he lifts it anyway and falls on “marmosets, filthy insects”, “beings that are the very expression of horror, of anger”.
He runs away screaming and all the lights in the house go out. Later, in a moment suspended between dream and reality, Jean-Jacques witnesses terrifying scenes, during which the residents fight each other, endowed with monstrous appearances and powers. He sees Alice transforming into a filthy creature, with an immense black mouth, having a halo of snakes as hair. She murders Uncle Dideloo. Janitor Griboin spits flames and reduces Dr. Sambucque to ashes. After staring Euryale in the eye, Aunt Dideloo is petrified and smashes to the ground. Each time, Jean-Jacques is protected and saved by Father Eisengott. Those who disappear never come back.
These stories of horror in Malpertuis are interspersed with testimonies from other characters who had dealings with her and which shed light on her nature. In his excerpts from his memoirs, Abbé Doucedame-le-Vieil recounts trips to the Greek islands, in search of “we don’t know what powerful and fantastic”, and reveals the quest launched long ago by Cassave to find and capture ancient forces, in order to feed on them. Doucedame-le-Jeune and Dom Misseron devote themselves to hypotheses of interpretation and analysis of phenomena. It is revealed that Cassave was a doctor of occult sciences, demonologist and theoretician, and that he formulated his law:
“Men have made the gods, at least they have contributed to their perfection and their power (…) the gods are dying… Somewhere in Space, unheard-of corpses float… Somewhere in this Space, monstrous agonies take place. complete along the centuries and millennia (…) the deities of Attica have not yet disappeared from the hearts and minds of humans ; the legend, the books, the arts have continued to feed the brazier that the centuries have overloaded with ashes.»
From these journeys, the servants of Cassave brought back captured remains of languishing divinities, to which a human appearance was given by means of a bewitched taxidermy, made by Philaret. Are these characters forming a large blended family all gods? Many are bound by Cassave’s curse, but tend to forget their true essence, as they are subject to “unpredictable alternations of deity and humanity”.
The colors, the light, are divine essence captured and locked up in Malpertuis, subject to the will of the Master of the house and to the onslaught of darkness, for, among the connected powers, many are cursed and infernal forces. Father Eisengott seems endowed with a supernatural power that he controls. He acts for the good and would be a remnant of Zeus himself. The concierge Griboin, house worker and fire-eater, is Héphaïstos. The conflicts known in mythology continue in Malpertuis where, at certain times, each inhabitant tries to detect what the nature of the other is.
Violence explodes after Cassave’s death. Euryale, who is the Gorgon of the same name, confronts Alice, an Eumenide, divinity of Tartarus, in a love competition to seduce Jean-Jacques. Their jealousy and their anger increase to the point of threatening the life of the young man, who seems for his part to suspect nothing of a possible divine filiation. Will the promise made by Euryale to survive two, to inherit and dominate Malpertuis for better or for worse come true?
We leave it there and let the end be revealed to the courageous readers who will dare to face this fantastic novel mixing with brilliant intensity the narration of the supernatural, the questioning of beliefs and religious phenomena while developing a real culture of mystery.
Jean Ray, whose real name is Raymond De Kremer, was born in Ghent in 1887. He led a literary career in the shadows, punctuated by a few brilliant strokes. In 1925, he published a successful collection, The Tales of Whiskey, then knewgoes through court cases and becomes an unloved who can only exist under various pseudonyms. The supernatural runs through many of his works, which particularly focus on the detective and fantasy genres.
The writer on the fringes of the scene re-emerges under the Occupation, while a specifically autonomous Belgian literature develops, the importation of books from France having been prohibited. It was during this troubled period that Malpertuis, which is enjoying some success. After the war, it fell back into oblivion, but would be rediscovered and reissued a few years before his death, which occurred in 1964.
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The Sandy – Malpertuis (1943) by Jean Ray (1887-1964)
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