Ray Russell, thoughts?

Fried Egg

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I've just read the collection entitled "Haunted Castles" in the Penguin Horror series and I was pleasantly surprised by how good these stories were. Ray seems to have successfully evoked a classic gothic feel to his stories whilst also feeling modern and original. It's great to discover another author that one has completely missed up until now.

Has anyone else here had any experience of his work, can recommend anything else he has written? I'm considering this one next:

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Randy M.

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Hi, Fried.

Not enough time right now to respond fully, but a couple of years ago I wrote the following for another forum about Haunted Castles (warning: it rambles, but I was enthusiastic because I wasn't expecting much because years ago his novel, Incubus, just hadn't done much for me):

HAUNTED CASTLES by Ray Russell (Maclay & Associates, 1985; Penguin Books, 2013)

…[H]e spoke with difficulty, certain sounds … being almost impossible for him to utter. To shape these sounds, the lips must be used, and the gentleman before me was the victim of some terrible affliction that had caused his lips to be pulled perpetually apart from each other, baring his teeth in a continuous ghastly smile.
— from “Sardonicus”

Sometimes I can be objective, sometimes not: This collection is perfect reading for Halloween. To understand why I believe this, you have to understand that this collection is oh so very 1960s and, for me, in a good way.

There was something in the cultural air in the late 1950s and early 1960s, maybe impatience with minimalism and realist story-telling, or maybe just a desire for a broader range of techniques and approaches. Certainly there was an enthusiasm for costume melodrama, given the success of movies like Ivanhoe and Ben Hur. Or maybe it was just a part of some cycle of eclipse and resurgence for Gothic. You could see it on the paperback stands where it was easy to find mass market editions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s or Herman Melville’s stories, and in drug stores where not far from best-sellers like Peyton Place or the latest from John Updike you could find a collection of stories by Poe.

It’s not that Gothic was suppressed or unavailable, but there seemed a new focus on it, as though a shift in cultural temperament or maybe a shift in cultural focus foregrounded it again, leading to (or stemming from) the success of Hammer Studios’ richly-textured, Technicolor historical Gothics like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), and Roger Corman and American International’s success with movies based on Edgar Allan Poe starting with House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961).

Certainly there was money to be made by pushing the edges of contemporary good taste and appealing at the very least to the early baby boomers who had already coughed up sizable box office for lesser movies like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and who would certainly lead their younger brothers and sisters to movie theaters, and who getting a bit older were looking for more extravagant entertainment. Or maybe more perverse entertainment.

And maybe it was part of the sexual revolution, which was a piece of the larger rebellion against the status quo and current ideas of decorum. Ray Russell, as editor for Playboy during its formative years, if not in the vanguard was in the vicinity of that rebellion. While there he published stories by writers like Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson both of whom wrote scripts for Corman’s movies (as well as for the original Twilight Zone TV show). If you love or even just like Poe and Hawthorne, and maybe especially if you’re drawn to those 1960s Hammer Studios and American International flicks, then this collection of Russell’s Gothic stories is for you. It certainly is for me.

One of several works chosen by Guillermo del Toro (director of Hellboy, Chronos, Pan’s Labyrinth) for Penguin Books, Haunted Castles was reissued in late 2013 along with a collection of Poe’s work, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Haunting of Hill House; only an anthology of supernatural tales edited by S. T. Joshi rivals Haunted Castles in obscurity, and even that’s arguable given it’s been in print since 2007. Russell, though not well-remembered now, was an experienced writer who won a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. His novel The Case Against Satan is held by many horror fans as better than The Exorcist and was published before that novel. I have not read it but I’m skeptical given my reaction to his novel, Incubus. Leave it at this, I agree with the word “sleeze” but was otherwise nowhere near as enthusiastic.

Which probably explains why, even though I’ve owned this collection for years, I haven’t read it until recently. Written with a pitch perfect ear for prose from the 19th century, both sentence structure and word choice, while eschewing the prolixity of earlier examples, these stories, with one exception, involve or revolve around sex. Following, along with a brief description of each are suggestions for reading that complements or contrasts with the Russell story.

“Sardonicus” opens the collection, a story considered a classic pretty much since first publication and anthologized frequently (including in The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales from 1992, and The Century’s Best Horror Fiction 1951-2000 from 2012). In it, Sir Robert Cargrave, physician specializing in muscular paralysis, is invited by his former love, Maude Randall, now Maude Sardonicus, to her husband’s Bohemian castle. On arriving Cargrave finds Sardonicus is afflicted with a muscular paralysis that has left his face in a permanent smile. Sardonicus makes it clear that Cargrave will cure him or he will take out his frustration and rage on Maude in a particularly repugnant manner.
Paired Reading: “The Outsider” by H. P. Lovecraft; “The Gorgon” by Tanith Lee
Paired film: Mr. Sardonicus (1961) dir. William Castle; starring Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Oscar Homolka. (Not great, but enjoyable.)

“Saggittarius”: While visiting New York City Lord Terry relates to a young friend his experience in Paris in 1909, where he was privileged to see two great actors, Sellig, the classicist, and Laval, who trod the boards of the Grand Guignol, making the horrors shown there all the more real for his skill. Perhaps what spurred Lord Terry’s reminiscence are the murders currently occurring in New York since his memory includes the brutal murder of a young woman he knew, one of several murders committed in a manner similar to earlier murders in London.
Paired Reading: “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe; “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch; “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” by Harlan Ellison; “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter

“Sanguinarius”: A memoir by Countess Elizabeth Bathory of what led to her imprisonment in her own castle.
Paired Reading: “Luella Miller” by Mary Wilkins Freeman; ”Beyond Any Measure” by Karl Edward Wagner; “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter

“Comet Wine”: Lord Harry Stanton, friend and correspondent of Dr. Robert Cargrave, sent letters to the latter about the incredible young composer he met while traveling. In St. Petersburg, at a party held by Rimsky-Korsakov, he met Cholodenko whose performance at the party startles and amazes everyone there. But the inheritor of the correspondence, in spite of vast knowledge of music, has never heard of Cholodenko and the letters suggest a fantastic tale.
Paired Reading: ”Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm; “Leningrad Nights” by Graham Joyce

“The Runaway Lovers”; “The Cage”: Like “Comet Wine” and “The Vendetta” these are shorter stories than the first three. Both revolve around the cost of sex when you’re married to someone else.
Paired Reading: “Rappacini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne; “They’re Coming for You” by Les Daniels

“The Vendetta”: A tale of revenge in Venice. When a young painter comes to paint his sister, Fiammetta, as Eve in the garden, to her surprise the usually reticent Count Carlo agrees. But then he catches the painter and his sister in the throes of passion and his reaction is an even greater surprise.
Paired Reading: “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne du Maurier


Honestly, I can’t think of many better ways to enjoy Halloween night than pulling out this collection and reading one or more of Russell’s stories.




I have The Case Against Satan and have vague plans to read it soon-ish.


Randy M.
 

Fried Egg

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Great post.

I didn't think there was a bad story in the collection.

Looks like I need to be wary of 'Incubus' though...
 

Randy M.

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Great post.

I didn't think there was a bad story in the collection.

Looks like I need to be wary of 'Incubus' though...


I'm not sure about that. I was much younger and I'm wondering if I might have a different reaction to it if I read it now.


Randy M.
 

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