October 2019 Reading Group Selection

This month’s reading group selection is Whiskey Tales by Jean Ray, translated from the French and with an afterword by Scott Nicolay.

The Book Beat reading group will meet Wednesday, October 30th at 7:00 pm at Goldfish Tea Cafe, located at 117 W. Fourth Street in Downtown Royal Oak. All are welcome.

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Whiskey Tales finds Ray embracing the modes of adventure and horror fiction adopted by such contemporaries as Pierre Mac Orlan and Maurice Renard. Taking us from ship’s prow to port, from tavern to dead-end lane, these early tales are ruled by the spirits of whiskey and fog, each element blurring the borders between humor and horror, the sentimental and the sinister, the real and the imagined.”

We hear pawnbrokers, sailors, police detectives, innkeepers, and the lonely and dejected of all kinds speaking to us across the years and across the permeable seal separating fiction from reality. Ray excels most of all in conversational speech and in creating, via the idiosyncratic idiom of a particular place and time (and with just a few perfectly aimed words), an unsettling mood… enigmatic and contonually surprising.” — Leonid Bilmes, LA Review of Books

Ray possessed a peculiar aptitude in crafting the most appropriate phrases, to turn even the commonest notions into dark and ominous descriptions of impending doom.” — Antonio Monteiro, Weird Fiction Review

The stories themselves, frequently second-or third-hand, might also be the hallucinations of a besotted mind or an angle for a mugging. There are psychopaths who see men in the forms of fish, moneylenders transformed into spiders, voodoo curses, rape and vengeance, murder by mistaken identity, dockside slags and sentimental thugs, traitors and sea urchins who share a Sea Wolf view of the world as seen from its other side.” — Martin Billheimer, Counterpunch


Jean Ray (1887-1964) was the best known of the multiple pseudonyms of Raymundus Joannes Maria de Kremer. Ray delivered tales and novels of horror under the stylistic influence of his most cherished authors, Charles Dickens and Gregory Chaucer. A pivotal figure in what has come to be known as 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. He allegedly lived 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.

He was rescued from obscurity by Raymond Queneau and Roland Stragliati, whose influence got Malpertuis reprinted in French in 1956.

A few weeks before his death, he wrote his own mock epitaph in a letter to his friend Albert van Hageland: Ci gît Jean Ray/homme sinistre/qui ne fut rien/pas même ministre (“Here lies Jean Ray/A man sinister/who was nothing/not even a minister”).

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