Thanks to the ongoing Penguin Classics series, this reader was finally able to purchase and enjoy Chicago-born author Ray Russell’s classic novel of modern-day exorcism, The Case Against Satan (1962), which the publisher rereleased in late 2015. Now, Penguin Classics has followed up by giving the world a beautiful new edition of the 1985 Russell anthology entitled Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories, which consists of three novellas and four shorter pieces … and this new edition comes complete with an impressively erudite introduction by famed Mexican director Guillermo del Toro! I must say that the stories in this collection came as something of a surprise for me. The Case Against Satan had featured a simple and direct, highly readable style of writing, whereas the language in the septet of tales here is anything but simple. Indeed, one can easily imagine Russell rewriting and re-rewriting his stories for this collection, burnishing and refining each until it shone like a compact gem. Baroque and florid, the language employed here adds delicious atmosphere to each of these shuddery exercises in style. True to the collection’s title, most of the stories here transpire in enormous castles or centuries-old palazzi, and none is set in modern times. These abodes are not haunted in the traditional sense, but are rather all settings for some truly ghastly — as opposed to ghostly — events.
Those three novellas are presented first; Russell’s so called “Gothic S trilogy.” “Sardonicus” first appeared in the January ’61 issue of Playboy magazine (the publication where Russell long served as executive editor), and has famously been described by no less an expert than Stephen King as “perhaps the finest example of the modern Gothic ever written.” I was familiar with the novella’s filmization, 1961’s Mr. Sardonicus (directed by the great William Castle, and with a screenplay by Russell himself), but was unprepared for what a wonderfully melodramatic and atmospheric piece the original itself is. Here, an English doctor in the year 1844 (and I only say 1844 because a “new” Verdi piece, “Ernani,” is mentioned, which came out that year) is called to the Castle Sardonicus home of an old lady friend, Maude, now living in Bohemia. Once arrived, Dr. Cargrave learns the reason why he has been sent for: to help cure Maude’s husband, Sardonicus himself, of the horrible rictus grin that has deformed his face ever since … well, perhaps I’d better not say. The tale, narrated by Dr. Cargrave in language that sounds very much as if it had been written 150 years ago, grows increasingly morbid and suspenseful, with a nicely ironic, double twist ending. The novella’s coda is supplied via a letter to Cargrave by his close personal friend, one Lord Stanton, a youngish wanderer whose missives to the doctor will also feature in two more stories in this collection.
The next “S Gothic” presented for our delectation is “Sagittarius” (also from Playboy, in this case the 3/62 issue), which ingeniously conflates the legends of Jack the Ripper, Jekyll & Hyde, and Bluebeard, and has as its setting the Grand Guignol theater in the year 1909. Russell has done his research well, and the story exudes authentic atmosphere and entertains the reader with marvelous factoids on the period. The tale ends on an ambiguous note, unusual for this collection, and the reader is left to make up his/her own mind regarding the events described, as well as the precise nature of our narrator, an English lord. Strangely enough, Russell gets some of his facts wrong during the course of this tale. For example, he tells us that the Grand Guignol founder, Oscar Metenier, had died in 1897, whereas the actual year was 1913. He mentions that the theater itself has opened in 1896, whereas it was in reality one year later. And he refers to the French poet Edmond Rostand as “the late Rostand,” who died in 1918, nine years after his story’s setting. Still, these minor glitches should in no wise interfere with what is otherwise a highly entertaining piece of imaginative work.
In “Sanguinarius” (which initially appeared in 1967’s Unholy Trilogy, which collected all three of these chilling “S Gothics” for the first time), Russell’s gift for pasticheing the literary styles of a bygone era is taken to its farthest extreme. This tale is narrated by Elisabeth Bathory herself, the Hungarian countess who, before her death in 1614, was purported to have slain over 600 people, using their blood in an effort to retain her youth and beauty, thereby earning for herself the nickname Countess Dracula as a result. In mind-bogglingly ornate and antique language, Bathory tells the reader how she was transformed from an innocent, 15-year-old virgin bride to the monster that history paints her. And, oh, the scrumptious language on display here:
My nurse, quite cured of retrograde and waspish thoughts, was coax’d into a smiling mollitude, her eye no longer darken’d by unseemly doubts, but well-content and fix’d on some distant blissful scene…
What, Elisabeth? Hast lost thy pretty tongue… Thine eyes do stream with tears — but whether they be drops of sorrow, or no more than that liquor Nature doth provide to lave thy parching orbs withal, I know not…
The whole novella is like that, telling of the most gruesome deeds in the most gorgeous of styles. A truly bravura piece of work from Mr. Russell. (But really, I would have loved this tale solely for its inclusion of the word “nates;” I’d thought I was the only person who knew what that word meant!)
Had this collection only confined itself to these three “S Gothics,” as the ’67 collection had done, it would have still garnered a perfect 5-star rating from yours truly, but Haunted Castles goes on to give us four more perfect pieces. In “Comet Wine” (from the 3/67 Playboy), Lord Stanton again writes to Dr. Cargrave, telling him a most unusual story indeed. Over the course of three letters, we learn of a Russian composer named Cholodenko, whom Stanton had met in Saint Petersburg, and who, it seems, had made a rather Faustian deal with the Devil himself. Russell here evinces a knowledge of Russian composers and operas that should flabbergast most readers, and his imaginative explanation for Balakirev’s temporary loss of composing ability is a delightful one. The wealth of convincing detail in this story, compounded with its use of real-life composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky) as featured characters, goes far in adding an air of verisimilitude to the infernal proceedings. Amusingly, Stanton’s writing is referred to somewhere along the line as “elegant if somewhat epicene prose,” a charge that might justly be leveled at Russell’s own throughout this collection!
Up next, we have “The Runaway Lovers,” in which the wife of a duke, and her troubadour sex partner, are captured and confined in a dungeon, awaiting their inevitable torture. More authentic-sounding dialogue is featured, before the tale ends on a nastily sadistic note. (As del Toro had mentioned, Russell does indeed seem to have been influenced by the French genre known as the conte cruel.)
In “The Vendetta” (from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine), Lord Stanton visits Venice and tells Dr. Cargrave, via another exquisitely penned letter, of a strange tale that he’d heard there, one concerning the insane Count Carlo, and the vengeance that he’d taken on the family of the man responsible for his mother’s death. The story is fiendishly well plotted, and like “Sagittarius,” ends on an ambiguous note of unease.
Finally, this collection gives us “The Cage,” in which another faithless noblewoman is punished by her husband, the duke, for her illicit love affair with a character who may or may not be the Devil himself. Another (doubly) nasty ending brings this wonderfully well-written and gruesome bunch of stories to a close.
In his introduction, del Toro states that he equates Ray Russell with Italian director Mario Bava (one of this reader’s personal favorites), and calls the author a “supersaturated neo-Gothicist who shines above the premises of his material based on style, conviction, and artistic flair.” I could not agree more. This is a book to read slowly and savoringly, while marveling at both the exquisite language and the horrifying proceedings therein. Russell passed away in 1999, but not before receiving the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement eight years earlier, and anyone fortunate enough to read Haunted Castles will surely come away feeling that his award was a well-deserved one. My highest rating for this most remarkable anthology…