Thursday, March 19, 2020

"The Shadowy Street" (1932)

Belgian writer Jean Ray's story has some really nice points, with an inclination he might have for making people vanish physically and permanently. It's only the second story I've read by him and it happens in both. Which isn't to say it doesn't work. I like how it's structured as a portmanteau, and even more I like the alleged source—manuscripts found in the junk from a shipping bale that burst open as it was being hauled off a dock. There's a "German manuscript" and a "French manuscript"—these old horror writers are forever turning up mysterious manuscripts, aren't they? Both detail events in the same town in Germany, in fact even the same section of town. The narrator believes one manuscript may shed light on the other, and so they do, though principally I suspect by being shoved together this way. In the German manuscript a group of women battle an invisible monster of some kind in their home. It's not exactly a ghost, and actually quite a bit like the so-called Horla from the 19th-century story by Guy de Maupassant. The women begin to pop out of existence one by one as the manuscript cuts off. In the French manuscript, a man has found a street no one else can see. Everyone else only sees a continuation of a wall. Down that street, into which the French narrator ventures finally, are houses, and in those houses are items of fantastic value, along with a stairway blocked midway up by a wall. He can take those items, pawn them with an eager fence he finds, and the next time he returns to the street they have been replaced and may be stolen and sold again. Another feature of the street is that it bends and twists sharply, and around each bend is only the same scene again. Nothing in life is ever free or easy, and making money stealing silver that replaces itself was never going to be enough for this guy, who is soon hurtling to a brutal apocalypse. "The Shadowy Street" is world-building fantasy pretty much straight up, but elliptical, churning with suggestion. I like it because I like the bent of Ray's visions. Invisible monsters appeared regularly (so to speak) in horror stories after the Maupassant, maybe not as much as vampires but more in the range of Pan. No version yet has convinced me it's a very scary monster, more like a slight panic irritant, like some ghosts, and so it is here. But I like so many other things about this story: the found manuscripts, the paired narratives, the street that no one else can see, down which is only mindless repetition and redundancy. The story feels like it's working by instinct and it works almost perfectly. It's tempting to lump Ray with a couple of his countrymen (and proximate contemporaries), the prolific mystery novelist Georges Simenon, who could write with the sharp edges of this in his "hard novels," and the Surrealist painter Rene Magritte. The shadowy street in this story, in fact, is reminiscent in its details—quotidian as well as bizarre—of many of Magritte's street scenes, like the one above (The Dominion of Light). Nice one!

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

No comments:

Post a Comment