This week’s weird fiction selection is from Belgium writer Jean Ray.
Review: “The Shadowy Street”, Jean Ray, translated Lowell Blair, 1931.
This story has a lot of detail I’m not going to get into.
There’s a nice opening frame with a bundle of junk paper bursting open on the docks at Amsterdam. We hear of paintings cut up by customs officials and various corporate bonds of bankrupt companies. It’s a junk collection of dashed dreams.
The story’s structure is interesting. In that junk pile are two manuscripts which we read, one in German, and one in French. Both are first person accounts of life in Hamburg, seemingly right before the city’s great fire of 1842.
The German account talks about a strange set of disappearances and murders throughout the city and concentrates on a group of women in a single house. All the women in the house are terrified of the unknown menace except for Meta who stalks the house – the disappearances seem to happen at night – with a sword in her hand. It is implied that she knows there is some invisible and sentient creature at work.
The narrator of this section begins to sense the creature too and protect it out of a strange sympathy. She even begins hiding it because it is kind to her and speaks her name in a “kind, awkward way”. The story ends with Meta confronting her.
However, Meta’s soul is described as having fled her. Also a strange, tall, old woman shows up in the final scene. That manuscript is described as ending as if the paper was cut. By Meta’s sword?
The French section describes how its narrator discovers a strange street in some sort of dimensional gap or intrusion, and only can he see it. He enters into the street, gradually exploring more and more of it. The houses are all identical. There is no one in them. He never goes there at night sensing a danger there.
Eventually, he steals some tableware in on the street’s houses which he sells to a man named Gockel. Gockel has some mysterious buyer who will take all he can get even though the tableware is not made of precious metals. The narrator wants the money for a local girl he loves. As the story progresses, we learn about a series of murders and disappearances in the town – the same ones the German narrator mentioned.
The French narrator figures out that these disappearances exist on the line of this street extended farther in the city where even he can’t see it. The Frenchman hears that, associated with some of the mysterious killings, are shadowy figures.
Among the dead is his love, so he goes into the street to burn houses there. On the night of the Hamburg fire, he goes into a house on the mysterious street and finds pages of feminine handwriting. The French manuscript ends “Vampires! Vampires! Vampires!”.
But that’s not a quote from the writing he sees. Nor do we hear why the French man arrives at that conclusion.
The story then picks up the frame again.
The narrator, in Hamburg, sees a sign saying Gockel. He goes inside and meets the descendants of Gockel. They confirm that the author of the French manuscript really existed. They further tell of
mysterious evil-doers. Fantastic crimes, looting, riots, red hallucinations on the part of whole crowds
during the Hamburg fire.
The story then evokes the Fitzgerald-Lorenz law of contraction to rationalize how a street may appear in a city and then vanish. We then hear that “enormous green flames” were seen in the fire and “indescribably ferocious women” in them.
We then learn that the buyer of that stolen tableware was a woman that sounds a lot like the one that shows up in the concluding section of the German section. Then we hear the modern Gockels, brother and sister, are bothered by the same mysterious manifestations the narrator of the German section saw. They are there to get their gold back. The Gockels only hope that some that among them is a “human presence with them that they cherish and that may intercede with us”.
Is that the narrator of the German section? After all, we no nothing of her ultimate fate.
There’s lots unexplained things here. Did the French man’s intrusion into the street cause the murders? Why does he call them vampires? Why does one of the entities spare the woman in the German section? Why do the Gockels feel compelled to hold on to the gold they got for selling the items from the street? Why does the woman want the gold back? Was Meta possessed by one of the entities though no where else in the story is the suggestion they possess people?
It’s an interesting tale from an author dubbed, sometimes, the Edgar Allan Poe or H. P. Lovecraft of the French language.