Raymundus Joannes de Kremer (1887 - 1964), better known by his pseudonym, Jean Ray, was a Belgian journalist and writer of a body of weird tales whose macabre tones and disturbing atmospheres earned him great acclaim during his lifetime, to the point of leading some to dub him "The Belgian Poe". A man of many faces, his early history is largely unknown but is rumored to have included piracy, bootlegging and gunrunning, among other things. Whether any of these stories is true is a matter for debate (one which Ray delighted in keeping alive). What is not in doubt however was that in 1926 Ray was convicted of embezzlement of the company in which he worked and sentenced to prison for the next six years. During this time he wrote what many consider his two best short works, The Shadowy Street and The Mainz Psalter. Following his release from prison he produced a steady stream of weird works (four of which were published in Weird Tales) as well as a series of detective novels involving a recurring character known as Harry Dickson, 'The American Sherlock Holmes' that fleetingly got the attentions of director Alain Resnais. In 1943 he wrote perhaps his crowning masterpiece, the novel Malpertuis, a work which has since become a classic of the horror field. He died in 1964. Despite Ray's popularity and respect in the French speaking world, his work is still notoriously hard to get hold of in the English speaking one. Malpertuis was recently re-released under the Atlas Anti-Classics range, but a large quantity of his shorter works still languish in oblivion or in overly-priced OOP collections. The Shadowy Street can currently be found in three collections: Ghouls in my Grave (Berkley, 1965), My Private Spectres (Midnight House, 1999) and the excellent anthology Shadows of Fear (Tor, 1992). Of the three, Shadows... is the most easily obtainable, the first two being almost impossible to find at any reasonable price. Ex Occidente Press also released a limited edition hardcover of some of Ray's less well known stories, but even that will set you back a fair price (my copy cost around £50). Given how rare his work is, however, this is about as good as you're going to get it. As for Ray's work itself, the best comparison I've come across is Robert Hadji's who compares him to a cross between Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn. I'd also add a touch of Robert Bloch in there too, given the rather macabre turn of mind both men seemed to have, as well as faint strains of William Hope Hodgson's weirder works. Because of his prolific output, a lot of Ray's work falls squarely within the pulp bracket (in the perjorative sense of the term) but at his best, his work achieves notable heights of fear. The Shadowy Street is an extremely odd and disturbing tale of the intrusion of a mysterious street in the neighborhood of a German city and the horrific murders and disappearances that result from it. Written from the perspectives of two observers (set down as "The German Manuscript" and "The French Manuscript" respectively) the tale chronicles the experiences of these two observers as they struggle to come to terms with the breakdown of reality and logic that the street represents. The first half, The German Manuscript, is a frenzied nightmarish account of a house under siege from unseen forces that abduct or mutilate its occupants and the desperate lengths which its surviving occupants take to survive. Very little is described or explained in this section, and (rather realistically I thought) the characters take no time to mull on the reasons for the attacks, consumed as they are in the grim act of survival. The second, and longer, half of the story, The French Manuscript, is written at a more sedate pace and details a man's observation and subsequent exploration of a mysterious street, St Beregonne's Lane, which has suddenly appeared and which only he himself appears to be able to see. Here at last the possible explanation of the street and its occupants begins to become clear. Still there is the feeling of walking in a fog, and the explanations, such that they are, only seem to deepen the mystery and horror which lie at the heart of the whole tale. Again there is the feeling of a nightmare, but a creeping nightmare in which concepts rather than physical dangers are the thing. Taken together both parts of the tale work beautifully to present a truly chilling scenario. Then there are Ray's wonderful turns of phrase: "I knocked on the first of the doors. Only the futile life of an echo was stirred behind it." "The staircase ended at the edge of an abyss dug out of the night, from which vague monstrosoties were rising." "An immensely tall old woman came in. I saw only her terrible green eyes glowing in her unimaginable face." Without straining I'd say that The Shadowy Street was a tale to rank along the best of the genre and one of the most pleasurably disturbing works I've come across in recent years. I'm currently working my way through Ray's other short stories which I hope to post brief comments on in the near future, after which I'll begin Malpertuis.