Malpertuis is Jean Ray’s most famous work, a reinvention of the Gothic novel and an established classic of fantastic literature that is as inventive and gripping today as when it first appeared in French in the dark year of 1943.
Malpertuis tells its gloomy tale by means of a puzzle box of nested narratives wrested from a set of manuscripts stolen from a monastery. A bizarre collection of distrustful relatives has gathered together in the ancient stone mansion of a sea-trading dynasty for the impending death of the occult scientist, Uncle Cassave, and the reading of his will. Forced to dwell together for the remainder of their lives within the stifling walls of Malpertuis for the sake of a cursed inheritance, their banal existence gradually gives way to love affairs and secret plots, as the building slowly exposes a malevolence that eventually leads to a series of ghastly deaths.
The eccentric personalities Malpertuis houses—which include an obsessive taxidermist, a hypochondriac, a trio of vengeful sisters, and a former paint store manager who has gone mad—begin to shed like skins to reveal yet another hidden story buried in the novel’s structure, one that turns the haunted house tradition on its head and culminates in an apocalyptic denouement.
Jean Ray (1887–1964) is the best known of the multiple pseudonyms of Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer. Alternately referred to as the “Belgian Poe” and the “Flemish Jack London,” Ray delivered tales and novels of horror under the stylistic influence of his most cherished authors, Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer. A pivotal figure in the “Belgian School of the Strange,” Ray authored some 6,500 texts in his lifetime, not including his own biography, which remains shrouded in legend and fiction, much of it his own making. His alleged lives as an alcohol smuggler on Rum Row in the prohibition era, an executioner in Venice, a Chicago gangster, and hunter in remote jungles in fact covered over a more prosaic, albeit ruinous, existence as a manager of a literary magazine that led to a prison sentence, during which he wrote some of his most memorable tales of fantastical fear.