The novel “Malpertuis” by Jean Ray was published for the first time in 1943 in French. In time it was translated into a number of languages.
Jean-Jacques Grandsire is just a boy when his great-uncle Quentin Moretus Cassave dies. His testament is read in circumstances that are already quite strange and Cassave’s last will impose his heirs to live in the Malpertuis mansion. Since the deceased turned out to be even richer than expected, the heirs agree.
Soon, in Malpertuis strange things start happening. Events that seem supernatural suggest that the house is in some way haunted. Among the inhabitants someone knows more than the others because not everybody is exactly what they appear but what secrets are concealed in Malpertuis?
Jean Ray is the main pseudonym of Raymundus Joannes de Kremer, the most famous Belgian writer in the “fantastique” genre, and his horror novel “Malpertuis” is known worldwide thanks to various translations and the fact that it was adapted into a 1971 movie starring Orson Welles. The author was often compared to H.P. Lovecraft but these labels can be misleading and in this work we can clearly see the differences between the two writers.
“Malpertuis” is structured as the story of found manuscripts that tell the main events. The person who finds them adds some of his contributions that explain the circumstances in which he came into the manuscripts’ possession and adds an ending to the story.
The main part of the novel is told in the first person by Jean-Jacques Grandsire, who initially is just a boy. At first, it looks like a normal story of a family, part of which lives in the Malpertuis mansion but when the old Cassave’s last will is announced and things start changing.
To gain access to Cassave’s legacy the heirs must live in Malpertuis but soon events that seem supernatural break everyday life’s normality. Jean-Jacques Grandsire starts investigating and what initially seems to be the story of a haunted house reveals much more, also about some of its inhabitants.
Other parts of the novel are narrated by other characters and help to reveal a number of secrets concerning Cassave and some other characters. In some cases, those are flashbacks regarding events preceding the beginning of the main story, which takes place in the latter part of the 19th century.
Jean Ray develops the story showing moments of normal daily life in the microcosm of Malpertuis of what can be considered a middle-class family opposed to others where supernatural events break that normality. There are even romantic moments and in general the characters not involved in the supernatural plots seem interested in the inheritance enough to tolerate events that are out of the ordinary.
In creating the characters, the author got inspired in part to his own family and his acquaintances but, as in the novel, it’s hard to tell where reality ends and where fiction begins. In his autobiographical notes, Jean Ray made a series of statements about some of his ancestors’ ethnicity and the adventures he allegedly experienced during his life. These claims are contradicted by other information available on the author’s life, suggesting his tendency to mix fact and fiction even though “Malpertuis” is his only work I read so I can’t say how much this is typical.
The narrative levels are actually more complex because some characters are not what they appear. The contributions of the various parts of the novel’s narrators slowly shed light on this aspect adding to a story that’s already very classic in its structure the element of Greek mythology and other related to occultism.
“Malpertuis” has become a classic but in my opinion isn’t a novel for everybody for the way it’s structured and developed. Today readers are used to other styles but if you’re interested in the history of the horror genre I think this book is a must-read.