Weird #20: “The ‘Mainz Psalter'” by Jean Ray (1930)

Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter” is a ‘supernatural’ sea adventure–although a better word for it would be a nautical weird tale, since it purports to be about a natural, material phenomenon that exists beyond everyday human perception. The editors state that it takes after William Hope Hodgson’s stories of ghost pirates–think the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie–though Ray claimed to have actually written “The Mainz Psalterbefore reading Hodgson.

He would not have had to read Hodgson first, however, to have found predecessors for this kind of story in any old coot’s high seas tale, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Marinere, and in the supernatural South Seas stories of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Like Merrit’s “People of the Pit” and many other tales besides, this is a “lone survivor” narrative. The captain of the Mainz Psalter, which, as the italics hint, is a ship, tells his story to the crew of the North Caper, the ship that has rescued him, as the only surviving witness of the strange and fantastic phenomena glimpsed form the deck of the Psalter.

Like Margaret Irwin’s “The Book,” “The Mainz Psalter” could have easily been a ghost story–but it is a good deal more than that. There is no haunting, no disembodied hands, but there is the fear of an inchoately perceived threat.

Sea stories are especially well-suited to weird fiction because of sailors depend on each other for survival against the hostile, incomparably vast ocean, a shorthand for humanity’s futile struggle against the distantly perceived exterior threat contained in the cosmos. Sailors have speculated about what monsters lie in the depths of the sea since time immemorial. In its terrifying dimensions, sailing the open ocean is as close to plumbing the uncharted depths of cosmic space as one can get on earth.

The story begins with a schoolmaster requesting passage through hellish waters to Cape Wrath. As part of the deal, he ask for the ship to be renamed the Mainz Psalter, after a rare incunabulum printed by the successors of Gutenberg in the sixteenth century that was gifted to him from a grand-uncle. He’s transporting the rare, precious manuscript, which is worth a fortune, for scientific purposes the likes of which he does not disclose to the captain. Combine M. R. James’s antiquarianism with Stevenson’s love of a high seas tale–with a dash of Lovecraftian alternate dimensions–and you have an idea for the story will be about.

The sailors weigh anchor in Big Toe Bay, a smuggler’s notch and a shelter from the violent seas, where some coastal raiders assault their ship from atop the surrounding cliffs. However, the raiders are picked off one-by-one by an unknown, invisible force: they are hurled from the cliffs and fall to their deaths.

Saved, yet terrified of what could have done such a thing to a human being, the captain tries to determine what happened. Friar Tuck, “a sea-going jack-of-all-trades” (194), points up the cliff at something he’s just seen, but when Jellewyn, his companion, turns, it has already disappeared, and the schoolmaster is seen walking down to the beach from the cliffs.

The sea behaves oddly after that. The water has “oddly coloured streaks” and laughter seems to be coming from within the waves themselves (197). The schoolmaster disappears from the ship. When asked what he thinks of this phenomena, Friar Tuck answers: “I know only that something is around us, something worse than anything else, worse than death!” (197). Fear of the threat posed by indeterminate, outside forces is part of what makes a weird tale weird, and it only gets weirder from here.

New stars appear in the sky, the strange constellations “new geometrical groupings [that] were shining dimly in a frighteningly black sidereal abyss” (197). Here the abyss of the ocean is joined with the abyss of the cosmos, along with a sense of dislocation: that they might have journeyed onto “another plane of existence” (198). This is where the story truly gains a sense of cosmic horror.

Ever since the voyages of Bran the Blessed, and probably before that, Atlantic sailors have claimed to cross into strange, other worlds. The Psalter has now wandered into one of those strange spaces. Jewellyn even states that “if, by some inconceivable magic or some monstrous science, we were transported to Mars or Jupiter, or even to Aldebaran, it wouldn’t prevent us from seeing the same constellations we see from earth” (198). They’ve voyaged so far from home, they’ve surpassed the conventional ways of expressing extreme distance, arriving into a new dimension which they don’t even have the language to describe: the “Nth dimension” (198).

The kraken
The kraken

A strange, glass like substance covers a lifeboat and causes it to vanish. Later, like in the voyages of Bran–not to mention Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”–the Psalter sails above a vast, sunken city:

The water had become transparent as glass. At an enormous depth, we saw great dark masses with unreal shapes: there were manors with immense towers, gigantic domes, horribly straight streets lined with frenzied houses. We appeared to be flying over a furiously busy city at an incredible height.

(200)

At once, something arises out of the city and hits the keel of the boat. Briefly, the crew glimpses a horror that at once recalls legends about the kraken and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu:

we saw three enormous tentacles, three times as high as the mainmast, hideously writing in the air. A formidable face composed of black shadows and two eyes of liquid amber rose above the port side of the ship and gave us a terrifying look.

(200)

The figure disappears, but the crew is picked off one by one, until only the captain and Jewellyn remain, holed up in the cabin. They hear footsteps on deck, as a strange crew manages the sails–a ghost crew, except for the fact that they must be material, not spiritual, in substance, since they are steering the ship.

Jewellyn says the schoolmaster kept a crystal box, which may be at the source of the horror. He climbs the mainmast to “see something” (203)–what he intends to find is never explained–and leaves behind a note anticipating that in the event of his death, the captain must burn the schoolmaster’s books and destroy the box.

This is precisely what he does. He burns the Mainz Psalter (the incunabulum) and the schoolmaster’s other tomes, finding the crystal box hidden inside the Psalter. The schoolmaster resurfaces in the ocean, an “infernal swimmer” (203), pleading with him to stop destroying the books, but in the end, he smashes the glass box into a million pieces.

What follows is a brief recap: it was at this point that the North Caper, the ship on which the captain has been telling his story, finally rescues him. But the horror follows him on the new ship. The schoolmaster reappears in the ocean, appearing like a clergyman with eyes like burning coals. The clergyman tries to kill the captain of the Psalter, but the narrator–John Copeland, first mate of the North Caper–shoots the clergyman with a pistol. When the body is recovered, however, all that is left are the clothes and a wax head, a mere mannequin.

In the end, Reines, a literary magazine writer and the transcriber of the captain’s account, takes the mannequin to a churchman, who finds that it smells of octopus, in addition to phosphorus and formic acid. This revelation is interesting in terms of deciding whether Ray wants the reader to believe Ballister’s account or not. The phosphorus would seem to suggest a hoax, while the smell of octopus could confirm the truth of the trans-dimensional voyage. Of course, the octopus smell could also be a coincidence and phosoporus is not really sufficient to explain the rising of the three-tentacled vision from the depths of an underwater city. From a Todorovian perspective, the reader may not be sure whether a natural explanation of Ballister’s story has been given, but it certainly permits a reading of what happened as marvelous.

Perplexed by this contradictory evidence, the churchman quotes the Bible, telling them not to “[darken] counsel by words without knowledge” (205). The men of the North Caper give up “trying to understand” (205), and, in so doing, reconcile themselves to perplexity.

Is this a “fantastic” ending in the Todorovian sense, where the events could equally be given a natural or supernatural explanation? Not at all–it’s more of an abdication of any kind of judgment about what they have seen.

The different levels of narration complicate this reading further. Ballister’s account of the Psalter is embedded within Copeland’s story of his rescue on the Caper, which later develops into their encounter with the coal-eyed clergyman. Also, Ballister’s account is not verbatim, but stylistically embellished by Reines. Furthermore, the entire story is presented as a factual account, with Copeland mildly admonishing Reines’s embellishments, while still testifying to the validity of the facts.

But Copeland himself only witnesses the coal-eyed clergyman’s attack–the only part of the story that could be explained by the natural causes of formic acid and phosphorus. How can he guarantee the reader that Ballister’s account is also factual, especially since he admits it has been embellished by Reines? How much of the inter-dimensional travel story was from Ballister’s memory and what was from Reines’s imagination?

On the question of whether there is a marvelous or natural cause behind Ballister’s story of the Mainz Psalter, perhaps what Ray is saying is that we, as reader, should also not darken counsel by “words without knowledge.”

(For more on how embedded narrators can be used to play around with the truth claims made in a story of fantastic discovery, I would recommend Umberto Eco’s study of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Voyage of Gordon Pym in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.)

Flemish author Jean Ray
Flemish author Jean Ray


Next week, I’ll be discussing Jean Ray’s “The Shadowy Street” (1931).

Course Offered: Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology

Petra, Jordan

Come join me and up to 15 students on an archaeological expedition into the world of fiction at the Thomas More Institute this fall.

Imaging the Past: Fiction & Archaeology is the literature course I’ve been dying to design, and it’s finally being offered at TMI. We need brave, inquisitive souls to join us on our journey in search of ‘lost’ cities, cursed mummies, and the stratigraphy of past aeons.

I’ll be leading our discussion along with course leaders Karen Etingin and Greg Peace. We’re going to have twelve weeks of engaged discussion in a question-driven discussion environment in which we will be reading everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” to Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. Courses may be taken for degree credit.

Course Description

If you love history, mysteries, and adventure, then this course is for you. Over twelve weeks, we will delve into how authors, some of whom are archaeologists, have imagined the past in their short stories and novels. We will also consider how they have represented the scientific discipline of archaeology.

Why do so many of fiction’s archaeologists investigate the supernatural and face danger in exotic locales? What impact do the tropes of detective fiction and adventure have on how the public perceives scientific research? How do the remains of past civilizations inform our understanding of them? With authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth as our guides, we will investigate the intersection between science and storytelling—between discovering and imagining the past.

Our expedition will take us from Egypt to Sri Lanka, from the prehistoric dawn of humanity to Mars, as we read a variety of fictions in which the discipline of archaeology and the puzzle of the past are significant themes.


Course schedule: Wednesday, 6:15 – 8:15 p.m. (12 weeks)

First Class:  23 September, 2020

 

You can register now.

Register online by logging in or creating an account at TMI: https://courses.thomasmore.qc.ca/log-in/

  • You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. It will be offered online with Zoom.

  • Books to purchase: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Artifacts by Mary Anna Evans

  • $135 tuition (admin fees included) for new students; 185$ (admin fees included) for standard tuition

Come join us on an adventure.

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.