This week’s weird fiction is a strange and frothy story that I’m not sure I completely understand after just one reading, so I’ll keep it short.
Review: “Mondschein-Dampfer”, Jean Ray, 1925.
Our narrator loves Berlin in all its “motley, discordant gaiety”. He also has a thing for Hellen Kranert, a woman who brings to mind, in her movements, a whip, riding crop, and a tropical creeper.
It’s Hellen who initiates sex between the two.
And so we’re off on a tale of whimsy which gets somber.
Hellen says the narrator likes Paris better than Berlin. Ah, but it’s Berlin air that Hellen breathes, the “cruel and clever hothouse” she has emerged from. He likes Berlin best now.
One day Hellen gets the idea for an excursion, a trip on a Mondschein-Dampfer, a steamer that appears moonlight (at least according to my understanding of the translation). It will take them to a midnight party on an island in Lake Müggelsee on the outskirts of Berlin.
At the island’s pleasure garden, there’s a “sizable company of maskers”. As I’ve said before, whenever there’s a masquerade in a bit of weird fiction, there’s going to be trouble. We’ve got a cowboy, “a Highlander, a Corsican bandit and a pot-bellied Buddha”, and a Mephistopheles.
Hellen goes off to dance without the narrator. And doesn’t come back.
The narrator gets worried and guess who offers to help him with his problem? The Mephistopheles guy, of course.
A contract is produced and signed for, what else, to get Hellen back with the narrator at the price of his soul.
He gets her back on the steamer, but Hellen isn’t pleased. He’s drunk. He disgusts her. He retorts that he saw her with other men.
Hellen goes berserk. She curses and her nails go for his face. His arm goes out, and Hellen goes overboard.
He calls for help and Mephistopheles shows up to tell him, “You can’t lose her any more. . . . It’s signed and sealed.”
The narrator returns home. But he’s despondent. To him, Berlin is now death.
In a park, he meets Maria, a Polish student working through a book of math exercises.
They go to a café where who should show up than the narrator’s friend Heinrich Bohre – who is also Hellen’s husband.
Heinrich jokes that Hellen suspects the narrator hasn’t been to their house lately because he’s involved with some woman. And, seeing Maria, he thinks he knows the woman.
And, parting, Heinrich says he’ll let Hellen know “that you’re back”.
The narrator parts with Maria, seeming to apologize for hanging around with her by giving her some money.
Now, suddenly happy, he visits the Bohres, and, sure enough, Hellen is there.
Heinrich takes off, seemingly, and fairly obviously, for a tryst with the maid.
Hellen and the narrator talk, and he gets the sense of imminent catastrophe. Hellen moves oddly and her eyes look just like Mephistopheles’. He can’t lose her, she reminds him. There’s a contract. Then he leaves.
The narrator stays in Berlin. He’s grimly amused his friend Heinrich is “going to bed with” the devil.
The narrator seems to go to Paris for a while and then returns to Berlin where he meets Maria again. They have an enigmatic conversation at the end about mathematical knowledge, representing modern knowledge, and the old “spirit of the shadows and the legend of damnation”.
I’m not sure what the end was all about.
Still I liked this story which also has touches of decadence and decay about it.