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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jean Ray

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To purchase Malpertuis

Title: Malpertuis
Author: Jean Ray
Genre: Novel
Written: 1943 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 238 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Malpertuis - US
Malpertuis - UK
Malpertuis - Canada
Malpertuis - Canada (French)
Malpertuis - France
Malpertuis - Deutschland
Malpertuis - España
directly from: Wakefield Press
Malpertuis - US
Malpertuis - US
  • French title: Malpertuis
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Iain White
  • Edited and with an Afterword by Scott Nicolay
  • Malpertuis was made into a film, also called The Legend of Doom House, in 1973, directed by Harry Kümel, with a screenplay by Jean Ferry, and starring Orson Welles

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wild and appealingly strange

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/1998 Gordon McAlpine
Revue des deux Mondes . 10/2017 Laurent Gayard

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t is simply that Malpertuis is so unabashedly a tale best told "on a dark and stormy night," which sets it apart from what we expect of most modern literary fiction. This is the novel's greatest charm: its willingness to revel in its own gothic excesses." - Gordon McAlpine, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "À partir de ce scénario à la Dix petits nègres se déroule une fresque gothique qui tient le lecteur sous son emprise longtemps encore après la dernière page tournée sur le destin des infortunés habitants de Malpertuis." - Laurent Gayard, Revue des deux Mondes

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Malpertuis is a found-manuscript(s) novel, an introductory 'Inventory, by Way of Preface and Explanation' explaining how a variety of manuscripts, by different hands, were found in a pewter tube purloined from a monastery, four voices (plus that of this editor-thief, who shaped the papers into this final book-form) who: "participated in the putting together of this narrative of mystery and terror" -- these: "annals relating to the history of Malpertuis".
       The novel is basically divided into two parts, 'Alecta' and 'Euryale', but is variously pieced together, including with an 'Intercalary Chapter' and an Epilogue. If the narrative(s) by one Jean-Jacques Grandsire do: "constitute the kernel of the story" (and the bulk of it), along the twisted way readers nevertheless also find themselves dealing with more far-flung pieces. So also, at one point, the editor-thief, giving a good sense of the feel of the whole, mentions:

     Caught up as I am in a maze of my own contriving, I must here allow myself a very short digression.
       The titles of the two main parts of the novel, Alecta and Euryale, already suggest a classical flavor to the novel, and its 'Opening' -- The Vision of Anacharsis -- is like a short episode from some ancient mythological story -- not least with its vivid scenes, such as the one where: "'Corpses !' he sobbed. 'Corpses the size of mountains !'". The 'Opening'-chapter comes with an epigraph -- here, attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne -- and the other chapters also have one or more epigraphs; often as not they are invented, or very freely quoted -- all part of Jean Ray's effort to suffuse the whole novel with atmosphere, literary touchstones to set and amplify mood and a sense mystery.
       The narrative of Jean-Jacques Grandsire is the most straightforward, and also central, part of the novel, and takes up most of it. And, as the thief-editor warns, it is: "around the appalling destiny of Jean-Jacques Grandsire that the whole horror of Malpertuis revolves".
       Malpertuis is a house -- and so much more. Jean-Jacques even has difficulty bringing himself to just write the dreaded name; it is several pages into his account before he first does:
     Malpertuis ! For the first time the name has flowed in a turbid ink from my terrified pen ! That house, placed by the most terrible of wills like a full stop at the end of so many human destinies -- I still thrust aside its image ! I recoil, I procrastinate rather than bring it to the forefront of my memory !
       Jean-Jacques begins his account with his uncle, Quentin Moretus Cassave, nearing death. Jean-Jacques is nineteen, and he, his sister Nancy, and a motley crew of others surround the dying man, whose more or less final act is to have his notary reveal to the assembled group what his heirs can look forward to. He leaves a true fortune -- "so enormous, so formidable, so fantastic that for a moment we were all flabbergasted" -- but he also leaves conditions: all those assembled at his deathbed -- the potential heirs -- must henceforth live, together, under this same roof, at Malpertuis. They are to receive a generous annual income, so it shouldn't be too great a hardship -- and:
     No changes will be made to the house of Malpertuis, and the entire fortune will be vested in the last survivor.
       (A codicil also sees to it that if the last two survivors are man and woman: "they shall become man and wife and the fortune will revert to them in equal parts".)
       It is, of course, a promising set-up for a novel. Uncle Cassave promptly dies, and the cast of characters is installed in the creepy house -- which: "exudes the arrogance of its inhabitants and the terror of those who skirt its outer walls". Naturally, the atmosphere is an uncomfortable one. The fact that each of the residents is hoping to be the last wo/man standing naturally makes for some tension, but even otherwise, it's just not a great situation:
     The first phantom to rise before me was that common to all sequestered lives: ennui.
     Day in, day out, it rained, and at certain times the downpour would take on the character of a raging deluge.
       Jean-Jacques, just turning twenty, also finds himself lusting some -- but getting mixed messages from the young women who might be potential partners. Euryale, especially confounds him; at one point he finds: "I am close to loving her with all my being or detesting her with all my strength".
       Disturbing sounds and a variety of visions contribute to the increasingly unsettling atmosphere -- and the company they keep doesn't help, not least Cousin Philarète and the hobby he dedicates himself to (or his observation that: "You'd never imagine the appetite taxidermy gives you ! "). Eventually, it's a bit much for Jean-Jacques, and really gets to him:
     I began to howl at the top of my voice.
     "It's a dream, a nightmare ... For the love of God, let me wake up !"
     A fantastic tidal wave caught up everything about me; the forms that surrounded me melted together, rolled one over the other.
       Along the way to this point, and beyond, their number decreases, bit by bit. The first to go is Mathias Krook, whom Jean-Jacques finds -- as he thinks -- hanged; let's just say: if only he had just been hanged .... There are other departures, in various forms -- and, disturbing, too, is how those no longer present are practically purged from memory:
     And nobody ever spoke of Uncle Dideloo again -- NOT ONCE !
       Jean-Jacques sticks it out in this "nightmare abode" as best he can, but the fates see to it that gets what he has coming, as fates are wont to do.
       Malpertuis is not a prison, and Jean-Jacques does escape the house on occasion -- including in his attempt at romantic rendezvous -- but he and the others can't really escape the place (except, perhaps, in death ?), held in its grip. And it is an odd grip that the place has:
     In point of fact, ever since the malefic power of Malpertuis had manifested itself -- and it was not long in so doing -- I had made only feeble attempts to comprehend; and those about me had done far less than I.
       Jean-Jacques' fate is sealed -- if not yet fully brought about -- and his account finished, before the full explanations come. Much has been hinted at and suggested, but the full scope of what is going on here goes far beyond what he, and readers, could have imagined, even if they had read all the signs.
       Another of the accounts, by Dom Misseron -- "whose name in religion is Père Euchère" -- considers one of the key questions:
     "Who is, or who was, Quentin Moretus Cassave ? That's what I ask myself.
     "Was he the incarnation of the Devil ? I think not; but I believe the Evil One counted on him in leaving in his charge the accursed house of Malpertuis in which he sought to bring his fearful experiment to fruition.
       If Malpertuis and the happenings there, as recounted by Jean-Jacques, are mysterious and chilling, the explanation behind it all is a flight of fancy of a whole different order. Ray's conception is not one of a merely haunted and cursed house of your typical horror-novel sort, but rather a much grander, wilder one. It's too much of a spoiler to even just suggest more, but let there be no doubt: Ray goes big here, really, really big (and it is a quite neat and clever idea).
       Malpertuis is all atmosphere -- dark and sinister --, a wallow in the Gothic. Christianity figures prominently, from the documents having been housed and stolen from a monastery to church-figures such as Abbé Doucedame and Father Euchère, and one of the dramatic final scenes finds:
     The monastery was trembling on its foundations. Streams of celestial fire, accompanied by a formidable rumbling of thunder, riveted the heavens to the earth; one of the windows was tipped out of its frame and a torrent of black water burst in at the gaping breach.
       But Malpertuis goes far beyond mere Christian theology, back into different circles -- which it pulls into near-modern times. It makes for a wild story, unapologetically -- indeed, willfully -- over the top, the uncanniest of fiction.
       A strange, strange piece of work, but quite a read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2021

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Malpertuis: Reviews: Malpertuis - the film: Jean Ray: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Jean Ray (Raymundus Joannes de Kremer) lived 1887 to 1964.

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© 2021 the complete review

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