JEAN RAY – Malpertuis. Les Auteurs Associés, Bruxelles, 1943. Atlas Press Edition, 1998, translated by Iain White. Reprinted many times in French. Film: Malpertuis. Belgium, 1971; released in the US as The Legend of Doom House; directed by Harry Kümel, and starring Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire and Mathieu Carrière.

   This may be the high point of my Halloween reading this year, an intelligent, compassionate and eminently creepy book of highly unusual character.

   Malertuis (the title translates to “House of the Fox,” “House of Evil,” or “House of the Devil”; you pays your money and you takes your choice.) starts off in the classic mode with the story set in a narrative framework, introduced by a professional burglar:

   â€œIn the course of my career I have made a close study of the sound of footsteps heard in sleeping households—in much the same way as detectives have studied the ashes of pipes and cigars.”

   … who looted a monastery and found among the pricey relics a bunch of papers which he has correlated into the story we are about to read, as told by different players in the drama at different times.

   We start off with a quick snippet of pirates on a dicey mission at the far corners of the known world — the sort of thing Jack Sparrow might get into — then shift to who-knows-how-many years later, in an unnamed French city where the son of a pirate captain, a young man named Jean-Jacques, is summoned to Malpertuis, the home of his dying uncle, along with the rest of his relatives, to hear the particulars of his uncle’s will.

   This has been used as the set-up for countless Old Dark House thrillers, as has the ensuing codicil, which specifies that the claimants must reside in the house to inherit its fabulous wealth; one can almost see the grasping nebbishes being picked off one by one by some hooded phantom, or perhaps a killer ape; one never knows.

   This, however, is no ordinary assortment of relatives and Malpertuis proves to be a much different sort of abode than one might expect, even in a horror novel, as Jean-Jacques interacts with his sister, his aunts, and a beautiful cousin who loves him possessively but will never look at him. There are also miscellaneous hangers-on: a madman who haunts the halls crying for light, and unseen spirit that blows out candles as it moves through the house:

   â€œA hand pinched the wick and night flowed down the staircase like the waters of Hell.”

   … and assorted lovers who come to grisly ends, and then are never spoken of.

   Author Ray moves his tale gracefully from the monstrous to the metaphysical as Jean-Jacques seeks spiritual rescue from the forces that impute his fall to from grace, but this is no mere battle against the powers of Darkness; Ray uses the horror novel as a means of examining the very nature of theology and man’s relationship to whatever gods may be. And he does it with suspense, beauty and a hugely satisfying conclusion.