43 thoughts on “Whiskey Tales – by Jean Ray, as translated by Scott Nicolay

  1. As is common with my gestalt real-time reviews over the last 11 years, I publicly observe (without spoilers, I hope) the fiction for what it is, as I read it, hopefully drawing out things within it, found within it as placed there either preternaturally or deliberately – although I have read other stories by Jean Ray in translation before (as linked above) and possibly know what to expect. I shall read the translator’s introduction after reading the fiction, but I can already tell, at least by osmosis, what hard work over years must have gone into this landmark translation. And I feel guilty that my possibly glib observations about my enjoyment and frissons of horror will not do justice to this dedicated labour by the translator. With that apology, onward…


    “You would leave your wallet and your watch there and be lucky not to leave your skin as well.”

    A characterfully feisty talking at a ‘you’, a you who loosens the talker called Wade with whiskey, I infer, to persuade him to talk about the tale of what happened to his boss Gilchrist, a tale full of English fog and Thameside places I know well in a London of our nearer-to-a-Dickensian past, and full of shenanigans between traders and sailors, their dark business, and the sacrifice of lives in such sea-travelled doings, including the death of the son of Wade himself. Whether by God as Pounds Sterling or God as a Hindu one, or whatever, who knows, but the come-uppance of Gilchrist – here told by Wade and his whiskey – has possibly the most horrifically scrabbling transmogrifications and impestation implications imaginable, and the mind’s eye images towards the end of this substantive story will lurk with me for a long time. No exaggeration.

    My own conclusions, if not the story’s — Whiskey can flay and flense truth till truth can be seen properly, but that does not entail too much whiskey, of course, but just an optimum level to tease up the prickles. Never wade in whiskey, but sip it meaningfully.


    “, and the whiskey at the bottom of my glass received in horror the painful seeds of my tears into its swirling golden flesh.”

    A brief but spookily effective ghost story, whereby the whiskey-drinker, whom the ghost haunts, needs to identify the dead person in his life of whom the ghost is a ghost. Either the drinker is mistaken each time he makes his decision or the ghost itself is a shape-shifter and is the ghost gestalt of all these dead people one by one? Perhaps only the whiskey itself can tell him?


    “One day he bet he could chew through the wood of a whiskey keg until the liquor came out.”

    Literally outrageous debates by its crew as to these male characters’ stolen barge and its name, whereby Hell is shortened for things said then that for which we would give a longer Hell these days, our different times. Bobby Moos was mentioned in the previous story, which makes me think this book is a sort of tipsy novel rather than a collection. And there is also mention of a haunting by an “awful presence” – our future shadow cast back upon this story, I wonder? “howling with rage,”


    “…you asked me for a nice story.”

    Hopefully, not a spoiler, but it is indeed a nice story, because it has a happy ending. But to be something nice, does it have to be nice throughout. It’s the story of a nice woman, good start, but one who serves as downtrodden relief for men in port cities. It has atmospheric references to fog and a pungent style to die for. It has references to the stories of 1001 nights, nice indeed. But the men are indeed nasty. And these cads often do godawful things. Yet the Gestalt of final happiness prevails. You see, any good needs evil so as actually to exist as a good by contradistinction with that evil. Means and ends. Trumps and jokers. Dogs and wolves.

    “A great tenderness born of great pity can erase forever with a lone ray of light all that one ever endured in the mire . . .”


    “wonderful orchids, thick-lipped as mastiffs,”

    The eponymous Herbert receives his eponymous fortune by dint of another of this book’s ends-being-more-important-than-means. Jumping out of a window, as if through a major rift in a quilt, for which he will not be fined by his landlady, but refined or made finer by this story. Any earlier impoverished automaton, notwithstanding.


      A quote from a Jean Ray story I reviewed HERE from the Horrifying Presence collection.
      “He who under-values the devil belittles God.”


      Extract from another previous review HERE:

      The Shadowy Street – Jean Ray

      “…pitiful books whose pages were still joined like desperate hands.”

      Wow! Albeit not a recognised term in literary criticism but, nevertheless: Wow! Jean Ray has a second bite at this book’s cherry, but there is no complaint from me. This story is a true discovery for me – and it is worth the price of entrance into this vast intrepid tome alone (as I’m sure can be said of other inclusions, too). Firstly, fitting neatly into the ‘bookness” theme of the previous three stories, we have two separate synchronously discovered tangible manuscripts here that need ‘gestalting’ by the reader: an audit trail (“sinuous trail“) or, for me, a literal ley-line that follows the quasi-cartographic thread of a street in another dimension. Srednibutions. Greed. And other inferred emotions. Missing heads. Smashed skulls. Truly haunting fears. ”Fortified by this nonsense”, “manufacturing saints like sausages”. A Todash tide of sound, for me, via a viburnum bush, & HPL’s earlier “vacant abyss overhead” where, in this story, stairs come to a sudden pointless end. Becoming “an accomplice of phantoms“: the story’s author, narrator or its reader? The editors of this book, I say! [On a more personal note, resonating with the quote I’ve given at the head of this section: cf. from The HA of HA: “Can you recall the lasting effect of the most deeply disturbing collection of horror stories you’ve ever encountered? The narratives join hands…” — From THE USELESS by Dominy Clements] (11/11/11)

      • The other bite from the cherry:

        The Mainz Psalter – Jean Ray

        “I’d rather hear stories of witches and demons than that demoralizing ‘I don’t know.'”

        A story of books, Gutenberg-with-solid-printing-press-books, so aptly in tune with the previous two stories – yet also a very strange unsolid story of a boat called The Hen-Parrot that has its name changed to the The Mainz Psalter (note the ‘salt’) and a fantastical adventure – a cross between William Hope Hodgson and Jules Verne and HP Lovecraft and William Golding (and Jerome K Jerome – Algernon Blackwood earlier?), whereby the ‘unsolidness’ – beware spoiler! – derives from burning the books and their owner becoming an empty (Ligottian?) mannequin as if they owned him (drowned him!?) … my mind spins in glass like lost print! This is seriously strange – and inspiring. [I know this book can’t contain all the weird authors, but my mentioning Hodgson above has also made me think of Arthur Machen, Elizabeth Bowen (possibly, for me, the greatest weird writer who ever lived), Tommaso Landolfi, and some living writers who (I can see) are more problematic in choosing to represent in such a book… Not a complaint, but an observation for debate. After all, this book will have its own gestalt eventually when all inclusions and omissions will become clear on the final judgement day!] (10 Nov 11 – another 3 hours later)

        A quote from the previous story that I forgot to mention: the first bit a la ‘Night Wire’, the second bit: me during the 1990s! “Reines, the radio man, was taking notes. / Reines spends all his spare time writing stories and essays for short-lived literary magazines.” (10/11/11 – another 90 minutes later)


    “The soil suddenly gave way beneath my left foot, and bluish mud gushed up like a jet of pus.
    ‘I told you, Mr.Stumble,…’”

    Two men and a pointer dog. A pungent story, full of tipeasy humours, a story of hunting coots in the fennish foggy marshes, as Mr Stumble stumbles seemingly into nowhere, after having left his interlocutor taking care of his whiskey flask. Thus, I feel, the man was left holding the baby of Mr Stumble’s vanishment when faced later with the Coroner’s questioning, so what does he say? He tells a tall story of a monster in the marshes. But was he drunk then …. or now? Or was he telling the sober truth? I wonder if the Coroner will question the pointer. Or even the reader.

    • My previous review of an alternatively translated version of this story just rediscovered…


      “Just go into the marsh at evening, when bubbles of rotting gas, large as tables, burst in the waters,…”

      Large as tables is an interesting simile. This text is full of them.
      Any simile in itself is a sort of translation… So ripe here for each inchoately beamed Ray of language into and beyond the sleek glossy pages of this book.
      This particular Ray is a brief nightmarish slice of the narrator’s life amid the earlier scenario of the Wûlkh, that seeping morass called the Fenn – excusing himself to the Coroner as to his drinking whiskey to ease the burden of having lost Mr Stumble to the dreadfulness of the ‘flaccid-eyed bush’ that the Fenn faced them with.
      This story is a tall as storms.
      While the dog’s name in the Wûlkh was Tempest, here it is Cyclone.


    I wonder if this unmissable horror story (just read) is the same as the one I reviewed in The Horrifying Presence collection a few years ago here as follows…

    “You’re-back! I-am-quite-hap-py.”
    So clicks the narrator’s clock on his return home to his sluggy and tumorous abode. The intrusive violence that ensues in this short short is both amusing and disturbing. Intriguing, too, A case of mistaken identity? Then, what about that clock, I ask.”


    “They were pale little men, with blanched faces, reeking of French perfumes and rotten teeth. Their female companions were quite lovely, however, and the white splendor of their shoulders and arms emerged from the voluptuous shadows of insolently luxurious furs.”

    Please excuse this extended quotation from the translation, but it is only one example among many such a striking congeries of words from this absolutely incredible operatic crepitation of prose and dialogue – building a gestalt of phonetic / semantic style, syntactical aura, plot events, descriptions, frissons of horror, social history, cross-referenced characters between the stories and the translator’s careful footnotes.


    “This evening I was seated at the Enchanted Spot, where the whiskey is honorable…”

    The Enchanted Spot is also a recurring one! Meanwhile, this is a story reminiscent of a Rhys Hughes fable mixed with Ray’s mercenary wickedness portrayed as more vicious than it actually was fey.
    A were-salmon story that is not a were-salmon but more a half human half non-human amalgam were it more like Leena Krohn’s Mr Pelican, as it is.


    “the water in the pit churned like a laundry cauldron and something like an enormous salmon thrashed furiously within.”

    A feistily pungent, ill-luck tainted boat voyage for fur skins, a diseased crew, Jew or not, and a siren in a cave becoming a sort of sexy were-creature aligned, possibly, to the preceding salmon, a salmon reference that I had not noticed before when reading a previous translation (see below from my review linked above).


    “Sullivan reminded us that Sol Pans was a Jew and that it would certainly bring us bad luck to give a Christian burial to someone who came from that race…”

    That thought of its time notwithstanding, this is another deadly atmospheric slice of events, this one told to us by transcription of a whisky-fed interview, an interview involving one of the fur seal hunters sailing in the Minches… With talk of a dreadful smelly wound, the sole scabby seal caught, and, in a cave, a siren (or beautiful seal) akin, for me, to the God’s own devil I identified in ‘The Man Who Dared’…
    Whisky or not, between two glasses, a vacuum…?


    I do not intend to continue making any direct comparisons between translations, if there are any more stories duplicated between them, but just for the record, the previous translation of the section quoted above, is as follows: “the water in the hole grumbled like a cauldron of lye and there was something like a huge salmon that beat it furiously.”


    “When whiskey unlocks the magnificent door to the City of Dreams, I envision myself in a room piled high with all the luxuries I have glimpsed in museums, in the displays of fine department stores, and pictures in fancy books.”

    In this powerful vision of the cruel pawnbroker and his customers — factored into today’s dictatorships (here, ironically with modern perspective, in Mexico) and its ruthless business practices, its exotic curses, too, with mixed views of whiskey and of race, in this intensely politically incorrect tale that eventually becomes surprisingly corrected as hand clasps hand? Nay, as hand fights hand! Indeed, in one possible gulp of interpretation, I make the modest proposal that this work is, I feel, by dint of literary Intentional Fallacy, an ingenious Swiftian fable for today. The modern reader as either this story’s guardian angel or its burnt moth?


    “The little old house trembled like a beggar under a porch, and shingles shattered in the street with a din like breaking bones.”

    A truly effective theme and variations on Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, where the perpetrator doses himself in whiskey as he is haunted by the noises of the corpse where it has been placed, and question: what frighteningly emerges from the vengeful oubliette? ….well, whatever it is, I wonder whether whatever it is will gain more than just vicarious inebriation from the imbibings of the murderer?


    “, inquisitive ghost children despaired of their inability to shatter windows with their wretched fists of icy mist,”

    That Enchanted Spot, with a homely tale, full of Ray’s felicitous phrases of glitched and flinched darkness, of the dead gathering to imbibe whiskey and cheat at cards. But who was dead, if any of them, and can death, my dear friend, be something to get drunk on?


    “, and the dreams whiskey brings are more poignant than all the stories of all the drunkards in the world.”

    A nifty story that is prevented from starting by all avant-avant-garde means of deliberate delay by small talk, but when it eventually starts and then ends with a man’s death by crocodile on a tiny island worthy of Blackwood, I had not predicted the ending although I should have done, in hindsight. I note also that this work seems to imply that being anti-ginger is equivalent to being anti-Semitic! Thank God for the literary theory of intentional fallacy, I say. Incidentally, I say that also in connection with Lovecraft’s work, as well as Ray’s. The crocodile syndrome, in other words. You hered it hear first, my dead friend..

  16. A HAND . . .

    “That is a story for another day, as the wise old women among us say, amazed that the end of each day is not the end of their poor lives.”

    A spooky hand-haunting tale full also of poignancy as above, with a symbol of human nature’s kite-flying through a storm, in pioneering search for Heaven? And this book’s second hand-clasp amid the world’s hate, then and now?


    “Bang! Bing! Powpow! Powpowpow-bing!”

    Get the bung out the whiskey bottle or the boat? Or send a bung to God by dint of prayer? A nifty-dialogue tale of Bobby Moos and companion as they face a life-threatening storm at sea.

    “, but I know no more prayers. When you are poor devils like us, you have no need of them. Our misery redeems all our sins, boy.”

    ¿Yet what of Moos saying “It’s as dark as a Jew’s soul . . .” ?

    This is the end of Whiskey Tales, but not the last gulp of this book….

    To be continued below.


    The Monkey

    “, and the fog fell upon London with its usual astonishing rapidity.”

    A tale with terrifying implications, as a man obsessively purchases, against the odds, a statuette depicting a Hindu monkey god. The curse, from and to whichever direction, is one to behold. Meanwhile, the word for ‘fog’ is the same in source and translation alike. Helps somewhat to disperse itself in that no man’s land at the interface of languages.


    “It is a masterpiece . . .”

    A remarkable story of shape-shifting as seen through the window in the house opposite, and when we reach the glass aspect I wonder if the stated masterpiece is a whiskey-glass (and if so, why is this not in the Whiskey Tales half of this book, a mutated version of its front cover?)
    Two Haans clasped together through the glass? “Ha!” Between two glasses?

    And now I will turn, as yet unseen, unremembered, to this story in the different translation here, and paste it below, unchanged from the context of my earlier review of it…


    And I, too, wonder why I haven’t read this collection of wonderful stories before. They are certainly often off-the-wall horror but genuinely resonant with all our absurdist as well as real-seeming nightmares, I guess. A notable discovery in the field of literature I am most interested in.
    “Why did the wife of Kram, the local blacksmith, give birth to a monster: a being with an enormous head with a black blubber-lipped mouth, like an Ulm mastiff?”
    Good question, as it turned out.
    From the between-the-glasses of the previous story to the glass perhaps even more transparently more deceitful in this one, I have been wondering, with a lot of these amazing stories, to what extent are some of their narrators or points of view insanely or mischievously unreliable. Which is the monster? And with this account of the narrator’s new neighbour’s metamorphoses seen through his window, this wonder has surely come home to roost. Echoing headlessness from the earlier Isthmus of Panama onwards and with the dark ambiance of continental alleys, I really had a field day tangling and untangling and retangling my brain!

  20. I’ll tell you something, Clara. Have you ever SEEN a minute? Have you actually had one wriggling inside your hand? Did you know if you keep your finger inside a clock for a minute, you can pick out that very minute and take it home for your own?’ So it is Paul who stealthily lifts the dome off. It is Paul who selects the finger of Clara’s that is to be guided, shrinking, then forced wincing into the works, to be wedged in them, bruised in them, bitten into and eaten up by the cogs. ‘No you have got to keep it there, or you will lose the minute. I am doing the counting – the counting up to sixty.’ . . . But there is to be no sixty. The ticking stops.”
    From ‘The Inherited Clock’ by Elizabeth Bowen 1944
    My favourite ever story.



    “Master, dogs can see the souls of the dead fleeing through the tempest.”

    A new story to add to my canon of greats. A clock that goes through stages, one where the bobèche is left untranslated. A waxed ring that was once part of the cursed clock, as with the cursed monkey two stories above? From “slaughter of the child of the hours,” to laughter at the eponymous hour (my underlinings)… Or the other retrocausal way about? “Yes, a long gust of snow.”


    “Some spoke of hardy miners who descended into the depths where torrents roar in dark gulfs, searching for quartz or pockets of nuggets, never to reemerge.”

    The hawling of a deep mining Gestalt real-time reviewer.

    “, the lament of a wounded woman that struck straight to the heart, softening my aggression.”

    One should read this story to factor in our new gender/ race and polarised black and white times…?

    Shown below are my previous comments on this story when reading it in a different translation as linked above….


    “…the one thousand and one adventures, true or deceptive, that are told at the warm hour of cigars and liqueurs.”

    This particular bracing adventure not in the wilds of elsewhere but close to the narrator’s home in the Ardennes, the white beast and the slot cave (reminding me a bit of a published collaborative by John B Ford and myself some years ago) – but here the feminine element of the frightening monster imbued within its masculine bravado of monstrousness (cf the earlier siren etc.) resulting, for me, in the good amid bad things and vice versa…

    “A ray from a pale winter sun played in my eyes.
    Oh! how good life was, rosy and full of great joys!”


    “The curlew cried closer.”

    Somehow this reminds me of the saddest music in the world, the Curlew cycle by Peter Warlock, as background to this man’s story of poverty and thus accepting a job-with-strange-strictures, seemingly guarding a Duchess’ tomb. And patches of land with their own stories and strictures. Evolving into a real-time review of some horror in the style of a diary. Each paragraph seems to have a small start of a suppurating wound between itself and the next paragraph – or between it and the one before?


    A wondrous story, one where I find myself imagining I am the old man (“a mild-mannered dreamer with outstretched hands, rushing after every disappointment, earning himself no more than a dark corner to wipe away a pair of tears from the creases of deep wrinkles.”) — complete with crazy reviewing plans that I believe I have invented — approaching a rich mean-spirited misanthrope for his money to further my plans. Shockingly, for me, the misanthrope has just decided to mend his ways and is ready to do his first good deed….Talk about good luck.


    “Why waste a hundred pounds over a bad dream?”

    A perfect story combining this book’s endemic debt collector with a haunted painting. We owe this translator much.


    A wonderfully amusing take – as an erratically omniscient, seeming monster tale – on the style of the Father Brown stories (or vice versa, for who came first, Chesterton or Ray?) – with references to Dickens as well as Corneille.


    “It was a V. The letter V . . .”

    Another attempt to seem inspired by a Father Brown story – with a ploy like calling someone ‘Mr. Agent-of-Dr.-Tottoni’ … towards an even more absurdist situation involving trans-dimensional travel and cones chasing you! And more. Even an absurdist retrocausal link with one of my recent reviews here where the letter V seemed important!

    “The V extended its majestic majuscule far ahead.”


    “His Jewish soul hated the beggar and feared the thief.”

    Tellingly, the notes tell me, this takes place in that part of town where Anne Frank was due to live. Another story of two hands, not here clasped, but debt-exchanged by the fall a jeweller’s steel shutters, resulting in WF Harvey-like horrors – but who came first, Ray or Harvey?

    “That evening the rain lashed Amsterdam with a million dripping whips.”


    “Are there not two luminous pearls trembling at the tips of her blue-shadowed eyelashes?”

    The eponymous Herr away from the routine view of his uneven square, on his nightly carousing at the Wild Boar Hotel, spots the most beautiful woman in his present but in our long distant view of that town’s past, a woman accompanied by a ‘beardless boy’, a woman that our Herr tries to get to sing and then to woo her, behind her companion’s back, a boy who is fated to come back to our attention later. Unrequited in love and life, as our poor Herr, back in his uneven square, discovers. Beautifully characterful and timeful, with slick translated tactilities of slanted view of whatever incident passes our gaze. As has been this whole book, the ultimate requital of unrequited text, made fresh but still no doubt that text in its original essence. I feel that in my gut, at least. Uneven and corrected rectangles of paper pages. The correct and incorrect in presumed strange and beautiful synergy. Neat as well as fizzy brown. The curlew in the laughter or slaughter.


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