The City of Unspeakable Fear by Jean Ray, translated by Scott Nicolay / ISBN 9781939663900 / 194-page paperback published in 2023 by Wakefield Press
Miss Marple meets H.P. Lovecraft in Ray’s genre-defying tale of ghostly intrigue and murder.
Published in occupied Belgium in the dark year of 1943 a few months after his celebrated novel Malpertuis, The City of Unspeakable Fear remains one of Jean Ray’s most curious works. Haunting an ambiguous interzone between detective novel, horror fiction, and Anglophile parody, it follows the misadventures of presumed police officer Sidney Terence Triggs upon his retirement to the sleepy English country town of Ingersham. A cast of characters worthy of Charles Dickens awaits his transplantation, from the sympathetic old clerk Ebenezer Doove and the three haberdashing Pumkins ladies to the druggist Theobold Pycroft, the eccentric department store owner Gregory Cobwell, the autocratic Major Chadburn, the feared Lady Florence Honnybingle, and a motley collection of other humorously humdrum inhabitants.
The emphatically commonplace quickly gives way to haunted melodrama as Triggs’s new neighbors begin to die violently or vanish. His false identity as a detective is put to the test under the threat of murderous phantoms as city and citizens come apart at the seams. In The City of Unspeakable Fear, Miss Marple meets H. P. Lovecraft to create a compellingly curious atmosphere in which F stands for both Fear and Fake.
Jean Ray (1887–1964) is the best known of the multiple pseudonyms of Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer. Alternately referred to as the “Belgian Poe” and the “Flemish Jack London,” Ray delivered tales and novels of horror under the stylistic influence of his most cherished authors, Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer. A pivotal figure in the “Belgian School of the Strange,” Ray authored some 6,500 texts in his lifetime, not including his own biography, which remains shrouded in legend and fiction, much of it his own making. His alleged lives as an alcohol smuggler on Rum Row in the prohibition era, an executioner in Venice, a Chicago gangster, and hunter in remote jungles in fact covered over a more prosaic, albeit ruinous, existence as a manager of a literary magazine that led to a prison sentence, during which he wrote some of his most memorable tales of fantastical fear.