Haunted Castles, Ray Russell (1985)

Haunted Castles is a collection of short Gothic stories by little-known American author Ray Russell, published in 1985, the stories themselves dating from the 1960’s. The volume contains seven stories, of varying length, as follows:

  • Sardonicus, Sagittarius, and Sanguinarious (the ‘S’ trilogy)
  • Comet Wine, The Runaway Lovers, Vendetta, The Cage

First, my overall impression. There’s plenty of Gothic atmosphere to go around; remote locations, looming castles, sinister dungeons, and people behaving very badly. There are saints and sinners, possibly even the devil himself. There’s black humor. There are grotesques of mind, soul, and visage. There are the impassioned mad and the coldly calculating. All these things combine to make for a great reading experience of mid-20th century American horror fiction. Some of the horror can be of the supernatural or fantastical variety, but more often than not, it’s human born, which makes it all the more nightmarish. Two stories incorporate notorious historical figures to great effect.

Sardonicus is the story of Sir Robert Cargrave, physician, summoned to a remote village in Czechoslovakia to treat a bizarre and extreme case of rictus, the sufferer of which will stop at nothing to be cured. There’s plenty of Gothic atmosphere, with a castle, dungeon, and damsel in distress. Russell also wrote the adaptation for the William Castle movie, Mr. Sardonicus. Some changes were made for the screen, but they work for the medium. Rather than being detrimental to each other, the novelette and movie compliment one other.

Sagittarius is the story of an old man telling a younger one stories of his decadent times in Paris during the fin de siècle. It raises interesting questions about duality of personality by incorporating discussions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; my only quibble was the assertion that Stevenson’s two fictional characters were real people. Perhaps in Sagittarius‘ world, they are. More intriguing  is the notion that an infamous historical figure somehow managed to live through the centuries. Duality is also explored through scenes of ‘legitimate’ theater and the Grand Guignol. A solid story.

Sanguinarius is the story of Elizabeth Báthory, told from her perspective and presented almost as a defense against spurious accusations. I think knowledge of her and the crimes ascribed to her will influence a reader’s opinion on this one. At first, I saw it as far too apologetic, but Russell’s stories often give food for thought, revealing unexpected layers, and I grew to like it more after a bit of pondering. Russell employs the literary device of using archaic words and phrases to create a sense of the period, but it’s not necessarily bothersome. The story contains a scene or two of Gothic gruesomeness, at which Russell excels.

Comet Wine is a lighter tale, more fantasy than horror. Set in the sphere of Russian musicians of the late 19th century, it tells the story of two composers; one mediocre who suddenly becomes a genius talent, and the other whose remarkable creativity seems to have wasted away. I wouldn’t classify this as a Gothic story, but it’s still enjoyable.

The Runaway Lovers is a darkly humorous story set, appropriately, in a castle dungeon. There’s plenty of taunting by the jailer and sniping between the lovers, and the resolution, distilled down into a couple of short sentences of dialog, had me laughing out loud. A wonderfully twisted entry of black humor and one of my favorites in the collection.

Vendetta is just that; a story of revenge. Set in Italy, it concerns a brother with the odd habit of talking in cryptic rhymes, and his beautiful sister, of whom he’s incredibly protective, particularly of her virtue. Eventually, he allows a visiting painter from Spain to use her as a model. Model and artist become lovers and marry, expecting a child. Vengeance is a long time coming, but eventually arrives. This was my least favorite story in the collection, but that’s not to say I disliked it. It’s more medieval than Gothic.

The Cage is the shortest story, but makes up for it with its ending. It seems simple enough. An unfaithful noblewoman is cuckolding her husband with a young lover. She teasingly accuses her paramour of being the devil. He replies perhaps he is. This little scenario is repeated a few times, then the conclusion comes, chilling and horrific. Just how horrific, however, depends on whether or not you believe the lover really was the devil. Either way, the ending is grim, but one of the two possible scenarios presents a situation so ghastly it’s almost unfathomable. It gets in your head and under your skin.

Ray Russell was an author who wrote with intelligence without being pedantic or pretentious, and created vivid imagery with a modicum of well chosen words. His work is smart, but accessible, and often makes you think. He had a knack for insidiously planting seeds of ideas that unexpectedly bloom, sometimes immediately after finishing a story, other times, an hour, or day, later. He immediately became one of my favorite authors because of this book. The excellent Haunted Castles is highly recommended. ****1/2 out of 5.