One of the many areas that Yorkshire-based independent Tartarus Press does so well is translations of celebrated and lesser-known non-English authors of classic weird, strange, dark, and fantastic tales. Thomas Owen definitely fits this category. The House of Oracles and Other Stories collects a representative sample of short fiction from across the career of this Belgian master of the fantastic, a near contemporary of the better known Jean Ray and sadly neglected in Anglo-Saxon circles – at least, till now.
Thomas Owen (1910-2002), real name Gérald Bertot, trained as a lawyer, and began his writing career with crime fiction, but like Jean Ray, turned during the 1940s and the privations of the German occupation to escapist literature of the fantastic. He continued writing in this vein for the rest of his life, producing a succession of volumes, and even the collection of translations in this compilation only begins to scratch the surface of his work.
English readers will be pleasantly, if queasily, surprised and chilled by these stories, which are comfortably easy to digest, laconic, but nonetheless disquieting. Many of Owen’s tales are very brief and cryptic – this collection contains 31 stories in 218 pages, some only 2 pages long. They’re also highly original and quite unexpected – vampires are the only really familiar denizens of these pages, and most are haunted by far less comprehensible shadows. The English equivalent that comes most to mind is Robert Aickman, especially in stories like “My Cousin” or “The Sow,” but other readers might think of Saki, not least as Owen sometimes opts for locations in Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, or points east. Others recall Kafka, or Borges, or even M.R. James.
Like Aickman, Owen also sometimes seems to be writing from another era: even when producing tales in the 1960s and 1970s, you could have believed he had written them 40 years earlier. But if anything that sensation of time out of joint magnifies the weird impression. Iain White’s translation gives the prose a slightly mannered flavor, but from what I know of the original, that’s entirely apt.
Thomas Owen is one more shining example of why Belgian writers are often rated above their French peers as masters of the strange, horrific, and bizarre. The book is produced to the usual superlative Tartarus Press standard, which should appeal to any reader who prefers a touch of decadent opulence with their weirdness. I can only hope more of his work will find its way into English translation. Recommended.