25 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?

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