The Great Nocturnal — Jean Ray


Wakefield Press 2020

Translated by Scott Nicolay

My previous reviews of Jean Ray: and Scott Nicolay:

My other reviews of older or classic books:

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

11 thoughts on “The Great Nocturnal — Jean Ray


    I shall read this seeming novelette chapter by chapter…


    “These eternal words, exchanged for so many years in the same tone, accompanied by the same gestures, arousing identical reactions of joy and mischievousness, gave the two old men a comforting sense of immutability.”

    Me, too. Those eternal words themselves quoting other “eternal words” spoken by one of them. A beautiful atmosphere of a dark town and those wandering or opening shop doors near the Iron Bobbin, including one of them, myself wishfully as Mr Desmet, but just a passer-by. The two old men’s ‘immutability’ feature, I sense, now outside this story, involves a routine game of chess. Do they always play the same order of moves, I wonder! One of them – I think it is one of them – thinks of Captain Sudan’s room upstairs and when he, the old man now, was as a child in love with an older woman, only to have his illusions shattered, hence his need for comforting routine today? But my own comforting read was disturbed by this: “…no good can come from books.” Followed a little later by an otherwise disconnected “…by who knew what secret cataclysm, the book fell from the top shelf…”
    I may have got this all wrong, with Des well met, or not. Caveat review-reader.

    • II

      “But between seeing and seeing into time, as you do at present . . .”

      I am truly captivated already not only by what I see as its literary soul as a continental counterpart to that in the dialogue-crepitating impressionism of people and things as written by Katherine Mansfield (I happen to have read so far most of her stories recently from HERE) but also I feel genuinely affected by the sickness delirium of one of the two boys on the way home from school (the two boys due later to grow into two old men), “biers” and ‘Misses Beer’, pink lemonade, the visual synergy of a man and a sewer rat, and a question as to whether the shadows moved or not. And a place called Alpha Tavern. What is more, I feel disorientated by this chapter’s mention of “wicked coincidences.” Have I reached some ‘seeing into real-time’ sort of book reviewing epiphany, another book found by having fallen off a shelf somewhere?

  2. 5F0A72E7-5797-484E-8A9A-079467A8A33EIII

    “: the taste of the whiskey stagnated… […] The sand that went ‘floc, floc’ when it fell.”

    I found this chapter frightening, particularly the overt horror but also the harpsichord et al, and the connection by the eponymous Great Nocturnal with my review (a year or so ago HERE) of the book shown in the accompanying image. And, in this Ray/Nicolay chapter, the old man seeks to protect the woman he once loved as a child, or was she a woman he loved as a man would or will do so (cf “when I grow up I’ll be your husband and we’ll go together…” in the first chapter)? I note, as an aside from the book, that H. Rider Haggard wrote the novel entitled MARIE as well as KING SOLOMON’S MINES…

  3. “I dwelt alone
    In a world of moan”
    — Poe’s poem Eulalie


    “…there is evil in the air as in the days of a plague.”

    A dry pope and a season’s first dry leaves, saints in paintings, Hotel Minus and Alpha Tavern, one of the two old men again. Meanwhile, there are mysterious deaths and immolations of Katherine Mansfield style optimally characterised characters, old maids still able to be mistaken as whores, and other spinsters at home, I guess. Perhaps I should tell the detectives on the case that the victims have all been in self-isolation or on an outward solitary exercise in the great open nocturnal but have today their first visitors at home upon running down of lockdown?

    “…at night all cats are gray.”

    • V.

      “, while a terrible face took shape.”

      787A9370-ACA1-4F2C-BCC8-DC6E581C4329This work is horror supreme at its climax, with a final musical ‘dying fall’ where hope still exists? Only you can judge. Transcending bathos as well as pathos.
      Our old man now alone, and I cannot reveal too much about that other old man and the pair’s mutual immutability first mentioned at this novelette’s start…
      Sudan as the ironic ‘Unsad’ of paternal news that “will make you very sad…”
      Roméone as the Someone (the opposite of No-one or Nemo), the presumed virus carrier, once an omen, of Marie. MARIE now as explicitly Haggard’s “SHE” as a counterpart of “HE”, these being genuine upper case quotations from the finished text of this Ray/Nicolay work of immutable mutuality. The “pair of hideous yellow slippers” and “shallot sauce”, notwithstanding.
      As for me I can still hear that horrific harpsichord playing music by Anton Diabelli in my head.


    “: sick by the spirit of imitation.”

    After reading this astonishing work I somehow felt a whole curse pass through me simply by dint of typing out this story’s title above! It is as if by absorbing a literary gestalt you can BECOME it, as if sea-sickness is catching, like plagues that come in first, second and third waves… perhaps more.
    This is such a sea story as told from the drunken ambiance of the Phare Amusant tavern, and a man’s chalk drawings and his knowledge of the numbers of castles of the sea king, seven or sixteen? And the Hawaiian Bird and its cage. And the lockdown of a human prison that suddenly stops this story as if gratuitously, but I sense it is more than just gratuitously, not even obliquely with a petty thief, for the sudden stop is a way to stop us reading it… to stop us absorbing it! Whether that was the freehold author or leasehold translator, or both, I give thanks. I am being half-serious.
    As a side issue, this story is objectively another fine example of what I described above “as a continental counterpart to that in the dialogue-crepitating impressionism of people and things as written by Katherine Mansfield…”

  5. C42260F3-0D8F-48E5-A5A1-DA435D78A3FCTHE PHANTOM IN THE HOLD

    “‘Gentleman,’ he said, ‘We are about to relate a tale that does not concern you.’”

    Yet, I feel drawn in by mention of Sheerness which is not far across a certain quarter of the sea from where I live on the Essex coast, but I bow to your wishes and go further afield nearer the exit door so that I at least LOOK as if I am not absorbing this tale being told inside this built-up tavern ambiance that I have set up around me, imaginatively, in my own reading room!
    I relished what I surreptitiously heard about this story, full of grog, of winches and whistles. A fulminating ship where would-be drunk with a “pig of a German friend” is developed to rifle together the hold’s whiskey supplies on board. A9BCC342-B35E-4AB8-B5CB-4DD2EFADCDCB And amid surrounding “laughing silence […] horrible as a mask”, there is a terrifying terror (not all terror warrants the word terrifying, but this one does!), a dog or pig or a finger become green hand, later to be palmed off as mere phosphorous, but I don’t believe that. The terror WAS a terror. No rubbish spouted here. “I drank, drank, drank;” amid abundant rodents, a skeleton of green fire, ‘arrayed on tiers of darkness.’
    I believe as far as I could tell this is a fair summary. No doubt, any doubt about my hearing increases that terror. Such enforced social distancing affecting my hearing more than any lack of my inherent comprehension, I avow.


    “But She, where might she be?”

    Rather, as it turns out, where is he!?
    Where is David Stone, this story’s protagonist? In this downtrodden town with a mere tricklish river and no sea, but he creates a wharf and ships seen sailing in. Reminds me of the city in Nemonymous Night with a dry dock for huge sea-liners to be repaired, a city even without a river, let alone a sea! And his sudden obsession with a lady singer come to sing at the town’s theatre creates such a major storm of reality, the whole story becomes outrageous and existential. Possibly the most bizarre story I have ever read. And as such well worth preserving in this book’s dry dock. Seriously a story I cannot imagine ever existing.


    “Yo! Ho! Ho!
    And a bottle of fi . . . ine!”

    And if the previous story was a non-starter for existence as anything even as a story, this one is more so! Students drinking, looking out of a window at the eponymous creature in the shape of a coffin, reflecting legends they concocted about newly dead people in the house where the creature lurked. More students with a coffin full of bottles of drink, a vicious circle of belief in fiction as truth. The essence of Ray. A violent effigy like Dickens’ walking coffins. And compare this whole Ray/Nicolay book and its crepitating aberrations with another kindred spirited book, the one by Harper being read alongside it HERE during lockdown.

    I shall now read the rest of this book for the first time: i.e. Translator’s Notes, and Translator’s Afterword which look to be meaty enough to give me further food for thought.


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