Weird #21: “The Shadowy Street'” by Jean Ray (1931)

The Great Fire, 1842 painting by Peter Suhr (from Wikipedia)

Jean Ray’s story “The Shadowy Street” is the second by the same author published in the VanderMeers’ anthology The Weird. Known as the French Edgar Allan Poe, his work remains largely unknown to English-language readers.

Like “The Mainz Psalter,” which I wrote about last week, “The Shadowy Street” is told in a nested narratives. The principle narrator is a man who riffles through a pile of different destroyed papers confiscated by customs officials near a Rotterdam dock. Among the manuscripts, which have been cut in two but still provoke a certain curiosity, he discovers a book bearing the name of Alphonse Archipetre, consisting of a French and a German manuscript, each detailing a horror that turns out to be two perspectives on the same phenomenon.

Accounts discovered in manuscripts seem to be as much a staple of weird fiction as fear of unknown threats beyond one’s ken. Several stories that I’ve examined so far have used this trope, and, when it’s not a manuscript, it’s likely to be a transcription of the last words of a lone survivor. Perhaps the reason weird fiction writers use discovered manuscripts as a narrative strategy is because it renders the story more credible. The narrator can remain a detached, rational observer, merely reporting what the hard, concrete evidence of the manuscript reports, while not directly making any claim to truth. Like in archaeology, the artefact speak for themselves.

The French manuscript is a complete horror tale in and of itself, written by a woman who moves in with a group of sisters staying at the house of Councillor Hühnebein on the Deichstrasse in Hamburg. In it, the night itself steals into their home from the street outside. Frida reports that there is a “fear” in her room and when Eleonore ridicules her and goes to investigate, she does not return. She disappears.

The sisters soon see that the darkness is to be avoided. They drive the darkness back by lighting their house with all manner of light fixtures. But Hühnebein becomes murdered as darkness enters the room, their candles snuffed out. The women are not alone in experiencing this horror. The entire city is being wracked by a series of murders, so many deaths that the city becomes “indifferent” to them (210).

The narrator of the manuscript encounters the “invisible monster” and pities its cries of “Moh… Moh…” (211). She carries pitchers of milk in the hopes of placating it and lies to Meta, who wishes to root out the ghost, about seeing anything. In the end, she is discovered betraying the household, and Meta stabs her through with a rapier. Suddenly, the house catches on fire spontaneously, and the last thing she sees is a tall, old woman with horrible green eyes.

The second, French manuscript is Archipetre’s own account, and it details how he discovered that Saint Beregonne’s Lane, a street he has noticed in his city, is not known to anyone else but himself. In fact, the street exists in another dimension, and no one other than he can see it or step into it. He wonders how this could be and then thinks it might be the gift of sight given to him through his maternal grandmother, a tall woman with piercing green eyes.

Archipetre’s first venture down Saint Beregonne’s Lane ends with him taking a sprig of viburnum back into the normal world, which has “an enormous philosophical significance” because “it was ‘in excess’ in our world,” an total addition to the total number of twigs in the ordinary universe (214). In a sense, he has total, absolute ownership over the spring of viburnum, because the place where it was taken exists only for him.

Finding himself poor and wanting to woo the daughter of an Mediterranean sailor, he then makes regular forays into this parallel dimension, making a paltry living selling whatever loot he can steal from the alternate dimension to which only he has access. In one house in particular, every night he steals the same tray, which reappears the next day in precisely the same spot. Every time, he sells it to Gockel, a pawnbroker The street has a bizarre quality to it, though its visual appearance is ordinary: there is a sound of harmonious dissonance coming from far off, which sets him ill at ease.

When the series of murders and disappearances grips the neighbourhood, Archipetre is left with a unique insight: all the crimes had been committed along the line the street covers. Confiding with Anita, he is devastated when she disappears, perhaps another casualty of a murderer who uses the darkness of the shadowy street to commit his crimes. Archipetre arranges for Gockel to leave him with a cart of gunpowder and oil so he can burn the houses on the street down and take his revenge for Anita’s loss.

The fire he sets is the same fire that destroys Councillor Hühnebein’s house on the Deichstrasse. He later finds the German manuscript in the same house from which he had stolen the trays, suggesting that Archipetre might have been the ghost that so haunts the coucillor’s house in the first, Germna manuscript.

The last line of Archipetre’s manuscript is one of ecstatic horror: “Vampires! Vampires! Vampires!” (221).

The principle narrator who discovered the manuscripts then visits Lockmann Gockel, who explains that the antique dealer in the manuscript was his grandfather. Archipetre died the day after the great fire of Hamburg (a real event that occurred on 5 May, 1842). He survived the fire, but died the next day when his own house burned down, though no surrounding houses were harmed.

Gockel then reveals what might be the strangest thing about this story: “the story compressed time, just as space was compressed at the fateful location of Saint Beregonne’s Lane” (221). He says that the accounts of the crimes and disappearances, which happened before the fire in the manuscript, actually happened during the fire, according to accounts in the Hamburg archives. The perpetrators who used the darkness of the street to hide their crimes actually did it so within the brightness of the Hamburg fire of 1842. To explain this, he alludes to Einstein’s theory of relativity and the law of contraction put forward by Fitzgerald and Lorentz.

I suppose this testifies to the impact Einstein’s theories had at the time. Old assumptions about the nature of reality were being questioned. Reality could stretch, shrink, or appear different depending on the observer’s position, and this theory of relativity is certainly a device that Ray makes use of in this story. Archipetre is an observer who can look and step into another dimension, where time and space follow different rules–a trait shared with his grandmother, whose transcendence of space and time can also be attributed to this phenomenon.

The apparent normalcy of the world is perhaps due to the fact that we can never see how anyone else truly sees the world we share in common–so we assume everyone must see what we see. If one man uniquely sees something that doesn’t exist for anyone else, one can only integrate their perspective into one’s own by asking them what they see, listening to them, and trusting that they’re reporting what they see accurately. But even then, the listener is only receiving the information second-hand. The two observers do not inhabit the same reality, since under Einstein’s theory of relativity, reality is relative to the observer.

Yet, when the positions of two observers and their perceptions are analyzed, some truth may be discovered in how they overlap. That’s precisely the logic behind “The Shadowy Street.” The German and French manuscripts each report an observation by a different observer on the same series of events, and each come out as very different experiences. Together, they undermine our certainty that we share a common reality.

As the final kicker, it is said Gockel became rich because a tall, old woman with terrible green eyes purchased the trays and candlesticks brought to him by Archipetre with gold. The things haunting Gockel will remain with his family because “they come out of their gold, which we keep, and which we love in spite of everything; they rise from everything we’ve acquired with that infernal fortune” (222). The haunting continues so long as they continue to possess what was acquired through Archipetre’s trans-dimensional theft.

Flemish author Jean Ray
Flemish author Jean Ray

Next week, I’ll be discussing Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci” (1933).

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