by Jean Ray

Reviewed byKenny Brechner
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind," H.P. Lovecraft observed, "is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tales as a literary form."

Lovecraft's reasoning is perhaps a little suspect. We may safely presume that the "genuineness and dignity" of macabre fiction depends more on the use of style and suspense to form an underlying connection to obscurely unsettling associations, than it does on an imaginary poll taken of the American Psychological Association's membership.

Yet Lovecraft's statement is peculiarly appropriate to his topic. It may not be rational, but it sounds good. No genre is quite so dependent on the interior effects of sound as the macabre. Only a handful of writers have really achieved that peculiar blend of the sublime and the unsettling that mark a macabre masterpiece.

Great pieces of macabre writing achieve their effect not by contrivance, but rather through an author whose stylistic skill and literary ear are infused with a genuine conviction in the underlying elements of the spectral and the darkly fantastic conveyed by their writing.

Macabre masterpieces share a compactness of form, a thematic focus and singularity of effect which is much better served by the short story than the novel. Even the most effective of the traditional gothics, Charles Maturin's, Melmoth the Wanderer, is far too long and diffuse to maintain the tremendous effect it periodically achieves.

The brevity of great macabre fiction, combined with the paucity of great authors working in the genre, makes those who delight in them long for the surfacing of some fresh, or unheard of new masterpiece. Such persons need despair no longer, for in Malpurtuis, by that most mysterious of authors, Jean Ray, originally published in french in 1943, and never before translated into english, a genuine masterpiece of the macabre has been made available to English readers.

What makes Malpurtuis so uniquely effective is the palpable and ever deepening sense of material horror underlying its mystery. As one is drawn further and further into the book the conviction grows that no cheap scientific explanation or final hint of yet a more unreachable mystery will be offered up to explain away its earlier stated intimations of evil.

Malpurtuis claims of having an awful secret at its center are satisfyingly actual. In fact a large portion of its excellence derives from its having been built from the inside out. Unlike most macabre tales Ray labored over his manuscript, tearing it up and starting over time and time again over a period of twelve years.

The intricate plot construction, with its succession of first person narrators, the exquisitely paced unfurling of its secret, the marvelously crafted clues, set Malpurtuis apart as a classic in its genre. Indeed, for the intensity of its effect and the perfection of its construction, Malpurtuis is a book no reader's imagination should be deprived of.