“I live outside the world in a universe I myself have created, like a madman or a holy visionary.”
Hitherto unavailable in English, Spells, by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, ranks among the twentieth century’s most noteworthy collections of fantastic tales. Like Ghelderode’s plays, the stories are marked by a powerful imagination and a keen sense of the grotesque. Written at a time of illness and isolation, it was Ghelderode’s last major creative work, and he claimed it as his most personal and deeply felt one: a set of written spells through which his fears, paranoia, and nostalgia found concrete form.
By turns mystical, macabre and whimsically humorous, and set in the unsettled atmosphere of Brussels, Ostend, Bruges, and London, the stories embody a uniquely strange vision of the world, and bear witness to Ghelderode’s belief that life is saturated with the mysterious and that the present is perpetually haunted by the past. Spells conjures up an uncanny realm of angels, demons, masks, effigies, apparitions, dreams, and enigmas, a twilit, oppressed world of diseased gardens, dusty wax mannequins, sinister relics, and an all-consuming fog where, in the words of Baudelaire, “ghosts accost the passerby.”
Combining the full contents of both the 1941 and the 1947 editions, this translation of Spells is the most comprehensive edition yet published.
Michel de Ghelderode (Adhémar Adolphe Martens, 1898–1962) was born in Brussels. His strong anti-realist bent was in evidence from the start and he first attracted attention in 1918 with a one-act play written in tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. In the following years he wrote fiction, drama, literary journalism, and puppet plays. After 1936 he suffered from poor health and his involvement with the theater gradually diminished. Spells (1941) was intended as a fresh start—a collection of new stories with others to follow, but proved to be his last significant creative statement.
“Ghelderode is the black diamond that closes the necklace of poets that Belgium wears around her neck. This black diamond casts a cruel and noble fire. It wounds only those with small souls. It dazzles others.”—Jean Cocteau
De Ghelderode’s fiction has not been broadly available to English readers, and this edition of Spells will hopefully do its part to remedy that. The consistent execution and thought-provoking, nuanced premises in these stories are enough to render them overlooked classics (at least, to non-Belgian audiences)—there are no real low points to speak of, and it seems unsurprising that the stories are among the final efforts produced by an author with a lengthy and well-developed body of work.
“Spells by Michel de Ghelderode offers a collection of stories both beautiful and loathsome. He represents literature that must be wrestled with to fully appreciate . . . [it] is literature distilled from despair, nostalgia, and sickness.”