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