Burtot, Gérald 1910–2002
Burtot, Gérald 1910–2002
(Thomas Owen, Stéphane Rey)
PERSONAL: Born July 22, 1910, in Louvain, Belgium; died March 1, 2002, in Belgium; children: two. Education: University of Brussels, degree in philosophy; University of Louvain, master's degree in law.
CAREER: Lawyer, businessman, art critic, and novelist. P.D.G. aux Meuneries des Trois Fontaines, Vilvoorde, Belgium, industrial lawyer and director for forty-three years.
MEMBER: Académie Royale de Langue et de Littétaure françaises de Belgique.
UNDER PSEUDONYM THOMAS OWEN
Le nez de Cléopâtre, A. Beirnaerdt (Brussels, Belgium), 1942.
L'initiation à la peur, Les Auteurs Associés (Brussels, Belgium), 1942.
Les Espalard, De Kogge (Brussels, Belgium), 1943.
Hôtel meublé, Les Auteurs Associés (Brussels, Belgium), 1943.
Le livre interdit, De Kogge (Brussels, Belgium), 1944.
Les invités de 8 heures, Meddens (Brussels, Belgium), 1945.
Portrait d'une dame de qualité, Les Argonautes (Brussels, Belgium), 1948.
Le coffret: un conte, Atelier du Livre (Brussels, Belgium), 1958.
Pitié pour les ombres, nouvelles, Renaissance du Livre (Brussels, Belgium), 1961.
Jean Ray: l'insaisissile, Éditions Dynamo (Liège, Belgium), 1965.
(Translator into Spanish, with others) H.P. Lovecraft, editor, Viajes al otro mundo: Ciclo de aventureas oniricas de Randolph Carter, Alianza (Madrid, Spain), 1971, 8th edition 1985.
Bogaert et les maisons suspectes: quinze contes (short stories), J. Antoine (Brussels, Belgium), 1976.
Les maisons suspectes et autres contes fantastiques (short stories), Marabout (Verviers, Belgium), 1978.
(With Maurice Sérullaz and Philippe de Saint-Cheron) Benn, 1905–1989: vers l'éternité, Les Amis du peintre Benn, 1980.
Le livre noir des merveilles: les meilleurs histories estranges et fantastiques, Casterman (Paris, France), 1980.
Les grandes personnes, La Rose de Chêne (Brussels, Belgium), 1982.
The Desolate Presence, and Other Uncanny Stories, translated by Iain White, W. Kimber (London, England), 1984.
Les chemins étranges, Oswald (Paris, France), 1985.
Le fantastique de Jean-Jacques Gailliard, FAI-ART, 1985.
La cave aux crapauds: nouvelles fantastiques, Oswald (Paris, France), 1986.
Cérémonial nocturne: et autres histories insolites, Oswald (Paris, France), 1986, 2nd edition, C. Lefrancq (Brussels, Belgium), 1996.
Le jeu secret (novel), Renaissance du Livre (Brussels, Belgium), 1987.
La truie et autres histories secretes, Labor (Brussels, Belgium), 1987.
Carla hurla, La Rose de Chêne (Brussels, Belgium), 1990.
Le tétrastome: récit, Pré aux sources (Belgium), 1990.
Oeuvres complètes, C. Lefrancq (Brussels, Belgium), 1994.
(With Joseph Duhamel, Monique Moulin, and Catherine Hennebert) Contes à l'encre de la nuit (short stories), Labor (Brussels, Belgium), 1998.
(With Jacques van Herp) Le rescapé du Fenris, C. Lefrancq (Brussels, Belgium), 1998.
UNDER PSEUDONYM STÉPHANE REY
Gordon Oliver mène l'enquête, Les Heures Bleues (Brussels, Belgium), 1941.
Ce soir, 8 heures, A. Beirnaerdt (Brussels, Belgium), 1941.
Destination inconnue, A. Beirnaerdt (Brussels, Belgium), 1942.
Un crime "swing," A. Beirnaerdt (Brussels, Belgium), 1942.
Works have appeared in anthologies, including Le maîtres de l'imaginaire, Renaissance, c. 2002.
ADAPTATIONS: Hôtel meublé was adapted by Marc Lobet as the 1982 film Meurtres à domicile; other stories by Burtot have also been adapted for French-language television.
SIDELIGHTS: Belgian author Gérald Burtot worked as a lawyer and businessman, as an art critic under the name Stéphane Rey, and as an author of detective novels and ghost stories under the pseudonym Thomas Owen. By the early twenty-first century he was considered by many to be one of the French-language's grand masters of horror and the fantastic.
Burtot was born in Louvain in the Gaume region of Belgium to a cultured family. With a predilection for maintaining an air of mystery about his background, Burtot never revealed much about his early life. He loved attending art expositions on Sunday mornings, which fueled his interest and understanding of art, and he had a vivid imagination as a child. His grandmother gave him a taste for nature and mystery, raising him on stories of people who had risen from the dead, doubled personalities, and cats who brought bad luck. He loved to frighten his friends by inventing scary stories for them. From the age of twelve, Burtot felt a passionate desire to create stories of other lives, even to the point of reinventing his own life.
The brief but productive period in which Burtot wrote detective novels was tied to the everyday practical difficulties of his occupation. The flour mill for which he worked as a lawyer was devastated by bombs in 1940, and he found himself receiving only half his usual pay. During World War II books were difficult to import, creating a greater demand in Belgium for works by local authors. Burtot took advantage of this opportunity, in part to help support his family, and he chose to write detective fiction because the genre was popular with Belgian readers.
In his detective stories, written in simple, direct, clear language, Burtot used a great deal of sardonic humor. His intrigues are often built on farce, and are set in communities of "quality" people. His criminals' weapons are rarely banal revolvers; instead, such items as a sharpened paper-cutter or long needles that can reach an intended victim's heart are used. His mysteries are solved by the charming and hardy Madame Aurélia, a gifted amateur detective who is featured in many of his books.
The year 1943 was crucial for Burtot's writing career. Shortly after releasing his first literary novel and his raciest mystery story, Hôtel meublé he also published his first book of horror stories, Les chemins étranges, a collection of fantastic tales where the problem of death assumes ethical and philosophical contours. Burtot brings his readers through unknown territory to the other side of death, and interjects satanic influences into his plots. In one of his stories, "La Maquette de cire vierge," a nomad named Stoicko arrives at a convent hoping to find food and a bed. Instead of lodging, however, a monk asks Stoicko to perform a task that none of his companions can accomplish: accompany an architect into the old convent to find a wax model of a city built by one of the architect's ancestors. In the interior of the model, the pair finds its true treasure: a child who the architect says is his own child who was never born. However, the miraculously preserved child putrefies in an instant. The architect moans softly as the candles start to melt the wax city, and he tells Stoicko to leave and that he is going to sleep beside his child for a little while. He falls and dies beneath a mountain of melted wax. As with the majority of Burtot's heroes, the architect's death is not so much a biological event as an aspiration to a perfection he has sought all his life, a total union of soul and body.
Burtot eventually abandoned mystery writing in favor of the horror genre, producing such books as Le livre interdit, La cave aux crapauds: nouvelles fantastiques, and Cérémonial nocturne. He did not view himself as a horror writer specializing in fear, preferring to think of himself as an author of the strange and unusual. He attributed the categorization of his writing as "horror" to his friend and fellow writer Jean Ray's preface to La cave aux crapauds. Burtot himself viewed the supernatural as a kind of corruption of the ordinary, believing that the strange derived from the normal human psyche. Burtot was obsessed with mutations and doublings of personality, such as the Doppelgänger of German romantic literature. He interpreted such mutations as an attempt to escape from one's human condition, and commented that for him the act of writing was a form of exhibitionism. Tellingly, in his autobiographical novel Le tétrastome: récit, the narrator is constantly occupied with writing, conducting autopsies of his thoughts until he finally finds that words cannot express everything.
Many critics have commented on the depiction of women in Burtot's works, noting that the concept of death is intimately tied to the presence of a woman. In his novels, eroticism is always black and leads to death. Burtot's female characters often seem to have little more than vague attributes and expressions, in contrast to his precisely described male characters. While Burtot insisted that he was not a misogynist, women in his writing present a mystery that cannot be comprehended. In Le livre interdit, for example, a man succeeds in extracting from a book of engravings and watercolors the women who are depicted therein. He allows them to live for a certain time and then reduces them to their original state and returns them to the book, which he then closes as if he were healing a broken egg. In the story "Le Miroir" the protagonist has lost his mistress in a car accident. He takes to his house the mirror that was in the bedroom where they had met and begins to see in it the woman he loved. He wants to reconstitute his relationship with his lover, but when he looks in the mirror he sees frightening images of grimacing, obscene women. As he loses his fear he sees them as asexual, sometimes in an aquarium, sometimes carrying knives, sometimes in tears with serpents in their hands. His lover reappears as a ravenous presence against which he is powerless. Eventually, he enters the mirror to join her in death. Another example of Burtot's conflicting attitude toward women can be found in "Le Voyageur." Patricia is a woman who plays constantly with a little boy who loves her dearly. One day, unable to live this way any longer, she decides to kill the child and throw him under a train. However, Patricia pays for her desires and her actions: the act of murder gives her a terrible surge of pleasure which blocks her kidneys and causes her to lose the ability to move her legs; she is literally paralyzed by joy because of her lust for killing. Patricia lives in a kind of nirvana until the child returns to kill her and throw her under a train.
A number of Burtot's works have been produced for French-language television, though the author declared himself disappointed with them. He also participated in the filming of a documentary about his life and writing titled Thomas Owen ou l'homme pluriel. Burtot died in March of 2002 at the age of ninety-one.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Linkhorn, Renée, La Belgique telle qu'ell s'écrit, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1995.
Marigny, Jean, Images fantastiques de corps, Universite Stendahl-Grenoble (Grenoble, France), 1998.
Bulletin de la Société Théophile Gautier, Volume 10, 1988, Anna Soncini Fratta, "Théophile Gautier et Thomas Owen," pp. 61-66.
Franzosich Heute, March, 1987, Jean Claude Lequex, "Thomas Owen par lui-même suivi," pp. 86-90.
Présence Francophone, Volume 9, 1974, Christian Delcourt, "Thomas Owen et Jean Ray," pp. 114-121.
Ragioni Critiche, Ann Soncini Fratta, "La Réalité magique," pp. 133-142.
Revue Général, May, 1995, Frédéric Kiesel, "Thomas Owen," pp. 73-77; July, 1995, Frédéric Kiesel, "Thomas Owen," pp. 33-38.
Écrivains beige francophone, http://www.lamediatheque.be/centauteurs/ (April 9, 2006), "Thomas Owen."
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/ (April 8, 2006), "Thomas Owen."
Le Monde, July 9, 2002, "Mort de Thomas Owen, un maître de la littérature fantastique."