The marvellous and/or doomed voyage is, if you like, a sub-genre of the weird and the fantastic. One might reach back as far as the Voyage of St Brendan, moving forward in time to Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and, to a certain extent, the account of Captain Walton which forms the framing narrative in Frankenstein. And these are only the ones I can think of, off-hand. However in the case of Jean Ray’s ‘The Mainz Psalter’, the stories most immediately on my mind are Conan Doyle’s ‘The Captain of the Polestar’ and particularly William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, although it is claimed that Jean Ray only read The Ghost Pirates after he’d finished this story.
The story itself begins in a familiar enough way with a framing narrative. Ballister, the man who will tell the embedded story, has been plucked from the sea by the crew of the trawler, North Caper. He is dying, but determined to tell his story. The story is taken down by Reines, ‘the radio man’. Reines, it turns out, is not only the master of radio communication but also ‘spends all his spare time writing stories and essays for short-lived literary magazines’ (192). ‘Do not be surprised, therefore’, says the first of our narrators, ‘by the rather special style given to this final monologue of a mortally wounded sailor’ (192). The implication is that Reines has dressed up the story as he wrote it down, but the narrator reassures us that the facts, as recounted to Reines, to himself John Copeland as first mate, to the captain and the engineer, are all contained within the story. It is, of course, left to the reader to wonder what are the facts, as given by Ballister, what the embellishments of Reines. And that is one of the beauties of this story. Already, there is uncertainty, but even the nature of the uncertainty is uncertain.
The story proper, Ballister’s story, begins in Liverpool, in the Merry Heart tavern, with a meeting between Ballister and ‘the schoolmaster’, to discuss a voyage the schoolmaster wants to make. We never learn the name of the schoolmaster (and indeed, we have only Ballister’s word, or someone’s, that the man is a schoolmaster). The voyage is being funded by the sale of an old book, a copy of the Mainz Psalter, that the schoolmaster found in his uncle’s papers, suggesting that the schoolmaster has sufficient antiquarian tendencies to recognise such a thing. In honour of this, the schoolmaster has determined to change the name of the boat that Ballister will captain. (I’d always understood that sailors consider it unlucky to change a boat’s name once christened, but if it is, Ballister says nothing, perhaps on the basis that if someone else is paying, who is he to argue? And yet, almost more than anything else in the story, I find myself stumbling on this point, because I cannot honestly see any reason why the schoolmaster needs to change the boat’s name in the first place.)
There are other hints that all is not well. The Merry Heart Tavern belies its name, with its ‘dilapidated façade’ (192), and its being sited in one of the back docks, yet in its way it represents home for Ballister and other sailors. Then there is the strange incident of the man, the ‘emaciated, rain-soaked clown’ (194), so terrified by the sight of the schoolmaster that he drops his drink and leaves his change so great is his haste to flee the tavern. Conversely, Ballister’s selected crew do not seem to be a prepossessing bunch, jailbirds, men with mysterious pasts, inexplicable mutilations, but insofar as the reader trusts Ballister, she trusts his choice of men. Appearance belies, and this is something that runs throughout the story. This is less a story about surfaces than what lies beneath them.
Once away from Liverpool, things become more problematic. ‘We’re in inhospitable waters’ says Ballister (195), and there is a sense that the environment is doing its best to repel the Mainz Psalter. Right at the beginning of the voyage, the sea is described thus:
A few angry currents were still moving craftily beneath the surface, but we could detect them by their green backs, writhing like segments of mutilated snakes. (194)
The sea attacks in other ways: whirlpools open up like watery potholes, one of which hurls the hull of a sunken ship at them. Later, at anchor at Big Toe Bay, after a brief idyllic moment of rest, they are fired on by wreckers. One has the sense that everyone and everything is against this voyage. But when the wreckers are thrown off the cliff there is no one to account for this other than the schoolmaster, who suddenly appears.
Now, the ship sails away from the world of men; there are no more sightings of other ships. The Mainz Psalter is the world, and something is definitely not right with it. The sea itself looks strange, nature has deserted them (the rats have jumped overboard, there are no birds). Friar Tuck, one of the crew, a man with a sense of danger, says that ‘something is around us, something worse than anything else, worse than death!’ (197). The constellations in the sky are unknown, the compass is dead. And, it turns out, the schoolmaster is missing.
The question is, what is going on? And that is the one thing that Jean Ray does not tell the reader. There is, if you like, a lengthening catalogue of wrongness but no explanation as to its cause. Jellewyn, the sailor with a mysterious past, rumoured to be nobility, expresses the opinion that they are ‘probably on another plane of existence’, in ‘spaces different from our ours’ (198). But this is, and critically remains, conjecture.
There is a tradition in stories in which a small closed community of people is under threat that, one by one, they disappear, and Ray seems inclined to follow tradition. The crew begin to die, one by one, sometimes leaving behind smears of blood as they are snatched away by invisible creatures, or else left horribly injured. There are creatures which might be giant squid, but other things too, silvery bubbles. And … what? Dead sailors? Crewing the boat overnight?
It is only when Ballister happens to mention the schoolmaster’s books that Jellewyn, the scholar, begins to have some idea of what might be happening. When he climbs to the top of the mainmast, knowing full well that like others before him, he may die up there, he leaves a note for Ballister, instructing him to burn the books. As Ballister does so, the schoolmaster, in one of the most unpleasant moments of the story, suddenly appears behind the boat, swimming. And among the parchments Ballister finds a crystal box, something Jellewyn had asked about; when he crushes it everything disappears and Ballister is eventually picked up by another ship, the North Caper.
This, though, is not the end of the story. However strange Ballister’s tale, there is still an odd confirmation of it to come, with the appearance on the North Caper of an odd figure in black, like a clergyman, who attempts to murder Ballister, a figure which eventually turns out to be parts of a mannequin.
The question is, what on earth is going on? Throughout the story there are hints but never any confirmations, because of the way Ray chooses to tell the story. It’s a series of experiences by the non-comprehending rather than a narrative by those who possess knowledge. The story, told from Jellewyn’s perspective would, undoubtedly, have been very different because he had access to the schoolmaster’s papers. A version of the story in which the schoolmaster had a name might well have provided us with more of his motivations. Instead, Ballister, and later the crew members of the North Caper, can gather information from experts but, in the end, can make nothing of it. The reader has privilege of a sort in that she has the experience of having read other stories and can make conjectures, but in the end, who knows. There are tentacular creatures, strange manuscripts and crystal boxes, journeys in and out of other dimensions. Your guess is as good as mine, but it is that very lack of certainty which lends this particular tale its weirdness. A story that could have been quite conventionally handled is twisted around because of the perspective from which it is told.