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).

an old, buckled leather-bound book

Weird #19: “The Book” by Margaret Irwin (1930)

Margaret Irwin

Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” is considered both a ghost story and a weird tale. These two genres do not always coincide. In “Supernatural Horror and Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft says that the true weird tale goes beyond the ghost story’s formalism to give a certain atmosphere of breathlessness and unexplained dread of “outer, unknown forces” (“Introduction”). Irwin’s ghost story accomplishes this mood and atmosphere. Not only does the protagonist become aware of the haunting, despite his sceptism, but he comes to see his ordinary world as an illusion. His very rationality becomes twisted, supporting his fall into madness.

The formalism of the ghost story was explored by the Russian formalist Tzvetan Todorov in his famous analysis of “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. In his analysis, the reader of the ghost story bandies continually between being convinced that the haunting has a supernatural origin and justifying a natural explanation for the phenomenon. A ghost story can thus achieve three effects by time the tale achieves closure:

1) the reader reaches the conclusion that it definitely has a natural explanation, in which case it is known as an “uncanny” story;

2) the reader concludes that the haunting must truly be supernatural, in which case it is a case of the “marvellous”;

and 3) a perfect balance of ambiguity between the natural and the supernatural is achieved, in which case it is an example of what Todorov calls “the fantastic.” It is fantastic because the reader cannot decide whether it has a natural or supernatural explanation.

Very few stories achieve a perfect fantastic ending. But most ghost stories do play with the reader’s uncertainty of whether the haunting has a natural and supernatural explanation. It is this interplay that can be thought of as defining the form of the ghost story.

Irwin’s story, like many ghost stories, performs this Todorovian game with the reader. But it also establishes a mood–essential both to the weird tale and the effective ghost story.

The story begins when Mr. Corbett, filled with ennui upon reading a detective story, returns to his library to pick up another book to entertain himself. For one reason or another, a cynical, moribund mood has overcome him, and it colours his reading of every book he picks off the shelf.

Corbett cannot read even optimistic literature without seeing the skull beneath the skin. He sees Charles Dickens’ “revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “sickly attraction to brutality,” and calls Jane Austen “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations” (184-5). No explanation is given for this mood–he might have just become tired of the optimistic rationalism found in commercial detective novels.

When he replaces the Dickens book, he realizes that there is a larger gap in his bookshelf than there had been before. “This is nonsense,” Corbett thinks. “No one can possibly have gone into the dining-room and removed a book while I was crossing the hall” (184). It is the first sign of a haunting, of something potentially marvellous, in Todorov’s sense. Of course, he does not believe in ghosts, and he has no reason to suspect that there could be one in his house. However, the gap torments his mind once he goes to sleep. It becomes “the most hideous deformity, like a gap between the front teeth of some grinning monster” (184). By the time he awakes, the gap has disappeared. He thinks nothing of it.

Later, he seeks out an old Latin tome in the theological library. As he sets about interpreting it, he reads about the horrible rights of devil worshippers and falls sick. He returns to his family, who seem to be “like sheep”: “nothing in his appearance in the mirror struck him as odd; it was their gaping faces that were unfamiliar” (186). This passage is uncanny in the Freudian sense of unheimlich, or “unhomely.” Corbett sees his own family as other; what is homely and familiar becomes unhomely and strange. The mood conjured by the Latin book has made him see the unreality of his mundane existence, conjuring a mood that goes beyond that of the ghost story into weird tale territory.

It’s this combination of the ghost story form and the weird tale mood that makes Irwin’s “The Book” such a “weird” ghost story. The ghost is not only haunting Corbett; his experience of the ghost alienates him from his very sense of reality.

But the story’s strangest turn has yet to happen. Corbett notices that a few lines of Latin text are being added to the book every night. No one in his family is writing this text; it simply appears. He comes to read these lines as if they were words from an oracle, or a prophet. A practical man, when he reads the line “Ex auro canceris / In dentem elephanits” (“Out of the money of the crab / Into the tooth of the elephant”) (188), he invests his money in the African ivory trade. He makes a killing on his investment.

Due to this turn of good fortune, he learns to trust the book to tell him what to do. Every night he interprets new lines from the text. However, it takes a turn for the worst when he reads “Canem occide” (“Kill the dog”). He attempts to murder the family dog, Mike, who he does not like, with rat poison.

Fortunately, he fails, but his young daughter has a dream that night of a disembodied hand crawling among the bookshelves and picking out a particular volume. Corbett comforts her as the ominousness of the dream settles. Then that same night, he reads the next command: “Infantem occide,” or “Kill the child.”

In one disturbing moment, he resolves to use the rat poison to kill his own daughter:

Jean had acquired dangerous knowledge. She was a spy, an antagonist. That she was so unconsciously, that she was eight years old, his youngest and favourite child, were sentimental appeals that could make no difference to a man of sane reasoning power such as his own. Jean had sided with Mike against him.

(191)

In this passage, Corbett rationalizes his paranoid delusions much like Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His rationalism, which has affected his taste in literature and his scepticism of ghosts, is now precisely what drives him into unreality. Furthermore, his patriarchal rejection of sentiment (gendered female) as non-rational drives him to reject his common sense and commit the unthinkable.

However, in the end, he cannot bring himself to kill his own child. He throws the cursed tome into the fireplace. As a result, his body is discovered later. He is assumed to have committed suicide due to a sudden plunge in the ivory stocks. But the strangling finger marks discovered around his throat suggest a final, supernatural explanation for his death and all the preceding events: the severed hand from his daughter’s dream has killed him for disobedience.

What is so horrible about this story is not so much the supernatural itself as the all-too-willingness of human beings to obey such heartless commands. The second half of this ghost story bears certain similarities to “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers in how the void seems to whisper dark commands to the protagonist, commanding absolute obedience.

From a politico-economic standpoint, I also find it interesting that Corbett invests in the African ivory trade, which likely means he invested in the Congo, where the Belgians were responsible for genocidal abuses at the beginning of the century. The Belgian atrocities included cutting the hands off slaves engaged in the rubber and ivory trade. It is interesting that a severed hand then murders Corbett, who likely invested in this same industry. It is interesting to imagine the hand as the severed revenant of an African slave. Though the text itself may not support such a reading, the imagery is suggestive.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Flemish writer Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter” (1930). Ray is one of the few authors in this anthology to have been published twice in The Weird.

Weird #2 The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908)

“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.

“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.

Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.

Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.

Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.

Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.

Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.

Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.

“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.

Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).