Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter,” first published as “le Psautier de Mayence” in Le Bien Public in May 1930, and translated into English by Lowell Blair for the Ghouls in My Grave collection in 1965. Spoilers ahead.
“That man makes me think of an unscalable wall behind which something immense and terrible is taking place.”
Ballister lies dying aboard the trawler North Caper, telling the tale of his last voyage.
Ballister meets the schoolmaster, owner of the schooner Mainz Psalter, in a bargeman’s tavern. The schoolmaster inherited the ship’s namesake book, the second out of Gutenberg’s press, from a great-uncle. It’s worth the price of—an excellent sea-worthy schooner. Ballister proposes himself as captain and an eccentric crew: Turnip, a good sailor powered by rum; Steevens, a powerful, taciturn Fleming; Walker, missing half his face; and Jellewyn, rumored royalty in hiding, and his devoted servant Friar Tuck. The schoolmaster directs Ballister to sail from northwestern Scotland to obscure Big Toe Bay, where the schoolmaster will join them.
Ballister knows Big Toe Bay, a wilderness visited by few but coastal scavengers. From there they’ll sail west, says the schoolmaster, through little-trafficked, hazardous waters. But not for any criminal purpose—the schoolmaster’s business is scientific. Only one incident gives Ballister pause: A down-and-out seaman sees the schoolmaster in the tavern, and rushes out gin-less in terror.
The Psalter’s peaceful layover in the Bay is shattered by gunfire from wreck-scavengers in the surrounding cliffs. Then one wrecker screams and falls 300 feet to the beach. Two more follow, flung by some monstrous force. Jellewyn calls Friar Tuck, good as a hunting dog for scenting danger. Tuck pales: There’s something ugly up there. He spots it, then it’s gone. Moments later, the schoolmaster descends to the beach.
The schoolmaster secludes himself in his cabin with books, coming topside only to take the sun with a sextant. Life is monotonous yet tense. One day everyone is seized with violent nausea—poison?—but it passes quickly. Not so the general apprehension. On their eighth day out, the crew demand to know where the schoolmaster’s taking them. Friar Tuck, spider sense tingling, says there’s something around them worse than even death. And the schoolmaster is “not alien to it.”
Jellewyn’s elected to talk to the schoolmaster, but he’s vanished! That night Jellewyn points out the sky to Ballister, who falls to his knees in astonishment. The stars are all wrong, new constellations. The erudite Jellewyn launches into a lesson in “hypergeometry” and speculates about other dimensions.
There seems no good in turning back with no familiar stars to guide them. Walker takes the helm while the rest crowd into Ballister’s cabin to drink rum punch. Morale rises. Then there’s a terrible cry from above, followed by a far-off yodel. Topside, Walker’s gone. Turnip is next, shot through the air from the mainmast, coming down far off in the waves. A gray, glass-like something steals the lifeboat before they can deploy it. Jellewyn and Tuck find the rigging splattered with blood.
Ballister and Jellewyn take the night watch. A bloody glow illuminates the sea, and the water goes transparent. They see the ocean floor covered in “dark masses with unreal shapes…manors with immense towers, gigantic domes, horribly straight streets lined with frenzied houses…a swarming crowd of amorphous beings engaged in…feverish and infernal activity.”
Jellewyn jerks Ballister back: An immense creature rises from the undersea city! It strikes the schooner’s keel, rears tentacles three times taller than the mainmast, glares with eyes of liquid amber. Then the awesome vision goes vague. The red glow snaps out.
Next morning Ballister tries to take a sextant reading. A “white streamer” quivers in front of him, delivers a jarring blow to his head. He goes down, barely conscious. Regaining his senses, he finds Jellewyn alive but bereft of his Tuck. Steevens is a swollen bag of crushed bones, barely breathing. This is the end.
The three hide in Ballister’s cabin while, overnight, unimaginable sailors tramp the decks and direct the schooner. Learning about the schoolmaster’s books, Jellewyn goes to study them. He returns to ask if the schoolmaster ever spoke of a crystal box.
Next morning, Steevens is dead and Jellewyn gone. He has left a note saying he must go up the mainmast to see something. If the act’s fatal, Ballister must burn all the schoolmaster’s books, no matter what tries to stop him. Ballister piles the books on deck, soaks them with gasoline, strikes the match. Pale flame rises, and—there’s a cry from the sea!
In the Psalter’s wake swims the schoolmaster, eyes burning. He’ll make Ballister the richest man on earth! He’ll inflict hellish tortures on him! Something pulls the schooner toward the sea bottom.
A crystal box appears among the burning pages. The schoolmaster stands on the water. It’s the greatest knowledge of all you’re destroying, he shrieks. Ballister crushes the box under his heel and collapses into a chaos of sea and sky.
He wakes on the North Caper. He’s told all and will die happily among men, on earth.
So ends Ballister’s story. The rest is told by John Copeland, first mate of the Caper. They’ve fished Ballister from the cold north sea. He looks to live. But that night a clerically clad figure with burning eyes climbs aboard, attacks Ballister, then leaps back into the sea. Copeland shoots the clergyman and retrieves his body—but gets only clothes and a wax head and hands!
Ballister’s been stabbed twice. The bleeding cannot be staunched. He recognizes the remains of his attacker as “The schoolmaster!” Six days later, he dies.
Reverend Leemans, who knows many secrets of the sea, has examined the mysterious remains. He points out the smell clinging to them: formic acid, phosphorus—like an octopus! On the last day of Creation, Leemans notes, God will cause the Blasphemous Beast to appear. Let us not anticipate destiny with impious inquiries.
And so, the seamen agree, better to let this mystery rest.
What’s Cyclopean: New stars shine in a “sidereal abyss.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Jellewyn’s nobility is treated as a source of impressive power and insight, but Ray generally manages to avoid the sort of ethnic shorthand that frequently plagues shipboard ensembles.
Mythos Making: Sail in strange polar waters, and tentacled monsters shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Libronomicon: From the early days of the printing press to Reines’s “short-lived literary magazines,” books are trouble this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Jellewyn and Ballister see all sorts of terrible sites alone on deck, and frequently state that these sites would drive the rest of the crew mad. Not them, though. They’re fine.
Tentacled monsters in far corners of the ocean. Treacherous results of polar scientific expeditions. Things man was not meant to know, with the dangers of that knowledge pointedly and explicitly underscored. And yet, somehow, no evidence whatsoever that Ray/De Kremer and Lovecraft ever so much as read each others’ stories. Conclusions: 1) the late 20s were just scary tentacle time, and authors worldwide were gonna tentacle, and 2) our Flemish friend should join Lovecraft and Sakutaro in that Dreamlands café, where he and Sakutaro can at least talk with each other if Howard is too scared of their foreign selves to join in.
The commonality that interests me the most is that knowledge-as-horror thing. Lovecraft was never above (below?) a bit of Christian symbolism, but he was no believer himself and his cosmic horror universe is overtly non-Christian. And not just in a the god-I-don’t-believe-in-is-Jesus way, but a genuinely different, the-god-it-would-take-to-explain-this-universe-is-actually-pretty-alarming, cosmology. And yet, learn anything about life outside your little protected garden, and all human safety and well-being could shatter in an instant. (Or at least, all Anglo safety; everyone else already knows and is trying to break in, ahhhh the horror, etc.)
Ray’s story, on the other hand, is overtly Christian, down to the hints that the 4th-dimensional destroyer is the Great Beast Leviathan who shall rise at the end of days (and about whom you can learn more a few posts over in the Good Omens reread). And down to the point about Things Man Was Not Etc. coming from a priest, who comes in last minute just to tell the framing narrator to quit asking questions. But knowledge-as-danger is a motif throughout. The Psalter’s voyage is sponsored by a malevolent figure often called the schoolmaster. And his books, source of occult knowledge, must be burned to return to the world as we know it.
The Psalter itself is intriguingly named. Did the schoolmaster (possibly a servant of Leviathan, possibly a puppet of the Beast Itself) actually find and sell a convenient copy of the second book ever to come out of Gutenberg’s printing press? And is the point that even the most holy books can be used for sinister ends, or that said schoolmaster rejected the wisdom of the original psalter in favor of darker studies? Or is the press itself, that permits such wide distribution of all kinds of knowledge, inherently suspect?
Another, intriguing interpretation is that psalter was the press’s second creation. As the dimension in which the crew find themselves is… a second creation? Both within the story itself, and in the Tolkien-ish sense.
Back to the Lovecraft-Ray non-connection—I really can’t spot much room for real-life influence. Even leaving aside the likely lack of regular translation between French and English-language weird fiction at the time, “The Call of Cthulhu” came out in ’28. Ray/De Kremer was in prison from 1927 to 1929, during which time he wrote this story. (He was in for embezzlement, alas, which somewhat undermines the writerly cred he might have gotten for pounding out stories while doing time for blasphemy or some similarly literary crime.) [ETA: But see Anne’s finding below—it’s literary after all!] He publishes today’s piece in Le Bien Public in 1930, and “Mountains of Madness” comes out in ’31, so no room in that direction either.
But there are many earlier doomed voyages to have their third-factor influence on all. The one that came to mind for me was the marginally-more-likely-to-have-been-read Moby Dick. ‘And I alone survive to tell the tale’ of following an obsessed leader way too close to a mythical sea monster. Maybe don’t do that.
Final note: Like Sakutaro, Ray gives us an excellent all-purpose refusal: “I’m in no mood to give you a lesson in hypergeometry.” My e-mail recipients may expect to hear this often.
In his essay “Ghosts, Fear, and Parallel Worlds: The Supernatural Fiction of Jean Ray,” Antonio Monteiro writes: “There is apparently nothing to prove (or to disprove) that Jean Ray was acquainted with Lovecraft’s work, despite the fact that they were contemporaries. But, coincidental as they probably are…some similarities can be found.” For example, Monteiro points out, their mutual fascinations for parallel worlds. True! Let me throw out more evidence that Jean and Howard were spiritual brethren of the imagination:
- Jean Ray is a pen name. The writer’s real name is Raymundus Joannes de Kremer. Tell me that isn’t the natural-born moniker of someone who’d pen ponderous tomes of forbidden knowledge for Howard’s grimoire shelf.
- In 1926, in reference to the disastrous mismanagement of a literary magazine, Ray was imprisoned for embezzlement and served two years, during which time he wrote this week’s story! (Okay, so this doesn’t have much to do with law-abiding Howard, but it’s a cool fact, right?)
- Undersea cities, with octopoid denizens! Ray’s Ballister is especially horrified by the straight streets of his “R’lyeh.” Hmm. Also by the fierce bustle of those denizens. Makes me think of the modernized Paris of broad boulevards, or Lang’s Metropolis, or even Howard’s New York (and Red Hook.)
- Strange stars overhead are the stuff of madness. Also undersea cephalopod cities. Unless you are a Anglo-Saxon of superior education, like Jellewyn and Ballister. The rest of the crew must be protected from these new upsetting truths.
- Masks, gloves and clothes can so disguise very much inhuman creatures so as to fool humans into thinking the creatures are other humans. This works for octopi. This also works for Mi-Go. Human dupes are invariably shocked to discover the ruse.
- There are things man is better off not investigating, a comfortable ignorance he is far better off embracing, whether out of piety or the instinct for self-preservation. On the one hand, you don’t want to make God mad. On the other, you don’t want to find out that the only god is a howling chaos of universal indifference.
I found “The Mainz Psalter” stronger—very strong!—in its details than in its overall plot coherence. The schoolmaster is too much of an enigma for me. He starts out seeming altogether human through the tavern scene. Still human, though withdrawn, through his disappearance at sea. Thereafter some sort of octopus puppet or mannequin. The purpose of the Greenland-ward trip and the crystal box are over-vague—I think they don’t matter to Ray. It’s the voyage itself he cares about, with its eccentric crew so brilliantly delineated, with its terrors so deftly heightened and its mystery deepened by dimensions unknown though perilously near.
Yes, Howard and Jean could certainly agree about that last bit.
Next week, a tale of Lovecraftian revenge in Michael Shea’s “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.